The relationship that is to prevail between the organized Church and the informal groups which arise from time to time, seeking to bring about deeper spiritual experience, is an important subject. The voice of the organized Church has often warned that such groups do not constitute themselves a church, that they check their plans and work with leaders in the church, that they remind their people how important it is to join a church, and in general treat the church as the final authority. Undoubtedly there is wisdom in all this. But I think it is high time that someone remind the Church how important it is that she treat these groups with understanding and welcome, and remember how the organized Church stands in continuous need of awakening, and realize that the small group may be both a judgment and an answer from God.

Exception must be made, of course, in the case of groups that become deliberately inimical to the historic Church, or patently disloyal to her basic ethos. But that is something quite different from being dissatisfied with the ways and customs of some one local parish or minister that may be falling down in giving people what they need spiritually. It is right for the Church to “try the spirits whether they be of God.” Now and then a group arises that is not basically in line with historic Christianity; or it may begin so, but veer in unhealthy directions. Its leaders can become too much impressed with their own inspiration and importance, and the movement tends to become “the Church.” The awakening group may evince more power at some given time than the historic, accepted Church; but it has no more right to “unchurch” the organized Church than the organized Church has a right to “unchurch” the informal group. Untrue and unhealthy signs may appear in the utterances and from the leaders of movements that claim unique powers and do not see themselves in the long stream of Christian history.

But many of these groups are not heretical in any sense. They are doing Christ’s work, honoring his Name, and winning people to him. They are trying to be loyal to his Church, not only because hostility to the churches can go a long way towards putting them out of business but because they are aware that the conserving job of the churches cannot be overemphasized. My experience is that most of these movements lean over backwards to keep the good will of an organized church (which often has not enough spirituality to discern the working of the Holy spirit in the groups) because they happen to be personally distasteful to the church leader or the ethos of his group. It is dangerous ground to forbid men “because they follow not with us.” Every year I live, I am more impressed with the way God greatly uses some people that I question whether he ought to use at all! My own tastes, even the predilections of my own denomination, may not be sufficient grounds to rule out someone who is being blessed and used by God.


Perhaps I can say something on the whole question. I have dedicated my own services to that of being a parish minister and an evangelist. I have never felt any impulse to go out with a suitcase and travel around making speeches. I have wanted the Church, the old, organized Church, to be part of any awakening in which I was involved. I have wanted the continuous impact of the Church’s history and stored wisdom to be on my own work. I know that in the end the Church should be the conserving force for anything that evangelism turns up; and that, while the Church will seldom start an awakening herself (the settled clergy and people are not good at this), she can easily pour cold water on what the awakening does accomplish. I know the value of a local “laboratory,” where spiritual research is being done, and that what is said elsewhere is validated principally by what is happening at home. I know the need of spiritually new-born people for what the Church can give them, as, for example, the responsibility of Christian leaders to see people through, not only the early stage of new birth but the later stages of growth and spiritual habits which sustain the new birth, and the applications in life which give it contemporary validation.

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However, I know that the local church and denominational exposure are not enough. If some kind of urging had not sent me, as a school boy and college student, to Northfield and there to come under the spell of the giants of those days (Speer and Mott especially), I suppose I should have been as churchy an Episcopal parson as could be imagined. I needed to learn something of the size of the Kingdom, its scope, and to see some of its great leaders in other communions. I needed to discover the constant influence in the direction of awakening which such conferences, with their steady evangelistic impact, represented vis-à-vis the old, settled Church. In constantly emphasizing the priestly and pastoral aspects, my own church is always in danger of minimizing the evangelistic and prophetic ones. Yet Anglicanism means both, or it means nothing: it has always claimed to be both, and we are ministers “of the Word and of the Sacraments.” More and more clergy of all communions rcognize this double nature of our calling and task. But many of them drift too easily into those aspects of the ministry which fail to emphasize evangelism. It is because the genuine awakening power of the churches is so rare that these cell groups, prayer groups, life-changing groups, are becoming widespread.

Sometimes these groups are local and unknown, and meet in houses and offices as well as churches. Although they often are out of touch with any other groups, they feel the need for fellowship between groups, as individuals have felt the need of fellowship between themselves. Sometimes these groups are of a different kind, large and necessarily organized, like the Yokefellow Movement, International Christian Leadership, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Faith At Work, Young Life, and many more that might be mentioned. Wherever men or women are given the charismatic gift of evangelism and can speak to large numbers of people with decisive spiritual results—like Graham, Peale, Sheen, and others whose names are yet more controversial to ultra-conservative, settled churchmen—the same need is evidenced and begins to be met. (When I say “ultra-conservative,” I refer, of course, not to doctrinal conservatism, but to plain stuffiness of spirit.)


Let me say that the clergy, especially those in settled parishes, are inclined to think their own strictures and objections to the informal group as pure concern for upholding the Church’s true message and the Faith. But in many cases I am sure that the origin of their criticism is not so lofty. Frequently their censure arises from (1) jealousy that the movement is able to win and begin to change people who have not been changed by the routines of parish life, and (2) stung and troubled consciences over these things that happen elsewhere but do not happen with nearly enough regularity in the old organized Church. Let’s face it: we do not do very much in a spiritual way with the rank and file of our people, and the fruits of the average “young people’s groups” are certainly nothing to brag about. When one of our official “children” goes out and finds a shining and enlivening faith and experience, the home clergyman just doesn’t like the judgment implied upon his own ministry. He retreats stuffily behind his ecclesiastical defenses, and talks about his people being “taken away” from the church! It is a shabby and contemptible rationalization. They have not been “taken away” from the Church if they have been brought nearer to Christ. And what is more, when a person with such an experience comes back to the church, the minister may subtly or openly undercut what has happened to the person, which is another instance of his own jealousy and stung pride. I have seen it too many times not to recognize it and call it by its right name. I remember going to an opening night of a play in New York and sitting behind a large company of actors. Their clapping and comments proved they were so generous and appreciative of the play, that it made me ask myself why the reverend brethren were not more often generous about what some other brother (or sister) has been enabled to do.

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You know the little doggerel,

I hate the guys

That criticize

And minimize

The other guys

Whose enterprise

Has made them rise

Above the guys

That criticize

And minimize …?


The old, organized Church needs the challenge of the small group. Theories about the Holy Spirit do not constitute an experience of him. While he works through official channels, he is certainly not confined to them; and there are times when he must work through something other than the established channels if he is either (1) to awaken the people in the churches, or (2) to reach those outside who are often disappointed and let down by the want of spiritual power in the churches. What he finds usable may be something or someone who is anathema to the old, plodding, organized Church. I often feel that any spiritual lash sharp enough to whip the sluggish beast of ecclesiastical organization into any semblance of spiritual life will also be so sharp that the organized Church will seek to retreat beyond its reach. What true awakening has not started in a despised individual or group on whom the Church turned thumbs down? How many such have been squelched before they ever got anywhere because the Church lacked imagination and sympathy? The Church often prays for awakening, but when God actually sends it in a form which the organized Church finds uncongenial, it is repudiated. The Holy Spirit is wider than we, more democratic, more “functional,” He seems to look rather for faith and dedication and expectancy than for right formulas and proper ecclesiastical ancestry.

If Irenaeus was right, that the Church is where the Holy Spirit is, we may need to revise some of our notions about the spiritual priority of the organized Church. What we think is the Church, and what God thinks is the Church, may be very different. I should greatly suspect that any person or group whom He can get through and use to reach his world is probably considered by God to be a genuine part of his Church. Punctiliousness about historical continuity and careful ecclesiastical arrangements sometimes have to give way to immediate usability. I know this can lead to anomaly at times: but I know also what failure in reckoning with this truth has done again and again in the life of the Church. When the Church does nothing but sit on her prerogatives and criticize the emerging group or movement that demonstrates the Holy Spirit, and when subsequently she refuses to accept the challenge and the judgment of God upon her own powerlessness which the fresh group represents, then the group tends to be driven outside the Church, all contact is lost with the authentic elements in the organized Church which the group needs for growth and sustenance, and the Church loses the value of new life which might have been infused into her. It is a loss both ways, and a loss to the world. The fresh movements need the breadth, balance, wisdom, and Sacraments of the ancient organized Church. That same Church needs the new fire of fresh awakening. Both constitute the Church, really. The organized Church cannot stand back and wait to be sought for and courted by the new movements, as if they were upstarts and the organized Church alone were the authentic thing: this is pride, and cuts the power of the Spirit. Neither can the fresh movement go on alone, critical and indifferent to the Church, as if itself were now the authentic thing, and the old Church outworn: this, too, is pride, and cuts the power of the Spirit. They have something for each other. I believe they are two sides of the same shield—the “ecclesia” and the “koinonia.” The mark of the true Church is always the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

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It is always the high hope of those who help to initiate a new movement of the Spirit that this one may never drop to the level of routine and organization. Yet we know of no movement in history that has not to some extent suffered this fate. There seems to come a “hardening of the arteries” with age, and it appears to occur within about two decades of the real beginnings of the movement. When the Church proposes herself as the agent to prevent this deterioration, one is inclined to ask whether the accepted and familiar arteriosclerosis of the organized Church is any real improvement upon that which crops up in the new movement.


Dr. Henry P. Van Dusen of Union calls it “the logic of spiritual vitality,” and says we have seen it “re-enacted again and again in the pilgrimage of the Christian Church, whereby a period of intense and creative religious renewal is unfailingly succeeded by an aftermath of diminishing spiritual vigor but increasing theological and organizational rigidity, then by a time of comparative sterility—until revival bursts forth afresh, and the curve of descending life and power is re-enacted” (Spirit, Son and Father, Scribner’s, p. 27). In this remarkable book he gives a summary of “the fate of the Holy Spirit at the hands of the theologians and Church officials across the centuries,” and calls it “on the whole, a pathetic and tragic story” (Op. cit. p. 125). He goes on to explain something of why this happens: “… the Holy Spirit has always been troublesome, disturbing because it has seemed to be unruly, radical, unpredictable. It is always embarrassing to ecclesiasticism and baffling to ethically-grounded, responsible durable Christian devotion. And so it has been carefully taken in hand by Church authorities, whether Catholic or Protestant, and securely tethered in impotence … professional ecclesiasts constitutionally distrust the novel, the unconventional and, even more, the reproachful and the challenging.”


I find it hard not to believe that much of the ecclesiastical fear and suppression of emerging groups is due not to greater wisdom or deeper realization of the meaning of the Gospel and even of the Church but more to spiritual snobbishness, shallowness, and pique. It isn’t as if we had a counter full of awakenings from which we might take our pick. Real awakening is rare. It never comes unmixed with the temperamental and theological limitations of its first stimuli and its leaders. The “ideal” awakening, temperamentally congenial and theologically satisfactory, only exists in somebody’s wishful imagination. But wherever we see genuine spiritual awakening, whether or not it falls in with our own predilections, we do well to welcome it warmly. Only a Church which takes that attitude towards the struggling group deserves respect and loyalty from the group, or is likely to receive it. Much of the loss which often follows the first fire of awakening is due to the fact that a church unfamiliar with conversion in her own daily life will tend to be all fingers-and-thumbs when it comes to ministering to converted people. When a person, especially a young one, has been exposed for years to the rather lifeless routines of a church, but without anything approaching a personal spiritual experience, meets up with individuals or groups that lead him into an experience that is dynamic and meaningful, though such may occur within a framework ecclesiastically or theologically uncongenial to his clergyman, he will, if he has any spiritual gumption, put his first loyalty where the challenge is greater and the experience deeper. If his fresh experience is greeted by his home church and minister in the attitude that he must have got caught in the toils of a bunch of fanatics from which he needs to be rescued as a brand from the burning, then I think the church is stupid enough to deserve to lose his loyalty. If on the other hand, the person’s new experience is treated with seriousness and respect, and the home pastor has grace enough to ask and seek humbly for something that may have been missing from his own ministry, but which the young person found in the other group, the church runs little risk of losing him at all. In such a situation, the two work in harmony, which I believe is God’s will.

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The fresh group which brings about awakening is like an obstetrician who is needed at birth. The Church which nourishes the new life of the convert is like a pediatrician who takes care of the child after it is born. One has the feeling that the Church is very busy trying to act as pediatrician to large numbers of people who have never been born again at all. But both functions are essential, though they are different. The happy arrangement is for each to fulfill his function well. Surely the whole church needs to be engaged, both in bringing about the new birth and in nurturing that new life with the “means of grace” of which she is the custodian.

Dr. Hendrik Kraemer, has said (A Theology for the Laity, p. 86), “… the whole Church is constantly called to renewal. As we have got into the habit of not (as the Bible insists) considering Renewal the perennial and constant rule for the Church, but regard it as a miraculous episode which befalls us from time to time, self-assertion and self-affirmation are still very prominent in the confrontations of the Churches with each other.…” The small group, not being primarily doctrinal nor liturgical, may be, and I think very often is, the ecumenical movement at its grass roots levels, bringing people into fellowship in Christ across the barriers of denominations. And they are at least an honest effort to keep the Church mindful that renewal should be “the perennial and constant rule for the Church.”

Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

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