Friday, August 30, 2013

Pastorates manuscript #4


Just before he ascended into the heavens, Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they had received the promise of the Father.  So in Acts 1, they wait in a very active way, studying the scriptures, praying, and dealing with some leadership issues.  Then in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit comes on them with power, just as Jesus had promised.  Eventually -- after six more chapters of hanging around Jerusalem -- the disciples move out into Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit and under the authority of the ascended Lord Jesus Christ that they can do this.  Every time these Jesus-followers opt for their own agendas, they fail.  Every time they choose to operate in their own strength, the movement falters.

The Church of Jesus Christ can only be the Church of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  If we are operating by any other power, we are not operating as the Church that Jesus intended.

Look back through Christian history with this lens and you see a fascinating landscape.  Movements rise and fall by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Individuals arise at just the right time in history and wield amazing power because they trust in the Spirit.  

Modern students of history are often tempted to secularize history -- to view it as a purely human chain of causes and effects.  Jesus’ followers must never give in to this temptation.  We need to remember (as Paul boldly proclaims in Acts 17) that the events of human history are Spirit-driven events.  

I am not saying that all events are caused by God.  The debate between strict predestination and open theism is far beyond me, though I believe Scripture tends to favor those who give God more credit, not less.  However, it is important to recognize that God is active in history, moving his followers to build his kingdom, to speak truth to power, and to proclaim Jesus in all ages and all places.

In the early 1900’s a group of Christians experienced a supernatural outpouring of the Holy Spirit complete with miraculous healings and gifts of “glossalalia” or speaking in tongues.  Since that time, the word “Pentecostal” has usually referred to these Christian sects that expect the miraculous gifts and intervention of the Holy Spirit.

However, Mark Noll has described “Pentecostal” in a deeper and wider sense.  I quote him at length from a lecture at Roanoke College in 2006.

The simple demography of the world situation today forces -- or should force -- Christian believers in the West to reexamine questions that they may not have thought of for quite some time.  

I'm a Presbyterian.  Presbyterians are defined by:

A. Resistance to change,
B. A desire to have lots of committees, and
3. [sic] An inability to move past a mile or two an hour on any kind of conceptual issue. 

The world -- the Christian world we live in today is not a world made for Presbyterians.  It is a world changing fast, that's demanding Christian and theological reconsideration.
For example, how close is the world of spirits to the world in which we live?  In other words, what is to be made practically of the traditional Christian belief in the supernatural?  All Christians in one variety or another believe in forces beyond nature, in a God who acts for his own purposes when he wishes.  In most of the Christian world today, however the abstract belief in God's ability to act supernaturally is connected to a strong belief that God acts supernaturally, practically, in the world almost all the time ...  

[Noll describes a work by a Canadian author on images and experiences of Jesus in West Africa, and the sophisticated theological reflection that grows out of these images and experiences.]  

What I was impressed by was how standard, how ordinary, the expectation that God would normally, often, in the regular course of things, act for his own purposes, to bring about physical healing ...  

[Noll next describes a friend of his who leads seminars in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world on Bible reading.]  I asked John, "Now, how many of the people who come to your seminars -- and they would be Baptists, they would be Presbyterians, they would be Nazarenes, they would be Catholics, as well as many from independent churches -- how many of these people would be Pentecostal and charismatic?" He shakes his head and he says, "Every single one."  

They all are.  They all are expecting God to act immediately. 

Well, I don't.  I'm an academic Christian who thinks through things, and I want the Lord to kind of take his time.  But on such questions, it actually might not mean a whole lot what I think, very very soon.

Mark Noll has his finger squarely on one of the most important divides in Christianity today.  Christianity is not divided so much between Catholic and Protestant, or rich and poor, or Arminian or Calvinist.  Those divisions are real, but less important than this simple question:  Does God act freely, commonly, often, even daily, by his Spirit, to intervene for his own causes in the created world?  Those Noll labels "Pentecostals" would say a firm "yes!" to this question.  The rationalist protestantism I grew up with might more likely say a cautious, "Maybe."

Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds across the globe.  Much of this growth is happening in Africa and in China.  The growth that is happening, whatever denominational label it has, is a "Pentecostal" kind of Christianity in this specific sense: It is a Christianity that expects God to act immediately, supernaturally, in tangible ways.  It is a Christianity that is filtered more through the book of Acts than the book of Romans.

In 2011 Pastor Paul Johansson from Central spent some time in Ethiopia and Tanzania as part of his sabbatical.  One of the conversations he had during that time included observations about the Lutheran churches in Kenya and Tanzania.  In the 1960's, a charismatic revival broke out across the globe, including East Africa.  The Lutherans in Kenya discussed the revival and said, "This is not what our Lutheran churches are about."  They rejected this revival, and the Lutheran church in Kenya today has a few hundred thousand members, much the same size today as it was in the 1960's.  Next door in Tanzania, the Lutherans -- about the same size in the '60's as the church in Kenya -- embraced this charismatic revival as a legitimate work of the Holy Spirit.  The church began to grow by leaps and bounds, and today there are more than five million Lutheran Christians in Tanzania.  The Lutheran church in Tanzania continues to be Pentecostal in its expectation that God will act in a daily, supernatural way.  It continues to grow like mad.

Those who are doing cutting edge work in theology today have to speak about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the church and in the world.  We cannot cling to a rationalistic, Enlightenment-based distortion of Christianity that we think somehow reflects the Protestant Reformation, but that loses the heart of the New Testament.  Theology today must find a way to speak with clarity about this kind of expectation, this kind of Pentecostal expectation that God will act.  This is pneumatology, the study of the ways of God's Spirit and the difference that this Spirit makes in the life of the believer and of the church.  If Noll is right -- and I believe he is -- then this expectation cuts across every denomination, every tradition.  Expectant Lutherans have far more in common with expectant Catholics than they do with more rationalistic Lutherans.  This Pentecostal expectation has not exactly undone the Protestant Reformation, but it has certainly created a new watershed within Christianity.  On one side of the divide, the church is growing deeper and wider.  On the other side it is shrinking.

What does this have to do with pastorates?  Everything.  If pastorates are a program initiated by humans in response to a need within our churches, they will fail.  But I believe that the Spirit of God is moving through churches in the world today.  Not surprisingly the Spirit has started with churches where human beings hold the least power -- churches among indigenous peoples in the global south, churches in the secularized cities of western Europe, churches in the chic, agnostic populations of the Pacific Northwest in the United States.  Among these power-poor churches the Spirit has started to create Jesus-centered communities that exist in the Spirit’s power.  These communities are thriving for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that they actually work.  In a short time this book will examine the why, what, and how of pastorates.  First we need to take one more historical detour into the Protestant Reformation.

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