The triad – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – is often used to describe the thought of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel stresses the paradoxical nature of consciousness; he knows that the mind wants to know the whole truth, but that it cannot think without drawing a distinction. Unfortunately, every distinction has two terms, every argument has a counter-argument, and consciousness can only focus on one of these at a time. So it fixes first on the one, then under pressure fixes second on the other, until it finally comes to rest on the distinction itself. Hegel refers to this process of alternation and rest as dialectic. [http://militantlibertarian.org]
This familiar philosophical category serves me quite well.
I am an inveterate moderate. I deplore the extremes. I never finish preaching a sermon without wanting to immediately say, “Now, on the other hand…” I never vote without wishing that I could take some of the positions and qualities of each candidate, and just like Frankenstein, use those parts to fashion an entirely new and different kind of being. I get impatient with people who stake out their positions with clarity and passion, and who then refuse to listen to alternate points of view that are being staked out by people who can match their clarity and passion. I can’t understand how people fail to see the complexity of things, and who become comfortable championing one-sided half-truths. In his introduction to Martin Buber’s I and Thou (judged to be one of the 20th century’s foundational documents), Walter Kaufmann lamented the way that we tend to settle all too easily for black and white conclusions. The alternatives before us are always myriad and manifold, he said, requiring us to be perpetually open and inquisitive, which brings me to the great wrestling match that’s been going on in my head since my Sabbatical earlier this year.
Scroll back through my blog posts to May 20, 2014, and take a quick look at “Human-Centered Church Growth ~ Christ-Centered Church Growth: A Collaboration or a Conflict?” In my examination of how some churches have been able to successfully shift their understanding and practice of evangelism from just being one of the many things that they do to actually becoming part of who they are, part of their culture as a church, the tug-of-war, at least for me, always returned to the same issue: when it comes to evangelism, what’s God’s part and what’s ours? This is a perennial theological tussle – it’s Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin and Arminius, Wesley and Whitefield, Edwards and Finney.
The conundrum gets distilled quite nicely for me in the comment that an Episcopal priest once made to R.T. Kendall, the Minister Emeritus of London’s historic Westminster Chapel – “If the Holy Spirit were taken completely from the Church, 90% of the work of the Church would go right on as if nothing had happened!” (The Anointing – 3). Exploring this idea, just about a year ago Geoff Surratt, a church planter in Colorado, in a blog on his web page – “Inner Revolution” (http://geoffsurratt.com), asked “How long could you do ministry without God?”
I wonder how long I could be successful in ministry without God? I’ve been in vocational ministry for 31 years, and I seldom encounter a situation I haven’t seen before. I have a stockpile of sermons to pull from, and many other places where I can grab a complete sermon with a moment’s notice. I do strategy, staffing and structure in my sleep. My experience, connections and the internet give me all the tools I need to do ministry, and do it at a very high level. God is good, but often not all that necessary.
How about you? How long could your church function, and function well, without God? You have your sermons planned through Easter, your song lists loaded into Planning Center and your small group resources online. You have well-trained volunteers and the best staff money can buy. Your IT and weekend tech have redundancies built in to handle any contingency. The people who attend your church know that they will have a quality experience every weekend regardless what might happen behind the scenes. Certainly God is welcome at your church, but is he really necessary?
… I am all for policies, procedures, strategy, training, planning and technology. If fact, except for policies and procedures, these are the things I love the most. And I am amazed to see how effectively churches use these tools to reach people far from God and lead them into biblical discipleship. What scares me, shakes me to my core, however is how easily we can substitute the tools of worship for genuine worship. How often we find ourselves worshipping the creation rather than the creator. How many weekends we leave church feeling satisfied because the music was good, the sermon was well received and the attendance was up without even considering if God was pleased.
How long has it been since I have been on my face before God, desperate to hear from him, knowing that I am absolutely toast without him. When was the last time I was so hungry to experience the power and presence of God that I could not eat, I could not sleep until I felt the supernatural touch of his Holy Spirit? When was the last time I was so overwhelmed by the responsibility of preaching the Word that I could barely breathe?
It is not all that hard to build a ministry without God.
What a terrifying place to be.
Over the next few weeks I am going to be thinking out loud here about the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective, and the part that the Divine presence, power and provision plays. Using Hegel’s dialectic, I am going to move from an examination of the thesis of Divine action, to an exploration of the antithesis of human action, to a consideration of the shape that some kind of synthesis of the two might take? And along the way I hope to bump into some truths that might actually serve the church and its ministry today. DBS+
If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today,
95% of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference.
If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church,
95% of what they did would stop and everybody would know the difference.
~ A.W. Tozer