I recently talked with my neighbor about the frustrations he is experiencing at a prominent mainline church where he has been an active member and leader for many years. Many such once-famous and now-mostly-empty mainline churches are spread across the country.
What I noticed is how frequently he recalled great preachers of the past and great ministries done through this congregation in earlier decades. His congregation seems to live on in memory but is now stuck in conﬂict.
Their leadership frustration can be attributed, I think, to no longer having a clear purpose for ministry in the future. Congregations trying to relive earlier glory years can easily become just a social organization going through the human behaviors that used to work but no longer do. When I hear someone say their church needs to ﬁll up the pews, I know they haven’t a clue about basic Spiritual purposes and energy.
John Shea is a popular storyteller and theologian. He oﬀers a necessary perspective on the role of memory in Christian churches. It needs to be balanced with fresh experiences of the Spirit at work today. He describes Christians as People of Memory and the Spirit: “The essence of Christian faith is a living relationship with God, a relationship which was inaugurated by Jesus of Nazareth and which is presently available through his Spirit as it suﬀuses and transforms the lives of his followers.” That living relationship produces many outward forms for expressing and sustaining that relationship. These include many rituals, elaborated beliefs and theologies, and espoused values and behaviors.
Shea observes that as generation succeeds generation, these diverse creations stockpile. “They are in constant need of reform in order to be faithful to the living God they want to reﬂect. The principle is that the Church is always reforming but never fully reformed.”
Do the people of a withering congregation still have a living relationship with God today? Or are they trying to carry forward memories of what used to be? How do you recognize when a “living relationship with God” is present or gone?
The Spirit is never really gone from churches of believers where God’s word is at work. But his impact may be limited when he is expected to work only through old forms and formulations that don’t communicate well to new generations. Almost certainly a living relationship has weakened when believers no longer express excitement about future opportunities to share God’s love and no longer ﬁnd the energy to do so.
There is no checklist for determining how alive in the Spirit a congregation is. But the Apostle Paul oﬀers a clue. He told the Corinthians that when they gather publicly they should conduct themselves so that a visitor will be convicted, fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Cor 14:25). Fairly or not, such is the test visitors bring to their assessment of congregations today.
A long-time ministry colleague observed, “I’m not trying to restrict the work of the Spirit to the pastor, but tell me a congregation that is ‘ﬁlled with the Spirit’ whose pastor is not.” Spirit-led ministry is not learned from MBA courses on leadership, which I used to teach. Those insights can certainly help. But more basic is tapping into Spiritual energy, which usually has to be absorbed from other Spirit-led leaders, whatever their church body aﬃliation.
People can and do intuit where a living relationship with God exists. The hunger for such a relationship is just as strong as ever. Accomplishments of the past are no substitute for present evidence of the Spirit.
Here are a few more observations from John Shea: “When we retain the message of the King but lose the feel for his presence, the passion of religious mission turns to dull obligation.” “Without being balanced with fresh experiences, religious tradition usually degenerates into rationalistic theology, a formal morality and a religious cult. Sometimes a religion which is nothing more has ceased to exist.”