A Way of God for the Future

Does anyone know what they’re doing?

It seems to me that throughout the Scriptures there were many people who appear to have had less than a full understanding of what God had called them to do. The apostles, for instance, didn’t really seem to know what they were doing until after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That means that they had been following the Lord for a period of years before they attained a pretty good fix on what it was they were expected to be doing. 

In Matthew 9:18 we find the disciples questioning Jesus about Moses’ directive about divorce. Jesus’ response to their confusion was to point out, “From the beginning, it was not so.” Jesus corrected the pastoral adjustment, saying in essence, “Don’t do that!” 

Centuries later you may recall that St. Francis heard the Lord telling him to rebuild the church. He interpreted “rebuild my church” as meaning that God wanted him to repair the church building. Here, too, Francis was uncertain about what God was asking of him. 

Building Covenant Community

The People of God community (located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania USA) have come a long way in our understanding of what God is doing in our day through the call he has given us to build covenant community. We are in our fifth decade as a people, but in hindsight we felt confident that we knew a lot about what we were doing from the very beginning. Since then, the Lord has changed and grown our understanding of his call. Some aspects have been improved upon, and some practices have been thrown out along the way. Unfortunately, we’ve also lost some ground that we previously had gained. There is a lot left to learn about why the People of God exists beyond anything that will be presented here. 

The Lord has been saying all along, usually in context of charismatic events and community gatherings, that he is about something “new.” We often hear the Lord say things like “Behold, I do a new thing! Do you not perceive it?” We may hear the question as the Lord asking us “Do you not understand it? Do you not get it?” We frequently launch ourselves somewhat clumsily into a work of God without having a clear understanding of what he’s doing or where we’re going, grasping only the first steps or a small part of what will eventually lead to a bigger picture, much of which may never be clearly seen by us. 

“A way of God for the future”

Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens in 1974 gave an interview in which he said the following: “I think it’s very important that you share with the whole church what you are doing in developing Christian communities and living together in households in the experience of the common life. Continue what you are doing in building communities. What is emerging is a way of God for the future.” Do we think of ourselves as part of a “way of God for the future”? We should. That’s what we want to consider here. 

The above quote is from a Roman Catholic Cardinal. If you’re not Catholic, you can at least view the remarks as coming from a church leader – not necessarily your church leader, but a church leader who might be viewed in the same way as Catholics view Billy Graham: a widely accepted leader for the broader church.

One implication of this quote is that the church is a work in progress rather than something that is finished. I think those of us in denominational churches, such as Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and so on, tend to think of the church as a finished work. It is true that there is a certain part of the institution that is finished, but the church, overall, is not yet completed. It’s worth thinking about whether the Lord is still in the business of building the church. We are two thousand years into the process, but God works slowly and sometimes does things we don’t expect: “Behold, I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?” 

God has been gracious enough to give us a role in the ongoing work of building the church. If we don’t value that role we can be easily distracted, conscripted, or picked off. For example, the prayer meetings and prayer groups of the earlier days of the Charismatic Renewal were conscripted by many different movements and purposes because they were formed by and comprised of people with energy, commitment, and zeal for the things of God. That gets attention. People can easily, however, get conscripted into other types of service, groups, and activities that are not part of God’s original intention.

Movements that serve the overall church 

If you read the interview with Cardinal Suenens in its entirety, you will see that the church is both institution and movements. The term “movements” here is being used in the broad sense to capture the whole spectrum of church-related groups such as: Charismatic Renewal, Campus Crusade, Opus Dei, Athletes in Action, covenant communities, Cursillo, Intervarsity Fellowship, Focus, etc. Even the Billy Graham Association would be placed into the movements category. These movements are not a part of anyone’s denominational experience, but they are a crucial part of the overall church, and many of us have been positively influenced by them. 

We may ask ourselves, “Why is there another part of church? Why add to, or supplement, or complement the institutional church?” 

If you visit Europe, you’ll find a lot of empty churches. That’s a warning shot fired over Canada, the United States, and the rest of the world that something serious is happening. Shrinking church attendance, aging members, and parish closures and consolidations are a few of the symptoms that should cause us to sit up and take notice. Terrorism, abortion, divorce, and addiction are just some of the societal indicators that we’re not doing a good job of holding things together. The numbers of people suffering from these societal maladies are not so different in the churches as over again the rest of secular society. That ought to bother us and make us realize that more is needed. 

What should bother us most is the loss of so many of our young people, not just from our own community but also from the institutional church. Too many young people are opting out of church and community, and there are plenty of constructs given them by secular society, college professors, and the media to persuade them that organized religion is a “bad thing.” The loss of so many of our young people is a main reason we need to complement or supplement the institutional church. More is needed, and more is intended. The Lord intends more for us. He intends the Christian church to work better than it is right now. 

We held a men’s breakfast recently, and near the end of the talk the speaker, here paraphrased, said in essence, “The world is collapsing, the church is collapsing, and the Charismatic Renewal is collapsing. Can I have more bacon?” In the right context it was understood what he was saying, but it was a lot to get hit with at once. I wouldn’t use the word “collapsing” to describe the current state of the world, the church, or the renewal, but certainly more is needed, and more is intended to shore up our world and the ailing structures that are meant to support it.

Some key distinctions of movements and communities

There are some key differences between the institutions and the movements. First of all, most of our institutional churches are not really designed to create disciples. There are disciples in them, but the approach to membership is really not dedicated to producing disciples. 

We tend to focus on working with children and not so much with adults within the institutions. It is likely that we are more invested in youth programs than in the formation of mature adult disciples. There is an assumed adult spiritual maturity that is not the reality. Otherwise, people wouldn’t be searching for something more, and the movements wouldn’t exist. 

The whole area of discipleship is about formation, and it requires more than we tend to get within our institutions. Teaching, for instance, is one of the big hallmarks or elements of the movements. Training, as I am using the term here, means real-time application of the principles that are taught through instruction in the context of a pastoral relationship. That’s a big component of discipleship, and it is virtually missing from most of our institutional churches. Pastoral care, including accountability and feedback, are also intrinsic to discipleship and not part of the institutional church’s agenda. 

“No longer living for themselves, but for Christ”

A key point comes from 2 Corinthians 5:15, where Paul says, “and he died for all so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who for their sake, died and was raised. To me this is a lynchpin. I think that’s the right word because everything being presented here revolves around this verse. I am a Catholic, and recently I was sitting at Mass when the priest began speaking these words, which are contained in the Eucharistic prayers. All of a sudden – BOOM – it hit me! It struck me that this verse is a really concise, compact description of discipleship: “ . . . no longer living for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised. That’s a good Scripture by which to live our lives. If you’re parents, that’s also a good Scripture by which to raise your children! We could raise our children to be successful, but in the eyes of Paul this Scripture would be the summation of what it means to live a successful Christian life: no longer living for ourselves, but for Christ Jesus.

The call to be ecumenical

I would like to reflect a bit more on a Sword of the Spirit approach to some of the differences we see when comparing the institution and the movements. Some of the elements of the movements could be seen as threshold experiences, but many of them – Opus Dei in the Catholic Church, for instance – really have more of a discipleship orientation, as does the Sword of the Spirit. The biggest difference, and perhaps the hardest one to embrace, is the call to be ecumenical. Ecumenism is a hard call. You can’t do ecumenical in an institutional, denominational expression of church. You can’t have people show up on Sunday for an ecumenical service when they’re expecting a Lutheran service, or a Presbyterian service, or a Catholic Mass. Movements can be ecumenical more easily than a denominational service. 

The Pentecostal movement began right around the turn of the twentieth century. The Charismatic Renewal has its roots there, and from the beginning it quickly, in terms of history, became an ecumenical movement. Even among the Catholics, it started out in ecumenical settings. I believe it was a major mistake when we tried to force the Charismatic Renewal to be “Catholic” and squelch the ecumenical part of the vision. “Behold, I do a new thing!” This is so important to the heart of God that we cannot leave out the ecumenical element and expect to do well. It is a key piece of the “new thing.” 

Other recognizable distinctions

Some other recognizable distinctions between the institutions and the movements would include an observable emphasis on the Bible. This ranges broadly among the movements, but it is certainly important to us, as it would be very important to the Billy Graham ministries. 

Pastoral care and small groups do not necessarily show up in all of the movements, but those are differences that we present as part of our shared life in covenant community. 

The relational emphasis or relational purposes are highly valued in the movements and hold a place of prominence with us. For some movements or communities, building and strengthening relationships are at the core of their mission and vision. 

A “covenantal” expression is more specific to the communities. Many have written covenants to explain how they intend to express their way of life. 

The charismatic spirituality is one element of the charismatic movement and communities. The movements tend to be evangelical. They foster a personal encounter with Christ. The evangelical movement has had its effect, even in the institutional churches, as people are now talking easily about a “personal relationship with the Lord.” It has become much more common in our institutional settings to talk about needing a personal encounter with Christ, that being foundational to living a life of faith.

The roles of men and women and family order are more particular to us, and other networks of communities have done work in these areas.

We should also include the tendency to work with men, giving special attention to developing strong men of God for the church.

The movements tend to be lay led, while the institutions are clergy led. 

A common way of life approach or emphasis is one we would espouse, including an emphasis on the Lord’s Day – on celebrating and protecting it. All of the institutional churches have their main celebration on the Lord’s Day. But there is also, running through the movements and showing up in different places, an emphasis on the Lord’s Day as the Lord’s Day. It’s more than attending a worship service or following a liturgy for one or two hours on Sunday. It involves having a particular approach to the day, setting it aside for special honor, with special prayers and a shared meal, while avoiding doing physical work in your yard, etc. That kind of emphasis comes more from the movements than from the institutions, with a few exceptions. There are still a few institutional churches that take that kind of approach and put a stronger emphasis on setting aside the Lord’s Day as a special day to be honored.

Some Errors

One error we might make as we look at these differences might be called “super-imposition,” meaning superimposing one aspect or reality over the other. We sometimes take our expression of a movement and try to stuff it into the institution in an attempt to make the institution look like the movement or vice versa. Neither is designed to work that way. The spirituality we have in the movements doesn’t translate or play out well when we try to stuff it into institutional services and liturgies.

The Catholics have done some experiments with what used to be called a “floating parish.” These parishes were made up of folks who specifically wanted charismatic worship, and one wouldn’t join unless they were looking for charismatic spirituality. You wouldn’t join that parish and then complain that the singing in tongues wasn’t Catholic because it was specifically formed to be a Catholic charismatic parish. If you try to stuff the Pentecostal reality into the institutional parish, it can have the effect of blowing it up! 

In the charismatic renewal, one of the communities got the ear of a local parish pastor. The pastor loved what he saw in the way these Christians lived their lives in community. He turned the parish school over to them, and they then began raising all of the children with a Pentecostal spirituality. This went well for a while, until, eventually, the rest of the parents had a heated, negative reaction to that formation of their children’s spirituality. The parish members went after the pastor, then on to the bishop, and the issue created all kinds of trouble. This was the result of their efforts to superimpose the elements of a movement onto an institution—trying to force a union for which neither is designed. This approach, then, worked for a while but ultimately failed. Both Catholics and Protestants can point to failed examples of these sorts of experiments. 

Another error is underinvesting in the institutions or in the movements. Underinvesting in the institutions might cause us to neglect serving in our churches because we have a movement call. That can happen with a few people, but by and large there is meant to be a crosstalk—an influence in both directions between these two major elements of the church. Service should go both ways. 

Another error could be withdrawing from the call altogether and saying, “Lord, I know you’re doing a new thing, but I’d rather not be part of it.” Once you see what God is doing and know that God is calling you into the work, it would be wise to avoid making that mistake! 

Set aside for a work of God 

We work with people in our contexts and so affect the church. Everyone who goes through a community Life in the Spirit Seminar has the opportunity to become a community member. Some will embrace that, while others won’t. But there probably will be some good effect on the local church. We work less in the institution, using our techniques and approaches, because the institution is clearly not designed for what we do. 

We must be careful to put our focus in the right place. We’ve been set aside for a work of God! We need to take thatseriously the same way the local Lutheran minister has been set aside for a work of God and needs to take his call seriously. He’s not a good man only when he becomes a Pentecostal like us; he’s a good man because he has a relationship with Christ, and he’s been set aside to do a specific work for the church. It can sometimes be our response to certain servants of God to say, “Boy, he has so much working right… If only he could speak in tongues!” But he doesn’t need to speak in tongues in order to do what God has called him to do. We need to allow him to be a holy man who doesn’t speak in tongues. 

Since we’ve been set aside for a work of God, we need to love our call, nurture it, speak about it, evangelize people to it, and grow it. But that doesn’t get us off the hook for serving at the institutional level. Remember, disciples live for him who died so that we may live!

This article by © Bob Tedesco is adapted from his book, Choosing Discipleship: Embracing the Call in a Modern Culture, Chapter 17, published by Credo House Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. Used with permission.

Top photo credit: image cross and sunset from © GraphicStock.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *