CAN SPIRITUAL VITALITY BE ENGINEERED?
April 1, 1986
Every pastor wants to encourage Christian maturity. That's why we teach classes, preach sermons, form covenant groups, and copy off reams of discipleship materials. But in the process of weaning believers from milk and developing spiritual carnivores, sometimes pastors wonder: Am I doing any good? Is anybody growing as a Christian? Should I do more? How much of me does the Spirit need to accomplish the job?
Recently "The Chapel of the Air," a radio ministry led by David Mains, produced materials for "Fifty Days to Welcome Christ to Our Church." Combining personal disciplines-Scripture reading and memorization, prayer, performing secret acts of kindness, and tackling destructive habits-with joint preparation and unified themes for Sunday worship, this concentrated effort sought to strengthen the spiritual pulse of congregations.
LEADERSHIP editors Marshall Shelley and Jim Berkley invited pastors from four pilot congregations that had recently completed the "Fifty Days" to reflect on their experiences and the larger question: Can spiritual vitality be engineered? The pastors:
-Carl Abrahamsen, Jr., of Calvary Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
-William Bliese, just retiring as pastor of Emmanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Dayton, Ohio, to enter a church consulting ministry.
-Roger Thompson of Trinity Baptist Church in the Denver suburb of Wheat Ridge, Colorado.
-Kent Hughes of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois.
Leadership: As you prepared for this spiritual emphasis, what were you looking for? Realistically, what did you expect to happen?
Carl Abrahamsen: I liked the idea of a unified focus. I saw the opportunity, for instance, to coordinate personal devotions with morning worship.
One Sunday night after church, a worshiper said, "Pastor, I really appreciated the message this morning."
Kiddingly I said, "Well what about tonight's sermon?"
She looked at me seriously and sighed, "I can only deal with one sermon a day." She needed a single thrust rather than a number of messages on one Sunday. This program gave us a natural way to concentrate our focus.
Kent Hughes: At our church we often say, "We ought to believe what we believe." The things we emphasized during this time were things we all believe, but there was a sense of finally believing them. My goal simply was to be used by the Lord to heighten the sense of Christ's presence. We give intellectual assent to it, but if we really experience his presence, then renewal will happen.
Leadership: Did you have any fears going in?
Hughes: One of mine was that a spiritual emphasis can be misconstrued. If you say, "We're going to spend fifty days welcoming Christ to our church," some people could imply he wasn't there before.
I tried to prevent that by pointing out, as Augustine said, "Where Christ, there the church." I said, "Christ has always been here, but we're taking some time to celebrate his perpetual presence."
Focusing your energy on a subject says to the people that it is indeed important. Every church has its own rhythm and seasons, and an emphasis on spiritual vitality is needed at various times.
Roger Thompson: It's like an accent color woven into the fabric of our church.
Leadership: What elements of the program proved most effective?
Thompson: Different people responded to different disciplines. For some it was performing the secret acts of kindness, for others it was conquering a self-destructive pattern, and for many it was memorizing Scripture. I tried to affirm whatever God used in their lives.
William Bliese: We, too, found it varied with each individual. For some it was daily reading of the Scriptures-something they knew they should be doing but had never really practiced as a daily discipline.
For others, Sunday morning worship came alive. We did the normal things we had always done, but there was a vitality, a life, an observable enthusiasm that came through. You could hear it in the singing and a variety of ways.
The highlight for me, however, was delegating the whole process to a committee and watching the results. They struggled with understanding what this emphasis was about and how to implement it. And they did a superb job. Almost invariably, the things lay people get excited about are the most successful. I figured the best thing I could do was not kill it!
We had such a good experience, the committee has continued the process, even writing their own materials for the next fifty days.
Leadership: What were some of the observable results you noticed?
Hughes: I noticed people coming to church early and sitting quietly in prayer. They came with a focused expectancy. They knew what to look for when they came. That's wonderfully encouraging for a pastor.
Thompson: I don't consider it coincidental that several new ministries have started. They weren't a result of our pushing or trying to leverage this tool to make things happen. They arose from newly invigorated people.
Leadership: After having such largely positive experiences, would you say spiritual vitality can be engineered?
Thompson: Yes-if we view engineering as research and development and not manufacturing. You can't manufacture a spiritual experience, but you can take materials and stress them, put together prototypes and see if they fly, and find the best design so the most people can benefit. I like the idea of putting things through the paces. Engineers call it "eustress"-good stress-testing various components. At times our church family needs this kind of special stress. And spiritual vitality can result.
Abrahamsen: I prefer to view it as creating an environment rather than engineering a product. We try to create an environment where people believe God means what he says and will act if they respond to him.
At one church we planned a conference amid fears the preacher would be speaking to an empty house. But we had good attendance throughout the week. One woman was going through a difficult time spiritually, but God met her at that conference and made things different. That woman later influenced countless people. We had created a new atmosphere, purposefully, and it touched her.
Leadership: To play "Spirit's Advocate"-without pastoral prodding and planning, isn't the Spirit perfectly capable of developing Christian maturity?
Hughes: It's true that a church can function like a well-oiled machine-with all its pastors, programs, and people in place-and the Holy Spirit might be absent. The machine can run on its own momentum. But that's an extreme. That shouldn't keep us from trying to engineer spiritual vitality under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
A Billy Graham Crusade is the ultimate in "engineering." The sermon is a product of homiletical planning, done, we assume, under the direction of the Holy Spirit. The evening's program is engineered down to the final hymn. You would skew the whole thing by singing "Shall We Gather at the River" instead of "Just As I Am."
Not that I want to enshrine pragmatism. If Buddhists used church growth principles and grew, you couldn't call that the result of the Holy Spirit. But on the other side, a faithful steward is going to do things God's way under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and that is going to require planning-sensitive engineering, if you will.
Bliese: To give the other side of the coin, I'll say spiritual vitality cannot be engineered. Certainly I don't want to downplay careful planning. But that, to me, is not engineering. Let me offer a personal illustration.
I was called to my last pastorate because I was "the experienced pastor," successful in previous ministries. They said I needed a bigger challenge, so I went and spent four miserable years trying to engineer new life into a church we all knew was dead. I did everything I knew, and nothing worked. Finally it became a personal crisis. When some suggested I leave, I told my family, "I'm a failure. I don't know how to minister anymore."
But I did know I still believed in Jesus my Savior. I decided not to do another thing to program the church until the Lord showed me what to do. And from that moment on, things began to develop. A year later a man told me, "The last time I was here this was the deadest church I'd ever been in. Now the whole church has come alive. What happened?" I didn't engineer anything, so I have a lot of difficulty saying it can be engineered.
Everything I had done previously in that church was good. Only one thing was missing: God wasn't in it. That is the necessary intangible of any engineering we attempt.
Thompson: Howard Snyder said that any church that has Christ in it has life, and one of the keys to leadership is just getting out of the way.
Leadership: How do you get out of the way to let the Spirit work?
Thompson: Other than offering my resignation? (Laughter) I have to remember that I am not Christ. I'm only his servant, and maybe a poor one at that. So everything I take in is filtered through my unique experience and limited maturity. I'm trying to learn the balance between being a leader who says "Troops, march this direction!" versus saying "What do you guys think? How do you size up the battle?"
I'm tending toward the second response. I guess I'm responding to the idea that churches are organisms; they are alive. I need to be careful not to overmanage that life or remake the church into my image.
Leadership: You're saying a spiritually mature church will reflect not just Roger Thompson's brand of spiritual maturity?
Thompson: Right. Certainly I have things to teach and to model, but I don't have it all. I know, because I have people around me who evidence tremendous depth in areas I haven't even thought about.
Abrahamsen: I thought the title of John Stott's book on preaching was fascinating: Between Two Worlds. He pictures the preacher between the world of sense, where all the information coming to us is sense oriented, and the world of the Spirit, where there is possibly no sense of verification.
We stand between those two worlds; that's the human element of it. The world of senses is so dominant it can easily bury the world of the Spirit. Jesus said, "According to your faith be it unto you." In leading our churches, we have to respond to what God has said and promised.
Leadership: How much church programming is necessary to bring about spiritual growth?
Hughes: I saw great things happen in the sixties and seventies in Southern California without programs. All the major churches had youth programs, youth pastors, and so on, but then came the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit called the Jesus Movement. Without much more than a worshipful service and preaching of the Word, thousands of young people were saved.
There's a sense in which God's sovereignty will have its moment, and all kinds of people will come to him. And yet, that's not to say there shouldn't be caring Christian education and great thought given to the input we're giving our young people. It happens both ways.
To me it's a sublime paradox. Even with all our great work, God sometimes does things in ways we would never expect.
Leadership: Yes, God moves in mysterious ways, but where does pastoral initiative fit in-"taking the bull by the tail and facing the situation," as W. C. Fields put it? If anything is going to get done, sometimes it seems the pastor has to do it.
Thompson: I see myself as a guardian of the motives of renewal. I'm constantly pressing the congregation for the right thirsts, for spending time alone with the Lord, communing in the Word, doing acts of kindness.
What I'm after as a shepherd is to be the values merchant, making sure we encourage the right motives and values. Now if that's my job, I can't get up there and scratch and mumble when God wants something to happen with his people. But on the other hand, I can't be the soap salesman who builds his pyramid and says, "I guarantee this church is going to grow by 15 percent this year!"
Leadership: Let's say you're in a church that's not a particularly shining example, and you want to build the spiritual maturity. Do you start by trying to get the people to do personal devotions to prepare for worship? Or do you start with the worship experience to influence their personal disciplines? Where do you begin?
Hughes: Both are important, but you've got everybody together for corporate worship, so that's an opportunity to teach attitudes about the priority of worship. I would put a great deal of emphasis upon the corporate worship experience. But at the same time, I would emphasize proper prayer and use sermons and illustrations about the necessity of personal devotion. As pastors, we have such vast control over the feeling of worship-the reverence, the language we use in reference to God, even the way we carry ourselves.
You can teach people corporately what to do individually.
Leadership: What happens on Sunday morning carries over into the individual devotional life.
Hughes: Exactly. I don't want Sunday morning to be my performance, but it's important that I talk with God in the most intimate, passionate terms, because my people learn in church how to relate to God.
That's why before worship our staff prays for God to help our own hearts worship. It's easy to just go through the motions by the second service. But when one pastor is leading, the others can't be laid back. We sit up straight and let our body language say we are intent on worship.
Bliese: I asked our people, "What sparks spiritual vitality?" I thought they'd say a rousing hymn or something else, but they all said the sermon. Feeding their internal needs seems most important.
As clergy, we would probably say it's most important to exalt the nature of God. I think that's part of our challenge: to somehow lead the people to see that priority.
Abrahamsen: How do we develop faith? Paul says, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." Faith is caught. That's the corporate worship part. But faith is also acting on the will of God, and that's the personal part, getting into the Word ourselves. One without the other isn't any good.
Thompson: There's symbiosis between personal and corporate worship, but if you press me, corporate worship would be the starting place.
My wife is training our young daughters to thank people with a complete sentence-"Thank you for the delicious dessert" instead of just "Thank you." The training helps them think about what they're thankful for. The same happens in worship. Some people need examples of how to pray or how to worship, how to focus upward.
And then, practically speaking, how can you lose, starting with corporate worship? The one who is proficient at worship will have a chance to express it. The uninitiated will get a chance to witness it.
Leadership: What are the limitations of corporate worship in building people's spirituality?
Hughes: In whatever style of worship service, from Quaker to Episcopalian, people can learn all the outward affectations and just do them without any heart.
Thompson: Motives play a big role in corporate worship. People who come ready to worship can be manipulated by a leader who knows how to play to the crowd. On the other hand, people can come with cynicism and misread good motives in, say, a sincere musician. They could say, "He's just performing."
Abrahamsen: After one worship service, I heard from two people in succession, and I'm glad they came close together since either comment alone would have wiped me out. One person said, "You know, when I talk to you one on one it's great. But when you're in that pulpit, it's horrible." The other person said, "I enjoy hearing you preach. You're better than you are in private conversation." I began to think about the different modes of communication.
I once said something in a service about abortion. I thought I had clarified my position and protected myself from misunderstanding, but a woman hit me at the door with the accusation, "You offended me!" When she told me how, I said, "You weren't listening, because that's not what I was saying." In communicating what might be termed technicalities, I think a minister can be better one on one, where you can get feedback. Principles can be effectively communicated corporately.
Leadership: How do you prepare yourself for worship? What expectations can you bring to a service?
Hughes: What's inside us may affect the service more than anything else. The biggest thing we bring to Sunday morning is an expectancy mated to preparedness that says, "God, you have used this week and I'm ready-I think. I'm going to launch this service; you make it fly. Let's see what happens together."
Abrahamsen: Ian MacPherson once wrote that when a preacher comes out to preach, he should enter with all the trumpets blowing and all the flags flying. In an artistic way, that expresses what we have to do.
One Easter Sunday I got up early and somebody in our house played Keith Green's rousing rendition of "Easter Song." It was a great experience. I began to think that maybe the preacher is like a football team that needs to be psyched up before the game. Maybe they should lock us in a room and play music like that to get the flags flying and the trumpets blowing!
Thompson: Anybody who does something with real craftsmanship exhibits a sense of freedom. They enjoy what they're doing, and we enjoy them doing it. Pinchas Zukerman, the great violinist, was asked "Why do you still practice so many hours?"
He said, "I put in the discipline so that in the concert I have freedom." That's what the pastor does.
I want preparedness to be such a part of my soul that I'm not self-consciously thinking of the mechanics of worship. That greatly enhances worship.
Leadership: How does your devotional life throughout the week affect the worship services you lead?
Hughes: It appears in your ethos-who you are in relationship to the Word.
We've all been in a service where the doctrine is orthodox and the person is saying good things, but it doesn't have the ring of truth or reality. The ethos is wrong. That probably gets back to the preacher's devotional life or relationship with his wife.
Your spiritual preparation and your personal life stand behind your preaching and all that happens in corporate worship. When logos-the message-and ethos come together, you've really got something.
Abrahamsen: The Spirit is sometimes very explicit with me. I was really frustrated in one church. In my study before church one Sunday, I was seething inside, and I had been for a week. But the Spirit of God caught me up short just as I was ready to go into worship in a rotten mood. Why are you going out there like that? The people who have come to worship know nothing of your frustration. I surrendered it right there two feet from the platform. When the Holy Spirit works in explicit ways, we need to respond.
Thompson: Our own personal lives are sometimes the hardest things to balance. Right now I feel tension between being one who initiates a lot of action-an executive who gets things done-and then trying to be the contemplative, passive one. For example, I can't write anything unless I have some time to sit and think, to read and be alone.
I don't see any way out of that. I can't just contemplate my way through the staff meeting, nor can I ramrod my way through devotional times. The tension of contemplation versus action plays out every week, but it's a good tension.
Bliese: When things weren't going well with a previous congregation, I realized I had gotten to a low spiritual level. I found there are limits to how much I can minister to myself spiritually. But I discovered somewhat by accident the value of other people ministering to me when I came to my present parish and started attending a group where I didn't have to do a thing; I could just sit and soak it in. Oh, what a blessing that was!
One night someone said, "Pastor, you've had a lot of stress. Why don't we lay hands on you and pray for you." I deferred, saying something about somebody else having more problems than me and suggesting they pray for him. And immediately the Lord seemed to say, You dope!-I don't know if the Lord uses that kind of language, but it's the way it came through to me-Get off your pride. I sat down and had one of the greatest experiences in my life as they prayed for me.
Thompson: Looking back, I realize that some Christians have ministered to me whose spiritual depth at that point was almost nil. But their hearts were right and they really ministered. There's a subtle pride that says, "Well, about the only guy that can minister to me now is probably Chuck Swindoll or a prophet from God," but just about anybody can minister to us if we're open to it.
Leadership: Who was it who spoke to Balaam? (Laughter)
Thompson: We begin to feel it takes someone who has achieved the level of our preparedness to minister to us, when sometimes our children can do it.
Leadership: What are the pinch points for you as pastors caught between the world of structure and the world of the unpredictable Spirit? Where do you have to make the tough judgment calls?
Bliese: We had nine boards with staff people assigned to each. Periodically a board would come to me and say, "Pastor, we've been talking about this, but you're the senior pastor, what would you like?" I had to consciously resist pontificating. I'd turn the question on them: "What do you think?" We're trying to develop lay leadership. I believe God works through the whole body of Christ, and it isn't contingent on me.
Discovering the lordship of Jesus was vital for my own personal renewal. But to extend that to the church was next. It's hard, because there tend to be dominant leaders-even ourselves-who by the sheer brunt of their personal leadership move the church in their direction, even if it short circuits what the Lord wants to do. I want to avoid that. I want people to follow Christ, not dominant leaders-myself included.
Abrahamsen: As the church grows the dynamics change; the larger the church, the more it depends on a strong natural leader. I don't think following a strong natural leader is necessarily sinful. I went to a church of 350 from a smaller church I had grown with, and found they expected a whole different leadership style. They wanted a strong leader.
I think leadership style is neutral. One way isn't right and the other wrong, but the strong natural leader style has more danger to it. In a large church, however, if you keep pushing off responsibility to the lay people, you're liable to stagnate.
Thompson: I've felt a pinch point: using guilt to motivate. I find it inimical to say to people, "Here is the loving God we worship . . . and he will judge you wretches if you don't come to prayer meeting!" At the one point you're inviting them to worship God in freedom and truth, and at the other you make them feel guilty, needing some self-atoning performance so God will love them. It's a theological dichotomy and an emotional quagmire. I know there are people in my church who would run through a wall for me if I made them feel guilty!
I won't finagle my way to "success" by laying guilt trips on my congregation. Guilt-induced people never last. They either go to a new church where new guilt can be tapped or they'll leave the church entirely. Eventually they'll be burned out.
Abrahamsen: I discovered as a young pastor that people were much more aware of their sinfulness than they were of the goodness, mercy, love of God.
Thompson: I'm not even talking about sinfulness. I'm talking about guilt over not coming to every church function, not being a part of some program I'm pushing. I'm talking about human domination, not a Holy Spirit conviction of sin, which must be confessed, repented of, and put behind us.
Leadership: How do you allow for the almost capricious work of the Spirit in building up others-the Spirit who sometimes blesses your worst sermons?
Thompson: We always pray, "Lord, let something happen that's not in the bulletin." (Laughter)
Bliese: Allowing the Spirit to work has been our real struggle. We once were a very structured, traditional Lutheran church, but we had a group who wanted to add spontaneity. We still struggle to allow those who want to clap to clap, and to say it's OK for the rest who don't want to clap; to allow some to raise their hands but leave the others free not to.
I remember the first time somebody in our service raised her hands in prayer. Somebody brought it up in our next meeting, and we wrestled with the precedent it would set for other types of spontaneous expressions. They decided not to condemn it or encourage it. They simply said nothing and allowed the people to express themselves however they preferred.
Leadership: Did that lack of clear direction lead to tension?
Bliese: Certainly we've had tension, but we think the best way to handle that is for people to talk to one another. We meet periodically to express why we're doing what we're doing. It defuses the misconceptions, like the thought that applause after the anthem was for the choir. One person explained, "I wasn't applauding the choir; I was blessed by God, so I praised him by clapping!"
Abrahamsen: An unusual thing happened at the conclusion of one sermon I preached. A young man-a brand new Christian-began applauding. I mean he really applauded, and nobody joined him. People didn't know how to deal with it. I was kind of shocked myself. Here was a spontaneous action by a simple believer; he was just celebrating the greatness of God. The only response I could come up with was to say thank you.
He hasn't applauded since. I think the congregation responded in such a way that nobody would dare applaud after that. But that man is now an elder.
Leadership: And now he'd probably frown at somebody who would applaud today! (Laughter)
Abrahamsen: Actually we did come up with a policy on applauding. Talk about structuring spiritual responses-it became the responsibility of the chairman of a particular meeting to declare whether or not people could applaud. We would allow an "Amen" any time, but you had to get the chairman's approval to applaud!
Bliese: I remember one fellow in our church who, right after becoming a father, felt tremendously blessed. While walking back to his seat from communion in one service, he spontaneously jumped up in the air and clicked his heels. The church erupted.
It challenged people to rethink how much of what they were doing was just a programmed response and how much was genuine worship.
Copyright © 1986 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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