Miller Avenue Church is small — forty congregants on Sunday morning is a good crowd. One of the many advantages I enjoy as pastor of a small church is that I can observe the spiritual birth and growth of people quite easily.
Though I have been a pastor for over three decades, it has only been since 1997 that I have stopped making use of the ‘altar call’ and the ‘sinner’s prayer’. Not willing to rely upon public professions of faith to gauge the effectiveness of my preaching, I have taken to watching, as carefully as I can, the Holy Spirit’s work. This is not as subjective as one might imagine. Here is what I have observed.
First, the Holy Spirit will convict of sin. I see this taking place while I am preaching from the pulpit. The strong contrast between the congregants’ reactions reveals the process.
Those who are at peace with God show their enjoyment of the preaching of the gospel and the teaching of Scripture. Those who are not in Christ may be visibly uncomfortable — they squirm and shift positions in the pew; they exhibit angry, even contorted faces and often appear in real agony.
Considering this apparently miserable state, I sometimes wonder why they attend at all. Over the years, quite a few have told me how they felt during sermons before they were converted, and it confirmed what their demeanour already showed.
Some even described having had hateful, even murderous, thoughts towards me and blasphemous words they wanted to hurl at God himself — but repressed them lest they embarrass themselves.
Yes, I have observed this conviction of sin and fear of judgement many times. In their anxious, unpleasant state of heart and mind, some will leave and never come back. One can only pray then.
I have observed that there is a second stage with some — a strong desire to know more of Christ. This desire will not be put off, since the Holy Spirit is revealing Jesus as Saviour to those tortured in spirit — and issuing an effectual call.
These people might sit on the edge of the pew (even through one of my lengthy sermons) and have a pile of questions for me during the fellowship hour. They have a strong attraction at this stage, but no peace, for nothing is yet settled.
However, I have occasionally seen a significant change take place during the preaching itself. I have seen the amazing sight, an actual birth happening right in front of me — and it is stunning. I try not to let on to the congregation or focus on the singular event I have observed but, of course, this is what I live and preach for.
Newness of life
Then third, there comes the joy and peacefulness that follow the new birth. It is very observable. The change that occurs is not often the dramatic turning from sin and degradation that we read about in testimony stories.
Rather, it is the attachment the new-born have for Jesus, for the Bible and for wanting to be in church to hear the gospel preached and the Word taught. As ‘babes in Christ’ they can’t get enough of Jesus Christ, and some have nearly worn me out with their incessant craving for spiritual food.
I recall that I was the same — the very same. Convicted, tormented to some degree, then converted — finding peace with God and a hunger for the Lord and everything that pertained to him. And I have observed this same process many times over.
It is not a ‘cookie cutter’ situation — all conversions are not identical. But there are common features nonetheless. We don’t remember it, of course, but we all experienced the stress of our own physical childbirth, the hunger for nourishing food, clinging to the one who provided it, and then the growing up. It is the same with spiritual birth and newness of life.
This is what I have observed, and I am assured that these newly born were not born of me or as a result of any contrived technique, but born of God by the Spirit through the magnificent work — the life, death and resurrection — of the Lord Jesus Christ.