Valued friends invite us to visit a church they’ve been going to for about six months. This surprises me: not the invitation part but that they’re going to an organized church and not the house church they’ve been involved with for several years.
They now attend both, interweaving their participation as their schedule permits.
Gifts of the Spirit
“They operate in the gifts of the Spirit,” my friend says. The chance to see our friends—who we don’t see often enough because we live an hour apart—is all the incentive I need. The fact that this day promises to start with a Holy Spirit experience shines as a bonus.
My background is not charismatic, but I relish the opportunity to experience Holy Spirit power and bask in his presence. Our own church portends to embrace the Holy Spirit, but how they conduct their services leaves little room for him to act.
Our worship experiences focus on Jesus and his Father. They mention the Holy Spirit but keep him at a safe distance. This, incidentally, was how I experienced church most of my life. And frankly, it wearies me. I want a Trinitarian experience, the whole package, not two out of three.
The Holy Spirit isn’t much of a factor in my typical worship experience at our church, but he is a daily factor in my life—though not as much as I’d like. It’s harder to embrace him when I’m not surrounded by a community of like-minded faith seekers.
Hungry for More
I want to be part of a community who operates in the gifts of the Spirit. I must be in such a community, but I’m not.
I’m hungry for God. I’m thirsty for more. I can hardly wait for Sunday, counting down the days, which is a good thing since this attitude of church anticipation is now mostly missing from my normal reality.
I check out the church’s website. It’s fresh. They just rebranded themselves with a new name to better reflect their Holy Spirit focus, but it looks like many websites for any one of today’s churches. It views and reads like most seeker-friendly fundamental churches.
One bullet point, however, in the “What we believe” section, hints at what we’ll experience. It mentions the baptism of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, the gifts of the spirit, and supernatural manifestations.
I’m terrified and excited at the same time. I expect God will stretch me, and I welcome what is to come, even though I will surely squirm.
A Guest Minister
With only a few days to wait, my friend emails me with bad news: Their pastor won’t be there on Sunday. My being deflates, but my resolve doesn’t. Surely this church, which operates in the gifts of the Spirit, can function just fine without a minister. At least, they should.
My friend gives me an out if I want it, but I don’t take it. “Let’s proceed as planned.” Crisis averted.
A Long, Winter Drive
I awake Sunday morning to the promise of unseasonably warm temperatures by midday. But, still in the winter season, it’s below freezing at daybreak. A bit of overnight snow and ice coat the roads. This should tell me to leave a bit earlier than planned, but I don’t heed the warning.
As we leave home a cheerful sun brightens our journey, an hour-long trek of mostly highway driving, but the roads to reach the highway still retain a bit of winter.
I skip taking the shortest route and opt for the more-traveled path. This will add about five minutes to our trip, but having padded it by fifteen, we should still arrive ten minutes early.
We ask God for safe travels and for his blessing on our time at church. We added this practice of a pre-church prayer a few years ago when we began 52 Churches.
I know it’s essential, but it’s hard to keep the words fresh week after week. So it is today. Does God at least appreciate that we tried?
Apprehension Sets In
You’d think I’d be used to visiting churches by now. I’m not. Apprehension over the unknown roils in my gut. A dozen worries assault my mind.
It would be easy to turn around and head for our church, the one that’s known, the one that talks Holy Spirit even though it does little to back up their claim. Instead, I push on.
Regardless of what happens at church, we’ll have the afternoon with friends—good friends—to look forward to. I focus on that.
The church meets in a public high school, a fact I appreciate. A temporary banner points us in the right direction, but once we reach the facility, I see no more signs.
Instead, I follow the car ahead of us, hoping we’re headed to the same place and they know where to go. As I do, the car behind me turns to follow. Is this confirmation or the blind leading the blind?
Figuring Where to Go
We end up in a parking lot with nine other cars. With no hint of which building entrance to head to, we wait in our car, hoping to follow someone else. One person scurries to an uninviting alcove and disappears. Should we follow?
Surely this is not the path to church. Eventually two people in the car that followed us into the parking lot exit their vehicle and head to the main doors. We follow.
Unfortunately, we’re not fast enough, for once we get inside, they’ve disappeared. I look for a sign but can’t find one. I’m about to turn right when Candy tugs me left. “I think they’re down there.”
A couple of tables adorn the hallway, and light beams from one of the rooms. That must be the place. As we trudge down the unlit hall, a few people emerge. We move toward them.
A man greets us, and we share names. I repeat his back to him, but with a question in my voice. I heard wrong, and he corrects me. After he confirms mine, he asks if we’ve been there before. He doesn’t think so, but he holds out the possibility we have.
“This is our first time.” I smile.
Not a Normal Service
He smiles back, but his glow dims. “We won’t have a normal service today.”
I play dumb. “Why not?”
“Our minister’s gone, and one of our members will be speaking. And the minister’s wife normally leads singing. She’s gone too—family vacation. Someone’s filling in for her too.”
“So you’ll have singing and a message. What do you normally do?”
“The same thing.”
“So you’ll still have a normal service?”
He nods at my logic, but he doesn’t seem convinced.
Candy shares that we’re meeting friends. He perks up at their name and quickly affirms them.
“Do you know where they usually sit?” she asks.
It seems like an unnecessary question. There are fifty chairs aligned in five neat rows and less than a dozen people present.
He thinks for a moment and bobs his head. He points to the back row. “There.”
Waiting for the Service to Begin
As our attempt at small talk wanes, he drifts off. With no one else who seems available for conversation, we sit down in our friends’ row. The wall clock shows it’s time to start, but no one seems in a hurry to do so.
I can’t figure out the purpose of the space. It’s far too big to be a classroom, but not large enough for anything else.
The high ceiling suggests a gymnasium, but it’s too small. I count the ceiling tiles and do the math: 42’ by 72’. Some large matts, rolled up and against one wall, suggest this space might be for wrestling.
Since nothing’s happening, Candy and I decide to visit the restrooms—in expectation of needing to sit for a ninety-minute service. There seems to be no reason to hurry, so I take my time.
When I exit the restroom, I spot our friends as they arrive. We share hugs, and I attempt to interact with their kids.
We stroll to the back row as we catch up. It’s been too long. Our reunion is sweet.
Beginning at Last
It seems the stated starting time is merely a guideline. Eventually the service begins, about fifteen minutes late. The man who met us when we arrived stands to greet those gathered, who now number sixteen. We and our friends make up half the group.
I think his purpose is to welcome us and give some opening remarks. From my perspective he drones on too long. His rambling comments veer political, but only vaguely so. I’m not sure of his point.
Worshiping God through Song
He introduces the fill-in worship leader. I don’t know if this twenty-something musician is part of their community or not. With skill he moves us into our worship time. Aided with the simple sound of his acoustic guitar, he ably leads us without calling attention to himself.
His focus remains rightly on God.
Some people raise their arms in praise, and I feel free to join them. Others sway gently with the melody, but my rhythmically-challenged body stands in stoic contrast. One woman edges off to the side and respectfully dances her worship.
I want to watch, but don’t want to intrude on her connection with the Almighty. My friend brought worship flags for her and her kids. They move behind us to praise God with the movement of their flowing banners. This must be why they sit in the back.
Though worshipful, my mind wanders at the repetition of the words and notes. With the chairs positioned in the middle of the room, open space abounds on all sides. Three banners in front proclaim “Kingdom,” “Grace,” and “Power.” I ponder their significance.
Do these words imply the Trinity? The Father’s kingdom, the grace of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit? Maybe. Maybe not. Am I trying to make these words fit where they don’t belong?
Song lyrics project on the wall. I think our worship leader plays as he feels led, but the right words always appear at the right time. After about twenty minutes, Candy groans. I think we’re still on the first song, but I’m not sure. The endless iterations weary her, whereas I just grow bored.
With a smile, I recall the cynical complaint of an old Baptist preacher about modern church music: “One word, two notes, three hours.”
Eventually our numbers swell to twenty. This is less than half their normal attendance. I guess the word got out that Pastor was gone, and half the congregation did the same.
Some people may feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. I don’t. For many, music acts as a conduit to God, but it seldom serves me in that way. I need quiet. Perhaps had I sat down and not tried to sing along, I would have heard from the Spirit of God.
After three or four songs, spanning forty minutes, we move into the message. An older woman stands to talk. She’s nervous—both her words and her demeanor say so—but after a prayer and a few minutes she settles down and ably teaches about the righteousness of God.
A former missionary, she begins with 1 Kings 8:11. “Righteousness,” she says, “is to be in a condition acceptable to God.” I’ve never heard it explained this way, but I like it.
From there she bounces around the Bible, sharing more than a half dozen related verses, teaching about each one. I jot down the verses so I can look them up later, all the while knowing I never will. I also grab some intriguing one-liners.
One warrants contemplation: “Righteousness is a gift, not a goal.”
After about thirty minutes she winds down. The worship leader strums his guitar as she wraps up her message. I’m not sure of the intent. She offers no altar call and gives no challenge. The service ends with a final song.
Overall, I’m disappointed. We followed their normal format, but I’m quite sure the results weren’t typical. I saw little evidence of the Holy Spirit. I witnessed no baptism of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, or the gifts of the spirit.
There were no supernatural manifestations as their website boasted. Yes, these would have made me uncomfortable, but I know God would have revealed his truth to me anyway.
The service differed little from a low-key evangelical service, and fell far short of the charismatic experience I had hoped to encounter. I guess we should have postponed our visit until the pastor and worship leader returned.
At least we’ll spend the afternoon with friends in significant spiritual community. That was the point all along and will be the highlight of our day. Church is just a prelude to the main event.
And that gives me something else to contemplate.
[See the discussion questions for Church 66, Read about Church 65 or start at the beginning of our journey.]
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Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.
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