Finding Church...Finding the Holy Spiritby Rob Swanson on September 8, 2020
This is a good time to return to basics.
Christians have had to do this before. (e.g. 516, 1517, 1727, 1905-6, post WW2 ... )
With rapid culture shift and the technology tsunami, most evangelical congregations are behind. Now we have Covid-19 restrictions and efforts to bring racial healing. May God lead the church of the 2020s to the influence we are capable of, and to the fullness he now intends.
Consider the themes church and the Holy Spirit:
Where is the Church?
Where is … and what is … have a common answer.
When does a gathering of believers constitute a church? The answer matters because the church, founded by the Holy Spirit, is sacred and therefore central.
(1) According to traditional Catholicism, the church consists of “those who rule,” (ecclesia docens) and to a lesser extent, “those who are ruled” (ecclesia audiens). The former is the center of authority, grace, sanctification and virtue. Without the priest, there is no sacrament / no “church” functions.
(2) Then came the Protestant Reformation, which was not fond of the Catholic “universal and visible” claim. They preferred “invisible with local expressions,” an assembly of people who “worship and serve the true God,” including sacraments and a structure able to maintain discipline. That would be a church. At one time to me this seemed adequate.
Note the high dependency on clergy (1), and the piecemeal restructure (2), albeit with more New Testament connection. Our Christian forefathers may not have always been spot-on accurate, but were wise enough to not cite the location of a Sunday morning gathering.
They did not comment on the number of people needed.
Large gatherings can be wonderful. They just are not the norm.
Matthew 18.19 provides the minimum number (2).
The maximum need not be very large. Gatherings in Corinth may have been around 15 (cit. David Balch, Carolyn Osiek, Cynthia Long Westfall). Once the gathering becomes larger than a house party, group dynamics of some sort are needed lest individuals become overlooked, deferring to the more talkative. Not good.
A picnic is a picnic when there is action. Picnics are dynamic. No action, no picnic.
No ____ = no church. What fills the blank?
Fellowship? Praise, prayer and worship? A Bible based sermon? Sacraments / ordinances? Any combination?
The above, all good, may or may not involve God’s presence and grace.
On a bad day the worship service is a routine led by well-intended presiders – a human effort.
The grace of God in a church is dynamic and can be observed. So can the Holy Spirit.
It is in meaningful relationships and member participation.
Look for people practicing love, encouragement, and prayer with one another.
Look for leaders discerning the agenda of the Holy Spirit.
Look for social intimacy and participation based on gifting and opportunity.
Look for Bible teachers who engage learners.
Look for community.
Look for subtle evidences of the Christ’s presence.
Look for the New Testament relational images of church: family, bride, body.
Christians are, and are like a family (Galatians 6.10). We are brothers (Romans 8.29), fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters (1 Timothy 5.1, 2), children, fathers, young men (1 John 2.12,13), and a household (Ephesians 2.19) - each one having a role and doing their share, intimately known and valued. This family shares the same Lord, is nurtured by the same Scripture, and is led by the same Holy Spirit. This family spends time together conversing and sharing, in support of a common purpose. This is church!
God so loved the world but the church is loved like a bride! If measured by affection, nothing else in the universe matters more to God. Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is the bride (Matthew 25.1-10; Revelation 21.2-9). The church is the object of agape love, once expressed with a “holy kiss ” (5x), but now with more appropriate cultural counterparts.
Body is a rich metaphor. Organ upon organ, system upon system - an almost endless number of complimentary parts and functions, large and small, all participating, all contributing to an organism with vast potential. Amazing! The church is amazing.
To the extent relational images are fulfilled, so is the assurance of finding church. Then, God works in his children, using their gifts, addressing the common need, creating unity, providing nurture … encouragement … correction … joy, and from time to time, a surprise. All grow in grace (2 Peter 3.18)! Additional details, events and timing are TBA. We look forward to that.
Where is the Holy Spirit?
Again, I begin with the textbook answer.
He was poured forth at Pentecost (Acts 1.8; 2.17).
He enables a fellowship with Christ (Romans 8.9).
He helps (John 14.16), distributes gifts (1 Corinthians 12.4, 7; Ephesians 4.7) and develops personality virtues (Galatians 5.22, 23).
I also cite historical examples of the Holy Spirit’s wonderful work in Christian revival and renewal: 1730-40s (Tennents, Edwards, Whitefield), 1800s (Dwight, Nettleton), 1904-5 in Wales, (Roberts), 1906 in Los Angeles (Seymour), 1907 in Pyongyang (Kil Sun-joo), late 1960s – California (Smith, Bright), 1953 forward in China, and many more. There have been excesses: 1520-30s Saxony, Westphalia (Muntzer, Matthys), 1750s Connecticut (Davenport), 1801, Cane Ridge, KY (Stone).
Is the New Testament understanding of the Holy Spirit intersecting with church life today? On Sundays? In corporate life? In what I see?
Not well, even when the bar set during those first 30 years of church life is lowered.
We do have some correlations, noted with appreciation.
But we also guard against nominal recognition.
In the Roman Catholicism people attend, appreciatively receive what the clergy offer, exchange greetings, catch up with friends, and return home. Evangelical routines have similarity.
Order and hierarchy trump spontaneity and every member involvement. There is a good presentation on the platform, but even with excellent preaching there is too much spectator-ism and passivity in the pew, except for the “worship experience.”
Overall, there is little Holy Spirit activity to observe and little evangelism coming forth from the congregation. Our traditional method of proclamation could use a challenge. Yes? No?
Many Christians volunteer and are blest for doing so.
But on Sundays the organization keeps things entry-level friendly.
Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit continuously gives birth to service opportunities and transformational learning experiences, 7 days a week for all who are interested. Information and inspirational prompts abound on Google, YouTube, Zoom, and Facebook, though internet connections come short in meeting our relationship need.
That need has always been to (1) gather with the body of Christ, and (2) connect with the Holy Spirit in others (James 4.5)! In person is better than on screen.
Who has a conviction or confession ready to share (John 16.8, James 5.16)?
Who has experienced a transformative or providential event (2 Corinthians 3.18; 7.13)?
Who has a prayer or blessing to share (Philemon 4, 7)?
What have we been learning (Colossians 3.16)?
Who has counsel and encouragement (1 Thessalonians 5.14)?
Who would be a blessing to know (Romans 15.32)?
Is there something for us to do (Colossians 4.17)?
Are there other ways the Holy Spirit in me and you can interface (Acts 13.2)?
Every church adds something unique and it changes. All expect to see the Holy Spirit work in the interpersonal realm, as evident in Acts – Jude.
Every Christian has contribution potential. But is there opportunity? When there is, the Holy Spirit’s presence follows in simple small ways, and occasionally in large ways.
With New Testament expectations and personal preparation, anticipation grows.
The church becomes like no other organization on earth.
It develops over time.
Good leadership maintains order and curtails indiscretions.
People will have ideas and agendas mistakenly considered central.
Our feet still find ways to land in the mouth.
We are forever glad love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4.8).
Missteps are accepted - just part of the process in becoming the dwelling place of God, from which comes an army of Christ’s disciples (Matthew 28.19), toward the manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth (Luke 17.21; Romans 14.17).
The church of the 21st century takes the risk and opens to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in its meetings. The members repent of their passivity and low expectations for Sundays while their pastors serve in overdrive. No more “attendance mentality.” They bless and engage with others. They carefully measure their speech and actions. Christ is alive (Matthew 28.6) and in no place is Christ more alive than in his body (1 Corinthians 12.27)! The Holy Spirit is at home in the church revealing the Son to us and in us (John 15.26, 16.14, 17.3).
2020 is a new day.
It may be too late for small tweaks and adjustments only an insider would notice.
We need a new form, new allocation of our time together, new purpose statements, new evaluation standards, new wineskins.
Let’s make it real.
Let’s make church and evidences of the Holy Spirit easy to find.
It is a privilege for us to take part.
Rob Swanson, Centerville, MA – former missionary (5 years) and pastor (33 years) and author of The Bible Reader’s Companion.