Rebirth and Repair
Nicodemus came to Jesus (John 3) at night for what seemed to be the purpose of adulation and possible private spiritual conversation. At the outset, he wanted to acknowledge his admission that Jesus must certainly be on God’s side given the miracles and great deeds he had performed (verse 2). Jesus, famous for passing the pleasantries and cutting to the chase, jumped right to the Kingdom of God and its access point- rebirth (verse 3).
Spiritual rebirth has fallen on hard times among some theologians and church practitioners these days. The more common and favored expressions on spiritual change include “awareness,” “enlightenment” and “transformation” as though transformation comes a little more naturally than rebirth which seems a thorough shock to the system. A more acceptable way to come into the Kingdom of God these days is through emerging awareness of our own depravity or a growing faith that somehow develops without critical points of rejection of competing beliefs or ideals. Rebirth connotes simultaneous pain and fresh start.
Jesus’ pattern, without segue or rationale, was to often start, restart or mold a conversation in whatever way he saw fit. And, he saw fit in this instance to speak about two parallel realities- a physical one and a spiritual one. After Nicodemus’ qualifying question on rebirth (verse 4) and a brief but affirming and clarifying answer (verse 5) on the nature of physical and spiritual, Jesus said in axiomatic form, “Flesh gives birth to flesh and Spirit gives birth to spirit” (verse 6).
This brief conversation led to 2,000 years of people attempting to help those born of flesh with their fleshly existence and helping those without the spiritual experiences that come from and lead to faith, life and hope to step into those realities that cannot be found for formed by mere physicality. For the most part, the church has understood that there is a physical nature to life and a spiritual one. Though both are linked at certain points, Jesus reemphasized in his brief conversation with Nicodemus that though all of life is given by God, spiritually speaking, “You must be born again” (verse 7).
Though the Apostle Paul uses different terminology, he centers much of his teaching upon the fact that the physical does not produce the spiritual life that is required to be in a good relationship with God (cf. Galatians 2; Romans 6 and 8; Ephesians 2; Colossians 2; et.al.). Both he and Jesus were trying to communicate that the Kingdom expression includes physical signs and glorious acts but is not limited to them. It is about spiritual rebirth, renewal and change that transcends even the physically impressive acts- even those demonstrated signs that tend to wow observers (John 3:1).
Yet, for some reason, some have favored the more physical demonstrations to spiritual ones (John 4:48). People still seemed to be more impressed by physical signs and yearn for them over spiritual progress which only occurs by the work of the Spirit. They have favored the notion that somehow physical change can produce spiritual change in spite of Jesus’ insistence that it cannot. Nevertheless, where spiritual deadness exists, all the physical huffing and puffing in the world cannot produce spiritual transformation. Only the Spirit can do that. And, the Spirit does that habitually with humble, willing and faith-venturing participants even though those participants may seem unqualified in every sense of the word.
Now, this is not just a reality for a single individual. It has implications for the church. There is physicality and spirituality to the church. It is made up of people who gather and apply their gifts for the edification of one another. And, it is directed by the Spirit of God who transcends the physical. Even the struggle between flesh and spirit is no more evident than in the church itself- the very body lives with both realities but must know the difference between them. I have witnessed churches that have experienced spiritual deadness or decay or benign apathy or numbness try to revive the Spirit-breathed life that once existed by physically means or through temporal exercises. It does not work.
I have seen churches that have experienced some form of admitted deadness and have tried to revive themselves by firing or hiring an employee, changing the order of worship, adding a program, improving the facilities or expanding their ministry reach to the community. None of these efforts are inherently bad. In fact, they are often needed to improve and very often welcomed. They simply cannot bring about the kind of change that would produce Spirit life. Only the Spirit can do that. “Spirit gives birth the spirit.”
The more helpful exercises in cases of spiritual deadness, apathy or numbness do not include new programs, but a new humility, a remorseful confession of spiritual paucity and self-reliance, a commitment to do only what the Spirit would require to enact a change rather than a self-prescribed change.
There is a reason for this blog. In recent months, the Board of Bishops of the Free Methodist Church USA has been focusing on a plan to encourage our churches to experience Revitalization, Recalibration and Reproduction. I won’t belabor the details of that plan. They can be found online. But, I will note that I have most often been approached with a question about the kind of physical or structural change that is most effective. The inquiry is about which method, widget, gadget, program or coaching in my opinion will produce the greatest change in the church. Of course, the answer is not that easy until one knows the church, its life, condition and calling. If the problems are physical (program, facilities, finances) in nature, then making physical changes are often enough and have proven fruitful. If the stall toward growth has been a result of temporal obstruction, then the removal of those obstructions leads to opportunities for the church to thrive where it has struggled. I have seen churches experience a new level of fruitfulness by a few program tweaks.
However, if the problems are spiritual, no program or physical change can offset the absence of the Spirit’s work in the congregation. As with the individual, so with the church. Flesh gives birth to flesh; but Spirit gives birth to spirit. I have found that remorse over brokenness, confession of sin, repentance from spiritually bankrupt practices, seeking the Spirit and being ready to respond to the Spirit by stepping out in faith is much more effective than changing the carpet, youth pastor, worship music or order of service. What amazes me is how difficult it is for some churches to distinguish between the two.
One young pastor recently asked me, “Is developing a good the worship service more art or science?” I had never had that question asked of me before. It is actually a good question. However, I don’t think I answered it well. I simply answered the question rather than reframed it. My answer was that it is both. Cultural awareness, relational aptitude and understanding the balance between horizontal and vertical components in worship are more art-like. The skill of the musicians, good exegesis of the scripture, how to engage the congregation and time management are more science-like. And, I left it at that. The better answer would have been to reframe the question to include Spirit. When I experience God, I experience the Spirit of God in the service and generally it is in the context of art-like and science-like elements that have been carefully planned.
There are indeed physical elements that must be addressed according to the dictates of good physical administration. But, worship itself is about God and is motivated by the Spirit of God. To suggest that art and science alone can produce an experience that can only come from the Spirit and be pleasing to the Spirit is to suggest the impossible. When the Spirit is present, the people are skillfully and artfully sensitive, then the table is set and the food is served. The table is set by the servants. The food is delivered by the Spirit.
Spirit gives birth to spirit and, I might add, only Spirit can repair spirit. Not only do we need to be born again by the Spirit. But, we need to be repaired by the Spirit. Churches similarly must be birthed out of the leadership of the Spirit of God. But, when there is spiritual brokenness or apathy, only the Spirit can repair what is broken. Art and science cannot fix those problems. What our churches need more than ever is discernment. What is physical and similarly physically repairable? What is spiritual and similarly only spiritually repairable? To understand the answer to that question is the best starting point to revitalization, recalibration and reproduction.
Jesus was not demeaning the physical nature of life. He was not creating a dichotomy between the physical and spiritual. He was, however, noting the role and limits of the physical as it relates to the spiritual. Hence, the need for a rebirth in regard to the spiritual. My prayer for the church is that it is fully alive with the Spirit, artfully sensitive to its environment and skillfully serving with the gifts supplied by the Spirit. Then it is able to experience not only rebirth, but repair.