Every Thursday morning I meet the same friend for breakfast. We meet at the same time, and we meet for approximately the same length of time each week. I know pretty well what range of subject matter we’ll talk about. I am nearly certain what each of us will eat for breakfast. And yet, each morning we meet, our conversation is fresh, it is robust, it is encouraging, open and honest. We have cried (well, we’re dudes so we only got a little choked up); we laugh (without fail, every week). We don’t have a specific agenda to cover, though we may likely have thoughtfully prepared a thought or question or story for the other. Our meetings are the result of schedule, planning, and preparation. But when we actually sit down, no matter how much of our routine is…routine, our conversation and interaction is living. It is spontaneous. It is guided by good manners but stirred by great passion.
I reflect on this breakfast dynamic as I consider current (though ancient) discussion about the structure and flow of worship gatherings – of “church” – in terms of the freedom and movement of the Holy Spirit. I read blog posts and articles and have heard posited from pulpitis cautioning against spontaneity or sensationalism, reminding the reader or auditor that The Holy Spirit can anoint thorough preparation and bless tidy presentation. I have observed, too, the hazards and chaos and boundary-less worship gatherings that are blamed on the Holy Spirit (who evidently struggles with Tourette’s Syndrome or ADHD).
I would argue, not so much for one or the other, but for an alternative. Of course the Holy Spirit is planner and a preparer. It was He who hovered over the face of deep (Genesis 1) at creation before any creative word was released. It was He who stirred Samson (Judges 13:25) before any lion or Philistine tasted death-by-fist. It was He who filled and “flipped” John the Baptist in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15, 44) before any locust shared a plate with wild honey or anyone got wet with repentance. I deeply believe and depend upon His infilling and influence each week as I prepare to lead our worship gatherings and study for messages to share with the church. In fact, I believe that the Spirit prompts “previews” of needs that can be met, themes to emphasize, and specific actions to take to engage the congregation. I am glad and grateful for the partnership of the Spirit with regard to planning and preparation.
However, I do not leave the Holy Spirit in my study. I bring Him, or rather follow Him, into the auditorium. Much like my breakfast meeting, this occasion is planned for, prepared for, and even allotted a certain time-frame for completion. But also like my breakfast meeting, I anticipate a living atmosphere, a dynamic environment. Real people have gathered in this room. People with needs and opportunities, people with gifts and graces. Moreover, a Real Person is present to preside over and permeate this gathering. The Holy Spirit is fully, actively present with us. It more than just stands to reason that I should be ready for spontaneity, I should expect and accommodate it. Whenever you combine man’s passion and God’s Presence, you’d better leave some white-space in the margins.
Consider with me the role of some of the unplanned events in the NT narratives. Most of the individual miracle stories of Jesus, the ones where we have most specific details and the same ones that have inspired the hope and faith of countless generations, are the result of Jesus being interrupted. If Jesus had refused to accommodate spontaneity (as a result of man’s passion connecting with divine presence), consider the consequences. He would have never made water into wine (John 2). He wouldn’t have freed the grave-living demoniac (Mark 5:1-2). He’d have never told the lame man to take up his bed and walk (Matthew 9:2). He wouldn’t have raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18). The blind men shouting for mercy would have remained “shushed.” In fact, the tendency to shush people and keep them from interrupting didn’t start with seeker-sensitive services. The disciples of Jesus tried to keep a tidy ministry from the get-go (Mark 10:13-14, Mark 10:42, Matthew 15:21-23). The list of things that Jesus would not have done gets very long if we don’t let him get interrupted.
Along those lines, I don’t believe that wind and fire and glossolalia were on the prayer meeting agenda in the upper room (Acts 2). Peter and John went to pray, and met a lame man on the way….(Acts 3). Things got real crazy during offering (Acts 5).
A living, dynamic gathering need not be characterized by and certainly not limited to specific manifestations or expressions. The Holy Spirit speaks to and through us in various and creative ways. People often see pictures, or feel an impression, or are made aware of specific needs in the room—the goal of which is all to minister grace to the gathered.
Nor is there any need for or benefit from rudeness or overt silly-ness. It seems reasonable to welcome people who have some established level of relationship in the community to share with the gathered what they feel the Spirit is saying to / through them for the benefit of the body. It also seems reasonable that they do so at a time that makes sense in the flow of the service (especially if white space is deliberately provided). Spontaneity need not be urgent; “when” we hear from or share something the Spirit has said is not nearly as important as how we respond. Furthermore, there should be a reasonable means for people to share – like having a microphone available for people to come to. There’s no rationale for hollering-at-will from around the room—no one needs to reach from the back seat of the car and grab the steering wheel. Great passion can function in the context of good manners.
But the largest issue is simply to remember, to celebrate and surrender to the reality that God, very God, the Holy Spirit is present with us. He is living; He is active; He is speaking and acting—through people, the community gathered for worship. The presence and activity of the Spirit in the life and functions of the church is important to heaven. His coming and activity are actually the final intention and plan of God for the planet (Acts 2:17-18). There is no replacement for His presence, no substitute for His activity. He should fill and flood our plan, our preparation, and our presentation. Ultimately, we, the church, are being built together in Christ for the singularly sublime purpose of being a dwelling where God lives by His Spirit (Eph. 2:22). I’m planning on it.