After his conversion, the Apostle Paul spent a number of silent years at home in Tarsus. I envision him sharing his personal story of God’s grace and the impact on his life, even going out on weekends to spread this new Good News.
He was a genius at learning to pare down his message to its basics. He recognized that God’s grace was the essence of the Christ story, as he explained over and over again. He also observed lives being changed among the thousands of believers he had contact with over the years. His explanation was that Christ’s Spirit changed them in their “inner being” so they experienced more, love, joy, peace and hope. Such change, too, was a free gift available in the Spirit.
My point is that Paul was doing evidence-based ministry even before he went public. “Evidence-based findings” has become a key phrase in refining medical practice and educational policy. Paul remained so excited about his mission because he saw that it works for changing lives.
The Protestantism I know unnecessarily limits the evidence for our ministries today. We joyfully retell the evidence in the Bible and affirm the truths basic to living the life God intends for us. We affirm that the Gospel “works,” but we don’t share much evidence in lives actually changed.
Martin Luther rediscovered Paul’s central truth of justification by faith without works. But historic mainline churches never got the centrality of Paul’s emphasis on the Spirit active today, even though he wrote much more about things done “by the Spirit” than he did about “in Christ.”
Many Protestants do share evidence of impact on lives today. They expect and affirm conversions from an old life to a new life in Christ. Most get good at telling their conversion story. For important theological reasons, mainline Protestants baptize infants and later expect them to confirm their faith, as they are taught. But rarely do we tell stories of big changes in believers we know around us. In the process, we deprive ourselves of evidence that the Good News of Christ and the Spirit is working well today in changed lives.
Stories of personal conversion provide evidence of changed lives for born-again Evangelicals. Compare that to the promise-based message typically offered in mainline churches that do not feature how lives are being changed now in Christ by the power of the Spirit. The contrast gets sharper in comparison to Pentecostal churches that thrive on evidence of the Spirit as God’s empowering presence. If individual lives are not being changed in mainline churches, the reason for decline becomes apparent. I personally believe in the power of God’s Word. We just have to look harder to find and celebrate the evidence.
Gordon F. Fee did a detailed study of Paul’s 143 references to the Spirit that was formative for my fresh understanding. He writes, “It is certain that the Pauline churches were ‘charismatic’ in the sense that a dynamic presence of the Spirit was manifested in their gatherings. And even where power means that believers apprehend and live out the love of Christ in a greater way, Paul recognizes here a miraculous work of the Spirit that will be evidenced by the way renewed people behave toward one another.”
Further, “It is this dynamic, evidential dimension of life in the Spirit that probably more than anything else separates believers in later church history from those in the Pauline churches. Whatever else, the Spirit was experienced in the Pauline churches; the Spirit was not merely a matter of creedal assent.” (824)
Can mainline churches give evidence that the Spirit is still working today? Yes, if we know what we are looking for.
“Awakening” is a historic word for change, better than one-time “conversion.” The Spirit can and does bring little awakenings to deeper meaning as well as larger re-orientation of lives in big Awakenings. The Spirit can and does evoke strong emotions among mainline Christians, and many others beyond pastors do experience a call to their role in life.
We can tell and celebrate those stories, but it will take intentional leadership to change mainline church cultures to learn and share them.