In the 1970s I came of age theologically in a Presbyterian Church (PCUS) that was facing two threats: the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America and the charismatic movement. Though the PCA decimated the PCUS in some areas, it was the charismatic movement that seemed to inspire more fear. Stories abounded of church members, or sometimes ministers, attending charismatic conferences and coming back to split their congregations. Everything connected with the Holy Spirit became suspect. Just mentioning the Spirit was the kiss of death for candidates being examined on the floor of presbytery. The specter of fanaticism and schism hung over anything deemed to be “spiritual.”
Much of this fear was well grounded. The predominant focus on the flamboyant gifts and manifestations of the Spirit, such as glossolalia, tended toward a “more spiritual than thou” attitude in charismatics. With good reason, persons not caught up in the movement resented the implication that their faith was lacking if they were not speaking in tongues and having knock-your-socks-off emotional experiences. I once heard a wise Episcopal priest, himself a part of the movement, say that anyone who gets the Spirit should be locked in a closet for fifteen years until he or she matures. Many churches paid dearly in those days for the spiritual immaturity of people on both sides of the charismatic fence.
However, several decades have gone by since then, and I sense that now might be a good time for Presbyterians to reexamine the place of the Spirit in the life of the church. This time I would suggest a different focus. Rather than focusing on charisma let us focus on dunamis.
Power is what is sadly lacking in many of our churches today, spiritual power that transforms lives and has a major impact on communities and the wider world. When you really think about it, this dunamis of the Spirit is the only thing the early church had going for it. It had no buildings, no budget, no paid staff, and very few members. However, the power of the Risen Christ that was poured out on all believers at Pentecost blew them out of Jerusalem to transform the world.
When I am with fellow ministers in situations where we can talk honestly these days, I sense in what I hear a yearning for more spiritual power. We want to experience what we preach about and what the Bible talks about more deeply in our own lives and in our churches. Is there something real and vital we can offer people that goes beyond what the therapist, doctor, and social worker can offer? Is there a power that can move us beyond just doing church, however successfully we may be doing it, into the kind of adventure with God that the early Christians had? Is there a power that enables us to engage the powers, principalities, and structures of this world in ways that turn them toward the reign of God? Here I am reminded of Kenneth Leech’s comment that any spirituality worth its salt must ultimately be cosmic in scope (spirituality and pastoral care). It’s not that we aren’t already experiencing some of this power, but is there more than we have yet known?
This is the point at which I think our theology by and large does us a disservice. Assuredly, our confessions along with our systematic theologies and theologians give proper place to the third person of the Trinity. However, the old dispensationalist heresy that interprets the workings of the Spirit in the Bible as something special for that time alone is still alive and well among Presbyterians. This kind of thinking leads us to expect very little from God. Our low expectations of God naturally throw us back on our own human resources to do God’s work. We sink or swim depending on what we have to work with on a human level and, as our denominational statistics show, in large part we are sinking. Have we forgotten that the church was from the beginning meant to be a supernatural institution? Does it offend our scientifically-nurtured sensibilities to admit that the body of Christ might be dependent on the dunamis of Christ for its life?
I believe that we can benefit today from a new outpouring of the Spirit’s power as:
“¢ Pastors let ministry drive them to their knees. Many of us are leaving the ministry today because, frankly, it is a punishing profession. The cruelty of some parishioners, along with our own sense of inadequacy, and the needs and conflicts that never end, increasing chew us up and spit us out of the church. However, when we clergy find ourselves at the end of our resources, there is somewhere else to go other than out of ministry. The unceasing challenges of ministry can also be received as an invitation to go deeper with God. A pastor who has the humility to live and minister out of the dunamis of Christ rather than his own talents or her own charisma has something authentic and compelling to share. People, especially post-modern people, recognize this as the real thing and are drawn to it.
“¢ Elders are challenged and trained to be spiritual leaders. Calvin had the amazingly radical idea that lay people could actually run the church, and our system of polity is set up for that to happen. The elders of old were spiritual leaders, and the pastor sat on the session as a spiritual leader among spiritual leaders. Somewhere along the way, we lost this understanding. Today most Presbyterian elders would be genuinely shocked at the suggestion that they are spiritual leaders. The idea that their primary task is to seek God’s will and lead the church to do it is foreign. They default to the pastor, who is expected to be spiritual enough for everybody. However, because of the way our polity functions, no church will rise above the level of its lay leadership. While elder training is generally neglected in the church, the training of lay people for spiritual leadership and discernment is almost nonexistent. Until this lost art is revived, churches will continue to flounder and even the most gifted Presbyterian pastors will be frustrated.
“¢ Prayer regains its rightful place at the center of our church life. The story of the Acts of the Apostles is really the story of Christ pouring out the power of the Spirit on a praying church. If we truly believe that God can do more than we can ask or imagine, and if we yearn for that to happen in our churches, prayer will shape everything we do. We have to get beyond the perfunctory prayers before and after meetings and anemic prayer groups that spend more time talking than praying. We must reclaim prayer as a predominant means of grace in our individual life, in our corporate life, and in our mission. John Wesley chastised the busy leaders of his class meetings for neglecting prayer asking, “Why are you starving yourselves?” This is not a phenomenon unique to the Methodists. I fear that the epitaph on the grave of our beloved church may be: “They starved themselves to death while doing good.”
The Holy Spirit is the birthright of every baptized believer and the only source of life for the church. Jesus promised us in Luke 11:13, If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! Maybe now is the time to claim this promise and to invite the Spirit to move and shake again in the church.
Joan Gray is moderator of the 217th General Assembly and a pastor from Atlanta, Ga.