“When I look back over the history of our congregation during my lifetime, it seems that we have been dying ever since we tried to control the Holy Spirit.”
That comment by a lifelong member of an all too typical declining and struggling congregation echoed a comment heard just hours earlier from another church member about another congregation. The member of the conversation had earlier in the day noted a decision by the leadership of his church to “partially but not fully open the door” to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. Two conversations with two different individuals from two separate congregations seemed like more than a coincidence and prompted a request for more detail from the second individual.
“Well, back in 1969 I was an active member in the high school youth group of our congregation with an average attendance of about 120 for Sunday services. During that time the Pentecostal movement made inroads into mainline congregations. Many of those congregations began to welcome the so-called “extraordinary gifts” of the Holy Spirit (such as prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues) into their corporate lives. Interestingly, some members of our youth group received the gift of tongues. This threw the leadership of the church into a tizzy. After several meetings, the youth were told to stop playing with fire; about twenty people left the congregation in protest. As I reflect on that season in our congregation’s history, it seems to me like the leadership of the church thought they could control the Holy Spirit. It’s like they had their hands on a spigot that they could open to receive as much of the Holy Spirit as they desired. In retrospect, it seems that, from that time forward, we discovered that when we turned the spigot open, nothing came out.”
I wonder how many struggling congregations will discover, if they dare to look back, that their decline began decades earlier when congregational leadership resisted the work of the Holy Spirit. Will they look back and discover a decision that led to the steady decline of their congregations’ influence and impact? Will they find a missed opportunity to journey by faith into an unknown future? Will they find a decision or behaviors that contradicted the revealed will of God?
If so, what may be needed now is not a new pastor or a new building or a new program or a new strategic plan or new technology or new music but something altogether different. The prescription for congregational malaise may be the same as that offered by the angel of the church in Ephesus: “I know your hard work and your perseverance…. But this I hold against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen. Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:2, 4).
We may summarize that prescription this way: Remember, repent and resume! Remember our first love - Jesus Christ. Transfer to the Lord our love for the church as an institution, for the traditions of the church, and for the facility where the church gathers. As the Bride of Christ, rekindle and renew our love for the Groom. Then repent of waywardness, weakness, and willful disobedience to Jesus Christ, the head of the church. Repent for resisting the influence of the Holy Spirit, for conveniently ignoring the clear teachings of the Scriptures, for failing to live out our identity as the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Finally, having been assured of forgiveness, get back at it. Motivated by love for the Lord, let’s resume our hard work for Christ. Let’s persevere and press on in faith, believing that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine by his power that is at work within us. To Him be glory and in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, for ever and ever” (Ephesians 3:20-21).
Two unrelated conversations with two different church leaders with the same message in the same afternoon: our church began its decline when, at a particular moment in the history of our congregation, the leadership tried to control the Holy Spirit.