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. Biblical fellowship (koinonia) means to share something with someone. Preaching God’s word is basic. But believers sharing how the Gospel has changed their personal lives is perhaps more powerful.
Jesus taught Nicodemus that “the Holy Spirit influences human spirit.” The Spirit changes how believers think and what motivates them. What does that look like in believers’ lives? The role of “fellows” in a congregation is to share their experiences of the Spirit’s work in their personal lives. That’s why Luther called the “mutual conversation and encouragement” a fifth means of grace. Look it up: Smalcald articles Part III, Article IV.
A congregation has low energy when it has small sporadic attendance of participants who give of their personal time reluctantly and whose offerings are small and done like a membership fee in a club. Such congregations usually do the same things with the same people the same way year after year. A high-energy congregation has participants who give enthusiastically of their personal time and financial resources. Such a congregation tries out new programs to see which will work best in their context.
Observers can easily identify and then appreciate a healthy high-energy congregation. On the other hand, one visit is enough to recognize a low-energy congregation that probably does not have many more years of its life left.
In the 1950s and 60s, many congregations adopted the formal structure of a constitution that called for many committees and a council or vestry to coordinate their work. Seemed reasonable. In the process, they structured and tried to manage themselves with committees like a social organization, of which there are so many, like the Elks or Masons, the American Legion. I once co-authored a book on Integrating Ministry and Management. Thirty years later I need to confess that this approach does not work in churches. Those clubs are declining as much or more than churches.
What the club structure omits is the special energy brought by the Spirit into a fellowship we call church. His energy is at work calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying believers gathered around the Word in a congregation. Paul describes that energy in 1 Corinthians 12, from the first verse “I don’t want you to be ignorant of spiritual gifts” to the last verse “But eagerly desire the greater gifts,” understood as the fruit of the Spirit.
Many congregations now help members identify their personal spiritual gifting, which they have when they enjoy doing something in a congregation and are known for doing it well. I identify the “higher gifts” as the gifting the Spirit brings to a believer in what we can call the fruit of the Spirit.
About fifteen years ago I had the opportunity to visit many of the groupings of pastors that we call circuits. My question was, “What’s your biggest problem that you need help with?” By far the biggest complaint was “We can’t get anybody to do anything.” This became apparent to them when they had to recruit members to be elected to the various boards and committees, often with the comment, “It’s easy; you won’t have to do much.”
The problem for congregations that teach and administer spiritual gifting of members is turned on its head. Then the challenge is to find enough ways to participate that all “fellows” can contribute to the common good.
Click here to sign up for my weekly blog.
© 2019 David S. Luecke. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.
Kris Baudler says
[“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.”]
“Spiritual energy” is a made up nonsensical New Age term favored by such charismatic sects as Lutheran Renewal. The faith of the individual, created by the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the word alone can, of course, not be measured in hours, dollars and cents, but is known only to God.
[“Now consider these observations: 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.”]
The Pentecostals are continuing to expand? So is climate change. Expansion doesn’t automatically connote anything good and they weren’t “oddities and excesses;” they were bad theology of which there is still plenty more in these largely free will movements.
[“2) Evangelicals are moving toward the theology of Spirit-filled and Spirit-led ministries.”]
Again “Spirit-filled” and “Spirit-led” are simply faith’s givens—knowing one has been justified by grace through faith—it isn’t something one “moves toward” but is the result of faith infused. Since “we have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us” (Galatians 20:2). What more must we still do? NOTHING! (Christ’s last words from the cross: “It is finished.”) It is Christ who is doing it; it is not we who move toward him to do more, but he who has moved into us and is doing it all through the indwelling the Holy Spirit. The fallacy of free will “motivational” thinking is that if there is no “spiritual energy” apparent on the charismatic spectrometer, the Holy Spirit is somehow coming up short, sleeping on the job, that he needs our help, which is the false doctrine of synergism.
[“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.”]
Part of the false teaching of the misnamed “evangelical” movement today is the “Theology of Glory,” which includes the “Church Growth Movement” which erroneously equates large attendance with evidence of faith (or of having “spiritual energy” as they put it). But Christ didn’t say “Wherever 20 or 30% are gathered in my name,” but only “where 2 or 3 are gathered.” Numbers of 40 years ago were no more indicators of faith than they are today, but only denote “affiliation,” whatever that means. And yet the kingdom remains wherever the word is preached and faith is created.
[“4) A good way for a traditional church to regain spiritual energy is to focus more on how the Holy Spirit energizes Christian fellowships.”]
No, it is not about refocusing or “regaining spiritual energy”, but simply about hearing the good news being proclaimed, that we are justified by God’s grace alone, through his word alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone, a hearing that takes place when and where the Holy Spirit gives them ears to hear it. The problem is preachers who cannot/do not preach the bondage of the will and the theology of the cross.
[“Classical Calvinist and Lutheran theology left the biblical teachings on the Third Person of the Trinity poorly developed.”]
Wow! Really? And you still go around calling yourself a Lutheran? In what way, pray tell, is the 3rd Article of the creed in Luther’s catechism and the Lutheran Confessions “poorly developed?” Please be specific.
[“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.”]
No offense, but I see nothing here that qualifies you for that task. I see no evidence whatsoever of an education in and a fidelity to a theologia cruces, nothing at all about the bondage of the will.
[“Ultimately the spiritual energy of a church is a reflection of how participants experience the Spirit in their lives. We traditional churches can do a better job of waiting on the Spirit. 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.”]
And there we have it folks! Decision Theology! It’s up to us. We must decide to “trust” in God, we must decide to “accept” Jesus, the old Erasmian heresy of the freedom of the will, a quid pro quo false gospel that says if we do “A,” God will do “B.” Never mind that scripture clearly teaches that we possess no such abilities, beautifully articulated in 3rd Article to the creed, to wit: “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith.” It is not we who decide we will believe;
it is God who decides for us that we will believe — or not. As the Spirit chooses. Thanks be to God.
David Luecke says
Thanks for your comment Kris. You will be surprised that i agree with much of what you say, and I invite you to explore Paul’s 143 references to the Spirit, as unpacked by Gordon Fee in his thick book God’s Empowering Presence. Until you have reckoned with his thorough study you do not understand the centrality of Spirit in Paul’s writings. My understanding is that biblical trumps Lutheran confessions. Luther and his followers left half Paul’s teaching unexplored and unapplied. For Paul the Spirit influenced believers and brought Spirit power of the sort we see in pneumatic tools. I believe the Spirit does this supernaturally. Paul obviously believed so.
Biblically Spiritual energy is not a vague new Age reference, It is the power the Spirit adds when he calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies believers and churches.
The Spiritual energy of a congregation is real, as measured in how how much of the members’ time, talent and treasury (energy) is contributed to the life of the fellowship, stimulated by the Spirit. Some churches demonstrate much more of such energy than others. Low energy churches won’t last long in what is now a competitive church world.
Many have observed that most of the church growth happening around the world is in Pentecostal forms. Yes, some of their theology is thin and misleading. But it would be hard to deny that the Spirit is working among them. Robert Capon compares doctrine to the porch through one goes to get into the house. Experiencing life with God is the objective, the house. Some porches (applied doctrine) are poorly built and need to be remodeled. But the danger is you spend all your energy on the porch without getting into the house and experiencing the closeness of God.
Yes, faith is a one-time commitment to Christ. But there is more to life than that point in time. The Spirit enlightens and sanctifies us (Luther). The life of faith is an adventure of becoming more enlightened and more like Jesus (the purpose of sanctification). The Spirit energizes and guides this growth closer to God. The Spirit produces in us motivations characterized as the product of the Spirit: love, faith, hope and the qualities listed in Gal 5:22
Your inherited Lutheran theology does not recognize the Spirit’s influences in our lives as Christ’s disciples. We confess the Spirit. But how does he go about calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying believers? Can you give some examples. How have you personally experienced the Spirit’s work in your life. Church attendance was not a problem at the Reformation. Attendance was mandated, as it was for centuries since then. Now that we can’t take healthy church life for granted, we need to appreciate more fully how the Spirit works and how we can put ourselves in his path.
My qualification for this purpose is thorough study of Paul’s 143 references to the Spirit, as clarified by Gordon Fee. Let’s talk after you have digested all of what Paul says about the Spirit. I also studied Lutheranism at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and was adopted into the household of NT scholar Guenther Bornkamm and his brother Heinrich, noted Lutheran scholar. I have an extensive knowledge of church history over the centuries. How advanced is your knowledge of fourth century Christianity legitimized in the Roman Empire? How well do you know the medieval centuries before the Reformation 16th century? How extensive is your knowledge of Lutheranism in America in the 18th, 19th and 20th century?
You blindly refer to two LCMS Slogans. Decision is a very good word for what happens when the Spirit leads us into apprehending the grace offered. In Latin it means to “cut off” alternatives. Isn’t that what you do when the Spirit has brought you into faith?
The “theology of glory” too often becomes an excuse for not doing more effective ministry. Luther’s condemnation would be similar to prosperity Gospel today. I actually heard a prosperity Gospel message in Mexico where the preacher wanted me to have as many shirts and cars as he had. Paul taught that the product of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience and the rest of the fruit. Is it wrong to hold forth these outcomes that we have the abundant life Jesus offers? (John 10:10)
Paul and Luther’s theology of the cross meant trusting God even in bad times of suffering. The spiritual challenge, of course, is to find peace and joy in circumstances like Job faced.
Kermit Preus in The Fire and the Staff got things mixed up. He admitted the many ways in which he was not doing effective ministry. He seemed to brag that since he was suffering, he was therefore following the theology of the cross. Somehow, in his reckoning, ineffective ministry becomes a badge of faithfulness. It is true that faithful ministry often does not bring success in worldly terms. That kind of visible success comes from a special blessing of the Spirit’s movement. But we can learn how the Spirit is working today and learn as much as we can from that. Blind adherence to traditional style as well as Lutheran substance is not commendable. Paul gave us the his model of becoming “all things to all men so that by all possible mans I might save some.”
Pastor Roy A Steward says
Thank you David for raising more god areas for thought and reflection.
As I have been reading your thoughtful blogs and posts I have had similar reactions expressed by Kris Baudler. Your reply to Kris raises good areas to ponder IMHO.
I have long viewed / understood the Church (Congregation/ the little flock) as a Hospital for Sinners where all on on God’s IV. “ None is righteous no not one” and “the good that I would, I do not and that which I would not that I do.. who will save me miserable wretch that I am?” And thereby the Holy Spirit always points us solely to Jesus, “ Itmis by Grace that you are saved, through faith and that is not of yourself, not of works lest anynshould boast”. So Solus Cristus is the prime focus not only of the Reformation but of Paul and of all Scripture. Reformation slogans reemphasize this central focus such as “Simul Justus et Peccatore”. Congregations and Synods, etc are not synonymous with Una Sancta But are Iure Humano.
So Luther focused on Paul seeks to guard against becoming Zwickauesque (where the Holy Spirit is swallowed feathers and all) or Scwaermer.
We have emphasized every Sunday that we gather as people who are by nature Sinful and unclean but the Culture wants to go the route of the “ I’m OK, You’re OK” philosophy. And so any emphasis on Sinful human nature, which necessitates a Savior is unpopular and out of style,
In my last LCA/ELCA congregation (after I had voted “NO” inm
Columbus to the merger that produced the ELCA) several parishioners calledmthe Bishop to complain about my Sermons and the
Bishop then called me. The Complainants told the Bishop that “they attended Church in order to be made to feel good about themselves but that when Pastor
Steward preached they were made to feel and understand that they were
Sinners.” My Sermons were “Law and Gospel” in focus. The Bishop’s advice was to simply preach only “Gospel”. I was stunned by that kind of reaction by amLutheran Synod Head. No doubt his interest was that a supposedly humano generated spirit (hopefully by the Hagia Pneumata) would take place. Actually Hagia Pneumata was very evident at work through the basic Law/ Gospel focus. An old 1,700 Baptized member congregation with average attendance at 120 per Sunday had turned around and was pushing toward the 500 per Sunday worship Mark with Law/Gospel preaching at the center. This took place despite an average death rate of 50 per year for 7 years. Of course that was in the late 1980’s. We left the ELCA in January 1992 with a core of older people and grew significantly with older people joining us. The high death rates for ournold demographic continued but the spirit of our little flock, their Stewardship, their Churchmanship, their Commitment to Missions was wonderful to behold. Central to it all was Law/Gospel preaching but then in the past 10 years our numbers dwindled primarily because of deaths and the Culture has changed dramatically, very much similar to a First
Century Greek type of Culture.
If I understand The Church in the first century, the congregations/ fellowships established by Paul, Apollos, Barnabas, the Samaritans, Titus, Timothy, John, etc were very small and were primarily all underground. After a wonderful Establishment beginning on the day and days following the day of Pentecost Una Sancta was composed of believers in a variety of small scattered and underground congregations where people used secretive signs such as a fish or am really as or amboat with a cross mast to identify one another. And even in these earliest days according to John in Revelation some of these little flocks albeit that they may have had a good spirit seemed to depart from a focus upon Solus Cristus, I.e. Laodicia.
So we may, in these latter days need to repristinate so of the First Century methods but there is always the warning conveyed by the Apostle Paul’s strong words in the letter to the Galatians.
Well enough for now of my rambling as I reflect upon your blog and the discussion with Kris.
Again my thanks for your provocation of thought and reflection. Blessings in Christ,
David Luecke says
You have got it right. When in doubt go back to the early churches. Academics call it the primitive church. But most academic theologians don’t have a clue about what the Spirit does as the third person of the Trinity. I had a Fulbright year at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. I loved the intellectual discussions and thought of staying to do my doctorate. But I observed how poor was the church life of established Lutheran churches. My conclusion was that if the church life is so poor, the theology behind it can’t be very good.
Michael Mapus says
What’s the spiritual energy of my congregation? 100%! Why? The Law and the Gospel is taught and preached in our classrooms and pulpit. The sacraments are given according to Christ institution. Parishioners are led to repentance and have forgiveness proclaimed in their ears, eyes and lips. Most important, they have the ASSURANCE that they are a child of Christ!
As a result, our coffers are doing well, our pastor is paid well and our multiple bible studies through the week are well attended for a small rural congregation. We also have mission Sunday once a month for evangelism and acts of mercy. We have a very successful preschool also. My congregation has been doing these things for a 150 years, ideas that were handed from their forefathers that come straight from the Word of God.
Our forefathers from scripture, warned us also of the subjective Christianity that you are peddling. The type that robs believers of their assurance and burns many of them out. Assurance is the main theme that comes up over and over again in the Book of Concord. This subjective Christianity is what CWF Walther left and encountered here in America, and is still alive and well today.
I’m my congregation we walk as one loaf and it expresses itself like this: “I a poor miserable sinner”.
David Luecke says
Great. I doubt you are at 100 percent of Spiritual energy. But you are certainly very high. Who knows, the Spirit my visit you and produce even more spiritual energy. Would you be ready to put more of his special energy to work through your people?
Lee Larsen says
A great pastor who can bring the words of the Scripture to life is a real talent and a blessing to the congregation. Certainly not all have this same level of spiritual gift. Some can improve over time if given the opportunity to learn from others (of course there has to be support from His flock and the willingness to improve). This can be offset by strong leadership skills that can challenge key individuals to step up in areas where their gifts are a great fit.
I like to think we have been blessed with strength in both areas. Some 20 years ago our new pastor (at the time) challenged our evangelism board leader to read a book called “Conspiracy of Kindness”. This soon lead to the creation of P.A.C.K. (Planned Acts of Christian Kindness), A method that makes it easy for Christians of all ages to go out into busy public places in their community and bring the love and grace of Jesus to life. Through simple surprising acts of kindness shown to everyone that the Holy Spirit sends your way it becomes easy to approach people, all people because you now have something they may desire and it is coming to them from a stranger and totally FREE. Through a few simple words and the “Connect Card” all the credit and the glory is given to the Lord. In this very action the recipient receives a little taste of what grace is like, freely given and cannot be bought or earned at any price. On the back of the card is an invite to your church/school/youth program… where they can come to learn more about this uniquely special love that Jesus has for them. Because of this unusual & refreshing experience and the presence of the Holy Spirit amazing and powerful testimonies come forth from people that you would least expect based on their outward appearance. These moments take place with precision timing that make it very clear as to His divine presence. The recipient perceives that God just showed up for them at this unusual time & place because…. and they will pour out their heart filling in this blank. Experiencing these “God moments” is so moving that they can never be forgotten and you want to passionately share them with everyone around you. This zeal is what is described in detail in the Scriptures. For many back them they witnessed these miracles firsthand and burned with the desire to shout them from the rooftops. I continue to experience these moments and I continue to shout out how others can do the same. I shout pretty loud because P.A.C.K. has now been downloaded in 104 countries around the world . Thousands have signed up and received their free program download link. In addition we provide support documents that help you understand P.A.C.K. and better implement it in your church & community. Great faith & Kingdom building opportunities so please get started today! http://www.acts18.org/christian-kindness-program
David Luecke says
I am delighted to hear that PACK is spreading around the world. It was originated by the pastor of the Vineyard fellowship in Columbus Ohio. We at Royal Redeemer have two versions of PACK. Each Thanksgiving we offer to give a free meal to anyone who requests, and our people drive it wherever the requester lives. The number of meals provided by our Care and Share Thanksgiving continues to grow every year. The second program is Servant Saturday. Twice a year, spring and fall, we send out teams to clean up the yards of usually the elderly who can’t do it anymore. We get the names for the city’s office that oversee the elderly. We clean up the yards of a lot of Catholic widows. Usually, the number of participants in a new program declines over time. This program has a consistent 300 who show up. It’s great for families who teach their kids how to serve.
David Buegler says
I think you make a good point defining “fellowship” as more than simply coffee and doughnuts and small talk…..but genuine HOLY SPIRIT fed bonding between believers for the sake of reaching unbelievers.
But I am troubled with your statement: “Preaching God’s word is basic but believers sharing how the Gospel has changed their personal lives is perhaps more powerful.”
It’s like the time I was at a liturgical conference and those advocating strong worship connection to the ancient liturgy and especially to sacramental liturgy then went on to say, and I quote exactly, “Pity the evangelical reformed (because they don’t lift up the sacraments) because ALL THEY HAVE IS THE WORD OF GOD”. Wow !!!! Really???? All they have is the Word of God. I’d say they have something pretty special.
To say Preaching God’s Word is basic…..BUT sharing how lives have changed is MORE POWERFUL. No it isn’t. I’m glad you inserted the word PERHAPS.
Upon reading the above comments, the phrase that comes to mind is:
People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
I am a lay person so certainly won’t argue theology or doctrine but I see what I see.
The energy of a congregation starts at the top. How energized is your Pastor? What is his example?
Jesus, the greatest preacher who ever lived, loved and cared for people. And when he healed, he didn’t preach a sermon first.
Luecke states: “Observers can easily identify and then appreciate a healthy high-energy congregation. On the other hand, one visit is enough to recognize a low-energy congregation that probably does not have many more years of its life left.”
I have experienced one and done visits to Lutheran congregations who claimed to be welcoming yet failed to attract new members. As a visitor it was so obvious to me. They were welcoming to each other but not to outsiders. They were, as David suggests, like a club.
An energetic congregation has open arms, warm smiles and willingly extends help to those in need. That’s what Jesus did.
David Luecke says
Well said. You and I have had our own discussion. I have noted for years that you are an excellent writer. Would you like to contribute a blog that I can use in the future?
I would like to do that. We’ll talk. Thanks.
Michael Mapus says
As much as I disagree with your subjective epistemology, this was a good post! Thank you.