Reducing Barriers to the Spirit’s Work of Building Fellowship

The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People

Reducing Barriers to the Spirit’s Work of Building Fellowship

“If you want to build a ship, don’t summon people to buy wood, prepare tools, distribute jobs, and organize the work. Rather, teach people to yearn for the wide, boundless ocean.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

My book, Builder Ministry For The 21st-Century, offers many dimensions of church administration that can be gained from management perspectives. It keyed off the Apostle Paul’s self-identification as the master builder of the fellowships of Christ in the churches he oversaw. At the time, I had not invested much attention to understanding the central role of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s approach to ministry and leadership.

These current Reflections start with Martin Luther’s confession that the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies God’s people. He is the energy that drives ministry. To use a sailing analogy, the Spirit is the wind that fills the sails of the ship of congregational life. Our job is to hoist the sails and avoid making mistakes that would slow down movement or even cause the congregational ship to flounder. What we need is a Spirit-centric approach rather than a human-centric focus on what leaders can and need to do. The Spirit does the work. How do we reduce barriers? How do we avoid quenching the Spirit?

Natural Church Development

Christian A. Schwarz offers such a perspective in his work on Natural Church Development ( Start with the kingdom of God as God reigns in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Recall Jesus’ parable of the growing seed in Matthew 4. “A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself, the soil produces grain.” That’s what can happen through the basic ministry of presenting God’s Word in creative ways. Remember, “I (Paul) planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”

Decades ago, the frontier of the new perspective on managing churches was to carefully formulate goals or outcomes and perhaps to do a business school analysis of Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT). By now, such purpose statements are common in well-run organizations and churches. The problem for churches is that we don’t control the wind that moves the ship. A popular pastor of a large well-run church caught my attention with an article he wrote on “Why I Don’t Set Goals.” He didn’t because Spirit leads the church into the future. Our job is to follow as well as we can.

Christian Schwarz gathered self-evaluation data from over 1,000 congregations of all sorts of backgrounds. Thirty members each assessed their congregation according to eight categories called qualities of church life. Their scores were interpreted as average, below average and above average. It turns out that churches with mostly above-average qualities also were growing in numbers. The data show that church quality drives quantity.

I highlight here four qualities that are especially Spirit-related: Passionate Spirituality, Inspiring Worship, Gift-oriented Ministry, and Empowering Leadership. The question for church leaders is, What are we doing that brings us up short in one or another of these qualities? How can we remove barriers? Where can we improve the ways we unleash the Spirit in our midst?

Passionate Spirituality

According to Schwarz, “The secret of growing churches is definitely not found in their particular style of spirituality (charismatic, non-charismatic, liturgical, non-liturgical, etc.) but in the level of passion at which faith is lived out among the members.” The question is whether the spiritual life of the members is characterized by prayer, enthusiasm and boldness.

My research among Lutherans documented strong prayer life among individuals. But it is not very visible. Our culture teaches us not to be passionate, because passions can lead astray. Our history uses feelings of guilt as a motivator, but guilt brings only short-term results without passion. “Instead, work to develop a ‘culture of appreciation’ in your church. Be a good model.”

Inspiring Worship Service

Schwarz: “All parts of a church service, from the seating arrangements to the music and to the message, should become more and more the vehicles through which the Spirit of God and God’s love can be experienced in the community of Christians.” These “vehicles,” of course, need to be Christ-centered, grace focused as well as Spirit shaped.

When the Spirit is at work in a gathering for worship, there is excitement, refreshment and a sense of new possibilities. Can the Spirit work through the same routine from week to week among believers who attend mostly out of habit? Certainly, in theory. Greater appreciation of what’s missing, however, can come from listening to the experience of visitors and from visiting other congregations. Experienced observers of healthy congregations note how they convey a sense of excitement and anticipation for the Sunday event.

The Holy Spirit works through relationships centered on the Word. In general, the more people involved in leading the worship event, the better; each offers a different touchpoint. The more the sermon applies the Word to everyday relationships among those gathered, the better. The more the music is accessible to others beyond just the veterans, the better. The more attention is given to improving the worship experience, the better. My own conclusion from a lifetime in highly structured services is that the more informal, the better. In general, reduce barriers to the Spirit by increasing emphasis on Word-centered relationships.

Gift-Oriented Ministry

According to Schwarz, if your church finds this quality characteristic of gift-oriented ministry below average, it does not mean that your workers are doing ‘bad’ work. Rather, it indicates the work in your church is not oriented enough to the passions and abilities of its members. Your church may be relying on duty rather than the Spirit to motivate. The concept of spiritual gifts plays a central role in all the other seven quality characteristics. What is at stake here is nothing less than the very character of the body of Christ gathered in a specific place at a specific time. I presented elsewhere the belief that a congregation is the topsoil for the Spirit’s work. The Spirit wants to move into action participants with specific interests and talents.

What if you don’t have the right combination of gifted ministers for what you are hoping to accomplish? Then you pray that God send the right person. In the church plant I did, we lost our drummer. For over a year and a half we prayed for a new one. In God’s own time, he sent us a professional drummer.

Empowering Leadership

All Spirit All the Time does not remove the need for human leadership and wisdom. Spirit-gifted ministers need structure and support. Paul’s overview of spiritual ministries includes administrators and leaders. Those so gifted can figure out how to help others perform their tasks by setting goals, offering guidance where necessary and providing technical assistance. They learn how to create a feeling of approval, recognize individuality, and provide fair treatment.

Congregations know when they don’t have good administrative leadership. There is a pervading sense of confusion which can cause frequent conflict or result in apathy. Some pastors can provide such leadership themselves. Most aren’t so gifted. They need to appreciate and allow for someone who can provide guidance. Wise congregations can provide for a ministry coordinator to work alongside the pastor.

The goal in a Spirit-driven congregation is to reduce barriers to his work. Find the biggest barriers in a specific church and work creatively to reduce them. Let the Spirit guide those efforts.

Where do you look to see the Spirit at work in your congregation? What are some of the biggest barriers in your church?

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