Facing the Wind – Introduction

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Below is a rough draft of my introduction to the devotional study I’m writing on the Holy Spirit, entitled Facing the Wind.  I share it with you, my readers, for two reasons.  First, to spark interest among the folks from Central Baptist who will be going through the study at some point in the coming “year.”  Second, to perhaps generate some discussion on the reasons why the language of the Holy Spirit (and the accompanying awareness of the Spirit’s presence) has been lost by so many “traditional” churches.  Read it after the break.

Introduction

The Holy Spirit has always been recognized as being central to the empowerment of Jesus’ Church. Worship, discipleship, spiritual disciplines, and even evangelism all emerge into the lives of Christians through the power of the Spirit.  The necessity of the Spirit’s work among believers has been evident from the very beginning of the Christian movement – on the Day of Pentecost, as told in Acts 2, the presence of the Holy Spirit’s power actually kicked off the Christian mission.

Yet many churches, particularly traditional Protestant churches, seem to have lost sight of the Spirit’s work among believers.  Why, if the empowerment of the Spirit is so necessary for the work of the Church, is this so?  Two of the reasons for this spring from the major religious upheavals of the 19th and 20th Centuries: the general acceptance of a “rational” faith, and the “worship wars.”

Towards a “Rational” Faith

The philosophy of the Enlightenment impacted churches far more than they realized.  By the time of the 18th Century  much of the upper class, who were both Church-going and well educated, had dropped Christian theism for a more deist-style faith.  To these people a God who set “natural law” in motion, and a world entirely understandable by human faculties, made more sense than a God who was intimately involved in human affairs.  While most churches didn’t themselves embrace a deist theology, the impact of the shift towards “rationality” changed the way in which churches communicated the Gospel.  Christians wanted to show that their faith was every bit as “rational” as those who believed in the God of “natural law.”

This shift became even more profound after Charles Darwin published his “Origin of Species.”  Christians, who were already feeling that they were under assault by “new geology[1]”, suddenly appeared to have their fundamental belief about the creation of humanity challenged.  These two movements eventually led believers, especially Protestant believers, to “prove” that the Bible was really true by using the same basic presupposition, “Scientific fact equals truth.”

The impact this shift had on churches cannot be over-stated.  Denominations, congregations, and even seminaries found themselves being aligned into two camps, “Fundamentalist” and “Modernist.”  Both camps worked from the same presupposition, but tended to follow the material to different conclusions.  Fundamentalists tended to believe they could prove modern science wrong by using the very same tools, while Modernists tended toward the belief that the rationality modern science called for a complete reappraisal of the Christian faith.  In both camps the presence of the Holy Spirit was relegated to the margins of congregational life.  Ideas like spiritual calling, the mystical transport of worship, the practice of spiritual gifts, and even the spiritual nature of evangelism all fell into disuse.  While there have been movements among both camps to re-engage the Holy Spirit, including the Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Liturgical renewal movements – the majority of churches throughout the 20th Century continued to use the rationalist framework established in the 1800’s.  Nowhere was this seen more clearly than in “traditional” Protestant worship as it formed in the mid-1900’s.  Worship became a series of events that buffered the sermon, which had become less about a connection to the divine reality of the Kingdom, and more about how to be a “good person.”  The buffer around the sermon made people “feel good,” and the sermon taught them to “be good” – the Spirit’s role in transforming lives had largely been forgotten.

The Worship Wars

The development of a “rational,” which later morphed into “practical,” faith began the process of deadening the importance of the Spirit for many churches.  One of the attempted “cures” to the loss of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, however, seemingly nailed the coffin shut.

As was stated above, there were attempts over the course of the 20th Century to bring back an appreciating for the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.  Attempts at liturgical renewal were made in churches with a “high” liturgical tradition[2].  It was the Pentecostal revival however, which later gave birth to the Charismatic movement, that eventually impacted “traditional” protestant Churches.  The Pentecostal movement insisted that the Holy Spirit must be manifest in the lives of believers for them to receive the “double cure” of water and Spirit baptism.  While “rational” traditions tended to down-play the practice of Holy Spirit “signs[3],” if not prohibit them outright, Pentecostals actively sought to include these manifestations of the Spirit’s power in worship.

Pentecostals, however, formed their own circles amidst American church life – limiting their impact on the wider church.  The Charismatic movement, which sprung from similar beliefs, were slow to form their own denominations – and spread their practices into existing denominations.  Each of the major denominations in the United States has been affected by the Charismatic movement.  Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and even Anabaptist sects have active Charismatic renewals even after the movement spawned it’s own denominations (or moved in a largely non-denominational direction).

The intent of the Charismatic movement was to be a positive influence on what were perceived to be “dead churches.”  That is, Churches which had acculturated to the “rational world” so much that the Holy Spirit has ceased being important to the functioning of the congregation. In this respect, the Charismatic movement served, at it’s best, as a prophetic witness to Churches which needed to be reminded of something both urgent and important.  At it’s worst, however, the Charismatic movement showed a profound lack of compassion on congregations that had been led for over a hundred years in a direction other than their passionate cries for renewal.  Thus were born the worship wars.

While the story of the worship wars has been told as the battle between “contemporary” and “traditional” music – the narrative, when told this way, merely skims the shallowest pools of the story.  In reality, the worship wars were  a struggle between the perceived appropriate level of emotion for Christian worship.  To those who grew up in a faith grounded in a 19th Century “rational” faith, emotion in worship was to kept at a minimum.  This is not to say that these believers had no room for emotion during worship, their profound attachment to songs like “The Old Rugged Cross” reveal a deep emotional bond.  Rather, these  believers limited the range of emotions deemed appropriate for worship.  Worship, while it was meant to make worshiper feel good (so as to ready them for the practical application of the sermon), was to be “even keel.” Expressions of emotion that were deemed “volatile,” such as exuberant shouts of “Amen,” spontaneous dancing, or hand-clapping during music, were discouraged or even prohibited outright[4].

The Charismatic movement, on the other hand, viewed the exuberant expression of emotion during worship as an essential element for connecting with the Holy Spirit. Shouts of appreciation, clapping, raised hands, dancing, and tears all were all encouraged during worship[5]. While some congregations went “all in” with the Charismatic movement, however, most did not. The resulting divide led many many churches to experience a tug of war for the “soul” of the congregation, which led to many church splits.  Partly because those who were grounded in a “rational” faith wouldn’t open up to greater emotional expressions in worship and partly because charismatic renewers began to confuse their own emotional expressions with the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Sadly, in churches where the worship wars led to church split, talk about the Holy Spirit became taboo.  The traumatic memories of what had happened to the fellowship the last time someone attempted to awaken the congregation to the power of the Spirit caused people to purge the language from their hearts and minds.  Thus, sadly, the outcome of the Charismatic movement on many churches was to leave it colder to the power of Holy Spirit than before the much needed renewal was attempted!

The continued impact of these two cultural forces continue to be felt in churches all over the country, much to our loss.  It is hoped that this study would help to start a process by which churches might, together, re-engage with the Holy Spirit, the very empowering presence of God our Lord promised we would have with us always.


[1] “New Geology” was rewriting the history of the earth, claiming that a catastrophic flood could not account for the way land features had been formed on the earth.  In so doing they reappraised the age of the Earth well beyond the “traditional” age of a few thousand years.

[2] In the liturgy, the Spirit brings the congregation before the throne of grace in the midst of all the Saints, living and dead.

[3] Common signs are healing, tongues, and prophesy

[4] These prohibitions were not limited to individual congregations.  I remember when, as a senior in High School, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church I was a member of informed the congregation that the denominational gathering that year had released worshipers to be free to raise their hands during worship!

[5] There has been much made about the Charismatic practice of encouraging Holy Spirit “prayer languages.”  While this is a common practice in both non-denominational churches and among Charismatic denominations – the practice is not so prevalent among “traditional” churches that have a Charismatic presence.