A Balanced Vision Using the Streams

In my last essay, I began to explore what it would look like for a local congregation to work with a holistic view of the Church and incorporate some of the historic ways God has been working with his people. Earlier this month, I did a podcast with Giff Reed, one of the pastors of a church that is intentionally trying to integrate the streams into their services and life together.

Having looked closely at three of six major streams in the previous essay, I’ll look this time at the remaining three streams—and attempt to offer a few ideas for how they might be practically lived out in Church life.

The Charismatic Tradition

Spirit-Empowered Life: Fueling our lives from the presence and power of God

For many, this tradition is primarily thought of in terms of worship style. Churches are often categorized as “charismatic” based solely on specific practices: praying for healing, speaking in tongues, dancing or raising hands during worship. This common categorization offers a severely limited view of the tradition.   

The truth is that all Christians are charismatic, as our very acceptance and growth in Christ is a work of the Spirit. By definition, being a Christian means interaction with the Spirit. It’s important not to narrowly define what the Charismatic tradition looks like. Living life in the presence and power of the Spirit has many different implications and expressions. The Spirit brings comfort, gentleness, power, signs and wonders. It is not for us to limit or judge; we simply receive.

God doesn’t seem to be in the habit of pushing himself upon people. The question is not what manifestation the Spirit will take, but rather what are you willing to let him do? Grace allows us to start where we are and works with us as we grow in our openness and awareness.

I think of this tradition as simply being open to the movements of the Spirit. It involves a posture of attentiveness, a listening and responding to the wind of God, ever active, ever involved, in the workings of his people. For me, this is often manifested in subtle promptings, not in the big, loud, or distracting. One of the great riches I’ve found in the Charismatic stream is that it pushes and stretches me into a sort of gentle boldness. I learn to ask if I can pray with someone, or to offer encouragement or a word I may be sensing. The movement of the Spirit can be powerful for sure, but it is also playful and, dare I say, fun.  

I recently heard about a group of charismatic nuns who went to pray for children at a Methodist church. With much patience and grace, they shared that they wanted to lay their hands on the children and ask for God to bring healing; with gentleness, they explained a little about what might happen. A friend who was there recounted that the room was so peaceful that anyone who walked by would surely have known that good things were happening and that God was present.

What is your worshiping community open to? In times both planned and spontaneous, do you intentionally create space and opportunity for the Spirit to be at work in your service and life together? Our desires for productivity, perfection, and control in a service can be the greatest hindrance to the workings of the Spirit. God often gives us freedom to forgo the wonders of the Spirit to pursue our own ends.

Let me offer a few words of caution. Listening and responding to the movements of the Spirit should never be used to assert power, control, and/or manipulation over others. While there are many similar ways in which the Spirit works with people, our experiences should never be used judgmentally to draw lines or demand that others have the same experiences as we have. We trust God with people. God is far too creative to be boxed up.  

Avoid the practice of chasing after experiences as if they were a consumer product. We’re learning to submit our lives to God’s rule. When the Spirit reveals wonders and powers of God’s kingdom on earth, it should always usher us into greater love of God and neighbor. The point is never to idolize the outward sign.

Our task is to create space for God to have his way in our services. When the Spirit of God shows up in quiet, gentle ways, we say “Thank you.” If God chooses to show up in powerful and wonderful ways, we say “Thank you.”  And, when we are open to God and our senses are not tickled and it feels dry and barren, we say “Thank you.”  

The Incarnational Tradition

Sacramental Life: Encountering the invisible God in the visible world

Nothing is outside the realm of God’s purview and loving care. God is with us—in everything. The incarnational tradition helps us rip through the divide of sacred and secular. God in work and play. God in the ordinary and mundane. God in our sacraments and songs. God in nature and suffering. God in our thoughts and interactions with others. This stream can have a profound effect on how we view and live our lives. Sometimes it is really just as simple as tuning our awareness to what God is already doing. There is so much to this tradition, but let me offer a few ways this might be helpful to our churches today.

Work Life

Our society has a bad habit of assigning value and worth to people based on their jobs; consequently, many are caught in a destructive cycle of chasing achievement in order to gain identity and esteem. Work is not only a means to an end, nor is it a place to gain identity. We are beloved children of God—that is who we are, that is our identity. Work is a holy endeavor, a co-laboring process with God. And so we learn to invite God to be with us in our work, allowing our daily labors to become a prayerful exchange. We work before, and for, an audience of one.

Sacraments and Liturgy 

For some churches, the entire Sunday gathering is centered on the sacraments. There are also churches that almost entirely avoid them. Again, we begin where we are.

Of course, the place to grow in these practices is in the heart, patiently and respectfully attending to God’s work in our physical world, avoiding rote traditions void of meaning and significance. Giving people continual explanation and guidance as to the reason and intention behind practices is often needed. For some people unfamiliar with these ancient practices of Christ-followers, sacraments and liturgy will lead to wonderfully meaningful discoveries.

Our culture, in general, is largely removed from ancient, ritualistic practices and many are rediscovering the silence and beauty of them. For me there’s a freedom I find in joining the historic chorus of faithful Jesus-followers throughout the ages. We don’t have to be tied to having to come up with something new, we can rest in trusted words and practices, collectively opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to God.

Nature 

Everyone, Christian or not, knows there is something very special about nature. The world is God’s playground, his creative art on display, the will of the Father in interactive form. In the created order, it is the incarnation that speaks so profoundly to our souls.

One thing very helpful for our spiritual growth is to simply validate and encourage prayerfully playing in God’s creation. For many people a good entry point into the spiritual disciplines is as simple as sitting next to a stream reading a book, taking a nap under a tree, or walking with a friend. Communities in the habit of spending time together outdoors create wonderful spaces to remind and teach each other about God’s glory on display. 

The Social Justice Tradition

Compassionate Life: Extending compassion in every sphere of life

Many denominations have a beautiful and rich history of putting this tradition into practice. Behind nearly every great movement for social change in this country there have been people of faith, in the forefront and in the back, oftentimes for many years, working and advocating for the cause of the oppressed and disenfranchised.

Much good is currently being done. In virtually all towns and cities across this country you will find various help efforts of the Church: homeless shelters, food pantries, addiction treatment centers, children’s services, refugee and trafficking services to name a few. These are often fully integrated into society and respected as change agents for the good of humanity. Internationally, we find Christians all around bringing aid to myriad pressing issues: starvation, human trafficking, access to clean water, HIV care, empowering small businesses, education, and women’s rights. Good work is being done, but great need remains.

At least from an informational perspective, people in our society are more cued into the injustice and suffering of the world than ever before. By and large, at least at some level, people want to be involved. Probably in no other age has the Church had more resources and access to carry out the mandates of Jesus to care for the poor and oppressed.

While the streams blend and flow one into the other, we should make a distinction between making converts and feeding, clothing, serving, and advocating for those on the margins. People are rightly wary of “bait and switch” methods, and while being of help to the world and one’s neighbor can provide a natural way to invite people into the Jesus life, we should be clear as to what we are about. Engaging in service work under the guise of compassion, while hiding our primary agenda to make people Christians, is not only potentially manipulative and dishonest, it diminishes our service. When practicing the social justice tradition, we learn once more to trust God with people, and that sometimes service alone is enough.

Let me offer a few suggestions for groups who want to grow in the work of compassion. 

Humility

Being in need and allowing others to help is extremely vulnerable. If you are seeking to practice the social justice tradition, but would never ask for or receive help from someone else, this might be a good place for you to start. Letting others help you will birth empathy and also bring awareness of some of the dangerous power equations that can form. If what we offer to the “least of these” is truly an act of service to Jesus, it is holy ground and we should tread lightly. When people allow us into their lives, they are extending one of the greatest honors a person can give another, and we should treat it as such. True service isn’t about relieving our guilt or gaining status or worth as a helper; it is about walking the path of Jesus—with Jesus.

Listening

You would be surprised how often service work is done without taking the time to ask and listen to what people actually want or need. History is full of examples of people trying to help others and ending up doing more harm than good because they simply failed to ask what was actually needed. In times of crisis, delivering life-saving goods is typically the first priority. But, in America, often the greatest need of the poor and disenfranchised is to be heard and treated with respect and dignity. One simple way to care for people is just by learning the stories they hold. In doing so we humanize the other, breaking down walls. So when you go to the shelter to serve meals, maybe the most significant thing you do won’t be giving food, but rather taking time to share a meal with others and listen.

For some, listening to others begins to grow a deep awareness of the positions of privilege we may hold, revealing the opportunities our society affords to some and deprives to others. Service forms us, growing a life of compassion for God’s children. If we’re brave enough, we will become attuned to the way God’s heart aches over the injustice and brokenness of the world.

Empowering

Another way in which our efforts to help can actually hurt is when we inadvertently create and reinforce “us and them” power structures, diminishing the strengths and treasures of a local community and creating a dynamic of learned helplessness.

Seek to empower people. Don’t disparage small or hidden service. Everyone has something to give. And, don’t underestimate the role of prayer. For some groups, devoting the next six months to gather each week to pray for an issue or people group would be a wonderful way to start.

It is of great value for a congregation to take time to prayerfully discern the work God would have for you as a people. Who is on the margins in your own communities? Who is suffering, shut-in, ignored, and forgotten? Who is not safe? If you really want to dig deep, ask who is not welcomed to join you in worship on a Sunday morning.

A Formational Church

The streams give us a glimpse into the many ways God has been at work among his people. They entice us to explore the Christian faith beyond our cultural and denominational lines. They lay fertile ground for the transformation of our lives into the image of Jesus. They give shape to the various disciplines we’re invited to practice.

How do we help foster an environment where worshiping communities practically and intentionally engage each other in becoming followers and apprentices of Jesus, co-laboring with God in genuine transformation: a gathered people for whom silence and prayer, holiness and compassion, are natural responses to life; a people filled with the Spirit, woven in the Word, proclaiming the goodness of God with our very lives; a people aware and living out incarnational lives?  From these training grounds, these gymnasiums for the spiritual life, how might we become known the world over for our love?

I’m ending this essay where our exploration really begins. Next time, I’ll attempt to bring things together and further consider ideas for what it might look like to have spiritual formation fully integrated into Church life.

Hungry for More? Nathan carries the conversation into this week’s podcast with Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, authors of Renovation of the Church.

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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