What Is Christian Spirituality? > subject index > Congregational Practices: the Spirit In a Church (yes, really...)
The early church was special. It was new, different, excited from direct encounters with its first love. But it was far from perfect; it had many conflicts, divisions, and even schools of thought which compared to those of today. (For instance, Peter's followers and John's followers were united at the core, but worked out their beliefs very differently.) A marriage or a child is something 'bigger' that binds the husband and wife; in a different way the Spirit is the 'something bigger' that binds the members of "the Body of Christ", as the gathered believers are often called. The Spirit calls it back to the experiences and the discoveries, the identity that was set up back then, in order to make clear how that follows through each day, and where that will lead tomorrow. The Spirit is less interested (though not un-interested) in forms and strategies, but more in what makes the church the church -- the Gospel message, the Kingdom vision, and Christ's love for those who do not know or accept the message or the vision. These have already been revealed, they're no secret, and they're meant for all. A church without these is not a church, is not part of the Body.
Many congregations (including Pentecostalists, African-American Churches, many African churches, some Methodists, and some Latin American base communities) have found that the practice of sharing testimony has been helpful in discovering how God works in daily life. As Christians live, and find out how God works in their own lives, they share it with each other in worship, in prayer meetings, or in other churchly meetings. Anyone can testify, and thus anyone can take part in the process of discovery. The testimonies are sorted out over time, as those who hear the testimony try out these things in their own life through the 'Bible eyes' that the Spirit gives them, and find the truth or untruth in them.
Since anyone can testify and anyone's testimony can have an effect, the practice of sharing testimony can break down the walls of race, age, gender, or socio-economic class. It can be an eye-opener for visitors who have no idea of how good the Good News can be. It can help people to be less afraid of God and more aware that God is near and at hand rather than at a far distance. Money, illness, conflict, fidelity, young love, addiction, attitude, work, daily encounters with evil -isms, new awareness, sadness, fear : all kinds of matters of who they are and what happens to them are all brought to the Body when testifying. But they're not brought up as matters to discuss or as a laundry list of failings or successes. They're brought up as a place in life where God is at work, where the struggle is bared, where the victories are celebrated and the Source of all true victory is given praise.
There are dangers, though. One danger is that people might think that
God is giving them teachings that have authority of their own. Testimony
is for learning to live a Christian life, not for defining what a Christian
life is. (The Bible does that.)
Another danger is that a testifying church can get caught up in sensational
or dramatic testimony. Those who hear it can easily forget that sometimes people are liars, testifying to justify their deeds before others, or (even worse) to draw attention or praise or (worst of all) power to themselves. Everything that the Christian and the church does has to be subject to the weighing, testing, and sorting work of the Spirit through the processes and gifts of discernment. If the church which receives testimony cannot uphold the duty to discern, it may be wiser not to let anyone testify, for such testimony would be out of context and thus be rendered unable to build up the fellowship.
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I know what you're thinking. "...... now wait a minute. I've never seen a committee meeting be anything spiritual. In fact, that's where we're deadest, where we most often quench the Spirit." Does it really have to be like that? Or can your church, ministry, committee or church council take action in a different way?
It would be a good start to make two changes of vision. First, the body/committee/entity is not there firstly to make decisions. It is there, as all gatherings of believers are there, for building each other up, bearing witness to the Gospel, and praising God. These tasks go on when we meet as a group, and when we meet one-to-one. You can help each other with devotional and prayer life, teach each other about spiritual practices, keep watch for burnout and inner collapse, recommend books or web sites to each other. Or even just give ordinary caring instead of the usual backbiting.
The second is like unto it : let each committee/body/entity be a prayer cell devoted to praying about what it has authority in. I don't mean offering up a quick 'prayer' to mark the beginning and end of meetings. (Sometimes I think Jesus is quite unhappy with us for taking His prayer in vain that way.) I mean really praying over each decision, both during the meeting and outside of it, and taking the time to listen for the Spirit's voice about them. Making decisions is a holy task. So why do our parish councils and vestries decide in the same way politicians do? And is it any wonder so many people distrust them?
Most Christians go to congregations which have gotten more than a little moldy. You know -- sleepy and slow, almost as if rigor mortis has set in to some of its joints? Well, it may not be so lacking in life to those who know where to look and what to look for. But let's suppose you do know where to look and what to look for, and you wish that the dear old place had some spark left in it, but there's barely enough to bother fanning the flame for. There's a lot of that going around.
There are two possible courses of action.
The first is to change congregations. This would be the right course for :
If that is your situation, then please prayerfully consider finding a new, healthier church home, for your own sake.
The second choice, for those in a less-extreme situation, is a more loving and mission-centered choice : stay put and start glowing. After all, if the place is so dead, they need to hear the Gospel again and be set free. Resurrecting the dead is no big deal for Jesus, He's done it before ! I find that most of the time, this is the better response.
If you're going to get glowing, there are some things to remember for the tough road ahead.
It is surely true that the Holy Spirit's presence is not determined only by "feeling". But when the feeling isn't there, it's a bad sign. Not everything in life is detectable by logic. Feelings often give us the first signal that something is amiss. There are many things that give a church that lifeless feeling, and none of them are good. The congregation may be insulated from its neighborhood, with dead outreach and ministry services that only address surface matters. It may no longer be engaged in vigorous Bible study. It may be a place that lets the pastor do all the work, with a pastor who is all too happy to have such control. A major spirit-killer, from what I've seen, is that the "dead" congregations had no community prayer life. Prayer for others is not encouraged, and devotional practices are not taught. They're too busy with themselves to pray real hard for someone else.
The net effect: the members lose touch with real, living faith. There are usually a few hardy souls who are able to live their faith in spite of the deadness around them, but it is just that : in spite of. I am not alone by any means in observing this. It is in fact a firm part of Christianity's public image, because so many visitors have experienced it firsthand and felt the chill.
It's not a matter of being charismatic; there are dead congregations
that call themselves charismatic and live ones that reject it. It's not
a matter of being contemporary : high churches can be very powerful and participatory, contemporary churches can be dead and remote.
It's not a matter of liberal/conservative differences, denominations, or pastoral training, either. What makes a church alive is when pastor and people are eager to praise God, really believe God is worthy of praise, and really believe God has made their lives worth rejoicing about. When you really care about it, the Spirit blesses you. From that comes living worship, living mission, living social service, effective evangelism. And yes, sparks do tend to fly from it.
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Often, the deadness begins to break when the ministers and/or staff and/or lay leadership simply let themselves depend on the Spirit's leadings and the Spirit's empowerments, and stop trying to do it on their own strength and in their own way. You'll grow up in faith in an awful hurry by letting the Spirit lead the way. Most of what goes on will become just a bit different, and then more and more so until you can look back and say, 'Wow, I never would've thought it would work this way, but it has!'. Surrender is how to open the door to gifts galore.
The tarrying meeting goes back more than a hundred years. In the US revivals of the 19th century, people used to linger around and hang out (or, in 19th Century talk, 'tarry') after the formal service was over. At first they 'tarried' for instruction in the Gospel and to speak to someone who could guide them. Increasingly, they 'tarried' to see if anything strange and/or wonderful was going to happen. Or, worse, to discover additional teachings of the preacher, teachings that were sometimes too strange to be part of the public activity.
At Azusa and especially since then, this tarrying time became even more important. It has become the time when the most powerful manifestations would take place. People would stay, 'waiting on the Lord', in hopes that they would be blessed/blitzed with the experience of these manifestations. This, in turn, became formalized, so that after the prayer and praise program was finished, the gloves would come off and the real rock-'em sock-'em signs would take place, as planned. Odd, isn't it -- planned spontaneity, commanded spirit action, planning for the action of One who moves freer than the wind?
Most non-Pentecostalist congregations have a kind of 'tarrying' after worship, but for a different sort of miracle. They set up chairs, give a few select people the responsibility to pull this miracle off, and the pastor may be there for a while, perhaps even to lay hands on someone in prayer. But it's done in some room other than the sanctuary, usually with too-strong coffee, stale pastry, hardened rolls, maybe an (ugh) fish dish or (double ugh) salad, and lots of spilt sugar. The miracle is that people stand around and chat with each other, sometimes introducing themselves to visitors and newcomers, just being friendly and getting to know each other. It's called 'fellowship', when it's done well. It is not at all strange that more people have been drawn into the congregation at this time than have come to it through large rallies. Or, on the flip side of it, when it's done with a closed-minded attitude, they're forming a 'clique', and more have been driven away by the ordinary congregational clique than all of those who have ever left the church because of the scandals of scoundrels, unknown and famous.
I guess it all depends on what you're tarrying for.
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".... a real congregational life wherein each member has his opportunity to contribute to the life of the whole body those gifts with which the Spirit endows him, is as much of the esse of the Church as are ministry and sacraments."
----------- Lesslie Newbigin, *Household of God*, p.117-118
"In biblical days prophets were astir while the world was asleep; today the world is astir while church and synagogue are busy with trivialities."
----------- Abraham Joshua Heschel, *The Insecurity of Freedom*
"According to the New Testament, God wills that the church be a people who show what God is like."
----------- Stanley Grenz, *What Christians Really Believe and Why* (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), p.127
For those who have been in a congregation but are not now taking part :
for pastors and lay leaders :
Most congregations still draw their members mainly from one specific town or urban neighborhood.
Your congregation has a relationship toward the 'principalities and powers'.
In your congregation, when at worship, are your front three rows mostly full, or mostly empty?
Not counting things done only by the pastor, what does your congregation do with other congregations in your town/neighborhood?
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|ver.: 02 September 2011|
Parish Practices. Copyright © 1996-2011 by Robert Longman.