Thursday, 21 February 2013

What's missing? Part 1

My wife and I are currently staying in Bristol with our daughter and son-in-law following the birth of our new grandson Theo just to help them all negotiate the the first week or so of his life and the changes that brings to their lives. Poor little man has had to go through a lot with jaundice, blood-tests and on Wednesday a little op to correct his tongue-tie (I won't go through the details) but thankfully he is settling into some kind of routine and our work will have been done, for now, this coming weekend. Over that time our mobile phones have been well-used, along with my lap-top and ipad for the many emails we have been sending out. As a result there have been a lot of re-charging of batteries as they have all in turn - or simultaneously - run down.

Power. We all need it to run our cookers, radios, heating and lighting, cars and washing machines, phones and computers and without it life would be difficult - and in some cases - even dangerous. The same principle applies to church life. It is 'driven' by the life of God working among and through his people, and as long as this power is present among us the church will 'work' and life will be sustained. When the power of God is not present there is atrophy, decline and eventually death.

I was brought up in Clydach a town at the lower reaches of the Swansea Valley. Growing up I used to attend St. Mary's an Anglican Church situated on the east side of the town. Some of my early memories were of the chapels in the towns and listening to the singing - which was always better than my own - and wondering what it was like inside. Most of those chapels are now closed including the Methodist Chapel where I prayed fervently for the baptism of the Spirit when a mission came to town. This church where once I opened my heart to the Spirit is now a private home and the only singing is what takes place in the bath or shower and the only spirit is one that is poured out of the bottle (assuming the residents like a glass of whiskey etc.)

Why did it close? Why did any of them close? We can postulate that they failed to keep ahead of the times, or blame the advent of Sunday opening. We could factor in the failure to appeal to the youth or the apathy of the congregation. The growing secularization of the society we live in and the collapse of traditional moral values plus the many other spiritual 'options' can also confuse matters and the failure of the church to adapt to the many changes in society has certainly not helped. And what about the lack of callings to ministry and the overstretched clergy or the retreat of the church in the face of its failure to engage with the society around it. Some would cite a failure to evangelize, or teach or disciple new Christians. Others would talk about an inability to keep pace with new technology or modern music or even an over-reliance on the organ and an insistence on using the choir for everything. The list goes on and on and just serves to underline how big the task is to sustain any church let alone grow it. However it also serves to underline just how much we need the power and the grace of God to get anywhere with regards to Church today.

It reminds me of Jesus'imperative to the early disciples to go to Jerusalem and not to budge from there until the they were "clothed with power from on high." (Luke 24:49) He knew then - as we have forgotten today - that the church is powered by the presence and power of the Spirit as a car runs on petrol.

I am a great lover of the writings of A.W.Tozer - his work The Pursuit of God was among the first I read as a new Christian. In his book "Mystery of the Holy Spirit" he records a conversation he had with a lady who spoke to him after hearing one of his sermons. Here is what he records:

"I mentioned once in a sermon in Chicago that some churches are so completely out of the hands of God, if the Holy Ghost withdrew from them, they would not find out for three months. afterward I received a telephone call from a woman.

The voice on the phone said, "Mr. Tozer, I am not a member of your church; I am a member of a church on the north side.".....She said, "I was down to your church last night and I heard you say that there are churches where, if the Holy Spirit should desert them, they'd never find it out. Mr. Tozer, I want you to know that's what has happened to our church."

Her voice was tender and broken, there was no criticism, and I tried to console her.

"Well, maybe," I said, "it's just that He is grieved, or maybe He's not given His place."

"No," she said, "it's past that, Mr. Toxer. We have so consistently rejected Him in our church that He is gone; He is longer here."

Now, I doubt whether she is right.I do not believe the Spirit of God ever leaves the church completely, but He can, like the Saviour who was asleep in the hinder part of the ship, go to sleep and not make Himself known and let us get along without Him for years."   (Tozer: Mystery of the Holy Spirit)

Whether it is the Holy Spirit who has "fallen asleep" or the congregations that have - or a combination of both - I can't say, but what I do note is that the Holy Spirit is noticeable by His absence from us rather than His presence with us and it's killing the church - or at least the historic expressions of it.

What is the answer then? It's okay to diagnose the problem - which at least takes us halfway towards a 'solution' - but what must we do?

Jesus did not offer the Spirit as an antidote to a dying church but as a prerequisite for a living one so we are in a slightly different place to the first bewildered disciples who first stepped out of the resurrection euphoria into the reality of a first century world. But His words are worth going back to for we have no better Word but His on the matter. So next blog I will take a look at what Jesus said on the matter to see - for my own benefit - what transpires.

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