The Holy Spirit: Back to the Future

In 1946 after serving two brief pastorates a young American preacher visited the UK where he heard Stephen Olford preach on the text: “Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the spirit.”  Recognizing he had heard something necessary the young preacher arranged a stay in a hotel near Olford’s home in Pontypridd, Wales.  The two men spent two days exploring in Scripture how the Holy Spirit empowers Christian life and ministry. 

Toward mid-afternoon on the second day the two men knelt and prayed.  As they prayed the young preacher exclaimed, “My heart is flooded with the Holy Spirit!  I’m filled!  This is the turning point of my life!  This will revolutionize my ministry!”  Within a year this young preacher, Billy Graham, was known across the English speaking world.  (John Pollock, Billy Graham, 1966).

Reclaiming the Trinity

One of the most significant theological developments emerging in the last century has been an experiential reclaiming of the doctrine of the Trinity.  From its earliest days the church believed in Father, Son and Holy Spirit (although it took three centuries to state the doctrine definitively).  But for many years the Holy Spirit became the forgotten member of the Trinity.

A new movement of the Spirit started in a 1904 revival in Wales (where Billy Graham met Stephen Olford forty years later).  In 1906 a similar revival broke out in Los Angeles, California, sparking the birth of the Pentecostal movement.  Preaching from an abandoned church building on Azusa Street that had been used as a tombstone factory and a stable William Seymour, an African American preacher with no theological education, began to experience signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit seen in the book of Acts.

This movement was dismissed and rejected by most major denominations.  In fact, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Joseph Smale, visited Wales to experience the revival there.  But when he tried to ignite a similar movement in his own congregation it led to the end of his ministry at First Baptist and the planting of a new church he called First New Testament Church.

Gladly, the Holy Spirit was not discouraged and continued to move!  By the 1960’s this emerging movement of the Spirit began to find a fresh expression in what became known as the Charismatic Movement.  A major difference was the acceptance of experiences in the Holy Spirit by a wide assortment of denominational pastors and leaders.  This led to a period in which many expressed their denominational home with a hyphen: Charismatic-Anglican or Bapti-costal.  After the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII in the hope of welcoming “the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit” into the Catholic Church, Catholicism was equally fertile ground for charismatic faith.

By the start of the twenty first century many of the hyphens disappeared as much charismatic theology had fully entered the bloodstream of the entire church, and other elements of charismatic theology largely had moderated.

Unexpected Consequences

If you have ever asked or been asked, “What is your spiritual gift?” you have experienced the lasting impact of the twentieth century rediscovery of how the Holy Spirit works.  In this issue of Musings I want to reflect on how the rediscovery of the Holy Spirit’s work has “flattened” church organization, but the charismatic and Pentecostal movements’ impact on the entire church is much further reaching.

One effect of the Holy Spirit is always to make the church more egalitarian. 

‘In the last days, God says,I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 

Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

and they will prophesy.  (Acts 2:17,18)

While the experience of speaking in tongues remains the most widely celebrated legacy of the Azusa Street Revival, what may be more important in the perspective of eternity are other even more radical outworkings of the Spirit. 

Women were as likely to be used by the Spirit as were men.  Even more unusual in 1906 America, at Azusa Street whites, blacks and latinos were led by a black pastor and sat interspersed through the congregation rather than in sections reserved for each racial group.  In the Holy Spirit one’s social standing does not determine one’s ability to speak and act for God.  No one serves as a better example than William Seymour himself, the one-eyed, uneducated son of black slaves who led the revival.  By the 1980’s a very common explanation for increasing support of women entering pastoral ministry was the observation that if a woman is “gifted” why should she not serve God according to her gifts? 

Reclaiming the notion that every believer has a charisma (Greek for spiritual gift) changed the role of clergy and the way churches engage in ministry to each other and to the world.  When I was trained for ministry in the 1970’s I was warned against a new movement that was sweeping through churches.  Instead of attending Wednesday evening Bible studies led by the pastor some churches were breaking the congregation into small groups, much like charismatic house groups formed a decade earlier, meeting in homes throughout the week to study and pray with each other.  The concern expressed was: how can the pastor or church control what is taught in such groups?  Is this not a breeding ground for heresy and division?  Among my own tribe of churches there was a congregation that became widely known for accepting and even promoting such cell groups in which lay people were expected to minister to each other.  It was called Spring Garden Baptist Church.

The pastor no longer was the religious professional offering ministry on behalf of lay people who because of lack of training and ordination were not qualified for ministry.  A new role had emerged for the pastor: to equip people for ministry according to the pattern of Ephesians 4.  Moving away from clergy dominated ministry has been tough for clergy and congregants alike.  The skills required to equip people for ministry are quite different from the skills required to perform all the ministry.  More clear patterns of authority left less room for conflict.  Meanwhile, many congregants still desire and expect “a real pastor” to meet their personal spiritual needs rather than a network of groups and/or an equipped pastoral care team.

Just to make life more interesting, as the developments above matured the internet has made more information more easily available to more people.  Not only pastors, but also doctors, lawyers, financial advisors, and other professionals find themselves explaining why their insight does not match what the client found on Google.  We go to the doctor convinced we have already diagnosed our own ailment, but when we are really sick, we don’t want a nurse-practitioner – we want a real doctor!

When God lit the flame in Wales and on Azusa Street he did more than reintroduce the practice of speaking in tongues.  He flattened the hierarchy of the church!  (Yes, the Protestant movement has always proclaimed the priesthood of all believers; but actually practicing the doctrine was, with some notable exceptions such as the Wesleyan class, the exception rather than the norm.)

And God changed our expectations about how we would experience worship, teaching, study, prayer, ministry and mission.  After all, the Holy Spirit is not so much to be thought about as He is to be experienced.  But that is a topic for another Musings.  As this emerged and continues to emerge the culture of the church changes to reflect rediscovered insights.

As always, I welcome conversations and invitations to your life group to discuss these Musings and their implications for Spring Garden Church.