The poet T. S. Eliot famously observed, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.” All practicing Christians have had experiences of the Spirit. Most Christians in traditional churches weren’t taught the meaning.
That’s because we were taught to look for statements or propositions of truth in doctrinal languages, like “God is love.” Yes, but what does that really look like? Traditional Protestants weren’t taught to look for evidence of the Spirit’s work in their personal lives. They don’t think they have anything significant to share. We joyfully retell the evidence in the Bible and affirm the truths basic to living the life God intends for us. We affirm that the Gospel “works.” But we don’t share much evidence of lives actually changed in our times.
John Shea is a storyteller and theologian who wrote An Experience Named Spirit. His book was very challenging for me because he mostly just tells stories. I am used to looking for greater truths and generalizations. But that is his point. “Storytelling has a power of involvement and appreciation that the mere noting of patterns or talking about experiences analytically does not have.”
In greeting visitors, a community church nearby stresses, We want to hear your story. That seems a bit forward for us older folk. But it seems to work for younger adults. Their story usually has something to do with hurt, a lack of meaning in life, or a longing for community. Such stories naturally lead to a response of how the greeter found greater meaning or security. It is then up to biblically-based, Gospel-oriented pastors to give a fuller explanation of the faith that is displayed. With experience comes a greater ability to test the spirits and keep the focus on Christ.
I believe withering traditional churches are in need of renewal. Where better to look than the first churches. Scholar Gordon F. Fee wrote, “It is certain that Pauline churches were ’charismatic’ in the sense that the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit was manifested in their gatherings. Paul recognizes a miraculous work of the Spirit that was evidenced by the way renewed people behave towards one another. Whatever else, the Spirit was experienced in the Pauline churches; the Spirit was not merely a matter of creedal assent.”
We can help our churches today move beyond just creedal assent to the Spirit. We can share when we experience new levels of the Spirit’s fruit like love, joy, peace patience and self-control. Many traditional Protestants may be reluctant to take such initiative, assuming what happened is too personal or not important. Or they may fear rejection in some form. But find the courage to share stories of your own God-moments with others. Do it for their sake! The Spirit moving in you can move in others, too!
Moving Beyond a Village Culture
To understand the traditional reluctance to share personal experiences, go back to the formative social setting where mainline churches thrived in previous centuries. These were mostly small villages where roughly eighty percent of a country’s population lived, usually in clusters of fifty or so families in proximity to their farmland. Such villages dominated American life well into the 20 th century. Among immigrants in this country, village-like neighborhoods and mentality existed in big cities as well.
One village reality is that you do not want to draw attention to yourself. Everyone has to get along with each other, and that is easier to do when you don’t think of yourself as better than others. An old adage is a nail that sticks its head up will get pounded down.
Villagers who seem especially pious make others uncomfortable. Village churches teach “closet” prayer, based on Matthew 6: 6. “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Prayer was not something you shared with someone else. Prayer was done by the pastor, usually at the altar, and then mostly only for someone who was sick. In this setting, personalized spiritual growth was not important and even resisted.
When I did a major research project on prayer practices and experiences of Lutherans, I was surprised to discover that half said their personal prayers were the most satisfying experience they had. You would never know that from observance of routine church life.
Don’t Settle For A Church Cultural With Only Minimal Spiritual Encouragement
One of my peeves as a life-long Lutheran is how little spiritual encouragement goes on beyond the worship service itself. Conversations tend to be ordinary small talk about what the children are doing or the latest in sports. Visiting Evangelical churches, I would listen in on conversations after the service and hear greetings like, What’s God doing in your life? Or, how can I pray for you? When I became part of the Evangelical community of Fuller Theological Seminary, in the first months I was prayed for by name more than in all my previous years as a Lutheran. Such personalized spiritual attention makes for an attractive community. This is certainly something Lutherans can strive for.
Village preachers had a captive audience. Their job was to raise up children in the faith, which meant training them in the dry Impersonal propositions of the catechism. University educated, they typically presented sermons as lectures with little application to daily living. Personal spiritual growth was not on the academic agenda. Those who attended typically felt strong social pressure to do so. A favorite story for me is how a village rector thought fathers should be present for the baptism of their child, and if absent the pastor would send out the police to bring him in. Imagine what such coerced attendance of a captive audience did for the dynamics of church life.
I had a taste of the old approach to preparation for ministry when I went to one of our church’s junior colleges that specialized in training for the ministry. As of long tradition, daily life was run by upper-classmen. Encouragement was far from a priority. The general student posture was one of defensiveness while we endured our courses and life together. My recall of those years is shaded in grey and summarized by the word “grim.” Much has changed since then. But that is our cultural heritage.
Openness to “outsiders” is not characteristic of that old heritage. No outsiders exist in a village setting, where, by definition, everybody is an insider. In America, Lutherans welcomed new immigrants, but these carried the same cultural assumptions. Now, of course, we live in a world where old-time Lutherans are fast fading. Do we blindly go forward with our culture and become like a museum? Or, while we continue to treasure the biblical Gospel that is the core of the heritage, do we look for ways to improve a supportive church culture welcoming those who do not know the traditions.
Opt for the latter kind of church. Be willing to go beyond your comfort zone to be a church where everybody is welcome to learn the God News in Christ with as few barriers as possible. Learn that Christ is present with us now through his Holy Spirit and that this Spirit works on hearts as well as heads. Name the Spirit in your church life. Share your experiences with each other.
Everybody can learn to be an encourager in Christ, like Paul. For the sake of the Gospel, try it.
The Holy Spirit not only dwells in the bodies of individual believers but the corporate body of believers as well. Is the Holy Spirit leading your church? What is an example of how the Holy Spirit is being allowed to lead the way at your church?