Imagining A Church In The Spirit


The greatest problem facing mainline churches today is not declining numbers, shifting social allegiances, or confused leadership. It is loss of vision. This bold yet constructive book urges pastors to again see their congregations as real expressions of "the body of Christ" and suggests ways to revise - and energize - their ministries based on this vision.. "Complete with discussion questions that make it ideal for use in a wide variety of educational settings, Imagining a Church in the Spirit will help church ...
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The greatest problem facing mainline churches today is not declining numbers, shifting social allegiances, or confused leadership. It is loss of vision. This bold yet constructive book urges pastors to again see their congregations as real expressions of "the body of Christ" and suggests ways to revise - and energize - their ministries based on this vision.. "Complete with discussion questions that make it ideal for use in a wide variety of educational settings, Imagining a Church in the Spirit will help church leaders successfully meet the cultural challenges that await us in the twenty-first century.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802846631
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 7/26/1999
  • Pages: 172
  • Product dimensions: 0.40 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE New Church Vision (Pages 1-19)

MAINLINE CHURCHES in North America are in trouble. This is no new insight; they have been in trouble for three decades. Membership is declining, money from the constituency is shrinking, and most denominations are downsizing. As a consequence of the decline in numbers, the mainline denominations have been enticed by the church growth movement as a means of replacing members. Decline is a problem, but it is not the real problem.

In the last three decades these denominations have become captive to social issues, shifting from one injustice to another. First, it was the role of women, then the place of ethnic groups and minorities. On the heels of these challenges came the abortion issue, and then the ordination of gays and lesbians. The focus has shifted according to the strength of the issue and the advocates it mobilized. Each of these struggles succeeded in depositing in the church special interest groups who seek to keep the issue alive until it is favorably resolved. The shifting focus from one issue to another presents a problem in ministry, but this is not the greatest problem facing mainline congregations.

Church leadership has been whimsical about its particular role in the revitalizing of congregations and in making a social witness. The changing image of the minister has contributed to this tentativeness. A few decades ago the minister was dubbed the "Pastoral Director"; administering the program of the congregation became the minister's controlling preoccupation. The therapist model followed closely, a model in which the pastor served as the healer through counseling and preaching. The social service of the church followed the therapeutic, and response to human pain—especially pain on the margins of the church—dominated its vision for ministry. In recent years the minister as CEO, Chief Executive Officer, has taken center stage, and the church has adopted a management model without serious criticism of its limitations. Identity confusion and alternating styles of leadership have created problems for the church, but even these are not the most crucial problems in mainline congregations.

Although my allusion to the church growth movement does not imply disfavor with evangelism and enlarging the congregation, getting more members is not the major crisis in mainline churches. To suggest that mainline churches are issue-driven does not mean issues are unimportant, but it does raise the question of whether resolving issues is the central mission of the church. Pointing to the shifting role of pastors and leaders of congregations does not intend to deprecate pastors, but to hint at the loss of vision and thus the loss of a clear identity. We face a greater problem than any of these concerns.

The greatest problem facing mainline congregations in North America is the loss of vision. We have been blinded to the living Christ among us.

This blindness keeps the church from seeing itself as "the body of Christ" and Christ alive in his body continuing his mission through it today. Our greatest need is a vision of his living presence, here and now working through the members of the body. If we possessed a vision of Christ as the foundation of the church, the life of the church and the Lord of the church, and if we could reimagine all the functions of the church as the corporate expression of Christ, we would be on a high road to recovery.

The consequence of losing the sense of Christ's presence in and among us here and now has changed the vital fellowship of believers into an institution; and the institution, rather than radiating the presence of the Spirit, often shields us from it. Forgetting the presence among us has produced lifeless gatherings of the baptized with neither vision nor passion for their mission. Perhaps delineating a few characteristics of these congregations which I call "Old Church," the church of another generation, will make the point clearer.

The Character of Old Church

Our observation of mainline congregations suggests that many, if not most, are going through the motions of being a church but without spiritually transformative power and spiritual urgency. These congregations may be characterized as:

  • Keeping alive the memory of Christ and his teachings.
  • Offering a form of worship designed mostly for a pre-1950s generation.
  • Functioning to legitimate the social, economic, and political practices of the culture.
  • Fulfilling societal needs like caring for hurting members, marrying, burying, and baptizing.
  • Possessing members who are morally good, productive citizens who want their lives to count for something beyond themselves.
  • Encouraging persons to become generous givers in comparison with persons in every other culture in the world.

In addition to these more positive characteristics, most of these congregations

  • are homogeneous with the membership very much alike in education, income, social values, and habits, with no evidence of the inclusivity of the body of Christ.
  • possess a superficial grasp of the Christian faith, knowing the creed, some prayers, and a few hymns.
  • lack the practice of prayer, scripture study, and ministry.
  • downplay theology as being for ministers and a few elite lay persons.
  • do not speak of their Christian faith with each other and are too embarrassed to speak about it with persons outside the church.
  • believe in God but do not experience, nor do they expect to experience, the presence of God in a personal, ongoing manner.
  • adopt lifestyles and values that fit comfortably into the dominant culture, with no conflict between their views and those of persons outside the church.
  • offer a place to build social relationships that meet their own social needs without much thought of the needs of others.
  • demonstrate a strong interest in self-preservation.
  • seek persons to serve the church's ends.
  • lack clarity about their essential mission in the world.
  • are composed of marginally active members, with 20 percent of the membership doing 80 percent of the work and giving most of the money.

Can this church embark on its mission to serve the world and proclaim the gospel of Christ to all nations without a profound transformation of life and vision? Does not this church need a vision of itself as the body of Christ, a community in which he lives and acts?

Toward the Recovery of Vision

Our problem today is not unique; in fact, it is about as old as the church itself. In the first century, the second generation of Christians had grown weary and lost the original vision. Their parents had expected the return of Jesus in their lifetime. Certainly, he would return in the next generation's lifetime, and when he did not, they became discouraged and their passion for mission cooled. Luke, in his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, sought to help them see that the Jesus who had been among their parents in the flesh had indeed returned in the Spirit. Pentecost marked his dramatic return when he was incarnated in the waiting disciples in the upper room. And, Luke argued, this presence among them was even better than his being with the apostles in the flesh. Now, in the Spirit, Christ could be with all persons, everywhere, all the time. Luke offered these hapless Christians a new vision of their situation, a vision that would eventually change their lives, deepen their fellowship, and inspire their engagement in mission.

We must address the same task as Luke, the Gospel writer, who helped discouraged believers get a new vision of the presence of our risen, living Lord. Perhaps our disillusionment does not originate in the failed return of Jesus but in the ineffectiveness of our congregations to give a powerful, life-changing witness to the gospel, or their failure to make much of an impression on the emerging culture. Without question, North American Christians live in a new day created by the explosion of communication, global mobility, the breakdown of old certainties inherited from the Enlightenment, and the birth of a generation completely ignorant of its Christian roots—to name just a few of its driving forces. And, the old ways of being and doing church do not work in this radically changing culture. We need a new vision of the church and fresh ways of fulfilling our calling.

In Search of a Vision

What do we mean by vision? The capacity to see, to picture the future church in a manner that evokes a compelling urgency; in this instance, to grasp what the church must become in the century that lies before us. The compelling image of this future church will result from a daring act of imagination that creates a picture of what Christ calls his body to be and do. The old cultural model has broken down, and the new church vision has not formed; we are living between the times, a time of revisioning. This vision of the church for which we search must grasp the essential aspects of the church—initiation, prayer, teaching, healing, community, preaching, and worship—and reimagine them in a new situation. To confront this crisis, the church needs visionaries who recreate with integrity forms of the church's life which are both faithful and relevant. The core question of today's visionaries is: "What will a faithful church look like in the twenty-first century?" This challenge to revision the church presents us with a life-or-death option.

Missionaries to other cultures have always engaged in this creative translation of the gospel into new and different contexts. Are we not missionaries in an alien culture faced with the task of doing the creative, imaginative missionary work of translation?

This task will compel us to focus on the essence of the church, that which makes the church the church, the non-negotiable aspects of the church. The community of Christ must represent Christ, his person and his mission, in an authentic form. How do we imagine this new form of the church for ministry today? Old structures have already proved inadequate; new ones have yet to be born. Also, we struggle with systems that have become irrelevant to Western, secular people, and lack the power to transform life. Increasingly, these old religious practices are like straitjackets restraining the mission of Christ. A compelling vision will break through these restraints and liberate the church to fulfill its mission.

Without a compelling vision, a church lacks direction, movement, a way of orderly transition and cohesiveness. A clear vision helps the congregation at just these points. For example, a vision creates a sense of direction for the church. Without a vision, the ministry of a congregation tends to sit on dead center. A self-centered community looks inward and repeats programs that have become sacred to the congregation. Vision works against these stifling practices and breaks the status quo. The vision serves the congregation like the North Star serves the explorer. When the congregation comes to a turning point, the vision, like the star, gives a sense of direction.

A vision initiates movement. Unlike writing objective mission statements, a vision involves passion, a deep emotional commitment to the new possibility. Vision energizes the congregation. A compelling vision will challenge the church's modes of worship and practices of ministry; vision draws the congregation toward a new future. A new way of seeing the future gives courage to experiment with new forms of worship or a fresh approach to decision making. When these changes occur, they give the congregation courage to move toward its dreams. Through these movements a congregation will begin to change, and each small change provides greater motivation and strength to be conformed to Christ. The vision, like a magnet, draws the congregation into the future.

Yet, a vision does more than point the church in a new direction and initiate movement; it also provides a dialectic within which "the Church in the Spirit" may be negotiated. The picture of future church creates a contrast between the actual and the possible, and defines a free space for the continuous interplay between "what is" and "what is becoming." When leaders in a congregation propose a different future, inevitably they face resistance. Those committed to present ways of doing and being church will catalogue all the reasons why the church should remain as it is, but those possessed with a vision will continue to speak about what might be in the future. This dialogue between what is and what is to be provides a constructive way of change. The dialogue serves change dynamically by forcing the church forward, then backward, then forward in incremental steps.

Finally, the vision offers cohesion during the change process. The vision, like glue, holds together the actual and the possible; without this adhesive the church will tend to pull apart. When leaders stop talking with each other, lose respect for each other, or when they fight for control of the situation more than they seek the will of God, the congregation splits. Thus, it is imperative to keep the dialectic alive by continuing to negotiate the vision. Remember! It is never God's will to split the church. To maintain unity, we must keep the conversation open, listen to all the voices at the table, and keep refining the vision until all have a place in the church of the future.

Perhaps an illustration will clarify what the vision achieves in a changing congregation. Suppose a church that has suffered for years with introversion, self-preoccupation, and loss of vision for its mission calls new leadership. A new pastor arrives on the scene with a sense of being called by Christ to serve the people of God. After the new pastor comes, things begin to happen: attendance picks up, interest heightens, new ministries begin.

All this takes place because the new pastor believes she serves with Christ through his body, in which Christ is present in individual members and in the gathered community. As she goes about her pastoral tasks, she looks for signs of Christ in the members as well as in persons outside the church. She discerns the latent vision in these persons. A fragment of a vision of Christ, living in and ministering through this body, begins to form in her soul. She discusses it with the leaders in the church, and she speaks of the vision with marginal members and even those outside the congregation. As she talks and listens, the vision becomes more definite and her conversations plant the seed of vision in all she meets.

The vision that resides in the pastor finds its way into sermons that challenge the congregation and deepen their understanding of their mission. Worship, administration, and pastoral care begin to be shaped by the vision. The vision presents a constant challenge to both the leaders and the members. Under the impact of a new picture of the future, the congregation begins to serve the needs of persons in their neighborhood; the vision will not let them sit with complacency on the sidelines. The vision pulls the church forward while some members resist and others try to assimilate the challenge. These groups struggle with each other, yet the vision keeps tension on the church to move forward. And, as this church lives into a vision, that vision has the power to hold dissident groups together while changes are negotiated.

The Church's Vision: Jesus Christ the Foundation

To conceive a vision of the Church in the Spirit, we must begin with Jesus Christ. The faithful church in every age must be grounded in the person, ministry, and teaching of Jesus Christ. The church is his body, the earthly form of his existence; he is the cornerstone of the church. The reimagined Church in the Spirit requires Jesus Christ as its foundation. Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:10-15)

We take Paul's statement at face value: "For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ." This foundation includes his birth, life, death, resurrection, and living presence.

Christ is the divine presence that permeates the church. Weekly we confess our belief in his death and resurrection, and we rehearse these core convictions when we break bread and drink wine together. The Eucharist celebrates his presence at the Table, but do we actually experience the presence? Too often we have become blind to the presence and have continued running the church on a memory rather than actual communion with the living Lord.

Yet, the promise of presence seems so clear in Christ's closing talks with his disciples. In the Upper Room discourse he said, "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you" (John 14:18-20). In this amazing promise Jesus makes it clear that after his death he will return to his followers. He will give them life, not merely physical life but his life, the life of God, and in addition to that life, an assurance of their being in union with him, with each other, and with the Father.

As presence in us and in our midst, Christ promises to keep revealing himself to his followers, not only to the apostles, but also to all those who believe in him. This promised presence will teach you all things, bring to your remembrance what he has said, speak what he hears, show you things to come, and lead you into all truth (John 16:12-15). What Jesus began in the flesh, he continues in the Spirit through his corporate body. The church derives its nature from Christ. He was Son of God and Son of Mary, that is, he was both truly human and truly divine in an inseparable manner. The church will always be a human community that is permeated by the Spirit of the risen Christ; it will therefore be human with all the problems associated with fallen humanity and at the same time be a bearer of the holy.

This paradigmatic Christ also shapes the church by what he did. A cursory reading of the Gospels depicts his ministry: he healed the sick, fed the hungry, showed compassion to the oppressed; he questioned the tradition of the elders, confronted religious and political authorities with penetrating insight; he suffered faithfully for the truth and triumphed by the will and power of God.

Every action of Jesus provides material for reflection and meditation on the nature and mission of the church. What he did in the flesh, he continues to do through our flesh, his body on earth. Our cues for ministry come from him and his actions.

Jesus provides a paradigm for the church's nature and mission in what he taught and how he taught. As a teacher he proclaimed a kingdom that embraces the whole of creation and manifests itself in human history as preserver of meaning, creator of justice, and force for liberation. This kingdom breaks into history at unannounced moments and mysteriously transforms it.

He taught about God as compassionate and forgiving, and emphasized the primacy of absolute faith in the Father, the Creator of the Universe and the Author of History. This faith leads to a worry-free life because the One who cares for the lilies and the birds also cares about human beings. His teaching gives priority to the spiritual aspects of life because life is much more than meeting physical necessities. Jesus both taught and demonstrated the goodness of God to all persons in all circumstances. He emphasized that to realize yourself you must deny yourself. Jesus taught that humans have value not only to themselves but also to God.

If we understand Jesus as a paradigm for the church's being and mission, his incarnation defines the church as a divine-human community. His ministry sets forth our mission as one of witness, compassion, and justice. His teaching provides both the content of Christian faith and a model for teaching others. These foundational convictions will provide the basis for our reimagining the church as the body of Christ in the Spirit.

The Metaphors of the Church

The writers of the New Testament captured the dynamic life of the church in a variety of metaphors. These metaphors point to the unutterable reality of the intimate relation of the holy presence to a human community. Each metaphor underscores the urgency of recapturing a vision of the church in its intimate relation to Christ's living presence.

The temple signifies the dwelling place of God on earth. It contained holy things like the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies. It was a place to which the people came to transact with God. The church, not as building but as community, is the temple of the living God. The community of baptized believers forms the dwelling place of the Spirit. "Do you not know," asks the apostle Paul, "that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple" (1 Cor. 3:16-17).

St. Peter spoke of this phenomenon as the people of God. "Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (1 Peter 2:10). This metaphor emphasizes family, the family of God. God is the progenitor, Christ the Elder Brother, and the Spirit is the Mother who gives birth to new life in the community. This people draws life from God and creates a new social milieu expressive of the intention and purpose of God in the world.

St. John speaks of the relation of Christ to the members of the church as a vine with its branches. This metaphor suggests that the life of Christ flows into the community like sap from the vine flows into the branches. He is the life, the source of fruit and growth; without him the branches wither, die, and are cast off. St. John records Jesus' admonition to his disciples: "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:4-6).

St. Paul calls the church the body of Christ. "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor. 12:27). This metaphor speaks of Christ's community and of its mission. The church is Christ's "earthly form of existence." The church represents Christ in communal form. Together we constitute his body, and as such he continues to do through us what he did on earth.

The writer of the letter to the Ephesians speaks of the church as the bride of Christ. This metaphor graphically depicts our intimacy with Christ; he is as intimate with the church as a husband with his bride. Christ is as intimately joined to his body as a man is to a woman in commitment, love, and sexual intercourse! This closeness of Christ encompasses each individual and the whole community. The Ephesians author says, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:25-27).

Each of these metaphors clearly speaks of the church with a peculiar emphasis on the presence of God in this community. Our supreme need in making the transition into the future is a vision of the church as an embodiment of the presence of Christ and a bearer of the sacred.

The Church in the Spirit

All that has been affirmed through the church about the person of Christ, the teaching of Christ, and the mission of Christ, has profound significance in helping us recognize Christ's presence with us and his life in his body today. The church need not live on a memory of a memory or a second-hand report; it can live in the spirit of prophecy, in the presence and power of the contemporaneous Christ.

The Church in the Spirit lives with the awareness of the indwelling Christ; he is with us, in us, and wills to empower and guide us. Yet, this is not new. He has always guided and empowered the church when it has been willing to listen and obey. The Church in the Spirit is a community of the Real Presence, the embodiment of the risen and living Lord, the community infused with transcendence, and the witness to the coming kingdom.

Our task today requires that we identify the essential aspects of the church, those facets of the church that embody Christ, that manifest his person, his ministry, and his teaching. Through these formative images, and through the power of the Spirit we can imagine the church as a representation of Christ in today's culture. Surely a Church in the Spirit must be

  • a living community of faith composed of living stones that draw their life from the foundation stone.
  • an incarnate community formed in a particular cultural setting through which the living presence of its Lord manifests himself in the faith, values, relationships, service, and outreach of his community.
  • a worshiping community that gathers to offer praise and thanksgiving to the Creator, to implore God's help, and to rehearse regularly its identity and calling.
  • a transformative community through the presence of the living Lord, so that all who enter into the community encounter him, and through their encounter in worship, service, and reflection they are made whole and empowered for ministry.
  • an inclusive community that embraces differences—rich and poor, male and female, powerful and weak—because Christ has reconciled all persons to God.
  • a unified community through the Spirit, in which all who enter have drunk of the Spirit of Christ and are joined to each other in baptism.
  • a missional community that is being sent into the world to serve. Can we imagine this church?

A Corroborative Witness

Our thirteen-year-old son Mark had never issued a complaint about his eyesight. Nothing would have prompted us to schedule an eye exam except the recurrent gentle suggestion of our pediatrician: "You really ought to do that sometime, just to be sure." Thus we were more than a little surprised when Mark's appointment resulted in a prescription for eyeglasses. "Note how his eyes aren't quite on the same level," said the examiner. "I'm going to recommend prism lenses."

I had never heard of prism lenses. When they arrived two weeks later the family gathered for a trying-on party. One by one we squinted through the new frames and gasped, "Hey, these make everything double." Mark's reaction was odder still. "With these, there's only one of everything. What's going on?" Gradually the truth dawned on us. When one looks through another's prism lenses the world is seen as if with their uncorrected vision. For thirteen years Mark had been seeing double...and none of us had had the faintest clue. Certainly not Mark.

As he put it, "I just figured that since we have two eyes, we ought to see two of everything. A long time ago I realized that the object on the left was the 'real' one, while the other was just its partner." What I wanted to blurt out at the moment was, "No wonder it was so hard for you to hit all those baseballs I pitched in the back yard!" In point of fact Mark had capably learned to read, to ride a bike, and to work out math problems in a duplex world. Most intriguing of all was his ultimate rejection of the glasses. "They make the world seem so empty—almost like a cartoon world." To this day he happily sees double.

From time to time God corrects my vision of the cosmos. At various moments, some dramatic and some subtle, God seems to announce, "This is what things really look like. This is reality because this is the way I see reality." My experience, however, is that I also do not easily wear new lenses. New vision plays havoc with my calendar. It necessitates reshuffling my values. It spoils my sermon plans. It keeps me up at night. I openly admit two things: There is nothing more exciting than a divinely provided glimpse of what actually is,and there is, simultaneously, nothing more ruinous to everything that brings me comfort.

My spiritual story and that of Zionsville Presbyterian Church are closely linked. I was the organizing pastor of this congregation on the suburban fringe of Indianapolis in 1983. I have experienced firsthand its faltering first steps, its seasons of growth and drought, and the Spirit's persistent attempts to help us identify and embrace the vision of God's own choice.

Quite frankly we've resisted the vision. We've settled for many comfortable "second bests" until prodded, pushed, and forcibly compelled to have our spiritual eyesight checked. I believe that God has graciously cared for us and prepared us as each new part of the puzzle, each fresh wave of vision, has been presented for our response.

I am not a member of that small slice of the leadership pie that relishes radical change. Sit with me sometime at my favorite restaurant. Every time I go there I pick up the menu and read the descriptions of various entrees. Why do I do that? I've been to that restaurant at least seventy-five times, and I already know what I'm going to order. It's either going to be the Charleston salad or the chili. The server will come by the table and say, "We have a special today. It's Cajun fried orange roughy with sautéed vegetables." "Boy, that sounds great," I say. "I'll have the chili."

I've come to realize that most congregations prefer predictable entrees, no matter what God happens to be serving. The gravity of familiarity pulls us to the safety of tried-and-true patterns.

The development of our congregation reveals a similar tango of envisioning the future and reaching for the courage to embrace it. Our first fifteen years may be broken roughly into three five-year periods, in which our vision has been informed by decidedly different sources.

I wish I could help plant this church all over again...this time on purpose. Looking back, it's clear that our earliest vision was not so much purpose-centered as it was driven by the vagaries of demographics. Our church was established according to the Burger King model: that is, one look at the growing periphery of Indianapolis revealed that the northwest side needed a new outlet of our denominational franchise. If we built it they would come. And we all knew who "they" were—Presbyterians and other mainline churchgoers who had moved into houses in the Zionsville area too far away to enjoy the long commute to their churches of origin.

Yes, our original mission statement appropriately hinted at the need to reach unchurched people. But none of us had any idea how to tackle such an ideal. We had never talked to unchurched people to learn what they were seeking. We eagerly and effectively organized a congregation that essentially amounted to a warm version of the church of our collective memory. We gave birth to a "family church"—a haven for convinced church attenders. Despite our functional ignorance of the Great Commission during those first five years, God graciously blessed us and Sunday attendance began to grow.

When we reached 250 worshipers each week I began to notice some changes. First of all, I was exhausted. Driven by the self-imposed expectation that every decision ought to cross my desk and every family room deserved my personal presence at least once a year, I began to despair that I would never escape the sensation of fatigue. Our growing congregation and growing guest list on Sunday mornings—combined with my growing family at home—began to overwhelm me. Increasingly I felt guilty every time I made a call or headed to the office. "I should be home right now," I reckoned. "What kind of husband and father am I?" Sitting at home I found myself thinking, "I should be out making calls tonight. What kind of pastor am I?" The frenzy of attempting to keep all the balls in the air at the same time and the accelerating anxiety of falling short both at home and at work began to crush me. I yearned for a different way to do church.

About the same time I began to notice that more than half of our attenders seemed to have ended up at the wrong franchise. They knew little or nothing of our denominational distinctiveness. Increasingly we attracted young families (born after World War II) who had no church pedigree whatsoever. Slowly we began to rethink our target audience. Instead of positioning our young congregation as a homing beacon for "our kind of people," we began to imagine what it would be like to make a dent in the 59 percent of Boone County residents who identified themselves as non-church attenders.

This realization hit home with special force one Sunday at the end of an Inquirers Class. In the presence of several dozen potential new members I fell on my pastoral sword, admitting shamefacedly that I hadn't yet made a home visit to a single one of them. I was shocked to see the palpable relief on their faces. "Oh, you don't need to do that," they assured me. "Why would you want to visit us, anyway?" They professed dread at the thought of having to clean up their family rooms to receive a guest. An unchurched inquirer stated meekly, "I have no idea what you'd expect me to say to you...or even to serve you as a snack!" A new world was dawning before my eyes, a world in which traditional pastoral expectations just might be set aside. These young new members weren't encumbered by the traditional notion that lay people were incapable of doing ministry. They expected to contribute. I began to ask myself, "How might we rethink our church so that everyone might make a difference?"

The result was a frenetically exciting second five years informed by a new vision—a vision of a permission-giving, decentralized ministry style, one that saw the termination of standing committees (which our members had generally experienced as fruitless and boring) and the arrival of dozens of small groups and ministries. Our emphasis shifted from the-pastor-does-it-all to a spotlight on the gifts and calling bestowed on every believer by the Holy Spirit. Scores of individuals moved from Sunday spectators to ministry players. Two of the outcomes of this new approach to ministry I had long assumed were mutually exclusive: multiplication of new members and less stress for the pastor. My work load actually lessened as the congregation tripled in size.

Indeed there were genuine reasons to celebrate. But with time, the poverty of our church's vision became gnawingly apparent. Yes, there were more people on site. They were certifiably more assimilated than ever. They were even being managed in a way that affirmed their gifts and calls. Christ, however, did not send his followers to manage, but to transform ordinary men and women into full-fledged disciples. I became haunted by our numbers, the very numbers that looked so good on the denominational spreadsheet. What had our growth accomplished? We had multiplied the number of people who really had no clue how to obey Christ as Lord every hour of every day.

Sequentially, our vision had been demographically driven and ministry-driven. How could it be driven by the Master's call to make disciples? On my watch a church had grown up in Zionsville, Indiana, filled with members who deeply admired Mother Teresa but had no idea how to imitate Mother Teresa. For that matter, my teaching and preaching had never seriously floated the notion that people ought to be as devoted in body, mind, and spirit as that little Albanian nun. She was applauded by us all as a splendid aberration. During times of wrestling with God and in rereading the teachings of Jesus, I uncomfortably came to see that for ten years I had failed to challenge the American assumption that affluent Christians can enjoy the benefits of a life with God without seriously compromising their lifestyles.

Today our leadership team is working to demonstrate how all those called to our congregation might fulfill God's primary mandate: to become lifelong learners, or disciples, of Jesus Christ. We set before the congregation the ideal of six marks of the disciple. These include a heart for Christ alone, a mind transformed by the Word, arms of love, knees for prayer, a voice to speak the good news, and a spirit of sacrifice.

After years of upholding a model whereby a hundred believers send one of their number to "go be a missionary" on a foreign piece of geography, it's not easy to admit that we didn't quite get it right. What we meant to model was the sending of one of our number to be a foreign missionary—to learn a new language, to understand a local culture, to sacrifice the amenities of affluence, and to live knowing that he or she is always being watched by seekers—while the rest of us will stay here as lifetime local missionaries, learning to speak the language of the unchurched, understanding secular culture, sacrificing the amenities of affluence, and living as a "watched" person in a society that is skeptical of Christian spirituality until it sees the real thing on display.


  1. To what extent do the characteristics of "old church" describe your congregation?
  2. What is the vision that compels your church? How do you participate in this vision?
  3. What does pastor McDonald's story say to you about your church?
  4. How can individuals and officers in your congregation begin to imagine it as a Church in the Spirit?
  5. How can you help this process to occur?
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Table of Contents

Why and How to Use This Book
1 A New Church Vision 1
2 The Community of Christ 20
3 Initiation in a Church in the Spirit 39
4 Prayer in the Spirit 60
5 Discerning a Church's Mission in the Spirit 74
6 Preaching to a Church in the Spirit 89
7 An Inclusive Church in the Spirit 105
8 Leading a Church in the Spirit 117
9 Teaching in a Church in the Spirit 131
10 A Final Word on How to Use This Book 150
Index of Subjects 158
Index of Scripture References 160
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