Re-Discovering the Holy Spirit

Every congregation has some. Mature Christians well along in their journey to becoming more like Christ. When asked, others can usually point them out by name. What they convey is fruit the Holy Spirit has produced in them. The Apostle Paul lists some, like love, joy, peace, and patience. Under the influence of the Spirit, these inner qualities often flourish in individual spiritual journeys over the years.  How does that happen?

Most communities now have some. These are new community churches which seem to be growing and even flourishing. Most are conservative and solidly Gospel-oriented in their ministries. For those believers primed to see the Holy Spirit at work, many of these congregations give evidence of the Spirit moving with special energy. They come across as exciting, “happening” places.

Meanwhile, the traditional mainline churches seem to be sitting on the sidelines grumpily watching their continued fifty-year decline in membership and influence. So long as they stay anchored in God’s Word, they retain the Spirit in their midst. But too often the Spirit gets harder to recognize. Many were exciting and dynamic congregations that did valuable Christian ministry in their day, but too often the “happening” Spirit seems to have moved on.

Pastoring a declining church can be very discouraging. Surveys show that a large and increasing share of pastors are facing burnout. The percentage of those leaving the ministry is increasing. Where is the joy of ministry? When you are trying to do ministry with just your own energy and see fewer results you think are important, satisfying joy becomes harder to find.

But recognize that church ministry is basically the Holy Spirit’s work. You are part of his team, and he is the team leader. The Spirit wants to open your eyes to his presence and movement around you in ways more subtle than can easily be counted. In the process, you may discover more personal joy in what your life, team, or church, is accomplishing.

Martin Luther taught that the Spirit’s special role in the Trinity is to “call, gather, enlighten and sanctify” the whole church. To call includes presenting the Gospel in new ways that meet the changed felt needs of others in our times. To gather involves bringing people into Christ-focused fellowships that go beyond merely church membership. To be enlightened happens as much with what is caught as with what is taught. To sanctify involves personal journeys of becoming more like Christ. It is important to find joy in those journeys of others and find satisfaction and joy in your own personal Spiritual journey.

How the Spirit Got Lost

For centuries the Holy Spirit was relegated to the side-lines in Protestant churches. We confessed him in the Creeds but took little notice of him in our daily lives and church ministries. The Spirit came roaring back into Protestant consciousness in the emotional Pentecostal movement starting a century ago that is now spreading mightily around the world in our times. Rejoice that the Word of the Lord is growing faster now than at any time in the previous two-thousand years of the Christian church’s existence!

Yet the older church bodies anchored on their Reformation heritage hesitate to join the celebration. The theology we inherited is very head-oriented, and we are reluctant to address feelings or emotions that might lead astray. Yet Godly passion certainly has to have its place in Christian lives and churches. 

We can better appreciate emotions by recognizing that Feelings can and should come at the end of the sequence of three Fs. Start with relying on biblical Facts. Then comes trusting them in Faith.  In third place is the response of Feelings. Facts without Feelings can be as dead as Faith without Works. How can a believer not be moved emotionally when the facts of the Gospel are well understood and trusted?

The churches now in decline used to be called the mainline denominations. Our roots are in Northern Europe. People of those lands typically are not as comfortable expressing emotions as those from other cultures. We traditional churches of the Reformation need to recognize we are now on the defensive in this world. What we can do is learn how to help members readily express their personal feelings and passions in response to the Gospel they trust.

The challenge I am addressing is how we get back on the offensive with a fuller understanding of how the Holy Spirit is at work in our midst today. Call it a working theology. The place to start is Jesus’ own teaching. He explained to Nicodemus that the Holy Spirit influences human spirit. The Spirit actually changes our inner being (John 3).  Where the Spirit brings special energy at any given time is unpredictable, like the wind. How he influences people always remains the same. He works through God’s Word and the means by which this word of grace is conveyed, like the Sacraments. We can look for the Spirit at work in the Word-centered relationships that are basic to ministry.

Jesus taught his disciples that the Father will send another Advocate, whom they will know ”because he lives with you and will be in you.” This Advocate, the Holy Spirit, “will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14). We do not look for the Spirit as somehow independent from the Father and Son in the Trinity. Jesus explained, the Spirit will not speak on his own authority (John 16).

Martin Luther himself had a very vibrant appreciation for the Holy Spirit—in his early years. He wrote two moving Pentecost hymns in 1524. But a year later, hundreds of thousands of Germans revolted against the established order, motivated they claimed, by the Spirit who brought them freedom. It was a civil disaster. Clearly the bubbling energy unleashed by Reformation forces had to be toned down. A generation later, the Reformed movement started by John Calvin established a very rational theology in which there is little room for the spontaneous Holy Spirit, and that understanding shaped centuries of Lutheran thinking.

Consider the current situation of traditional churches that share centuries of Reformation heritage. We are now hardly overflowing with excess spiritual energy. Can we upgrade the attention we pay to the Spirit we confess in our creeds so that we can benefit from the special energy he can unleash?

The charismatic movement fifty years ago among Protestants was especially strong among Lutherans and Episcopalian/Anglicans. We share the same theological roots at the beginning of our churches. To be appreciated is the many, many references to the Holy Spirit in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Our branch of Protestantism has the right Spirit-focused theology. 

I see myself addressing Protestants. Roman Catholics, too, have a heritage of openness to the Spirit. But, as at Reformation times, the needs of the institutional church too often have blocked the Spirit’s movement. What they are now seeing is a mass movement away from their traditional forms toward expressing Christian identity through Spirit-driven Pentecostal forms.

Do we older, Protestant-established church bodies want to turn around our decline? We can re-discover the Holy Spirit and more purposefully open ourselves to the special energy he brings to church life.

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