For these last several “letters” I have been writing about church health. My goal was to introduce each of the nine traits. However, I feel compelled to make a second entry under dynamic spirituality, which was the topic of last month’s letter.
I must confess to some frustration in talking about “spirituality,” because it is something I cannot easily define. More than that, it is something peripheral, if not foreign, to my Baptist upbringing.
Herb Miller said spirituality is “connecting with God.” Leonard Sweet said it is a state of “holy intoxication.” Tom Willamsen said spirituality is “a continual awareness to God’s self-disclosure through prayer, worship, and study,” and emphasized that it is a process. Maxie Dunham said spiritual formation is “the dynamic process of receiving by faith and appropriating by commitment, discipline, and action, the living Christ into our lives to the end that our lives will conform to and manifest the living Christ in the world.” Or as the Apostle Paul said, “measuring up to the maturity of Christ.”(my paraphrase, Ephesians 4:13)
This last image accentuates a distinctive of Christian spirituality—it is never a movement toward some inner ideal that we self-select. For that reason, it is also true that Christian spirituality is never simply a private matter. To be sure, there are essential private moments, but life in the Christian community (koinonia) is also an unavoidable part of Christian spirituality.
This is why we say dynamic spirituality is a trait of healthy churches. There is the dynamic, transforming interaction between individual and God; and there is also the dynamic, transforming interaction between individual and the Body of Christ.
Although prayer does not encompass all there is to spirituality, it seems to be the bellwether of spiritual life. The Disciples had a sense of this when they begged Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1-13) Paradoxically, what followed was not so much a prayer outline or profound theology for prayer as a gentle admonition, “It’s not complicated, just do it!”
Someplace, I read where Eugene Peterson said that people come to Church so the Pastor can teach them to pray. When I first read that, about ten years ago, I laughed. It was not that I thought the assertion was humorous, it just seemed inconsistent with my pastoral experience. More often my congregation wanted me to pray for them. I can be more generous now, if I see prayer in the larger context of “connecting with God.” There is a deep longing among our congregants to “connect with God,” and a puzzlement about how to do it.
If the Church is the Body of Christ, then the congregation that is not “connected to God” (i.e. “spiritual”) cannot be healthy.
Church health cannot be reduced to leadership skills, political positions, numerical growth, doctrinal correctness, moral purity, or comprehensive programming. We cannot program, package, or promote it. And that is what frustrates us.
In our frustration, and even desperation, we read, and study, and attend conferences in the vain hope that we will learn the secret to energizing our congregations.
Jim Cymbala made some daring challenges to the Church in America in his recent book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire:
· How tragic that young ministers were feverishly writing down all these exotic teachings in the vain hope of igniting their struggling churches back home with techniques and teachings found nowhere in Scripture.
· I could find no evidence that these speakers were implementing their concepts at the local church level. Their books and tapes were selling well, but I wondered why they hadn’t come to Brooklyn or other dark places and put their teachings into practice.
· I fear that what we have here is the work of “technicians” or “revisionists” or “idea men” who feel the need to innovate, to devise novelties in order to help God’s kingdom along.
· The trouble with today’s man-made novelties is that they simply don’t produce the impressive results that are often advertised. Where is the city anywhere in the world that is being “taken for God,” as the rhetoric often claims? Wouldn’t it be wise, as Paul said, to “not boast beyond proper limits” (2 Cor 10:13) but rather let the Spirit produce results that speak for themselves?
· We don’t need technicians and church programmers; we need God.
Re-read Acts, with special attention to prayer and what follows. Pentecost came out of a prayer meeting, not a training conference, not a leadership vision, and not an outreach program. The days of Pentecost are punctuated with prayer. A sermon and church growth spring from prayer (Acts 2:1-4); community prayer (Acts 2:42-47) leads to healing, another sermon, and courage before the Sanhedrin—where it is realized these ordinary men and women had been with Jesus.(That’s a pretty good definition of “spirituality;” Acts 4:13) Then, again, there is prayer (4:23-31) and the place was shaken! And the consequence this time was generosity, healing, and…persecution!
I confess the most powerful period I experienced as a Pastor occurred when two lay people took it upon themselves to come to Church early and pray. I did not recruit them to do this. I did not give them a list of “prayer concerns.” I did not “coach” them. I did not even intrude upon this prayer time with them.
The Church is a spiritual organism. Without the Spirit, we are zombies. And it doesn’t matter what size we are, or what kind of worship we have, or how correct our doctrine is, or how rigidly we enforce congregational purity.
The beginning of church health is a prayer meeting.
© American Baptist Churches
of the Great Rivers Region
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