God’s Empowering Presence in Traditional Churches

What will church cultures look like in America as it transitions into the post-Christian era?

Pivotal for my understanding of a fresh perspective on church life was the study of Gordon Fee’s 967-page book God’s Empowering Presence (1994)—his careful and thorough study of the 169 references to the Spirit in the Apostle Paul’s letters. He ends with “a plea for the recapturing of the Pauline perspective of the Christian life as essentially the life of the Spirit fully integrated into the life of the church” (901).

What I bring to this project is a lifetime in Lutheran church life, blessed with a valuable seven-year broadening experience as a leader in the Fuller Theological Seminary community in Pasadena. I learned from the faculty that I can be conservative and still be intellectually respectable. At that time, after explosive growth in the 1960s and 70s, Fuller had a student body with about half who considered themselves to be Pentecostal or charismatic. They knew life in the Spirit that I envied.

Gordon Fee ends his exegetical study with a vision for moving forward. Many church leaders who envision what Christian church life can think they need to restart the Christian church all over again. Fee would have us concentrate on having the Spirit bring life into our present institutions, theologies, and liturgies. He observes that—when the human factor is not getting in the way—the Spirit has given God’s people a greater sense that they are one across confessional lines. Many interpreters of Paul assert that he did not write all of the letters attributed to him. Fee is not convinced and interprets all of the letters as Paul working out his theology in the challenges of church life.

Fee notes that “a genuine recapturing the Pauline perspective will cause the church to be more vitally Trinitarian, not only in its theology but in its life and Spirituality as well. This will mean not the exultation of the Spirit, but the exaltation of God; and it will mean not to focus on the Spirit as such, but on the Son, crucified and risen, Savior and Lord of all. Church life will be joyously communal and decidedly over against the world’s present trinity of relativism, secularism, and materialism, with their thoroughly demonizing effects.”

I am writing these blogs to strengthen the missionary impulse of church leaders today. The other necessary impulse is to guard the basic truths of the Christian faith. There have been many heresies over the centuries. They did not maintain traction and withered away. In their place, we have Christian churches that confess the great fourth-century Trinitarian creeds: the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

The great heresy of the 20th century was to doubt that truths of Scripture are a special Word from God. Taught by progressive seminaries, many pastors considered the Word to be only the experiences the writers had about their personal relationship with God. Those churches are now described, in simplified terms, as “liberal.” It is the “conservatives” who are growing, with the traditional belief that the Bible presents absolute truths especially inspired by God.

My understanding of church life is within the framework of one church body, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. I know well its warts. Like all Christian churches, mine holds the treasures of God’s Word in fragile, easily cracked jars of clay. Our leaders, like all church leaders, are human and subject to the effects of sin. Church leaders everywhere have limited perspectives.

Shaped by my knowledge of Organizational Behavior, my instincts are with the Missionaries. For most of its history, the LCMS had a good balance between Guardians and Missionaries. That balance in recent decades has tipped toward the Guardians, who are making a desperate effort to hang on to all the traditions of our German-cultured church. They will probably end up with a church body that is only a fraction of what it used to be.

Missionaries know that some of those practices need to be left behind in order to become congregations more effective in reaching out to people in American culture that is changing dramatically. We Missionary Lutherans are committed to doing that without changing the substance of our Lutheran Confessions, which are a true statement of Biblical truths.

Other church bodies have similar struggles. I dare to hope that we all regain Paul’s perspective on church life—a life of ministries shaped by the Spirit and focused on God’s grace.

The Spirit’s role is to be God’s empowering presence in church life.  Can this be done in traditional church cultures?  Or is it better to start with new churches?

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