Church, the Holy Spirit, and Learning to Rely on God Rather than Our Institutions

I had a church history professor who was fond of saying, “The church institutionalizes how the Holy Spirit moved last.” He’s right. When a movement of the Spirit comes along, and people are saved and there is revival in the church, there is the innate human tendency to want to replicate this result by nailing down the methods through which this movement appears to have taken place. If we just do things this way, then this will be the result. We want concrete, permanent solutions to our ecclesiastical problems and evangelistic endeavours. On the one hand, I think there’s an understandable desire for stability in this. But on the other hand, we end up relying more on what we view as effective methods than we do on the God who graciously chose to work sovereignly through them. Perhaps God seeks to destabilize us precisely in order that we might realize how profoundly we need him—indeed, so that we would come to him in desperation, in abject poverty of spirit, in the recognition that all we do or try is for naught without his power and mercy.

Now, I would say that it’s impossible to avoid some manner of institutionalization. I can also add that we need some degree of institutionalization. We need some order and structure, standards by which we minister together for the sake of the gospel, if we’re going to be a community of faith. When people come together, they need to organize. Perhaps, then, it’s about the principles and values by which we organize. And every church organizes itself–its programs and ministries–in a manner based on both practical considerations and theological principles. And even if some of our older institutional structures once had (and still try to maintain) principles and values we want to espouse today as churches, no doubt the accumulation of dust and history requires we do some serious house-cleaning if we’re going to remember them and be able to live by them as a community. We need to have the wind of God’s Spirit blow through our churches and into our lives in a fresh way. The real question is not whether we need this. Rather, the question is whether we’re willing to admit it and be open to it. And then: What form does such willingness and openness need to take? In our current situation, what spiritual posture do we need to adopt? Or to put it another way: Do we really want God to have his way with us once again?

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