The Holy Spirit - Back to the Future, the Sequel

I heard a story about a woman visiting a posh and proper church.  As the service progressed she became increasingly enthused and began punctuating the hymns and sermon with enthusiastic Amen’s and Hallelujah’s.  Finally an usher approached and asked her to be quiet.

“I can’t,” she said.  “I’ve got the Holy Spirit!”

“That might be,” the usher replied, “but you didn’t get it here!”

In the last Musings I suggested, “One of the most significant theological developments emerging in the last century has been an experiential reclaiming of the doctrine of the Trinity,” particularly the work of the Holy Spirit.  The key word in that statement is “experiential.”  The growth of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements in the 20th century led to an increasing expectation that Christian faith is not only to be believed but also experienced.

It would be misleading to suggest that other movements in the centuries prior to the Asuza Street Revival did not exhibit the Holy Spirit along with great emotion and passion.    During the Great Awakening of the 18th century several people in Hillsborough, NB, drowned when their boat capsized on the Petticodiac River and their cries for help were mistaken by townspeople for penitents seeking forgiveness for their sins.  The rediscovery of an experiential doctrine of the Holy Spirit elevated experience of God to an expectation for normal Christian life and regular church experience not just restricted to camp meetings, revivals and small off-beat groups like the Quakers (so named for how they shook when the Holy Spirit came upon them.)

When I would complain to my mother that church was boring and our pastor mean my devout Roman Catholic mom would answer that we do not go to Church for either entertainment or the priest but to receive Christ in the Eucharist (communion).  If nothing else that understanding of why we gather offered a clear reason to get up and go.

There is consensus among historians that the Protestant Reformation cannot be understood apart from the invention of the printing press.  The Protestant movement became a movement of Word and words.  The priestly robes of the Roman church gave way to academic gowns as the sermon replaced communion as the primary focus of Sunday gatherings.

This was especially true of more radical departures from Rome such as the Baptist movement.  In 1734 the Baptist General Assembly of England wrote a letter to the Warbleton congregation who were apparently accepting a dangerous and worldly innovation: they were singing in Church.  The General Assembly warned the church to avoid such “innovations” because once one is allowed, where would it stop?  The early Baptist gatherings were preaching services.  Even when I started my career in the 70’s it was more common to hear older congregants describe me as “our preacher” than “our pastor.”

The Baptist General Assembly was right in at least one respect.  Out of this movement of Word and words came many hymns rich with theological insight.  And before long an even more worldly innovation was appearing.  Churches were buying organs to accompany these human compositions.

In the last half century or so one legacy of the charismatic movement has crossed virtually all denominational lines: an expectation that we go to church to experience God.  The first time a congregant told me, “I don’t come to church for the sermon, I come to meet God,” I could almost hear my mother’s voice.

But with one vital difference.  Receiving Christ in communion is a uniform experience.  But human beings encounter God in all sorts of ways.  Whereas in the Protestant movement of Word and words denominations were formed around different theological understandings of God, by the late 1980’s many cross-denominational alliances were being formed on the basis of different ways of encountering or experiencing God. 

If you are a survivor of the Great Worship Wars of the 1990’s you may remember the question, “Why do we sing so many songs about God instead of singing songs to God?”  “Immortal, invisible, God only wise” and “A mighty fortress is our God” made way to “I love you, Lord, and I lift my heart” and “Lord we lift your name on high.”

While charismatic music was finding its way into churches of every denomination many found charismatic experiences were not how they experienced God.  In 1978 Richard Foster (a Quaker, one of the pre-Asuza Street movements focused on experiencing God) published a book that opened a whole new way of experiencing God to many evangelical Protestant readers.  Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Christian Growth reintroduced evangelicals to spiritual practices utilized for centuries by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers.  Some sounded familiar: prayer, worship and study.  Others sounded more, well, medieval: fasting, solitude and submission.  Still others sounded like they rightly belonged to some other religion: confession and meditation.

Many found these ancient practices deeply meaningful and helpful to the experience of God.  Within a quarter century of the publication of Celebration of Discipline evangelical seminaries were offering programs in “Spiritual Formation” and training “Spiritual Directors”, terms that in 1978 were virtually alien to evangelical ears though quite common in Roman Catholic vocabulary.  Evangelical bookshelves and church libraries began to hold the work of accessible Roman Catholic writers such as Thomas Merton, more recently Richard Rohr and most notable of all, Henri Nouwen.  (Many who were at Spring Garden at the time identify Henri Nouwen speaking here in the 1990’s as one of the highlights of the church’s life.)

As is almost always the case our greatest challenge lies in balance.  We cannot be certain it is God we are experiencing without a good theological backdrop.  But it is ultimately meaningless to both ourselves and world if we know about God but don’t also experience Him.  So we retain a focus on Word, a focus on worship and a focus on spiritual formation, each speaking into the other.  True theology cannot be formed without a genuine encounter with God; a genuine encounter with God cannot bear fruit without true theology.

Our second great challenge is that we do not all encounter God the same way.  As we gather it is necessary to offer a number of liturgical pathways to a divine encounter without demanding we use only the pathway that works for personally or judging those for whom a different pathway is helpful.  As the classic practices of spiritual formation make their way onto our bookshelves and into our hearts and experience we need to also allow them to make their way into our collective worship.  Just as we once learned to sing now we need to learn also how to be silent and reflective.  While, like the Warbleton Church, we might receive letters declaring this a dangerous innovation, we might do well to reflect that learning to sing in church really didn’t do us any harm.