I am intrigued by an insight from C.S. Lewis. Jeff Dryden highlights Lewis’ metaphor that “the head rules the belly through the chest.” The chest is the heart seen as the seat of emotions. The belly is irrational passions. The chest has to be trained to love what the head recognizes as good, otherwise it will not have the power to overcome the passions.
Dryden confesses that he is of a generation of seminary students who were trained in head truths. He is a Presbyterian. That’s my experience as a Lutheran. There was a time when I could recite the history of doctrinal developments over twenty centuries of Christian theology. But then comes the realization, Who cares? The assumption was that the right knowledge will lead to right behavior. Really?
This rationalistic formation model doesn’t really work for humans because we are not thinking-willing machines. It produces “men without chests.” As a corrective, Dryden finds himself drawn to the spiritual formation movement. But too often that leads to men without heads because of its focus on emotions. The challenge in theological education is to get the head and chest in the right relationship. That is best done with examples of teachers who have the right balance. He offers the simple but powerful observation that “We cannot take students somewhere we have not been.”
My big take-away from years of pastoral ministry is that the basic job is to help participants grow closer to God, or become more like Christ. In my heritage that is called sanctification, being made holy.
Lutherans are squeamish about focusing on sanctification lest it be confused with justification, being made righteous before God. But it’s really hard to talk about sanctification without a good understanding of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit provides the missing link between being made just and becoming more like Christ. The Spirit changes our inner being and stirs up new motivations. This new life is the Spirit-infused life to serve and witness to others.
I like “energy” as a good word to describe congregations. Thank God for congregations that have developed energized ministries. Worry about those what seem to have run out of energy in general. They have inevitably run out of spiritual energy. It is easy for congregations to become just another social organization with a veneer of holy words.
So how do you get a Christian church “re-energized”? The process starts with the leader. Like theology professors cannot take students somewhere they have never been, so pastors cannot take a congregation where they have never been personally.
That’s why I will devote the first part of these weekly Reflections to recognizing the Spirit at work in a personal life and in a congregation. I will offer practical steps to be drawn closer to God using the acronym GROWTH.
There is hope for aging, declining congregations. But there is no simple formula or easy program. Re-energizing is the slow process of enriching personal spiritual lives. Even when there is no growth in membership, there can be soul-satisfying growth in the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace and hope.
Show me a passionate congregation and you will find a passionate pastor.