Gathering in a Spirit-Shaped Congregation

The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People

Gathering in a Spirit-Shaped Congregation

Eugene Peterson is well known as the translator of the Bible paraphrase, The Message.  I had the privilege of joining him in a conference small group addressing the issue of the relationship between spirituality and church administration.  His position was simple.  There isn’t any.  He started his ministry as the pastor of a suburban Presbyterian church.  He was blessed to have others who took care of the well-established administrative routines of running the congregation, while he focused on personal spiritual growth.

Peterson’s simple position is attractive.  But as an organizational theorist, I disagree.  The issue is complex.  The formal structure of a church is a tool that is used poorly when the goal is just to keep the basic routines of church life going.  It is used well when focused on shaping relationships through the spiritual growth that can happen in the underlying fellowships of those gathered.

The Congregation As Topsoil

In his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, Peterson offers an arresting image of church life.  Think of those gathered as the topsoil for the Spirit’s work.  The topsoil is “the material substance in which all the Spirit’s work takes place—these people, assembled in worship, dispersed with blessings.

“They are so ordinary, so unobtrusively there, it is easy to take them for granted, to quit seeing the interactive energies, and to become so pre-occupied building my theological roads, mission constructs, and parking lot curricula that I start treating this precious congregational topsoil as something dead and inert to be arranged to suit my vision.  Why do pastors so often treat congregations with the impatience and violence of developers building a shopping mall instead of the patient devotion of a farmer cultivating a field?”

This image of topsoil builds on the very first parable Jesus told, the Sower and the Seed.  Some seeds fell on soil that was hard, rocky, and weedy and produced a poor crop.  Others fell on the good soil that yielded a bumper crop.  Church leaders do well to concentrate on that good topsoil where it exists in a congregation.  Paul continued the image when he regarded the Corinthians as a field where he planted the seed, Apollos watered it and God gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3).

Peterson observes, Our pastoral work “is not to make a religious establishment succeed but to nurture the gospel of Jesus Christ into maturity.  Holiness cannot be imposed; it must grow from the inside.”  He cautions against working in generalities.  “When I work in the particulars, I develop a reverence for what is actually there instead of a contempt for what is not, inadequacies that seduce me into a covetousness for someplace else.”

Everyone Is Given the Manifestation of the Spirit for the Common Good

Paul was a missionary for fifteen years between the start of his first missionary journey and his first imprisonment.  He stayed in Ephesus for over two years—long enough to be a pastor and watch what developed out of his preaching of the Gospel.  He drew on those observations in his writings to the troubled church in Corinth.  He worked from the conviction that the Holy Spirit, Christ’s Spirit, was central to the life of new fellowships of Christ that emerged from his work.  In 1 Corinthians 12, he explained the spiritual foundations of church life.

First, no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit of God. This same Spirit provides the energy for ministries done through a fellowship. Such energies are a gift. In individuals, gifts look like natural talents and acquired skills.  These talents become a gift to the fellowship when the Spirit moves individual members to offer them in ministry to others.  Here is the key phrase:  “To each, the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

The Spirit moves many to contribute financially to the common good.  Talking about money in the church can be uncomfortable, especially when approached as just raising dollars to cover the bills.  But the Spirit can change individual priorities for spending available personal funds.  Then contributions can move beyond duty to opportunity for growth.  The Spirit likewise manifests himself when teachers step up to provide that form of ministry.  The same goes for those who are encouragers and leaders.

I am drawing on a list of gifts from Paul’s letter to the Romans written after observing what was happening in the Ephesian and Corinthian congregations.  The Corinthian listing included unusual gifts like speaking in tongues, doing miracles, and prophesying.  We in traditional churches don’t know what to make of those gifts.  The later list in Romans has manifestations that any congregation would be glad to have in their life together.

Revolutionary View of Ministry

Many churches inherited a faulty church organization that divided the congregation’s work among committees with prescribed duties and meeting times.  The obvious unasked question is what would motivate members to take on such jobs.  The assumption was that members would do this out of loyalty to their church.  But such institutional loyalty is disappearing in traditional churches.  No wonder little gets done beyond what a faithful few continue to do.

Paul’s approach to ministries is revolutionary in our times.  He was describing what actually happened, not just prescribing what should be done.  Key, of course, is the Holy Spirit, who was the motivator of all the fellowship life Paul observed and advocated.  In his Trinitarian blessing to the Corinthians, Paul stressed that distinctive of the Father is love, and of the Son is grace.  The contribution of the Holy Spirit is the fellowship life of Christ’s church.  Lose sight of the underlying informal fellowship, and you diminish the importance of the Spirit at work in church relationships.  Then the care and feeding of the institution became more important than the care and feeding of the fellowship.

Administering Spiritual Gifts

Peter, too, understood spiritual gifts as the basis for ministry.  “Each should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms (1 Peter 4: 10).  Such administration is an organizational task for which some are especially gifted.  Like a matchmaker, find out what members enjoy doing and do well.  Then find opportunities in congregational life for them to serve.

A Spiritual Gifts Inventory is a basic tool to do the first part.  These usually offer about a hundred questions probing what the respondent likes to do and does well.  These are basically conversation starters and do not meet the standard of psychological tests with high validity and reliability.  As I understand history, such inventories are only about forty years old.

Erik Rees offers a set of tools to help individuals in a congregation discover how they would like to contribute to the ministries of a congregation.  His workbook is entitled S.H.A.P.E.  It promotes discussion of an individual’s personal Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality and Experiences.  It is meant for use by small groups.  Its purpose is accomplished when each concludes, Yes, this is me.  The key is the Heart as the seat of passion.  The congregation’s job is then to help each member live out their Spirit-induced passion to use their giftedness in ministry to others.

But the application of spiritual gifts administration causes a new problem.  How do you find enough roles so members can do what the Spirit has gifted them to do?  Healthy churches solve that with good organization and administration.  Such engagement over time will outpace congregations that can’t find enough people to do even basic ministries in a downward spiral of loss of energy.

Ministry by manifestation of the Spirit for the common good is so very biblical.  Centuries of traditional institutional church life produced a blind spot to how to reenergize congregational life.

How revolutionary is the view that every member is gifted by the Spirit for a specific ministry? And do you agree that a good understanding and development of spiritual gifts among church members will only help to grow a church? Do you actively see this happening in your congregation?

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