Developing the church’s spiritual life during 2013 (1)
This title implies our churches are not as spiritually healthy as they should be. And isn’t it true that many evangelical churches have lost spiritual focus and confidence in God, and are retreating into what is safe, comfortable and sanitised?
We are becoming too cerebral; our theology is more in our heads than in our hearts. I see many elders’ libraries and often they are like ministers’ libraries. Most ministers and elders are well read, but yet often unable to lead churches in bold, adventurous faith.
They are well taught about the sovereignty of God and doctrines of grace and yet reluctant or unable to step out in faith and trust this mighty, sovereign God.
Our churches are largely characterised by caution, timidity and lack of adventurous faith; they are ‘risk-averse’. We have overreacted to Charismatic excesses and are now almost wary, even afraid, of any vital spiritual life and experience.
Are we quenching, even grieving, the Holy Spirit? John Benton says, ‘To express too much joy in worship or to sense the Spirit’s leading while in prayer is to be thought Charismatic’.
We lack experiential knowledge of God. Don Carson says, ‘When it comes to knowing God, we are a culture of the spiritually stunted … the one thing we most urgently need is a deeper knowledge of God. We need to know God better’.
We also lack expectancy. We don’t really believe that things are likely to progress very much. We have more or less settled for a day of small things, for spiritual mediocrity and few conversions.
With low expectation there is inevitably a lack of prayer, especially passionate, believing prayer. We still hold prayer meetings, of course, but if we are not praying with expectancy these can be tokenism.
Our forefathers would have been prepared to pray all night; and they would have expected a response from God. Many no longer see praying together as a priority or as the powerhouse of the church.
In the UK, many busy young people, especially young professionals, have stopped attending prayer meetings altogether. For many, the prayer meeting has become the ‘Cinderella’ meeting, because older, traditional Christians seem to be going through the motions; it is still a good thing to do, but not an essential priority.
Our prayer meetings are mainly focused on human need and that is important. But little time is given to calling upon God, wrestling for his blessing, engaging in spiritual warfare and fighting for the dying souls of men.
We lack enough united focus, seriousness, urgency, expectation and a holy desperation to see God glorified in our land once again. Too much of our preaching is in word only, and lacks convicting and converting power.
We lack an awareness that the living God is among us in the power of the Holy Spirit. We lack his anointing upon our preaching, his conviction of sin and his mighty conversions. In fact, the Holy Spirit is seriously neglected and little spoken.
Therefore, generally speaking, our preaching is not setting the hearts of believers on fire with vision, prayer and evangelistic passion. Very little happens in our churches that can’t be explained by natural means.
The word ‘flat-lining’ describes perfectly what is happening to the supernatural and spiritual life of our churches. And we are being snared into what usually happens when spiritual freshness and reality goes; we fall back on human ideas which we think we can control.
Preaching is becoming correct, safe, sanitised and cerebral, and often more like a lecture than a sermon. We major on organisation, structures, methods, machinery. We are trying to copy the methods and success of others, instead of striving to recover the church as a spiritually revived living ‘organism’ — a living, spiritual body of Christ.
R. A. Torrey’s challenge is still relevant. He claims: ‘We’re too busy to pray, and so we’re too busy to have power; we have a great deal of activity but we accomplish little; many services but few conversions; much machinery but few results’. Exactly!
We seem to have forgotten that ‘Men look for better methods; God looks for better men’. So much time and effort is wasted when we don’t operate spiritually and prayerfully.
So how can we develop the spiritual life of our churches?
First, we can restore the church as a ‘priesthood of all believers’. Clearly, true spiritual life can only come from God, but there are some things we can do. Peter Milsom says, ‘We have abandoned the priesthood of all believers and created a new priesthood’ — ministers and elders.
Someone commented recently: ‘Our church is run like a secret society’; leaders make decisions almost without reference to the congregation and without the church being spiritually involved and praying for the Lord’s guidance.
Body of Christ
New Testament Christianity isn’t about the spirituality and priesthood of a minority of church leaders, but rather about the spiritual growth and health of every believer in the body of Christ.
Leaders today, therefore, must take seriously their responsibility to spiritually develop and involve every member, so, when they have to give an account on that great day, they can present everyone mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28).
The spiritual heritage of Wales is mainly Calvinistic Methodism. Calvinistic and Arminian Methodism were spiritual movements that spiritually revived and transformed the whole church — ordinary, grass-roots members as much as the leaders.
The ‘experience meeting’, so much a part of Calvinistic Methodism, was a wonderful way of developing the spiritual life of believers and the whole church. Very ordinary people became mighty prayer warriors, passionate evangelists and fearless witnesses who were prepared to make great sacrifices for Christ.
But it is different today. The Reformed movement in recent years has been mainly a movement of conferences that has enlightened the leaders and deepened their theology, but not spiritually impacted and ignited the grass roots members as in the Methodist revival.
In many cases, the Reformed movement hasn’t ignited a burden for the lost, exceptional prayer and intercession, bold evangelism, passionate gospel preaching or daring ventures of faith. It has been mainly a movement of the mind rather than the heart, of leaders rather than the whole membership.
So evangelical churches, though better taught in Reformed theology, are not necessarily as spiritually and prayerfully vibrant as the early Arminians. As leaders we must face our spiritual state and responsibility honestly.
A good beginning would be to hold an elders’ or joint elders’ and deacons’ meeting, without an agenda. The leaders should be honest and open their hearts before the Lord about their own spiritual condition and that of the church, and express their longings for the spiritual future of the church.
This could be followed by a church meeting, again without an agenda. The leaders should be honest about the spiritual prayer life of the church and the urgent need for a fresh outpouring of God’s Spirit, and how this would mean a huge gospel challenge for the entire congregation.
The whole church should then agree together to give a new priority to raising the spiritual prayer life of the church — the whole church committed to the priesthood of all believers.
To be continued