How The Spirit Works in Changing Cultures

In the fourth century the Christian church took a turn that still handicaps traditional churches today. The Roman emperor made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Most consider this a good development. Institutional Christianity then took on explosive growth.

For ministering in the 21st century that was an unfortunate turn. We old-line churches that honor our European roots carry a legacy that weakens our effectiveness in our present American culture. We didn’t need the Holy Spirit to carry on ministry in well-established patterns supported by the state. We didn’t need spiritually gifted leaders. We lost the determination to seek the special power of the Spirit.

To be a Christian in the first three centuries was an act of conviction, even subject to martyrdom. Once the Emperor gave preference to Christianity, then joining the state church was the smart move for citizens with ambition. Much of that explosive growth was made up of people who were Christians for convenience rather than by conviction. Pastors and bishops were exempted from tax obligations. The temptation to seek this status without conviction must have been great.

Church cultures shaped in the context of institutional Christianity in a friendly environment are now declining. Our challenge is to go back to the earlier mission-oriented church and leadership cultures that worked in a hostile pagan culture.

Traditional church cultures emphasized loyalty and faithfulness to the established patterns of life from birth to death. For this rational process, the Holy Spirit could stay predictably and comfortably in the background and was even unwelcome if he brought too much change.

The Christian churches that are doing well now emphasize life-defining personal convictions, which brings growth in ministry to others and higher levels of spiritual experiences. The Spirit is essential to this heart-changing work. We need to re-read Paul to appreciate how central the Spirit was to his understanding of church and ministry.

Imagine what that state-church arrangement did for the attitudes of priests and pastors. If you can compel, why bother to attract? I once
read of a Lutheran pastor in a German village who decided that fathers really should show up at church for the baptism of their child. So he would send out a policeman if the father wasn’t in attendance. With such authority why bother to figure out how to make the biblical word relevant to the hearers? Personal spiritual growth of villagers was often unwelcome because it could lead to conflict.

Present church leadership culture is in the process of rapid change. The old way separated leaders as clergy distinct from everybody else. Paid clergy performed religious duties in traditional settings, like a chaplain. They were not expected to be strong leaders of more effective ministry.

Growing community mega-churches exemplify the new leadership culture. Those leaders are much more aggressive in organizing church life where all are ministers. Many have business experience and emphasize “what works” to foster a healthy church life. They look for giftedness by the Spirit to identify leaders and then bring training to them. A sign of the times is that traditional seminaries are in crisis through lack of enrollment.

I have been using “traditional” to define church cultures shaped by their European origins. Another large category would be “evangelical” churches whose culture is shaped by the American experience of frontier and revivals. They emphasize personal conviction as distinct from passive participation of the established churches. The heart-work of the Spirit is necessary for that. Church observer Ed Stetzer notes that evangelicals are now also moving towards the theology of Spirit-filled and Spirit-led ministries.

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