I still occasionally receive newsletters from the first seminary I attended (for an education degree). Almost invariably, it contains stories of ministers who have birthed large churches out of nothing in just a few years, or who have turned dying congregations into mega churches. These are spectacular “wow” narratives, and I assume they are designed to make alumni feel proud of the institution that educated them, and make them want to give their support. Truly, there is nothing wrong with that. I am always impressed.
The Pentecost story is even more astounding. It contains elements that are stunning, incredible, ecstatic.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability… Those who welcomed [Peter’s] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. From Acts 2
3,000 new members as the result of one sermon. Talk about ecstatic.
It was an amazingly dramatic beginning. But I’m even more intrigued by what happened after the drama subsided. The very next verse says:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
This last verse seems to refer to the ordering of their lives together after the Pentecost event. Not much drama here. Worshiping together, eating together, learning together. We know from the rest of Acts that there would be more excitement in the form of healings, unexpected conversions, visions, even a shipwreck. There would also be other events, far more of them and far less sensational: conversations, travels, meetings, more sermons.
Our lives together are somewhat the same, a couple of thousand years later. Occasionally we hear of some remarkable situation: amazing church growth; surprising personal turnarounds or healings; breathtaking testimonials. These are the “wow” stories that make newsletters come alive.
More often, though, the stories that I find truly remarkable are the ones that never get told in the seminary news (or anywhere else) because they are not stories of wild action, but of simply living life with God:
- the chaplain who has been working with Alzheimer’s patients for ten years, and whose patients never get well or give testimonials;
- the church that hasn’t been able to afford a pastor for decades and must often suffer through a succession of mediocre student pastors, but still is ministering to its neighborhood by providing hot lunches for the poor seven days a week;
- the woman who cares for her children with humor, love and kindness even though her husband has left;
- the teens who lead their community in starting a recycling project, to care for God’s earth;
- the young man who somehow finds peace in his soul after he’s lived through a war in Iraq;
- the elders of shrinking Korean and Anglo churches who reach out to each other to share a building and urban ministry.
God’s work takes place wherever God’s people are—and wherever God’s people are open to the leading of the Spirit. The Spirit’s people measure success, not by the number of converts or new members or programs, but by whether or not we are doing what the Spirit is urging us to do. That is a vastly more difficult calculation. We can easily count the number of people in the pews and we can see the size of our programs, but how do we measure the long-lasting effect we are having on our friends, family and community?
The effect of the Spirit’s work through the Spirit’s people is indeed beyond measure. It is incalculable.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2011