The Controversial Role of Spiritual Experiences in Church Life

The congregations of the once-dominant Protestant established mainline church bodies (Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Reformed) are losing effectiveness in American culture today. The result is the forty-year decline in our memberships and influence. Mainline churches are becoming old-line, old fashioned churches. The driving question today is how we can regain the health and spiritual energy we used to have?

My purpose is to offer some new insights and ways to help the Holy Spirit’s work of calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying believers through the fellowship of an individual congregation.

How did we get so out of favor in current American culture? My basic answer is that the church cultures of mainline churches are centuries old, going back to the Reformation. In Germany, the prince of the hundred or so German principalities chose between Catholic or Lutheran and that became your faith, too. If you did not want to be a Lutheran, you were committing treason against the prince and could be executed. King Henry VIII replaced the Roman Catholic Church with the Protestant Church of England. Queen Mary Tudor changed it back to Roman Catholic in her five years on the throne. Queen Elizabeth made it Protestant again. Lots of executions happened for clergy and nobles who were caught on the wrong side of the reigning sovereign.

Since the 1500s up through the end of the 19th century, eighty to ninety percent of the population in most countries lived in rural small towns and villages. The culture was shaped by village norms and expectations. Much of that ethnic village culture still worked well even in the 20th century immigrant neighborhoods of a big city. But the move to the suburbs after WWII brought change.

The first-generation suburbanites carried their old church loyalties and built great suburban sanctuaries like their old church in the city. The second generation still carried their family’s church loyalties. By the third generation, those denominational loyalties were mostly gone. Why hunt out a declining Lutheran or Presbyterian congregation when there is a more visible non-denominational community church nearby that is exciting and still growing?

Ask anybody today who grew up in a small town what the experience was like. Usually, the first comment is that everybody knows you and talks about what you are doing. There is strong pressure toward social conformity, doing what everyone else is doing. The saying is, the nail that sticks its head up will get hammered down. Villages don’t have much tolerance for people with unusual or especially pious behavior.

How Village Norms Shaped the Parish Church

In the village whoever has an unusual spiritual experience receives little encouragement and may even feel shunned. The emphasis was on living faithfully to your confirmation vows. Personal spiritual growth is nice but not necessary. And keep your personal prayer life “in the closet” lest you intimidate others.

The pastor’s main responsibility was to avoid conflict. Church members didn’t have the option of going to a different parish church perhaps a four-hour walk away. Pastors were assigned by the prince’s rector, with the requirement that he have a university education. Very few in the village had any education beyond primary. So, villagers willingly accepted somebody with a superior education. This avoided the conflict that would occur if a village church leader claimed the lofty “office” of pastor.

A hundred years ago mainline church ministries still paid little attention to spiritual growth practices and to fellowship-building. Fellowship in a village was taken for granted because they already knew each other. Evangelistic outreach typically was not high on their ministry agenda. Near the top was guarding and expanding their theological and cultural heritage.

The old strategy for survival and growth emphasized replacing members by training church-going children. Mission-minded leaders in mainline churches are now discovering that most new members are now drawn in through personal relationships with participants. But older members typically don’t have many unchurched friends and don’t know how to talk about personal spiritual concerns even within the congregation, let alone with strangers.

But everyone can be taught to identify and share personal spiritual experiences. Then they can have something to share with others. Check out my 2014 book, How to Spot the Spirit’s Work in Your Life.

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