During this past Holy Week, in an effort to be renewed and challenged, I was again reading A. W. Tozer. His writings consistently challenge me and often just plain gets under my skin. Which I believe is a good thing. His words often jar me from the semi-comatose thing I call life.
Like many Christians of our culture, I spend much time and energy making sure I am safe and comfortable – as Pink Floyd put it, “Comfortably Numb.” Too often we seem to work on being comfortable and numb in this journey we call life. I doubt this is what God has in mind for us. The life of ease and comfort most of us powerfully pursue keeps us completely out of sync with what God is seeking to do in and with our lives. The Christian life is both difficult and challenging. I quote another author who challenges me, G. K. Chesterton, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Over the years I have had occasional glimpses of people and groups practicing the Christian life in ways that remind me of the stories of the early church recorded in Acts. Those occasions have been exciting, challenging and a little unnerving.
As I have rumbled along working hard to do this thing called “church”, especially during the busyness of Holy Week, I was brought up short by a Tozer quote. He said, “I remind you that there are churches so completely out of the hands of God that if the Holy Spirit withdrew from them, they wouldn't find it out for many months” (Tozer Pulpit) Ouch, that will leave a mark. It is much too close to the truth to gloss over, ignore or to pretend it is intended for someone else. As I look at the modern (or postmodern) church, it is obvious he has hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately, more often than I like to admit, I am the nail.
It is not like Christian leaders don’t care. Many of us study, plan and innovate in an effort to lead the church into a new and productive age. We worry about, pray about and talk amongst ourselves about the seeming coming demise of the church, as we know it. We do almost everything in our power to correct what we perceive to be wrong about the church that is causing it to lose both membership and impact in our communities. And, frankly, though we prefer to believe differently, our efforts are not very effective. Occasionally small pockets of improvement are notice but those are few and far between. And when we do see something work, our human nature kicks right in and we seek to codify it, copy it, reproduce it and ultimately institutionalize it. We do that again and again even though it rarely, if ever, produces good results.
I suggest we invite God into the situation. I know that sounds like a self-righteous and cynical statement but I believe it to be true. Too often we do church as if God neither exists nor cares about the church. Habitually we turn to God as a last resort. We church leaders generally like Jesus (Though his popularity has been waning.) We seem to be more inclined to talk about God than to talk about Jesus. Perhaps God is a bit more “vague” and more distant and theologically safe than Jesus. If one has read the New Testament one then has to deal with some of the difficult and radical things Jesus said and did. Though, if they are too problematic we have the option to just declare they didn’t really happen. In some ways we find Jesus to be too upfront and personal. He is difficult to hold off at arm’s length and tends to invade our personal space. And then there is the Holy Spirit. We hardly mention the Holy Spirit and often act as if the Holy Spirit didn’t exist. As my friend, Dave Hussing used to say, “There are two kinds of good ideas, and you just had a bad good idea.”
In my theological understanding, the Holy Spirit is Jesus with us in the here and now. Jesus told us that it is to our advantage that He leaves so that He could send the Holy Spirit to be with us and in us. Unfortunately Jesus’ statement that, “apart from me you can do nothing”, runs counterintuitive with our basic nature to believe we can do anything. As my oldest daughter informed me when she was a toddler and I was attempting to help her, “Don’t help. I can do it myself.”
There are several possible reasons why we leave the Holy Spirit out of the mix when doing church. (I don’t mean to be harsh, but we must take a hard look at the phenomenon.)
- The truth is we can do okay without God’s help or intervention, including doing church. It is a subtle temptation. But we must ask: 1. Is what we are doing what God expects? and 2. Couldn’t we do better with God in the mix?
- Unfortunately we are so sure of our great intelligence and wisdom that we rarely think to ask God for wisdom and direction. Too often inviting God into the church doesn’t even occur to us.
- Including the Spirit in church makes many of us preacher types nervous because we intuitively know that doing so will cause us to lose control. And we really like having control.
- We may have lost touch with the Holy Spirit. We have studied about the Spirit but we lack personal experience of the Spirit. When speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church of today I am reminded of a story recorded in Acts 19:1-2. “And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" So they said to him, ’We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.’" The church of America seems inclined to do church as if we have never even heard there was a Holy Spirit. And perhaps we haven’t.
- Many feel the Pentecostals and the Charismatics have taken the Holy Spirit thing over the top, given it a bad name, made it socially unacceptable and we feel more comfortable erring on the side of less Holy Spirit and more social acceptability.
- Perhaps it is due to a lack of faith and trust. Do we really trust God for the wellbeing of the church? Can we trust God for the “success” of the church?
I am not suggesting we do nothing and expect the church to grow and be effective. But I am suggesting we rely on the Holy Spirit of God to guide us, direct us, and empower us and to provide the growth of the church. We would do well to embrace the words of God to Zerubbabel in Zechariah 4:6. “So he answered and said to me: "This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: 'Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,' Says the LORD of hosts.”
Copyright © 2015, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved
Bill McConnell is Senior Minister at Lindenwood Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee and is a Church Transformation consultant and a Christian Leadership Coach. He is a frequent speaker at Church Transformation events. His latest book on church transformation is DEVELOPING A SIGNIFICANT CHURCH and is available at Westbow Press.