All the strategy, plans, and programs can never truly achieve church renewal or revive us as believers. Instead of relying on endowments, cultural Christianity, or the cultural significance of the mainline church itself, David Watson here points the Church back to the true source of power for renewal—the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
God is alive.
God is living, active, and powerful, at work in your life and mine at this very moment.
From the earliest days of the Church, the Holy Spirit has been present in signs and wonders, the working of miracles, healings, inspired speech, and our liturgical life. God did not leave us alone after the Ascension, but continues to teach, guide, empower, and sustain the Church. We see this, for example, in John 14, 15, and 16, where we read about the work of the Holy Spirit as a teacher of the community of faith after Jesus’ departure.
The believers of John’s community expected to hear teaching from God that supplemented the teaching of Christ during his earthly ministry. In the book of Acts, time and again we see signs and wonders attending conversion. In Galatians, Paul speaks of God’s supplying the church with the Spirit and the working of miracles because of the believers’ faith (Gal 3:5). He writes in Romans 8 that life among the community of believers is life in the Spirit, who bears witness within us in prayer (Rom 8:15), teaching us that we are children of God. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about many different ways in which the Spirit works among us to build up the church: “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor 12:7-11).
In Hebrews, we read that the witness of people who heard Jesus was attested to “by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will” (Heb 2:4). I could list many more examples from the New Testament, but I’m sure you get the idea: believers in these New Testament communities expected God to show up in powerful ways.
With the Bible as our guide, we should also expect God to show up in powerful, life-changing ways among our communities of faith today. I realize that some Christians believe this is a false expectation. There are evangelical “cessationists” who believe that the working of miracles ended after the apostolic period. Many mainline Christians, strongly influenced by modernity, would argue that the kinds of phenomena that we call “miracles” or “signs and wonders” simply don’t happen. They didn’t really happen in the Bible and they don’t really happen today. With all due respect to both groups of these brothers and sisters in Christ, I couldn’t disagree more. I believe that God does intervene in our lives, sometimes quite subtly, almost imperceptibly, and sometimes with jaw-dropping drama.
Within many mainline traditions, there is a great fear of our dwindling numbers, our growing irrelevance, and institutional implosion. We therefore develop plans and programs–business plans, dashboards and benchmarks, church-growth initiatives, leadership development schemes, and other devices of our own invention as ways to curb the ongoing decline among our communities of faith. As a professional administrator, I certainly value well thought-out plans, and I understand the importance of strategic institutional initiatives. These are ways of being faithful stewards of what God has given us.
And yet strategy, plans, and programs can never truly achieve church renewal or revive us as believers. Too often, we have functioned as if we are self-reliant and self-sustaining. We have institutionalized to the extent that we have forgotten our utter dependence upon the power of God. We have relied on endowments, on cultural Christianity, on the cultural significance of the mainline church itself, and we have forgotten the true source of our life. We are driving along in a beautiful 1968 Cadillac, but we’ve neglected to put gas in the tank. Without the empowering work of the Spirit, we cannot be faithful in our calling to make disciples, to baptize people into faith in Christ and teach them about new life in Christ. Therefore, we cannot exist as the Church.
All true renewal–renewal in Christ–is simply a demonstration of the Spirit’s work. All true revival is the work of God. Therefore as followers of Christ, our primary task is to pray for the power of the Spirit and discern the work of the Spirit. This is, always has been, and always will be the only hope for any form of the Church. The Church, rightly conceived, exists as a community of believers bound together in the power, presence, and work of the Holy Spirit.
My wife and I have been blessed by two remarkable groups of charismatic Christians in recent years. The first is a United Methodist group, Aldersgate Renewal Ministries. I strongly encourage you to attend their annual meeting in Lexington next summer if you are able. The second is a non-denominational group, Global Awakening, headed up by the evangelist Randy Clark.
Among both groups, you will find people who are joyful in their daily walk with God, who are excited about life in Christ, and who are inspired to commit themselves to the work of God’s kingdom. Personally, I have grown in faith and learned a great deal about life in Christ from these brothers and sisters, and I want to grow and learn more. They have instilled within me a deep yearning to know God more fully, to pray more often, to worship every chance I get, to believe more strongly, and love more completely. I’m so thankful for these fellow believers who loved and cared enough to witness to me about the power of the Spirit.
God is alive today, active and powerful, at work in your life and mine. It’s time for us in the mainline church to change our expectations. We don’t expect enough of God, and God wants us to expect more. “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3:20-21).