“What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” I Corinthians 14:26, NIV
It would be pretty hard for everyone to exercise their spiritual gifts in worship in a congregation of 5,000 people. In fact, the time required for the dynamics of the church coming together in the Holy Spirit and following his lead in a congregation of 100 people would be hours and hours. In our culture, we’ve boiled worship down to an hour, ninety minutes in some cases, in which the congregation files in, sits in rows of pews, and watches a few people up front put together what amounts to a religious performance. Perhaps two percent of the people in the room actually use their spiritual gifts as the Spirit leads, or should I say, participate in the performance, but everyone else is passive. They may sing, they may pray, but that’s the full extent of what they do. The focus of the singing, praying and offering collecting, choir special, solos and anything else that is “performed” is to prepare the people for the sermon, delivered by the professional, paid clergyman. The added touch of our consumerist culture is that there must be a product at the end that justifies the expense of resources, including money and people’s investment of time. And so the professional clergy have developed ways to measure the “product” in terms of the number of responses and commitments people make as a result of having participated in the service, and in the “growth” of the church, measured by an increasing attendance and offering.
It should not come as a surprise to us, then, that people have a hard time finding an authentic encounter with Jesus in the traditional church setting, nor why it is that so many people invest so much time in church attendance, and have so little in the way of spiritual growth to show for it. Is that too blunt? I don’t think so.
Examine that passage in I Corinthians above for just a minute. In that early church, when Christians got together, it was in someone’s home, which meant that the group couldn’t be larger than the number of people who could fit into a common room, perhaps as few as 10, as many as 20. There was an intimacy that was shared by those who were there, and a sense of accountability to each other with regard to their faith. They were people who had just come out of the world, and were in the process of being molded and shaped by the Holy Spirit into the image of Christ. They had experienced the forgiveness and grace that had come from Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but they had not grown into full maturity. The stronger ones mentored the weaker ones. There was encouragement to help people get through their falls and failures, and rejoicing when breakthrough victories occurred. During a typical gathering, everyone exercised their spiritual gift in order to uplift and benefit everyone else. The Spirit spoke through the prophetic word, led some to teach principles of faith and others to sing joyful hymns of praise. The sign gifts confirmed the Spirit’s presence. The expectation was that as each member of the group grew to a fulness of maturity in the faith, they would become mentors for new Christians who needed to be brought along the way, and would lead new groups that would start in other places.
The whole idea was for each person who had received Christ’s sacrifice for their sin to grow into maturity of faith in order to take on the role of mentoring and leading other believers along the way. The church is to reflect Christ, who is its head. They were being shaped by each other, and by the Spirit, into the Christians who were Christlike in their character.
Jesus systematically taught, through his three year ministry on earty, the principles of the Christian life. In Matthew 5, he gives a very simple list of character traits which growth in Christian maturity will produce in the life of a believer and this is done through the ministry of the church and the Holy Spirit. The commentary in the Life Application Study Bible says this about what we call “The Beatitudes,” in Matthew 5:3-12:
The Beatitides can be understood in at least four ways: 1. They are a code of ethics for the disciples and a standard of conduct for all believers. 2. They contrast kingdom values (what is eternal) with worldly values (what is temporary). 3. They contrast the superficial “faith” of the Pharisees with the real faith Christ wants. 4. They show how the Old Testament expectations will be fulfilled in the new kingdom. These beatitudes are not multiple choice–pick what you like and leave the rest. They must be taken as a whole. They describe what we should be like as Christ’s followers.” (emphasis mine)
These are not characteristics which are human in origin. They must come from the indwelling Holy Spirit as he is given the freedom to develop them in each believer, and this spiritual growth is supposed to be supported by fellow members of the body of Christ. If the balance of your church experience is simply attendance at a religious pep rally and Bible study for a couple of hours on a few Sundays out of the month, the chances are that this spiritual growth isn’t going to take place, and the fact that this is exactly the kind of experience that the vast majority of church members actually have is the reason why the character of most churches doesn’t reflect the Beatitudes of Jesus. Without that spiritual power, and the character of Christ, the church must imitate the authentic. So it develops professionally produced music and preaching which appeals to people’s emotions (and panders to their prejudices), and depends on what it can do collectively through the influence of the number of members and their involvement in secular politics to do the work that it should be doing through the power of the Spirit. It leans on the personal charisma of celebrity pastors and speakers, and the flash of successful musicians to promote its message. And it also depends on secular politics to advance its own agenda, or at least give it the kind of favor it needs to compete in the marketplace of ideas…”having a form of godliness but denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5a)
This is a lifetime work. That’s how long it takes. But the character and imprint that is made by Jesus in the life of one of his followers in a church setting that is moving its members toward maturity and helping them encounter the transforming power of the Spirit can be seen. What most people from outside the church observe when they see the church is quarrelling over doctrinal matters, over internal leadership and who’s in charge, inconsistency in the practice of their faith, prejudice, rejection of those who disagree on secular political issues, judgemental attitudes, and not a whole lot of beatitudes.
I can’t change anyone else, I don’t have the power. But I can turn toward the Spirit, give him free reign in my life, and bring myself into the church with that kind of attitude. So can you.