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The Flourishing Church in the New Testament and Today

Several months ago, I was invited to speak to a group of pastors and other church leaders on spiritual renewal for congregations. They had been focusing a great deal on change—how to respond to changing culture, how to manage change within the church---and I had been asked to shift the conversation from what to do about change to how we might find spiritual renewal in changing times. What does it mean to be a spiritually renewed church in the midst of change?

When the New Testament speaks of the church, it’s remarkably free of our modern pre-occupation with statistics and demographics. We’re never told the membership numbers for the church in Corinth, Rome, Thessalonika, or any of the early churches. The New Testament mentions widows, but not how many, or if there were more women than men. Although Jesus welcomed parents and young children, we don't know how many young families were part of the church, or if there were many youth and young adults.

Instead of majoring on demographics and numbers, the New Testament describes the spiritually renewed church this way:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:9-18)

That's the kind of flourishing church that I would want to belong to, that God calls us to, that I think people in our world are hungry for today. And while the Bible isn’t exactly a how-to manual, I believe that Romans 12:1-2 tells us something about how to be flourishing, spiritually renewed churches today.

First of all, we can’t get there on our own. The chapter begins with an appeal to readers “by the mercies of God.” We can pray for spiritual renewal for our churches and for ourselves. We can explore different spiritual disciplines to help prepare the way. We can research, experiment, and apply various strategies. But we can’t control spiritual renewal, or make it happen by our own efforts. Instead, spiritual renewal comes to us by the mercies of God.

At the same time, the text urges readers to present our bodies to God as our spiritual worship. If we’re looking for renewal, we need to take seriously our whole selves—body, soul, and spirit. We are embodied souls, spiritual beings in the flesh. It’s through our bodies that we express what we believe and feel and think. So spiritual renewal will involve concrete acts of love, worship, serving, giving, and so much more. It means showing up in the real world.

Spiritual renewal also means more than going through the motions. As we present our bodies, we are also urged “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” To act differently means we will also need to think differently. While the world may say, get even, we are to think and practice patience and trust in God. Instead of pride, humility; instead of cursing, an offer of blessing; instead of hostility, practicing hospitality to strangers.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

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