Last week’s post on Pre-Evangelism has generated a “which came first...” type of question. Does a congregation spiral down and become incapable of gathering in new people because it lacks Spiritual Passion? -- or -- Does the poorly led, non-evangelistic, and/or unattractive church naturally become less passionate about spiritual things?
Jesus says something interesting about this. Just after his famous lesson on prayer, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13). Logically, every time we encounter a church with low spiritual passion we are dealing with a failure to ask for Spiritual Passion. Note the contrast: We are never promised that if we pray, God will answer by making our congregation richer, more attractive to young families, and more likely to maintain good pastoral leadership. The Bible doesn’t tell pastors that if they pray hard enough, their church will grow. Instead, we are promised that prayer will always lead to a more fulfilling spiritual life. As individuals, this means that God’s grace and Holy Spirit will become personally real and guide us through all things. As congregations this means that God’s spirit will enter into every aspect of our church life; adding efficacy to our prayers, relevance to our study of the scriptures, joy to our witness, and inspiration to our worship. Who wouldn’t want that?
Obviously, some churches and many individuals don’t want the Holy Spirit. I think Jesus spoke the promise of Luke 11:13 with an ironic smile. The Father is willing to give, but we aren’t as willing to receive. This is the human reality that painfully unfolds in the story of Jesus’ passion on the cross.
There are hundreds of books published each year on how to become a more win-some and evangelistic church. It is obviously a skill that can be mastered. Given the right leadership and sufficient funds, any church can: improve its facilities, change its location, increase its visibility, raise the quality of its worship, manifest high-hospitality, and become more attractive to generation x or y, etc. The Holy Spirit, however, is a gift. The good news is that this gift is freely given to all who ask. The bad news is that the Holy Spirit always takes us in new and unpredictable directions. The Holy Spirit has a reputation for creating more problems than it solves, consider the story of the Stoning of Stephen (Acts 6 & 7). High Spiritual Passion led directly to the blacklisting of the institutional church in Jerusalem and the scattering of its leaders (Acts 8:1).
It is not God’s desire or plan to make every congregation grow like Willowcreek, but it is in the nature of the Holy Spirit to make our hearts more sensitive to our own need to witness and the unchurched seeker’s need to know about Jesus. Congregations who cease to care about meeting the spiritual needs of the lost are rightfully termed, “pre-evangelical.” They will exhibit all the characteristics of low Spiritual Passion (see Ezekiel’s Bones), even though they may put on a good outward appearance. Some of the nicest churches of our denomination are stuck in this sorry state. The are not in danger of dying, just in danger of becoming un-Christian.
By way of contrast, our desire is to have a safe and surefire plan to make our church attractive to the right people. We want our facilities improved, our budget met, and the quality of our church leadership guaranteed. If there is a prerequisite to the promise of the Holy Spirit that Jesus makes in Luke 11:13, it is that we be willing to have our priorities reordered. Thy will be done. To answer the old Chicken and Egg question; the failure to be passionate about our need for the Holy Spirit does precede a congregation’s decline into pre-evangelism. It is the root that needs to be addressed at every turn.