Many Christians have observed that new churches often start out full of life and grace–full of the spirit–but then something happens. Right around the time they start thinking about getting a permanent building, hiring a pastor, or buying pews, the wheels begin to fall off. Newcomers do not notice it, and may even revel in the new fellowship they have found. However, old timers–those who were there from the beginning–realize that the spark is now gone. It is not just that the church has had growing pains: The measure of the Holy Spirit that the church once had has departed, and any life the church now has is just a residual glow from a fire that has been put out. Since it may have been a bonfire, the glow may be quite considerable and last a long time. However, the wild flames of insane passion are no longer there, and already, so soon after birth, the church is descending into spiritual death as the embers of revival slowly dim.
In ten years, this once vibrant church will be just like any other organized church whose lamp has been removed from God’s presence.
Many, many people have written about this phenomenon and posited answers. Most of the answers given are organizational: The organization is wrong, and if a new form of church can be found, this problem can be avoided. In many cases, this “new” form is really a modern conception of what its proponents believe is the New Testament church, usually following some home group model. But while this new group may pat itself on the back and believe that it has solved the problem of growing and keeping revival going, it is so often only fooling itself. Outside observers–along with the many, many people who have left these churches–see many of the same problems that plague established churches. In some cases, the problems are not as bad. In other cases, such as groups which have followed apostolic or shepherding models, the problems are much, much worse. However, none of these organizations have kept the fire glowing.
Let me humbly suggest that those looking to solve this problem are looking in the wrong place. They think that the problem is organizational, that if they get rid of pews, songbooks, pastors–or any number of things they personally dislike–that the problem will go away.
Instead, the problem is motivational. It is in the human heart.
There are many destructive motivations that one can bring to a church, but the most destructive by far, the one that will quench the Holy Spirit faster than any other, the most common, but the least recognized, is selfish ambition. Indeed, in many churches and ministry settings, not only is selfish ambition not recognized as a sin, but it is applauded as a virtue.
A person with selfish ambition seeks to use the Holy Spirit or the church ministry to benefit himself in some way. This benefit is often related to career objectives. A lay member may want to move from the laity to a paid position in the church. A pastor may want to increase church rolls, get a higher salary, make a name for himself, get glory, or do whatever else is necessary to be able to move to a bigger, more powerful, wealthier church. Even those not looking for career enhancement may see the church and its ministry as a place where they can achieve personal ambitions for influence, power, or gain.
More indirectly, many people see the church as an extension of their own egos. By going to the biggest, best, most expensive, most beautiful church in the city, they feel better about themselves. This, more than anything else, is why large, beautiful churches are built. Yet, since the first church building was not built until more than two hundred years after Christ’s resurrection, from a biblical standpoint church buildings are the least defensible attribute of the modern church.
Hiring decisions in churches are most often made–not by consulting God–but on the basis of what in a worldly sense will be more impressive to outsiders. A young, handsome pastor who is a dynamic speaker may often be preferred over someone who is older, plainer, and not as good as a speaker, but who may have more of a pastoral gift. Someone gifted at music will be preferred as a worship leader over someone with the gift of praise. Since inner personal qualities are shunned in favor of outer glory–the kind of thing that impresses others–it is little wonder that many church hires are relatively untried, untested, and unvetted. The church knows that these men will look good on the podium, increase their tithes, help get financing for the new building, and increase their membership, but has no idea whether or not they will try to sleep with their daughters.
The confusion between what looks good and what is of the Holy Spirit has run rampant within the church today. Most Christians are completely unable to discern between the two.
All of this stems from selfish ambition. People cannot separate their own desires, aspirations, and psychological needs from the will of God.
Selfish ambition can be difficult to identify, but it is one of those sins that runs with other sins that are far easier to discern:
I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.
2 Corinthians 12: 20b
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
James 3: 13-18
In your church life, are you a person of discord, jealousy, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder? Or, are you a person who is peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere? Probably, if you have read this far, then you have nothing to repent for yourself. However, surely, you can identify people in your church–often people in positions of influence–who harbor these bad attributes. A bad apple spoils the whole bunch–this is why the spirit in your church has been quenched.
But you need to think of your church as a body as well. How does it relate to other churches? While it is perfectly OK to be off alone and not have much of a relation with other churches, how can anyone think it right for their church to be in competition with the others? Most churches are highly ambitious when it comes to competition with other churches, yet they wonder why “Ichabod” (“God’s glory has departed”) is written above their door.
There is an answer to the problem of selfish ambition, and believe it or not, it is quite simple. The ambitious energy of a Christian or a church needs to be channeled into something which is completely unselfish.
For example, when your small group reaches the point where it must either get a church building or die, there is yet another way: To send people out. Seriously. Become a missionary church. Instead of building pews and filling them with yet more people, take those who have energy and send them out as missionaries or church planters, support them as needed, and then release them to God without expectation of gaining from them or controlling them. If you do this, your church will continue to have the fire that it once had. It will continue to have life.
Such a precedence is not unheard of in the Christianity. Perhaps the most famous of the missionary churches are the Moravians. The Moravians came from the Bohemian Brethren movement, which essentially was a part of the Reformation long before the time of Martin Luther. In 1727, a branch of the Bohemian Brethren on the estate of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf split into two warring factions. The Count forced them to make peace with each other–a peace that was sealed by the Holy Spirit some days later. The result was revival, and intense missionary activity.
This small group became the first Protestant body to send out missionaries, and was for more than 100 years by far the most prolific Christian mission group in the world. By sending people out, the fires were kept in full roar at home–for one hundred years the group had someone in continual prayer, twenty-four hours a day.
John Wesley was ultimately converted to Christianity by the Moravians, and began his evangelical ministry in England as a part of their group, though he later broke away because of Moravian support for quietism. Despite this, many of the good aspects of the Moravian church became incorporated into early Methodism, and indirectly the Moravians helped spark the First Great Awakening. Since the early days of the Church, no other group has had the basic street cred that the Moravians had for revival when they were in their heyday, and it lasted for about 100 years.
This is not to say that they always got things right–only that they got some very important things right, and we can learn from them. This group and many other small groups throughout history have shown us how to avoid losing the fire. Your first priority cannot be to build your influence, control, power, ministry, church, or denomination–it must be to build God’s Kingdom, to build other people up, even when–especially when–you can gain nothing from it in return.
And there is word for building others up and seeking the best for them, expecting nothing in return–Love.