When Thinking Church, Look on the Other Side of the Coin

Recall the two-sided coin with the cross on one side and a dove on the other, discussed several blogs ago (Look on the Other Side of the Coin). The coin represents God’s presence in our lives. At times Paul focuses on Christ crucified, who changes our fundamental relationship with God. We become different people “in Christ.” But he focuses much more on the dove, a symbol of the Spirit by whom we are empowered.

The same two-sided thinking holds true with his description of congregations. A church is the body of Christ, which leaders are to build up (Eph. 4: 12). But a church is also a fellowship of the Holy Spirit, a koinonia of shared relationships. Paul’s ministry goal was to increase the sharing going on within congregations. Doing so was very clearly the job of the Holy Spirit at work among them.

Declining Christian congregations whose fellowships are falling apart would do well to look on the other side of the coin, to look for the Spirit and his empowering presence among them.

The roles of the three persons in the triune God were distinct to Paul. “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13: 14). The love of the Father is expressed in the grace available through God the Son’s death and resurrection. That’s the foundation. Strengthening relationship within the fellowship of a church today is the role of God the Spirit.

We can learn to be a better host for the Spirit’s work among us. Christ-centered churches are very comfortable with Paul’s analogy of being a body of Christ. But we won’t make much progress until we also become comfortable using his analogy of a church as a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who gives the energy and motivation for healthy church life. How do congregations become better fellowships of the Spirit? It starts with taking the Spirit seriously and praying for his increased presence.

Churches of the Reformation five hundred years ago did not have to work hard at clarifying their purpose. What they needed was political support. They worked on the input of what the true church is. Today churches of the Reformation do have to be clear on what they offer, or they will pass out of existence. It is time to focus on output. The core offering has to have something to do with hope for a better life, certainly in eternity but also here and now. Finding a better life implies change, movement and growth.

One approach is to focus on Christ and becoming more Christ-like in our personal lives. Paul tells the Ephesians to keep working at building up the body of Christ and become mature, “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). The other approach is to focus on growing in the love, joy, peace, hope and trust that the Spirit produces in believers, the fruit Paul highlights.

Reveal is a well-done recent study of Evangelical congregations that anticipated congregants growing in a movement from Exploring Christ, to Growing in Christ, to Close to Christ and then to Christ-centered. The study, reported in Move (2011), identified differences in the participants’ use of Scripture, prayer and involvement in church life, among other things. What a welcome contribution.

But what that sophisticated study does not do is identify how believers moved from one stage to a higher one. To move implies motivation. How did their motivations change? Getting that answer would require delving into their personal life stories and the influences on their lives. We believe the ultimate influencer is the Holy Spirit, working through other believers gathered around God’s Word. How did he do that in their lives? How does he do that in your life and in others around you? The simplest research is to ask. Be encouraged by what you find.

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