The practice of infant baptism shapes much of the church fellowship experienced in traditional mainline churches. We are not taught how to look for and recognize the work of the Holy Spirit within us. We have had the experience but missed its meaning, to quote the poet T. S. Eliot.
Most American Evangelical churches stress being born again at an older age. They teach participants to look for changes within them that lead to trust in the promise of salvation in Christ. They hear born-again stories frequently from other participants. They are much more likely to talk about what God is doing in the personal spiritual lives of fellow participants.
Don’t conclude out of this comparison that infant baptism is wrong or unwise. I fully endorse this traditional practice that emphasizes the initiative of God is coming to us. It is a special time for parents, sponsors and congregation to pledge they will raise the child in the faith into which he or she is baptized.
Do conclude from the comparison that we, who whose home is traditional churches, need to learn better how to describe and share our experiences of the Spirit when they come. Name your encounters and share them. Seek more. Learn from others what to look for.
Because we do not learn spiritual life well from others in our fellowship life, that life tends to be shallow. Our conversations are mostly the kind you find in any social time of small talk. I myself struggle to shift church times of sharing more toward relationships with God.
How do we get from here to there—from fellowship small talk to personal God-talk? This shift need not involve any changes in basic theology. Accepting God’s promises in Christ is basic to any biblical understanding of the plan of salvation. God takes the initiative and out of grace offers the promise of new life. In classical theology, the relevant term is “apprehending” faith. We need to accept that promise and rely on it. “Affection” is the classical Latin term for our response of mind, soul and spirit. Even if we cannot remember the first time we apprehended that faith, we can look for and remember our experiences of affection toward God over and over again.
What traditional mainline churches have is a church culture problem. Any culture consists of the beliefs, values and actions passed on to younger generations. For a variety of historical reasons traditional church culture puts a much higher value on words than on actions. Too often the actions of a congregation are inconsistent with the values they espouse.
I don’t think much will change with traditional congregations until they realize their actions poorly reflect their beliefs and values. The biblical response to this shortfall is repentance. In my Lutheran beliefs, I think repentance is something every believer needs to do daily because sin daily remains in each of us during our life on earth. Even a fellowship of forgiven sinners needs to regularly repent of too much reliance on symbolic words and not enough commitment to action.
When a church culture no longer connects with new generations, those congregations would do well to repent and seek God’s guidance. Many human excuses can be offered, but what actions will change?
The most fundamental and useful change would be for participants to check their spiritual basics. How well do they recognize what the Spirit is doing in their daily lives? When they are truly in the Spirit, repentance will be easier. Name and Share what the Spirit is doing now among participants in this fellowship. Then they will become more truly a spiritual fellowship that is attractive to others.