I have spent time reading through the book of Acts recently and had the privilege of preaching through a couple of chapters in Acts at a church this summer. It’s a unique and energizing book. Furthermore, Acts is in many ways the Holy Spirit’s book. I envision what happens in Acts as Jesus tagging out of the ring and letting the Spirit in. It’s essentially His introduction to the Church, seeing who He is and what His role in God’s redemptive plan is. And what we see is this absolute explosion of His power and presence out into the world, invading enemy territory, gathering and reclaiming what is the Son’s, a redeemed humanity bought and paid for through His sacrificial death. Along with this we also see that the life and work of the Church is vicariously tied to the life and work of the Holy Spirit.
What worries me as I think about my own life, the ministry entrusted to me at USAO, and many of our churches, is that we don’t think spiritually about church very much. This may sound strange, but let me explain. We’re overly pragmatic, concerned primarily with programs and personnel and facilities and relationships, etc…, and if we get these things right, then the church will grow and things will be great. Well, it’s true the church or ministry may grow, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Holy Spirit has anything to do with it. Behind much of this is a “genie in a bottle” approach to God, doing whatever we think works and people want, and then we just expect the Holy Spirit to be there and to jump on board with it. Ask the Israelites how that worked out with the Ark of the Covenant. Just wheel the thing out in front of the army and we’ll win the battle! Wrong. God doesn’t like people trying to manipulate Him.
Now, it’s not that I think pragmatic, practical concerns are bad or wrong necessarily, nor do I believe that the Holy Spirit doesn’t work through human means ( means like prayer, holiness, suffering, etc… primarily, not necessarily cultural relevance and the like), I think He does, but an awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence and His impact seems distant from our collective consciousness, and not our primary hope and trust for the accomplishment of the work of the kingdom. When’s the last time we walked into and then out of church, concerned solely with whether the Holy Spirit was there and whether we could sense and know His presence was among us? Concerned with whether He accomplished an inward heart transforming work rather than us simply accomplishing a man-made, therapeutic, feeling based work? When’s the last time we worried that God might not be in on what we were doing? I don’t think we think spiritually about church the way we should, concerned about spiritual realities rather than physical, concerned about the Spirit’s labor rather than ours. And I see this because I am a product of this kind of church culture as much as most anybody else.
Jesus exclaims to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3, that He’s at the door knocking. This is not a call to salvation, this is a rebuke for doing church while He’s outside of the meeting! Moreover, we’ve stretched the “where two or more are gathered” line beyond its original context, which is one dealing specifically with church discipline and confronting a brother. Just because we showed up doesn’t mean He’s necessarily there doing His work.
Christ says he will build His church, and this shouldn’t surprise us since I’ve yet to meet any human who has the ability to supernaturally transform a human heart and make spiritually dead people come alive. Christ accomplishes this work through the sending of the Holy Spirit to come down into our midst and do this very thing according to His will and purpose and through His own appointed means. There are a lot of things we can do as human beings even within the walls of the church: we can create community, we can develop relationships, we can fill up people’s lives with events and activities, we can create exciting and energizing atmospheres, and we can even pull on emotional heart strings and provoke responses from people. And we can do all of this from human ingenuity and hard work. But we don’t have to have the Holy Spirit to get that stuff done, just capable human leaders usually. And that doesn’t necessarily mean they are spiritual leaders. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the Holy Spirit is accomplishing a spiritual work in the lives of the people there. I don’t think we think dependently on the Holy Spirit to work spiritually the way that the New Testament, and specifically the book of Acts, displays for us in the early church. If we did we would pray more than we do. Our leaders would pray more than they do. We’d care about holiness and purity more than we do. We’d trust truth and distinctiveness more than we do, rather than cultural relevance and a culturally palatable message. We’d be different in many ways than we are.
I don’t believe issues like these are strictly black and white, that we either are completely doing them or completely not doing them. There are certainly shades of gray here for us to be mindful of. Nevertheless, trust in man, means, and methods (to quote my father) is one of the challenges of our context. It’s more measurable and quite frankly, easier ( a lot easier than things like suffering and holiness). We must search our hearts and discern what we have trusted in when it comes to the work of the kingdom. God, help us to think spiritually more than we do.