Ineffable. The feeling that washes over you in worship or in a session meeting or at a community event in the church parking lot when you sense the presence of the Holy Spirit. Tangible, unmistakable, but difficult to describe exactly.
Ineffable. The feeling that clings to you in worship or in a session meeting or at a community event in the church parking lot when you sense the presence of conflict, tribalism or indifference. Tangible, unmistakable, but difficult to describe exactly.
Hang around congregations long enough and encountering both scenarios is inevitable. But what makes the difference between Spirit-infused and Spirit-adverse churches?
It doesn’t take long to ascertain which stance prevails in any given faith community. The greetings (or not) of the “greeter,” the easy laughter (or not) in the congregation, the liturgical litany that is the weekly calendar printed in the bulletin, the content of the announcements, even the signage on the building and the literature in the pew rack reveal whether or not the people of God reflect the character of God, whether or not the church is a windmill generating power for the blowing Spirit or a steel wall built to prevent any divine wind disturbance.
Neither the size of the congregation nor the number of programs delineate the spiritual health of a church. It matters not if the art in the parlor is a priceless painting or a decoupage of Jesus made by the youth 30 years ago. Paraclete-powered communities look outward and evidence of that view is undeniable. Look at the lists on flip charts in classrooms, the scraps of paper left behind on the shelves in the pulpit and the remnants of preschool projects made from paper plates. No less than potsherds and tools found on an archaeological dig, these fragments tell stories. In those places where the Dove’s call beckons, all this ecclesiastical detritus shows a knowledge of, and concern for, the people and places outside the church walls.
Maps of Paul’s journeys come alongside maps of contemporary places where mission partners are supported, clean water provided, refugees welcomed, medical care given. The halls in the education building are dotted with bins filled with food. Calendars list NA meetings and the dates for hosting those experiencing homelessness. Bulletin boards don posters of upcoming discussions on immigration, mental health and climate change. Spirit-infused congregations conduct energy that moves out into the streets, pushing and pulling disciples of Jesus Christ with it, all the while drawing others alongside.
Churches alive with the Spirit of the Living God embody levity and humility, flexibility and no fear of looking foolish. Reverence is not confused with seriousness. Tradition is not conflated with entrenchment. Moving the font to make room for the youth choir does not result in weeping and gnashing of teeth. The cigarette butts left by the back door after the 12-step meeting are not cause for a conversation about preserving the sanctity of church property. When tragedy or disaster strikes, leaders respond, resources are offered, members ask instinctively, thoughtfully, immediately: How can we help? Calculating the cost comes well after trusting God’s ability to provide and Christ’s call to serve.
The flames of the Spirit burn brightly in those places where heartfelt confession comes quickly. Repentance follows and forgiveness extends seven times seven times. Healthy churches aspire to fulfill Jesus’ call to be perfect like his Father in heaven while realizing how often and spectacularly they fall short of the glory of God. Speaking the truth in love, committed in equal measures to both truth and love, committed to staying in relationship, affirming our irrevocable unity in, through and with Christ casts a congregation’s light well beyond its stained-glass windows.
Finally, but not at all lastly, those places with the undeniable, ineffable sense of the Spirit study Scripture together and alone, in classrooms, homes and bars. Worship is a priority as evidenced by its quality, intentionality, execution and energy. Prayer flows without ceasing – corporately and privately – because the faithful know they need to hone their vision if they are to see and follow the Holy Spirit, the Comforter who inevitably pushes us out of our comfort zones.
Grace and peace,