The charismatic movement of the 1960s through 80s touched many congregations in mainline denominations. So did conflict, as traditional pastors and church members encountered something not in our Reformation traditions—experiences of speaking in tongues, as practiced in Paul’s time. Considered a gift and blessing, this experience is expected for membership in Pentecostal churches.
I was not part of that movement, nor have I ever spoken in tongues. The charismatic movement peaked about forty-five years ago, but I risk mentioning those divisive times to make one simple point. Those speaking or praying in a strange language were experiencing God’s empowering presence, and that is very exciting. “God’s empowering presence” sums up the over-arching theme biblical scholar Gordon Fee found in his study of Paul’s references to the Spirit in his letters.
By now many mainline churches have new appreciation for Paul’s explanation of the many spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. Almost all are giftings by the Spirit for doing ministries that would be welcome in any congregation today. When you learn to spot those giftings at work among people in your congregation, you can be encouraged by what you observe.
American mainline churches are coming out of a late 20th-century movement that advocated viewing congregations as social organizations that could be improved by better management techniques. I contributed to that with a book on Pastoral Administration: Integrating Ministry and Management. Those new perspectives did not slow down the decline. In fact, that mentality probably contributed to it.
The challenge now, however, is to encourage each other by looking for evidence of how congregations are different from other community social organizations. Look for reflections of the Spirit’s empowering presence at work among believers around you.
Start with yourself and any special times when you gained new faith insights or found service to others to be especially rewarding. Look for stories like experiencing the special joy of taking communion to a home-bound church member. Or perhaps it is a small awakening to a new faith insight that increases your trust in God. Look for evidence that something has changed for the better in the motivation or outlook of a participant or a group that has been exposed to the Spirit through God’s word.
But I add another expectation. Insights from psychology and sociology can explain a lot of what happens in traditional church life. When and where the Spirit is at work, the lives of believers change for the better in what they do and how they feel about their relation to God. Be affirmed by the “extra” the Spirit brings to church people, like participating by the hundreds in an organized service project.
The one whose life has changed in small or big ways has a story worth sharing. Many may be reluctant to do so, assuming what happened is too personal or not important. But find some part of your God-moment to share with others, not for your sake but for theirs. The Spirit who moved in you can do that for others, too.
I dream of traditional congregations where such mutual God-oriented conversation and encouragement happen routinely. It already does so in many congregations more oriented to the Spirit in their midst. Instead of social small talk after worship, they actually talk about what God is doing in their lives and what they are praying for.
It can become so in traditional churches. Church leaders first need to decide they want to look for evidence of the Spirit alive and working in their midst. Then comes purposeful effort to solve issues of arranging time and place for such sharing. Website technology makes that easier.
That’s why I have put a lot of time and effort into developing an online community that congregations can use to make such sharing easier and more compelling. It’s called Virtual Church Fellowship and will be launched very soon! Stay tuned!