Some of you have responded to my recent posts with the question, “what difference would this make?” So, let me state the question this way: what difference would it make to move the reality of the Holy Spirit closer to the center of a congregation’s life?
It might mean different manifestations of the Spirit become more prominent in a congregation’s life. Maybe. But I think the notion of a variety of gifts given by the same Spirit indicates that the Spirit’s work might be manifest in different gifts from place to place, just as I believe particular congregations and even traditions have unique gifts of the Spirit. As far as I can tell, the only normative gifts of the Spirit–the gifts the Spirit inspires in everyone, everywhere–are faith, hope, and love.
So, I say let the gifts take care of themselves. Receive them as they are given. There are larger practical issues that to me are more determinative of the reliance on the Spirit.
Few congregations structure their lives in a way that indicates that discerning the leading of the Spirit is job one. Put another way, few congregations possess practices that would lead to Acts 15 moments–moments where the church can say, “it seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit.”
Some congregations are organized to create certain experiences in their members in worship. Others are built to attract new members and assimilate them into the needs and desires of the institution. Others find their organizational genius in populating small groups and congregational ministries. All of these are fine things to do, but all of them may obscure the work of discerning the leading of the Spirit.
So, let’s see if I can make this a bit more practical. Discernment requires attention. It requires patience. It requires a certain pace that allows attentiveness. It requires the capacity to listen closely.
The Spirit of the crucified one is not often in the big or obvious or spectacular. The God who hides his power in the weakness of the cross, his wisdom in the folly of the cross, is not made known to us simply through the what works or draws a crowd. The voice of God is often discerned in the still places, in the small voice, among the least expected, through struggle and weakness. This requires close, careful attention.
Few congregations are organized for this. I worked with a congregation once who found themselves between ministers. They wanted to find the person God had in mind for them. They wanted to discern things. But they had no practices of listening. Their members prayed, but they had no practices of focused, congregational prayer. They understood communication primarily as the leadership telling the congregation what was happening. Communication was information, and occured either in speaking or teaching, not in listening. They had lots and lots of Bible studies, but no congregational listening events. No small groups. No retreats. No congregational meetings. Their organization suggested that the Spirit was present primarily through teaching, or existed primarily among the leadership of the congregation to be disseminated to the rest of the congregation. There was almost no chance that they could have an “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” moment.
Congregations that have a charismatic dna, not just charismatic experiences, demonstrate through their practices that listening is the primary organizational value. So, which is the higher value in your congregation, efficiency or listening? All other organizational values derive from this distinction.
Some leaders think this business of listening or attending is at best a preparation for leadership. While you’re listening, you’re not getting things done. Real leadership is setting a direction and asking people to follow. I agree that seeing leadership and organization around the value of discernment is a longer obedience. But it forms disciples and communities in ways that efficiency can’t. Moreover, attending does accomplish things in the short term. Listening is a powerful action. It does something. It changes things. And it seems to me that the gifts of the Spirit should make us good at it.
And apart from it, there will be few if any, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us moments.
Come, Holy Spirit.