The “Thesis” of the Primacy of the Divine Presence,
Power & Provision in Making the Church Effective
From last week’s Blog –
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+
It is one of those defining metaphors for me. It was Sam Shoemaker, the Episcopal Priest and Spiritual Renewal Leader, who first used it.
In 1952 Shoemaker was the main speaker for Religion-in-Life Week at the University of Pittsburgh. Representatives from a wide variety of denominations – Baptist and Presbyterian, Episcopal and Roman Catholic – were invited to share their faith. …During his address at a closing dinner for speakers and student leaders, Shoemaker surprised us by remarking, “Some have likened the Episcopal Church to the fireplace and the Methodist Church to the fire.” After pausing for laughter at his own expense, he continued, “You’ll have to admit, however, that the best place for a fire is in the fireplace, and not out in the middle of the floor!”
…This is a problem that has plagued all churches: the relationship between the organization and the life it is supposed to encourage. Every organism requires some degree of organization to channel its energy and fulfill its mission. So it is natural for the church to develop confessions of faith, services of worship and programs of activity. Imperceptibly, however, the inner life tends to wane even though the outward form persists. Throughout church history the flame in many organizational fireplaces has flickered and died. Though the fireplace was designed initially to foster a blaze, accumulations of soot eventually clogged the flue and smothered the fire.
…Eventually another generation, feeling the cold, tries to rekindle the fire. Unfortunately, it does not burn well, the flue is clogged and the hearth no longer fosters a blaze. Yet the custodians of the fireplace often resist the cleaning or painful remodeling which is now necessary. …So the kindlers of the flame are tempted – or even forced – to move their fire out into the middle of the floor. There, one of two things is likely to happen. Either the fire rages out of control, or its isolated coals die down for lack of a proper hearth. Samuel Shoemaker was right: the best place for a fire is in the fireplace. (Charles Hummel – Fire in the Fireplace – IVP – p.p. 14-16).
One of the reasons that this metaphor has such power for me is that I have lived it.
I was raised in the “fireplace.” Mom and Dad took my two sisters and me to church every Sunday morning when I was growing up, and the church they took us to was the Church of the Holy Apostles in Glendale, California, a “high” Episcopal church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition – “smells and bells.” And then, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when I was in High School, I caught on “fire.” These were the heady days of the Jesus People Movement in Southern California, and its heat and light touched my heart. I was not the Prodigal who had wandered off into the far country, the typical “Jesus Freak.” I was more of an “older brother” who had stayed home and gotten just as lost. And in the same way that God’s love in Jesus Christ found the prodigal, so it found me. And from that moment until now, I have struggled constantly with the “fire” and the “fireplace.” This is part of the reason why I think I would up as a member and minister in the Disciples of Christ.
The Disciples are part of what’s known as the Stone/Campbell Movement. The “Stone” comes from Barton W. Stone (1772 – 1844), founder of the “Christian” Church in Kentucky – a product of the “fire” of the Cane Ridge Camp Meeting during the Second Great Awakening. The “Campbell” refers to Thomas Campbell (1763 – 1854) and his son Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866), the founders of the “Disciples of Christ” Church in what is today West Virginia – the strudiest of the “fireplaces” built in early America. When these two movements shook hands and became one church in 1832 in Louisville, Kentucky, the “fire” and the “fireplace” were joined, and the struggle between structure and passion, Spirit and form, organization and organism in the heart of our Movement was set in motion. Our heritage hardwired the “fire” and the “fireplace” into our very denominational DNA, and I’m glad for it.
This spiritual struggle constantly serves as a reminder of the “both/and” rather than the “either/or” nature of reality. I have found that my life and faith are so much better served by hanging onto “furious opposites” rather than by championing one-sided half-truths, and this has proven particularly true for me with the “fire” and the “fireplace.” As Sam Shoemaker pointed out, “the best place for a fire is in the fireplace, and not out in the middle of the floor!”
But, to my way of thinking, the “fire” has a certain primacy. It comes first. It’s the reason why the “fireplace” gets built. This is the “thesis” in my dialectic. It’s where I start.
The late Calvin Miller in one of his books lamented the way that so many churches he knew had become “hollow museums” where the curator invoked the name of God with no expectation of God ever actually making an appearance. In contrast, writer Annie Dillard in one of her essays observed that based on her reading of the Bible, ushers in church really ought to be issuing crash helmets at the door before lashing congregants into their pews. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), for proof, just stroll with Moses up the side of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-25) or spend the morning with Isaiah in the Temple (Isaiah 6:1-7). There is “fire,” and we don’t kindle it. At best, we can provide the “fireplace” to contain the “fire” when and where it falls. This is not nothing, as I will explore next week in my “antithesis” blog on the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective. But the fanciest “fireplace” there is just gathers dust unless and until there is a “fire” in it, and that “fire” is not something we engineer, it’s something we receive.
Samuel D. Rima (Rethinking the Successful Church – Baker Books – 2002) says that he had to “rethink the successful church” when, after leading one congregation in a season of significant numerical growth, he got called to another church where they wanted him to do the same thing all over again with them. And Sam said that as he began that he really did believe that “if only he did the right things, applied the proper techniques, and raised enough money,” that he could “manufacture church growth just like a mortgage banker increases his or her market share.” He saw it as a favorite “recipe” that if followed precisely would get the same results every time (25). But what Sam discovered in his new church was that although he was the same minister as he had been before with exactly the same skill sets and the same vision and commitments, that he didn’t get the same results. He eventually left that church “feeling like an unmitigated failure,” “wounded and shaken to his very soul” (47). And in his recovery Sam says that he began to come to terms with the great Biblical truth that he had failed to take into account in his previous “success” and “failure” in ministry, what he calls “the Sovereignty of God.”
We must realize that there are much greater forces at work in our ministry than simply our own will power, enthusiasm, determination, giftedness, vision and passion. The reality is that the church in which we serve is God’s church. And God has some very definite ideas of what success looks like in his church. …It is not up to us to determine what will ultimately take place in the church we serve – that’s God’s job – and we forget or neglect that reality at our own emotional and spiritual peril. (52)
In one of only three places where the word “church” actually appears on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels, after telling Peter that his confession of Him as being the Christ, the Son of the Living God, was correct, Jesus told His disciples that it would be “upon this rock that I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). And I hear an echo of this promise in I Corinthians 3:6, where Paul, discussing the different functions that different ministers had performed in the life of that church, observed: “I (Paul) planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.” It’s a different metaphor, but I think that it’s the same truth as the “fire” and the “fireplace” comparison makes. To get a crop a farmer has to plow, and plant, and water. But nothing the farmer does causes the seed to grow. In the same way, I believe that we can help to create the conditions that are conducive to conflagrations, but the “fire” still has to “fall.” It is something that God is going to have to do when, and where, and how God so chooses, and that’s what Divine sovereignty means. It means that God is in charge and that we have to be patient, expectant and responsive. This is why everyone who has studied the great moves of God in church history, looking for the causes and conditions that preceded their arrival, always come back to prayer.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834 – 1892), a British Baptist preacher was one of the true giants of the church. His church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle of London, was a congregation of over 6,000 and added well over 14,000 members during his thirty-eight-year London ministry. During his lifetime, Spurgeon is estimated to have preached to 10,000,000 people, and he remains history’s most widely read preacher. There is more available material written by Spurgeon than by any other Christian author, living or dead. His sixty-three volumes of sermons stand as the largest set of books by a single author in the history of Christianity, comprising the equivalent to the twenty-seven volumes of the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica” (http://areuserious.org).
When people would walk through the Metropolitan Tabernacle (as New Park Street Church became known), Spurgeon would take them to a basement prayer room where people were always on their knees interceding for the church. Then the pastor would declare, “Here is the powerhouse of this church.” (www.christianhistoryinstitute.org)
The church as a “fireplace” doesn’t make much sense and isn’t of much use apart from the “fire.” Just like the wind of the Spirit that Jesus said “blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going” (John 3:8), the “fire” is not something that we can create or control, but it is something that we can desire and seek, and that will necessitate prayer. We can’t force the hand of God, but we can open ours to receive what God wants to give us on His terms and in His time. DBS+
A PRAYER FOR REVIVAL
C. H. Spurgeon
O God, send us the Holy Ghost! Give us both the breath of spiritual life and the fire of unconquerable zeal! O Thou art our God, answer by fire we pray Thee! Answer us both by wind and fire, and then we shall see Thee to be God indeed. The kingdom comes not, and the work is flagging. Oh, that Thou woudst send the wind and the fire! Thou wilt do this when we are all of one accord, all believing, all expecting, all prepared by prayer.
Lord, bring us to this waiting state! God, send us a season of glorious disorder. Oh, for a sweep of the wind that will set the seas in motion, and make our ironclad brethren, now lying so quietly at anchor, to roll from stem to stern!
Oh, for the fire to fall again— fire which shall affect the most stolid! Oh, that such a fire might first sit upon the disciples, and then fall on all around! O God, Thou art ready to work with us today even as Thou didst then. Stay not, we beseech Thee, but work at once.
Break down every barrier that hinders the incoming of Thy might! Give us now both hearts of flame and tongues of fire to preach Thy reconciling word, for Jesus’ sake! Amen!