If you place the Holy Spirit at the heart of your theology, you have to be open to the idea that God might be present in places you don’t expect. If there’s one thing I’m sure of regarding the Spirit, its that the Spirit is not subject to human mastery. You can’t own or buy or sell the Spirit or use if for your own dreams or aspirations. The Spirit doesn’t belong to me or serve me. The Spirit doesn’t belong to the church or serve it. The Spirit serves the coming of God’s great and glorious future. It works for this promised reality even when I don’t, even when the church doesn’t.
One of the implications of this is that the Spirit’s work is in the world, and not just in me or the church. And this is huge.
I have a sense that we’re not clear about all of this. I’ve conducted interviews in churches that ask questions about the Holy Spirit. I have yet to collect a single response that talks about the Spirit’s work in a way other than in service of the individual. The Spirit encourages me, empowers me, gives gifts to me. These answers I get. I don’t get anything like “The Spirit is upholding the cause of the poor,” or “The Spirit is breaking down barriers between people to bring peace and create new categories of belonging,” or “The Spirit is making the righteousness of God known in the world.”
And these are, according to Michael Welker in his book, God the Spirit, the characteristic works of the Spirit if you take the entire biblical witness into account. Welker doesn’t begin his discussion of the Holy Spirit where most of us do, in Acts 2 or 1 Cor 12-14, with a focus on personal gifts. Welker surveys all of Scripture for accounts of the work of the Spirit of God. And while the signs and wonders of the NT are certainly an impressive part of the overall biblical story, they do not rise for Welker as one of the leading themes. Instead, it is characteristic throughout all of Scripture that the Spirit works to break down boundaries and create new communities of belonging (what Welker calls new publics), brings justice to the marginalized or oppressed, and increases knowledge of the righteousness of God.
Notably, these are all characteristic of the coming age in which God’s reign is fully realized, leading Moltmann to describe the Spirit as the agent of God’s coming future.
We tend to think of the Spirit, even though we know better, only as our personal possession, given for our good and for our use.
So, the Spirit is at work if we felt inspired by worship or had a sense of peace about a decision (which may or may not be the work of the Spirit), but have a tougher time talking about the Spirit bringing understanding between people who are in conflict or creating the conditions necessary for people to escape the degradations of poverty. At the very least, a charismatic theology would say that the Spirit isn’t at work just in the individual, but also between people (and peoples) and in the material conditions of the world.
The practical difference this makes is huge and runs in many directions. But let me start with this statement: the church doesn’t exist as a self-propogating organization focused on its own institutional health, but to discern and obey the leading of the Spirit in relation to the coming reign of God. These two things may very well go together, but to confuse them as the organizational priority of the church is to miss the church’s calling in the world. And as I said in my previous post, most congregations are poorly organized to discern the leading of the Spirit, being organized instead to enhance the strength of the institution.
Here’s an implication that follows closely. When I ask congregations where they got their mission statements, how they were produced, I usually am told that the leaders or a group of key members came up with it at a retreat. I heard recently the story of two elder groups that met together to discuss an issue both congregations were dealing with. It soon became clear the difference in how the leaders thought of their work. As one elder put it, “you discern the church’s direction for the church, we discern it with the church.” I like this distinction a lot and think it honors a charismatic instinct. (Ironically, a lot of pentecostal congregations situate authority in a strong pastor who acts fairly autocratically). But I would take this one step further. We also discern the leading of God with the world, with the people in our neighborhoods, because the Spirit of God might also be at work in these circumstances. Yet, seldom have I had a congregation tell me that their mission statement came, at least in part, through interaction with the congregation’s neighbors.
I think this would be one very practical dimension of a charismatic church, of a congregation that believes the Spirit does not serve the church, but the coming reign of God.