How do we understand the freedom of a new and fresh movement of the Holy Spirit and the structure that inevitably accompanies that work?
It is important to understand the difference between what the Holy Spirit does in an evangelistic revival and the (divine) origin/establishing/recognition of a local church under the Headship of the Lord Jesus Christ.
All too often people use the structure, or more accurately the lack of structure, of a revivalist movement and expect that that lack of structure is what must remain if that movement is going to be healthy. (That is one of a few concerns with a book like Steve Addison’s, Movements That Change the World: Five Keys to Spreading the Gospel.) In this understanding, any additional structure is considered the death-knell to the movement.
My response: A movement cannot stay a movement in the same way it was at the beginning or it implodes or becomes meaningless and useless. Moreover, any movement will eventually need some structure in order to maximize what the Spirit of God is doing. In fact, a movement demands structure, especially a local church if it is going to be biblical. And the Bible is not silent on that structure. An Acts experience (Pentecost, conversions, the establishment of churches) will inevitably result in the Pastoral Epistles structure of elders and deacons and life together under the Lordship of Christ, the Head of the Church (how we live life together in the context of a local church, consisting of structure, order, leadership, worship, the use of gifts, etc.). This is essential not only to reflect God’s divine design for order in the church, but it will also ensure an intentional path for spiritual growth and sustainability over time, for both individuals and the church.
Today we hear so much of a movement becoming viral, going back to the early days of revival and a new, fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Inevitably this means that we must do away with any structure as almost all of it (not much of an overstatement) is negative and an obstacle to the health, growth and expansion of the movement. Though there is some truth to this, and one must be careful of becoming too closely wed to structure, the response to any structure seems to be a bit naïve and simplistic.
Certainly one must not equate the structure of the Pastoral Epistles for the local church with the same sort of structure required for an association of churches. But neither should that association of churches work contrary to the God-ordained structure of the local church. The larger association/denomination ought to support and build into the individual church(es), not work in opposition to it or to build structures that undermine it, or claim that all structure hinders a movement. Ultimately, any association/denomination exists because of those local churches creating it, and that association/denomination then exists to serve those local churches.
God is a God of order. Though some structures can be bad and deleterious to a movement, there is also God-ordained structure and order that is not only good but also for our good. Following God’s ordained structure enables us to carry on ministry in a Spirit-empowered, Christ-honoring and God-glorifying manner.
For us in the EFCA, here is our question: How do we balance the strengths of a movement with the necessity of some components of structure beyond the local church (an institution or association or denomination) e.g. polices, requirements, credentialing, etc., to ensure orthodoxy and orthopraxy, vibrancy and stability, freedom and structure?
In a recent teaching, D. A. Carson shared about the French Canadian revivals during the 1970s: There were significant lessons learned in the “lean years” prior to this revival; there were also important lessons learned during and after the revival in the “high growth years.” In the growth years, Carson noted four lessons, three of which I include (I excluded his second point, as it did not directly address this issue) as they address this vital work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people and the accompanying structure necessary to sustain the work and to bear fruit that will remain.
Lessons from the ‘High Growth Years’
- If you start getting rapid growth think especially hard about patterns of training and education. Don’t think that education and training slows the Spirit’s work.
- Do what you can to funnel all the God-given, Spirit-powered energy to Bible study and understanding the gospel, and teaching people to teach the Bible. If you don’t funnel the energy there, it will be funneled somewhere else.
- Start carefully, prayerfully, and humbly to institutionalize. Revivals almost never start with a plan. But any movement that never institutionalizes will fizzle and disappear within a decade or so. Institutions sometimes steer movements into dead legalism, but without institutions, you don’t preserve much. Cautious institutionalizing can pass along and preserve what is faithful to Scripture and the gospel.
Ed Stetzer (President of LifeWay Research, Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at TEDS, and missiologist and theologian) and I shared a few thoughts about this. To the notion of the joy of a movement of God and the necessity of structure, Ed stated,
I’m not anti-structure or anti-institutional. I wrote the Christianity Today cover story on the value of denominations.
However, there is no question that institutionalism hinders innovation or, to use the current term, movement. To me, balance is the key.
Systems are the tool and not the goal. As long as the goal is always before us, the systems will serve the goal. However, most denominations turn tools into rules. They become driven by their rules and systems rather than the goals.
So, I think that we need both– but most denominations are right now evaluating whether they have leaned too heavily on their institutions and need them to be leaner and more focused on fulfilling their mission.
The danger is that we will think that institutions and systems don’t matter. The other danger is that we will make them matter too much.
Here are my final thoughts to Ed:
As with so many things, it is a matter of balance. When we attempt to address an imbalance, it is far too easy to go too far in the other direction such that we become imbalanced again, just in the other direction. I also find that the other challenge when we have done this is to conclude that our balancing corrective to the imbalance, which itself is an overreaction resulting in another imbalance, is considered to be “gloriously” in the middle of the issue. That causes additional problems!
On so many of these matters, I will often say, sic et non, yes and no, just as Paul did with so many of the concerns raised by the Corinthian believers.