For Paul, it’s all about ecology. Remember, for Paul grace is a “saving dynamic environment,” a dominion, that produces a certain kind of life. I am convinced that life in the Spirit both creates and requires a certain kind of ecology. Put another way, there are conditions and practices that allow us to participate in the life made available by the Spirit.
So, one way I’ve thought about this is related to the story of the Spirit in Acts. The Spirit certainly initiates the action in Acts. The church is instructed to wait until they have received power from on high. The church’s story in Acts is not one of strategic planning, but of faithful responsiveness to the leading of the Spirit. This does not mean that the church is always in compliance with the leading of the Spirit, but there are practices and habits that make it possible to participate in the movement of the Spirit.
A great moment of “compliance,” however, does occur in Acts 15, when the church formally recognizes what the Spirit has been doing all along–drawing Gentiles into the covenant promises AS GENTILES. When the church reports its finding in a letter written to Gentile believers, they say “it seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit…” I think all churches should organize their life so that moments like these are possible. Hence, the question, is your church 15:28 compliant?
I’m convinced that most congregations aren’t. Most lack the capacity to have a 15:28 moment because of how they are structured or organized, because their habits and practices couldn’t produce an outcome like this.
Call me cynical, but I think most congregations are organized for customer service. The animating question for these congregations (I’m sure you don’t attend one), is “how can we attract the most members and keep them happy and growing?” Regardless of what their bulletin masthead reads or the banner hosting their mission statement that hangs from the front of the sanctuary says, congregations tend to be preoccupied with their own survival and growth. I’m not saying they’re not interested in the Bible or God or discipleship or evangelism. They are and they do many good things and honor God in many important ways. But the way they are organized, the way they deploy their resources, the way they use volunteers, the way they describe congregational life in terms of benefits, all belie a deeper anxiety about the survival of the institution. You know how I know? I was a minister who lived and died with numbers and other indicators of institutional success.
To be a “customer service” kind of church requires great energy. The greatest sin this kind of church can commit is to be boring. And so, this energy requires pace, speed, and efficiency, and leadership with tightly held vision and control, all things that mitigate against discernment.
Ok, maybe you don’t buy my diagnosis. Maybe its too cynical. So, let’s work the other way. What would have to be in place for a church to have “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” moments? Which is to ask, what was in place for the church in Acts.
I’m working on a list of things that went into the Acts 15 moment. Like, there has to be a belief that the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh. Or, there have to be moments of congregational story telling. Or, there has to be a tolerance, even encouragement, for boundary transgression. There has to be a way for the whole community to discern. Anyway, I’ve got about ten that I want to work out over the next few weeks.
We’ll see if 15:28 compliance has any usefulness as we think about the congregation’s life.