Note: I am participating this weekend in Rochester College's Streaming Conference, which this year is titled: "Baptized with Fire: The Holy Spirit and Missional Communities." Having written about the Holy Spirit and the Church -- I thought I might share an excerpt from the Introduction to my book: Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Energion, 2013)
The movement of the Spirit that is stirring moderate and progressive congregations, whether they have historically identified themselves with evangelical or mainline Protestantism, often see themselves as being emergent or missional. These terms – emergent and missional – can be seen as expressions of a renewed sense of the church as a community called by God to engage the world today in such a way as to bring transformation not only to the church but to the world. These are movements that seek to burst through old boundaries that have stifled world-changing ministry. As faith communities begin to examine and reflect upon their core identities and practices, they have begun to discern how and where they should be engaged.
This process of discernment – acts of introspection – will need to keep two parties in mind – God, the author of this missional calling, and the stranger, the person who lives outside the walls of the faith community. In the age of Christendom it was assumed that everyone in Western Society was a Christian – or at least recognized that the culture was Christian. Church and state mixed, with the state either teaching or backing the teaching of religion to the masses. That day is long past. Large numbers of people, especially among the younger generations know little about the God whom church folk claim to worship. What does the person whom demographers have come to call the “nones” see or hear when they walk into a typical mainline Protestant church? Will they feel welcome and safe? Or, will they find a culture and environment that is not only foreign and strange but foreboding? Beyond the person who has little exposure to the church’s theology and practices, we might consider other persons who venture into the community. There are any number of boundary issues that need to be considered -- gender, age, ethnicity, language, socio-economic, and cultural differences that impact one’s experience of God and the church.
When the stranger enters the community of faith, does what they hear and see suggest that the denizens of the church are, in the words of Paul, “out of your mind?” Or, do they hear and experience
a message that discloses the secrets of their hearts, so that in response to their encounter in this place they fall before God in worship? Or to put it a bit differently, is it possible, that the stranger might enter into the church and declare: God is in this place (1 Corinthians 14:20-25). For many progressive/mainline churches this might seem like an odd expectation, but why is that? Why can’t
we expect God’s Spirit to move in such a way that lives are changed dramatically due to their encounter with God?
This is the question that haunts the church in an age of wars and rumors of wars, an age of hate speech, drive-by shootings, growing intolerance, terrorism, bombings, and kidnappings. How do we bear witness to God’s grace and love and presence in this context? The questions become even more daunting because religious people seem to be stirring up much of the heat, while more moderate and progressive voices appear to be lost in the shuffle. Indeed, the news that is heard from pulpit and pew isn’t always good. Whether it’s “fire and brimstone” or bewailing lost influence, it often seems as if the church has lost sight of its mission. And yet the church possesses good news. This is news that if it’s shared will resonate with the hearts of people who face such a wearying barrage of negativity. There are people out there, some who will enter and some who will never enter – at least not without a gentle invitation – into traditional houses of worship, who are looking for words of hope and peace. They want to worship a God who will open up the secrets of their hearts so that they might find in God a source of healing grace. And so the question remains, if the stranger walks into the church what will she or he find? What will it take for them to say: God is in this place?
The world around us is groaning as if with labor pains. It’s waiting for its redemption; it’s waiting for a new start (Rom. 8:22ff; 2 Cor. 5:17ff.). Paul says that the Spirit of God is in our midst interpreting our groans and cries to God in sighs too deep for words. Paul says that God hears and acts in our lives, changing us, transforming us through the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1ff). God hears and God acts by pouring out on the church a Spirit who brings gifts and callings. Transformed by our encounters with this Spirit of God who hears our cries, we can become partners with God in world changing ministries.
You have heard it said before, change happens one step at a time. This adage is true. Change of vision begins as God discloses to us the secrets of our hearts so that we can bow before our God in worship. When we hear God’s voice calling out to us, saying: Who will go? Who will be my voice? We know that our hearts have grown warm and the covenant of God is within us, when we hear a voice from within say: "Here I am, send me.” When we hear the call and we say in response “send me,” then we will know that God is in this place (Is. 6:8). World changing ministry begins with our personal life-changing encounters with the God who creates the heavens and the earth. From there we can see God moving in families, in churches, and in communities that lie beyond the walls of the church.
According to Genesis, God made a covenant with Abraham that carried with this promise: the world will experience blessings through Abraham’s offspring (Genesis 12:1ff). It’s a promise that is held dear by the Jewish people, who are Abraham’s offspring. It’s also a promise held dear by Christians, whom, as Paul suggests,have been grafted into the people of God and are thereby now children of Abraham and heirs of the blessing (Gal. 3:29). As children of Abraham we hear a call to be a blessing to the nations; we hear the call to engage in world changing ministry, a ministry that works for peace, justice, and healing (salvation) of a fallen, fragmented, and often chaotic world. Not only do we hear this call, we also receive the promise that the Spirit of God has gifted us with the tools necessary to accomplish this ministry in the world (1 Cor. 12:7).
I believe that the kind of church that the stranger is looking for offers both a sense of meaning for life and an opportunity to engage in work that makes a difference in the world. This is, I believe, the message that Jesus has entrusted to his church. It’s a message that offers hope of reconciliation with God and with humanity, and ultimately with creation itself. The wars and rebellions of today are really nothing other than signs of our alienation from God, from neighbor, and from creation.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us (2 Cor. 5:17-19).
This is our calling: Be messengers of God’s act of reconciliation in Jesus Christ. The question is, how? And the answer lies within us, in the gifts and callings that God has placed on our lives. Full of the Spirit, we embark on a ministry of transformation. This call to be ministers of reconciliation goes not to us as individuals, but to us as the church, the body of Christ that is visibly present in the world.