How much energy a congregation has is reflected in how well participants give of their “time, talents, and treasures.” Many other good causes are approaching them for those same personal resources. What makes a congregation’s fellowship different?
The answer gets easy when you recognize a gathering of believers as a “fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” This is the distinctive function the Apostle Paul gives the Spirit in his benediction “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
Fellowship too often gets trivialized as shallow social interaction. But a key part of a fellowship of the Holy Spirit is the special motivation the Spirit can provide believers gathered around God’s Word. Hearing Scripture proclaimed is basic. But the energy level goes up when participants share what God is doing in their personal lives. Biblical fellowship (koinonia) means to share something with someone. Preaching God’s word is basic. But believers sharing how the Gospel has changed their personal lives is perhaps more powerful.
Jesus taught Nicodemus that “the Holy Spirit influences human spirit.” The Spirit changes how believers think and what motivates them. What does that look like in believers’ lives? The role of “fellows” in a congregation is to share their experiences of the Spirit’s work in their personal lives. That’s why Luther called the “mutual conversation and encouragement” a fifth means of grace. Look it up: Smalcald articles Part III, Article IV.
A congregation has low energy when it has small sporadic attendance of participants who give of their personal time reluctantly and whose offerings are small and done like a membership fee in a club. Such congregations usually do the same things with the same people the same way year after year. A high-energy congregation has participants who give enthusiastically of their personal time and financial resources. Such a congregation tries out new programs to see which will work best in their context.
Observers can easily identify and then appreciate a healthy high-energy congregation. On the other hand, one visit is enough to recognize a low-energy congregation that probably does not have many more years of its life left.
In the 1950s and 60s, many congregations adopted the formal structure of a constitution that called for many committees and a council or vestry to coordinate their work. Seemed reasonable. In the process, they structured and tried to manage themselves with committees like a social organization, of which there are so many, like the Elks or Masons, the American Legion. I once co-authored a book on Integrating Ministry and Management. Thirty years later I need to confess that this approach does not work in churches. Those clubs are declining as much or more than churches.
What the club structure omits is the special energy brought by the Spirit into a fellowship we call church. His energy is at work calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying believers gathered around the Word in a congregation. Paul describes that energy in 1 Corinthians 12, from the first verse “I don’t want you to be ignorant of spiritual gifts” to the last verse “But eagerly desire the greater gifts,” understood as the fruit of the Spirit.
Many congregations now help members identify their personal spiritual gifting, which they have when they enjoy doing something in a congregation and are known for doing it well. I identify the “higher gifts” as the gifting the Spirit brings to a believer in what we can call the fruit of the Spirit.
About fifteen years ago I had the opportunity to visit many of the groupings of pastors that we call circuits. My question was, “What’s your biggest problem that you need help with?” By far the biggest complaint was “We can’t get anybody to do anything.” This became apparent to them when they had to recruit members to be elected to the various boards and committees, often with the comment, “It’s easy; you won’t have to do much.”
The problem for congregations that teach and administer spiritual gifting of members is turned on its head. Then the challenge is to find enough ways to participate that all “fellows” can contribute to the common good.