A Spirit-led Church | Simplicity Series

Back in third grade, I distinctly remember the day a classmate of mine leaned over to me in his desk. He whispered, “they took gullible out of the dictionary!” I was shocked. To think that a whole word had been taken out of the dictionary! And what did gullible even mean?! I sat at my desk, flummoxed, until we had a break. Then I rushed to the dictionary to find the word, only to be greeted by jeering laughter from my classmate. I learned the hard way the meaning of the word gullible. 

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to believe. 

Years later, I faced a decision point. Should I join the ministry or not? Should I raise my hand and say that I wanted to change careers and become a pastor? It was hard to know exactly what to do. I felt in my soul that calling, but there was much to consider: my wife’s career, the house we owned on highland terrace, daycare for our son, and the hit to our income. There were many unknowns. In the end, it’s clear what direction I chose, but at that time, there was doubt and questioning. 

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to believe. 

Such is the case for the churches in the region of Galatia. Paul writes to them to help them understand what they are to believe because they’re saying to themselves that sometimes, it’s hard to know what to believe. Let’s hear our scripture for this morning, Galatians chapter 5:

Scripture

Eight Simple Steps Toward Church Revitalization

The Number One Rule of Church Revitalization

Six Proven Ideas to Increase Church Attendance

Twenty-five Actionable Strategies for Rapid Church Growth

These are headlines from a simple google search of “grow your church.” Were we to read them, they would contain some of the same ideas but, in many cases, they contain competing ideas. For example, some say go all in on holidays, don’t worry about the other Sundays; others say focus on doing your best every Sunday. Some say traditional worship is dead, others say contemporary worship turns off younger generations. Some say the Lord’s Prayer and Creeds detract from growth, others say we must go back to our roots. 

Were you to peruse the books in my office, there would be several with competing ideas about how to be the church in the United States in the twenty-first century. Some argue we must change what we believe and proclaim. Others say we must stick to our guns, holding fast to the truth we have known. In a memorable case, one author says that the Lord’s Prayer is okay, but we must remove some of the lines. He encourages us to say, “Our Father and Mother,” and then skip “who art in heaven.” According to him, if we did this, the church would grow. Now, let us be mindful that his encouragement is to change the very words of Jesus Christ himself! It’s laughable, and it’s one among many strategies for being the church today. Books on this topic are big sellers. There are bloggers and podcasts making tons of money off telling churches how to be the church today. With all those competing ideas and voices:

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to believe. 

The churches in Galatia find themselves struggling with what to believe. 

Paul had brought them the gospel. All across the Anatolian peninsula, modern day Turkey but what was roughly called Galatia back then, people are converted. They are forming churches. And as they do, they have questions. They are Gentiles, not Jews, so they’re confused about how much of the Judaism of their neighbors they’re supposed to keep. Are they supposed to follow Torah? Are they supposed to be circumcised? Or are they now free from the constrictions of Jewish law, no longer bound by its requirements and symbols? 

Different teachers, passing through Galatia, have different answers. Many say yes, you must keep Torah to be a Christian. Some say you must be circumcised. Others still have different forms of the gospel, proclaiming that Jesus was merely a prophet, not God, or that Jesus wasn’t human at all but basically some divine ghost. There are many teachings floating around Galatia and the people there, new Christians, trying to figure out how to do this church thing, are struggling. 

For them, it’s hard to know what to believe. 

Paul, elsewhere in the Roman Empire at this time, receives news of what’s happening in the Galatian churches. Most have chosen to believe differently than Paul taught, specifically embracing the keeping of Torah and circumcision, while some others have embraced totally different gospels. As he receives these messages, Paul gets angry. We see this in the way he opens this letter. All of his letters in the New Testament have a formulaic flow: he has a greeting, he offers thanksgiving for the church, he issues instructions, and then he gives a benediction. Every letter Paul wrote has that formula. Except Galatians. Rather than a nice flowery, “I give thanks for all the great work you’re doing” language after the greeting, he completely skips the thanksgiving and moves to his point. Hear Galatians 1:6, the first verse after the greeting: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel!” No thanksgiving, just rebuking. Paul is angry. 

And so, he spends the letter telling them what to believe, sometimes forcefully, sometimes gracefully, but always pointing to Jesus Christ. In Galatians, he makes the fullest case for the freedom of Christ; a well articulated defense of his theological conviction: that we are set free in Jesus Christ to go and do what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do. While long, Galatians could be a blog post if written today, offering understanding for how to be the church. 

And what would we title this letter of Paul turned blog post? Ten simple steps toward freedom in Christ? Twelve different means to grow your church? Fifteen reasons why those other teachers are wrong? Seven ways to experience freedom in Christ? 

Those titles are tempting because we want things in soundbites: easy to digest pieces of information. That’s the seductive power of these blog posts and books that offer tips and tricks for churches in list form. The posts aren’t long, the books are short, and they come prepackaged in ways that make it easy to envision following them at your church, inferring that if you follow their seven or ten or twelve steps, all will be well at your church and you’ll see results in growth. They easily turn into gifs and graphics that can be posted to Facebook and Twitter, moving their points into easy to digest soundbites. 

The problem is, the Holy Spirit can’t be reduced to a check list. 

The Holy Spirit can’t be made into an easy to digest list, or into a soundbite, or into tips and tricks. 

And that’s just the point Paul wants to make to the churches. It’s not about which teacher to follow, what set of rules to follow, or whether or not to keep up with Torah; it’s about being led by the Holy Spirit to be the church God has designed you to be. In freedom, Christ came to die and rise again for us. And in giving us the Holy Spirit, Christ passed that freedom on to us. 

Paul’s call to the churches in Galatia, and Paul’s call to us today, is to be led by the Spirit, seeking to follow where the Spirit leads, trusting that God will provide what we need to be the church God has designed us to be. It’s another way of saying that we are to practice simplicity: focus on the mission, be authentic, and trust God with the rest. 

If Galatians were a blog post today, we might title it: Forget all those checklists, just listen to the Holy Spirit.

Paul makes a clear point: follow the law, the Torah, if you want. But it’s no longer necessary; Jesus Christ set you free from having to follow the law, from having to keep up with those checklists and tasks, to be justified in faith. The Spirit provides the way forward, the vision, the change in our lives so that we can be followers of Jesus Christ, true disciples who lead others to life. That’s why Paul, quoting Jesus, can say, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We are set free, “for freedom Christ has set us free,” our scripture began this morning, and then continues, “for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters…” We are free from the law, from checklists, from having to wonder what to believe. We are free to simply be the church we are, seeking to follow where the Spirit leads. 

The churches in Galatia aren’t required to keep up with those lists, to follow the 5,324 simple steps of Leviticus to living a holy life. The Spirit provides that. The Spirit creates a changed heart, a renewed soul; the Spirit intercedes with God on our behalf and is the presence of the living God inside of each of us. Paul says, in the closing verse of our scripture this morning, “if we are led by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” Then, we will naturally exude love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control, for those are the fruits of a Spirit-led life. 

Those fruits aren’t a checklist; they’re the consequence of living a Spirit-led life. As he continues his argument past this chapter, Paul makes clear: churches aren’t to follow checklists or rules laid out by this teacher or that apostle; they’re to be Spirit-led, following where the Spirit leads, trusting that they have all they need to be the church God has designed them to be. 

Churches are like individuals: all are gifted in different ways to offer those particular gifts to the world. God designed each of us in just that way and God designed churches to be that way. These checklists, found in books and blog posts telling churches how to be and what to do, want all churches to be identical. But churches are not McDonald’s franchises; we are farm to table restaurants, found only locally and unique to our particular surroundings. 

God has gifted Mulberry in traditional worship, in being a big tent, in community service, and in other ways I am still discovering. The call on our lives, the call issued by Paul through Galatians, freedom in the Holy Spirit, means living into those gifts, unworried about what the church down the street is doing or what that new popular book on church strategy says. In fact, our own history bears this out. At moments where this church was concerned because a church we planted was faring better than we were at the time, such as in the 1870s, 1890s, and 1910s, we only furthered our struggle by trying to be like Vineville or Cross Keys or First Street Methodist Churches. We found our rudder again by simply being ourselves; being the church God has designed us to be.

For just like individuals, when we are who God has made us to be, we shine forth the Spirit into the world, having a transformative effect. Churches that are simply who God called them to be naturally exude those fruits. They put aside the works of the flesh. They grow each other and their communities in love, in justice, and in care and concern for others. When we choose to simply be ourselves, we will, in short, naturally grow the Kingdom. 

What does this mean for us today?

It means we ask, through our prayers and our conversations together, through our leadership meetings and our service projects, what is God calling us to? How is the Spirit leading us now? We discern within our community. 

It means we assess ourselves to ask how we well we as a church are living out the fruits of the Spirit. Where is love and peace growing through us? And where are we causing quarrels and dissension? That kind of honest assessment gets to the soul of our church, allowing for confession and helping us understand how the Spirit is leading us.

It means we be ourselves, not allowing books and blog posts and what the church down the street is doing to worry us, thinking that maybe we’re doing the wrong thing. It also means we focus on growing our ministry and impact to the community, unworried about the numbers on Sunday mornings or at other events. Church growth is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit; our work is to further the Kingdom of God through engaging in ministry. When that is our focus, God will take care of the rest.

This is another way of saying what we said last week: practicing simplicity means focusing on the mission, being authentic in doing so, and trusting God with the rest. Paul says to focus on the mission: love on each other and grow the Kingdom. Paul says to be authentic: be the church the Spirit is leading you to be. And Paul says to trust God with the rest, including trusting that we will hear and understanding the Spirit in God’s own timing. 

Paul’s argument is a radical departure from what the other teachers were preaching around Galatia. And we must admit, Paul’s argument today is still radical. It’s not easy, like so many steps or tricks or tasks. It’s not easily digested in soundbites. It requires prayer, discernment, patience; it requires practicing love, joy, and peace. 

But isn’t that freeing? To no longer feel tossed and turned, wondering if we should be doing what that church over there is doing or what this church over here is doing? Isn’t it freeing not wondering if we’re missing the point, or missing the people, or defective somehow? If we are Spirit-led, we have all we need as a church to be the church God has designed us to be. 

That’s practicing simplicity. 

So, let us be Spirit-led. 

To be Spirit-led, I invite you to join me in praying for this church. Let us turn the call of last week into a prayer we utter daily: God, help us focus on the mission, be authentic to who you’ve made Mulberry to be, and trust you with the rest. And then, let us practice the golden rule, loving our neighbors as ourselves; our neighbors within our church walls, our neighbors who use our church walls for shelter, and our neighbors who live and move and have their being downtown. Praying and practicing the golden rule are not two simple steps toward church growth or vitality; they are the basics of the mission, and we are a church on mission. 

What are we to believe? 

The Spirit is leading us and we are free in Christ to follow. So let us pray daily for this church and let us practice the golden rule. We already have everything we need to be the church God has designed us to be. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen. 

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