This blog will be the last in what became a weekly series of 128 blogs. I have run out of productive things to say. My emphasis from the beginning was to understand the decline of traditional mainline congregations with our distinguished histories. The underlying question is how to turn this trend around. Answers are to […]Read More
How much energy a congregation has is reflected in how well participants give of their “time, talents, and treasures.” Many other good causes are approaching them for those same personal resources. What makes a congregation’s fellowship different?
The answer gets easy when you recognize a gathering of believers as a “fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” This is the distinctive function the Apostle Paul gives the Spirit in his benediction “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
Fellowship too often gets trivialized as shallow social interaction. But a key part of a fellowship of the Holy Spirit is the special motivation the Spirit can provide believers gathered around God’s Word. Hearing Scripture proclaimed is basic. But the energy level goes up when participants share what God is doing in their personal lives….Read More
Think about a church’s “spiritual energy” as the total of hours and dollars participants give to the shared life and work of that congregation. Now consider these observations from church consultant Ed Stetzer:
1. The Spirit-oriented Pentecostal and charismatic movements continue to expand, and many are shying away from oddities and excesses in their past, like speaking in tongues.
2. Evangelicals are moving toward the theology of Spirit-filled and Spirit-led ministries.
3. Forty years ago, 30% of the US population self-identified with mainline denominations; now it is about 15%. Their loss of energy is most obvious in empty pews and buildings.
A good way for a traditional church to regain spiritual energy is to focus more on how the Holy Spirit energizes Christian fellowships. Classical Lutheran and Calvinist theology left the biblical teachings on the Third Person of the Trinity poorly developed.
My intent is to offer fresh perspectives on what Jesus teaches about his Spirit and how Paul explains the role of the Spirit in Christian church life. Ultimately the Spiritual energy of a congregation is a reflection of how well the Spirit has energized the individual participants, who add their energy to that church’s fellowship.
A modern term gives focus to the Spirit’s work. It is “motivation”— the understanding of what moves people into action. There is no clear biblical equivalent. Motivation provides the missing link in the classical theology of justification by grace through faith, not by works. The act of trusting God’s love and accepting the free gift of Christ’s redemption brings us into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s empowering presence. Christ’s Spirit works on our hearts and brings new priorities that motivate our behaviors. In addition to being saved as a gift of grace, we can also live by the gifts of the Spirit as a second kind of grace.Read More
Waiting at our local Conrad’s Tire and Auto, I saw a hard-covered book on the history of this 30-store chain. It was started after the War by Joan and Ed Conrad. They were and are a staunch Irish Catholic family. They and their kids went to Catholic schools I recognized from the old neighborhood.
Their story brought to mind a classic Irish Catholic neighbor of ours. Their family’s kids and ours played a lot together. I admire this Mom of seven children. Raised in a faithful Irish Catholic family herself, she did and does go to mass every morning.
As I reminisced, I thought, we know who we are and why we’re here. We are created by God to worship him and to serve others.
Back then both Catholic and Lutheran church bodies had strong institutions, especially with grade schools, high schools and universities. Those institutions are in retreat. The Catholic bishop of Cleveland closed or merged 50 parishes. In the Cleveland area, we lost four Lutheran grade schools in the past ten years, and the city congregations still remaining are barely hanging on.Read More
In the past, American Protestants have had two different kinds of church cultures. They emerged out of the colonial First Awakening of the 1730s-40s. One side emphasized religious emotions as the essence of being a Christian; feeling the love of God was most important. The other side taught that the heart of true religion is right thinking; emotions are fickle and often lead one astray.
Historically since the Reformation, pastors of established mainline churches were university educated. It is no coincidence that the Reformers were a university professor and a sophisticated lawyer. Pastors in my heritage were and are taught by professors lecturing them. I know that the majority of Bible studies in our churches are lectures to the members by the pastor. No one else could be trusted to have the right knowledge.
The problem with one-way lectures is that they are absolutely the least effective way of communication, especially if you want to change someone’s behavior. Job behavior is shaped much more by informal communication with those around you. On-the-job training is so effective because you learn by doing. Worker effectiveness is shaped much more from these two sources than from the formal job description given to you.Read More
According to the Apostle Paul, a Christian congregation is a fellowship of the Holy Spirit, also called the body of Christ. In his letters to the early churches, he had many words of encouragement for those first believed. Offering his observations was participating in the Spirit’s work of building up relationships in a specific fellowship.
A key question for any Christian congregation today is how well their fellowship of believers offers others encouragement for living out their individual relationship with God in their daily relationships with others. Some churches delegate that job to the pastor. Healthy churches share that function in individual conversations.
“Mutual conversation and encouragement” was a key concept in Martin Luther’s understanding of church life. He even listed it as a fifth means of grace, a very lofty status right up there with Word and sacraments. But you won’t find much of such mutual encouragement in traditional churches. One of my pet peeves about the church life I experienced in a lifetime of Lutheran congregations is that I found little of such “God talk” beyond the formal worship service. Most conversations seemed to be the same “small talk” you could hear in any other social setting.Read More
Big changes are happening on the American religious scene. This is my constant theme. Many in the declining traditional Protestant churches often seem perplexed. Why are those community churches growing while we are going down? There is no simple answer, but some explanations are emerging.
In the 1980s and 90s, there was a ministry discipline called Church Growth. It grew out of the observations of Donald McGavran, who studied mission movements. His work was popularized by C. Peter Wagner. Both worked out of Fuller Theological Seminary, where I was in the 80s. One of McGavran’s key insights was that people don’t become believers individually; they do so in groups. Out of this came the controversial homogeneous principle. People like to go to church with others like themselves.Read More
Did you know that you have a spiritual temperament? This means some activities help you feel closer to God than what you do otherwise. And people have different spiritual temperaments. So, if you want to be drawn closer to God spend more time on the spiritual pathways that work best for you.
These are insights from a new branch of psychology associated with the names Myers and Briggs. The Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory is the most-used testing instrument in business human resource management. One familiar distinction from their work is between introverts and extroverts.
I first ran into the insights on spiritual temperaments reading the book Who You Are Is How You Pray, by Charles Keating. He applied the Myers and Briggs Personality Types to members of religious orders to help candidates find the one that fits them best. He highlighted the view of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who urged those seeking to be closer to God to try out different approaches and disciplines to find the one that is “sweet” for each. Don’t just imitate what someone else does. Had I been born Catholic, I probably would have become a Jesuit. One of the biggest blessings in my life is that I was born and raised in a vibrant Lutheran community.
Do you feel closer to God when you are hiking in nature? Or when you are caring for others? Or when you are alone thinking about God? Or when you are with other believers praising God with high emotions? Or when you are out crusading for peace and justice? Or when you are worshiping in a building with lots of symbols using special rituals? Or when you are pondering God’s word? These questions reflect types of spiritual temperaments recognized by Gary Thomas in his book Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Pathway to God.Read More
The steep decline that so many mainline churches are experiencing today was the subject of my book I published earlier this year, What Happened to our Churches, where I examined the rapid decline that so many mainline churches are faced with today.
This now well-recognized withering is especially widespread among mainline Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches. We are church bodies that value our Reformation heritage and share the background of being state-sponsored churches back in Europe. This heritage places us at a great disadvantage in the current American culture.
I just published my next book, Encourage Adventures in Step with the Spirit which focuses on our need to embrace new ministry practices. I advocate that the most basic change is to give more attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in our personal and church lives. What that looks like and how to do so is the emphasis in this second set of blogs.Read More
I’ve heard it many times: “It was a life-changing experience.” Such is a frequent comment from participants in short-term mission trips through our church and other mission agencies. For some it is taking a step in faith and discovering rewards. For others this is a reaction to first encountering poverty in under-developed countries. For one […]Read More
The charismatic movement of the 1960s through 80s touched many congregations in mainline denominations. So did conflict, as traditional pastors and church members encountered something not in our Reformation traditions—experiences of speaking in tongues, as practiced in Paul’s time. Considered a gift and blessing, this experience is expected for membership in Pentecostal churches. I was […]Read More