If “Should” No Longer Works, What Will Motivate Church Life?

Most mainline churches (and many others) have relied on “should” to motivate their church life. Such was the theme of the previous blog. Church is something good people should do.  But that motivation is not working well anymore.

What is actually working now in modern America?  The same approach that worked for the Apostle Paul when he was planting and leading New Testament churches.  Paul ranks as one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all times, founding and energizing a new kind of religious community unlike any others at that time.  He relied on the Holy Spirit to change people in their inner being and to produce in them a desire to interact with others in the fellowship of the Spirit.  It obviously worked then.  It is working now in many Spirit-oriented churches in this country and certainly around the world.

This approach does require the belief that the supernatural God can intervene in the natural world of daily life.  This confidence has disappeared in many mainline churches, and with it the energy they used to have.

What centuries-old mainline Protestant churches bring to discussions on church life today is their emphasis on a coherent theology for what they believe and value, in which the parts fit together.

My tribe and heritage is Lutheran.  We have focused much more on Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, than on the Third Person, the Holy Spirit.  But a sub-tribe in earlier centuries did have a good balance.  They were referred to as Pietist, a term that unfortunately has mostly negative connotations today.

The grandfather of the movement was 17th century Johann Arndt.  For him, the motivation for church life comes from within and is generated by the Spirit.  “True knowledge of Christ is ignited by the Holy Spirit in our hearts as a new light that becomes ever brighter and clearer like a mirror that is polished, or as a small child grows and matures daily in the body.  He must yet be trained by the Holy Spirit and become conformed from day to day with Christ Jesus.” (True Christianity, p 184)

The goal for church life is that believers help each other become more like Christ as they share God’s word and its meaning in their lives.  The energy comes from beyond the group, from the supernatural Holy Spirit.  Martin Luther stressed the Spirit works through the community of believers.  The Apostle Paul stressed that the job of church leaders is to organize God’s people to build up their fellowship so they all become more and more like Christ (Ephesians 4: 12,13).  Luther called this process sanctification.  He highlighted the importance of mutual conversation and encouragement of fellow believers on their journey to become more like Christ.

Sanctification—to be made holy—can be the source of great confusion in church life.  Too easily it highlights the desired end-result of behavior characteristic of a life transformed by the Holy Spirit.  That leads easily into how Christians should behave, and that impulse turns into a series of shoulds preached at people.  And it is those shoulds that half of Americans aren’t listening to anymore.  Actually should never did motivate much changed behavior even among believers.

What’s missing is the preliminary step of justification—being made right with God.  Righteousness is a gift from God through Christ.  It is not earned by obeying a bunch of shoulds.  Heart-felt acceptance of that grace is worked by the Holy Spirit.  What’s striking is that Luther listed the mutual conversation and encouragement of believers as a means of grace, a means of being justified.  But the fellowship also is helped on the way to becoming more like Christ.

“Preach the Word” easily becomes a cliché.  The Gospel does need to be rightly and clearly preached and taught.  In centuries of institutionalized churches, leaders relied also on the Word demonstrated by water in baptism, and the bread and wine in the Lord’ Supper.

What we are now facing is the collapse of many institutionalized churches.  It is time to get back to the basics.  Those are informal fellowships of believers sharing repentance and forgiveness and demonstrating in their daily living what it means to become more like Christ.

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