Recovering spiritual vitality

The greatest impediment to congregational spiritual vitality is the belief we know how to do church.

By Terry Maples

I love the church. I committed my life to serving God through the local church. After 27 years as a congregational educator, I now find myself in more of a consulting/coaching role with congregational leaders.

Like many students of church life, I’m aware of current anxiety surrounding declining attendance, aging congregations, shifting giving trends and the noticeable absence of young people.

Because God is always doing a new thing, I am not worried about the future of the Church (big C). If trends continue, however, many local congregations will cease to exist unless they undergo radical heart transformation.

The first step in transformation is awareness of the need for change. The greatest impediment to congregational spiritual vitality is the belief we know how to do church. This assumption is a significant barrier to spiritual vitality, because it leaves little room for Holy Spirit to work.

Congregational leaders must stay intimately connected to God -- being shaped and formed in the image of Christ for the sake of others -- if they hope to sense God’s direction and exercise courage to move in that direction. A faith community must be connected to Spirit, who breathes life into its members and its community.

The very definition of spiritual vitality means we continually listen and discern Spirit’s direction. This demands we constantly discuss and discern ways in which Spirit is stirring, enlightening, inspiring and empowering the church.

Think about it: How many Baptist congregations regularly schedule discernment gatherings to pray and listen for God’s direction? Most churches I know schedule meetings to conduct business where each person “votes” his or her conviction. Using this democratic and efficient model, a congregation may unwittingly say “no” to the direction God’s Spirit is blowing.

Stated another way: Out of our strong convictions about what we believe is best for the congregation, we often choose our usual, comfortable patterns and resist God’s way -- something fresh, new and Spirit-filled. The choice is clear. Wake up to Spirit’s promptings and become more or settle for the status quo.

A congregation I served for almost 20 years engaged in several “strategic planning processes” during my tenure. These efforts were useful in helping folks think about God’s unique call to that body of believers.

Unfortunately, the “strategic plans” that emerged felt like our human effort to “dream up the wonderful things we would do for God and the Kingdom.” Consequently, many times the plans stayed on a shelf and were not implemented, because the planning process lacked Holy Spirit dependence or the sense that “this is what God is calling us to be and do for the Kingdom.” Though useful from a human organizational perspective, the process lacked spiritual imperative.

Ultimately, the congregation abandoned the strategic-planning approach and embraced a congregational-discernment process. Instead of the usual gathering of community data and discussing needs we perceived we could meet, we spent months in prayer and discernment. We listened patiently for God’s voice, and we listened to each other as we shared in prayer groups.

When congregants gathered as a larger group to share what we sensed God’s Spirit saying to us, the clarity was amazing. What we heard was incredibly consistent. People declared, “This is of God!” We began measuring faithfulness to God by our willingness to journey in the direction we sensed Holy Spirit leading our community.

This experience convinced me that when congregations sense Spirit-empowerment, members no longer feel comfortable with business as usual. They no longer define success by budgets, buildings or bodies. 

The hymn Breathe on Me captures the essence of these ideas: “Holy Spirit, breathe on me, my stubborn will subdue” and “until my will is lost in thine, to live for thee alone.”

The hymn writer understands the need to submit our wills to God’s will. Certainly, an essential aspect of Spirit’s work is to transform our lives and attitudes -- individually and corporately -- bringing them into alignment with God’s ideal for the church. This includes empowering faith communities to break free from religious and cultural understandings that potentially limit Spirit’s power and redemptive work in the world.

This spiritual work happens best when we set aside our own personal assumptions and preferences about what God wants for our churches. Isn’t it time to acknowledge we often don’t know what is best and we don’t have all the answers? Now is the time to recognize our utter dependence on God’s Spirit. Isn’t it time to trust Spirit’s unlimited perspective and vision?

Before you say “yes,” be advised Spirit will probably shatter barriers, challenge assumptions, and call your church to “be” or “do” something very much outside your comfort zone or cultural expectation.

Only Spirit knows what is best for each congregation and is not in any way limited by our church’s historical or current practices or what we believe is best. We may know what “worked well” in the past, but we do not know with certainty what is needed or what will be demanded of our churches in the future.

The journey toward becoming a Spirit-led and Spirit-dependent church is not easy. It’s messy, because we do not control where Spirit blows. Expect resistance and conflict, but move anyway.

Local congregations cannot manufacture spiritual vibrancy. Constant listening, discerning and responding to the ever-present nudges of the Spirit are essential for spiritual vitality.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.