Tuesday, August 19, 2008


I was exiting the mall today when I passed an ad for a church in our area whose name I’ve forgotten. I’ve walked by this ad a dozen times, it’s quite noticeable: two extremely energetic singers are punching the air, the name of the church plastered across the bottom, and large superlatives with exclamation points in the corners. It’s quite vibrant. If that was what I was looking for in a church, I’d be sold.

As I passed the ad this time, I noticed that one of the superlatives was “Spirit-Filled!” It caught me with a little punch in the gut. It’s a phrase I’m not fond of.

“Spirit-filled” is a popular buzzword around here. It pokes up in every church’s advertisements, from the church down the road to the megachurches downtown. When I was creating an advertisement for a church service this year, the phrase was suggested, re-suggested, and finally insisted upon. Management felt very strongly it set the right tone for what we were doing.

I understand why, of course. “Spirit-filled” indicates energy, vitality, perhaps even exuberance. More importantly, it implies God without really announcing God, the way “Christ-centered” or “Bible-believing” would; it says “God’s a part of what we’re doing here. But in a fun way.”

There’s a prevailing belief, particularly in larger churches, that this is way to win new people into their communities. The belief is insidious, it doesn’t affect just poorly run or spiritual dead churches, it is the natural progression of attitudes that follows large-scale growth. A church passes a point where it is a group meeting together on Sundays and becomes a service that people attend, and finally perhaps a show that people come to see. It is the way of such things.

Once a church reaches that point, they stop thinking about new members in a personal way (“I’m going to invite my neighbor Jack to church”) and begin thinking in terms of untapped markets and appealing to those dissatisfied with their “competitors” (“how can we reach the upper-middle class single mothers who don’t like praise music?”). And so church becomes, in small degrees, less a time for praising and reflecting on what God has done and more an opportunity to swell their ranks. They start to create services that “attract people.” They look for ways to be “slicker,” “more professional,” and above all “seeker-friendly.”

Understand, I’m part of the worst of it. I’m a member of a church media staff. If you want to take a shot at anyone who’s glossing over the rough edges of the Gospel, look at the guy who’s trying to cut it down to a 30-second clip. But it bothers me.

Howerver, I think that all of that isn’t really what bothered me about seeing the phrase “Spirit-filled” on that poster. I think what bothered me is that it implies that we already know that the Spirit is showing up, available at our beck and call with a snap of our fingers. And depending on what you believe about the Holy Spirit, perhaps He is, but to me it just makes Him sound like a dog on a leash. The Holy Spirit is now available, recently installed and fully functional, just past the coffee shop but before you get to the playground. Sometimes you have to crank him a little to get him going.

Maybe my view on the Holy Spirit is different from yours, but I don’t think that sounds right to me. To me, saying a service will be “Spirit-filled” is like saying “Come to church on Sunday, the building will be inexplicably destroyed by an unforeseeable natural disaster.” When we call on the name of the Lord, he hears us, and when we ask the Holy Spirit to come inside us, he does, but it’s not some parlor trick. It’s not something we’ve learned to control. It’s bigger than us, and always will be, no matter how many enthusiastic singers we have punching the air.

And exuberance or no exuberance, I’d rather be at the “Christ-centered” church any day.

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At August 19, 2008 6:47 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Hey Ben,

My dad pointed me to your last couple blog posts about church. I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately.

I used to be quite certain that there were right and wrong ways to do church. For me it was "hip and small" good... "big and flashy" bad. Your thoughts about the week long camp experience were insightful. Do you need a zipline to meet God? No. Does it hurt? Probably not. Has my enthusiasm for zip-lines waned since our Bethany Covenant days? Certainly not!

We hear a constant criticism of a generation that is shallow because the tend to choose TV over books. The TV shows that are popular however have a depth and complexity never attempted before.

Spirit filled would make a great energy drink tag-line but does it do justice for a church? I'm not sure... Is the fact that 20,000 people show up for performance on Sunday a sign that the Church has become shallow or simply more appreciative of top-notch musicians, great orators and cutting edge videographers such as yourself. Are the gymnasiums forgetting the widow and the orphan or a bastion of community in the midst of a hyper-indivdualized culture.

I know for many mega-churches the benefits of a small church are not gone... they simply don't happen on sunday morning any more. They happen in small group dinners, prayer groups and even people who just work out together.

I'm new to being positive about mega-churches. What do you think?

At August 19, 2008 7:47 PM, Blogger bs king said...

My Dad actually sent an email to all of us about this post, so I thought I'd react as well.

The problem I have with "Spirit-filled" is that it often conveys a certain letting go of the intellect that is at first necessary, but after a while, tiresome. It tends to lend itself to a place where the more emotional a decision is, the more it's really "Godly".

I was talking about this recently in regards to my father-in-law. A devout Catholic, he is one of the best people I have ever met (perhaps even trumping my Grandmother, if that gives you a picture of it). I was trying to describe it to my mother and I mentioned that his faith runs on two gears: supremely intellectual or absolutely practical. He would never say he was feeling "called by God" to do something. He gives to the poor/needy without a thought or a word....because that's what you do. Kind of like what I would say if someone asked me why I don't murder people.

Anyway, I think people like that are a dying breed in churches that are "spirit-filled". I think that it's the charisma of the whole thing that people are looking for, and if you've got the joy, tears, or whatever, that's clearly proof that something's there. If it's not difficult for you to be good, then clearly you haven't yet let God work on a "deeper level".

I think that we really need to look at if we're capitalizing that "S" in spirit there as well. Are we talking filled by the Holy Spirit, that somewhat mysterious but intriguing being that was left as a parting gift from Christ? Or is it spirit, our own spirit, and more like a pep rally? I'm not sure that's ever been defined for that catch phrase, and while the obvious answer is the first one, I'm not sure that's what most people are really thinking.

The Holy Spirit, as the least understood part of the trinity, will always carry some slightly magical weight. It's like Christians version of The Force. I think that's why people like to bring it up. It's new, it's magic, you don't understand it! I think focusing your faith around that can have very weird consequences. There's not much leeway in the Bible, ditto for Jesus, we know what he said, but this Holy Spirit guy, now we have some latitude!

All that is to say, there's a lot to be learned from those who aren't "high energy" Christians. It's a long life, with peaks and valleys, and I thinks it's dangerous to imply that if you hit a valley and simply can't show up and jump around on a Sunday that you should be fixing that ASAP. I feel that I spend at least half my life (maybe two thirds) in a place where I can't be anything even approaching "spirit filled" as it is commonly meant. Christ-centered though? You can get pretty low and still do that.

PS An entertaining anecdote from the last "spirit filled" church I went to: We were sitting in small group one day, and someone mentioned that "The Bible says blah blah blah". I, being the good CCHS grad that I am, piped up and said "Um, where....because I'm pretty sure it doesn't actually say that" the person looked at me for a moment, blinked, and said "Oh, well, it feels like it does." At least half the room nodded in agreement.

At August 20, 2008 12:19 AM, Blogger Wyman said...

Bethany, your story made me chuckle pretty hard. Let me respond to both you and your brother.

First of all, I'll preface all of this by saying I don't believe I've sold my soul, working in a large church. It isn't just that my church is big enough to have a video producer position and so I work there, I really do believe in what I'm doing and what we're doing.

Tim, you're absolutely right that while a lot of churches aren't about community on Sunday mornings, they're about it at all other times. There are loads of churches whose whole emphasis is their cell group ministries - new members are immediately funneled off into these groups. I love that model, though it doesn't work for every church.

Most of the churches around here don't generally subscribe to that mindset instead they prioritize things with the big main service as the major priority and other ministries following in some pattern afterwards. The idea being that someone who enjoys the main service show will eventually find a connection in some ministry, whatever that is. Our church has a lot of people, and so do a lot of other churches who have a similar model, and I'm not one of those people who says that more people = less spirituality, so I'm not knocking the strategy.

But you know me, I like a church of community. I like potlucks and summer coolers and youth groups, I like it when church people get together just to spend time together, and that doesn't really happen so much where we are. People from the church are very connected, but they're connected because of Craft Circle and Job Search Ministry and Young Mothers Fitness Group. If that's the way we get community, than so be it, it's just not my preference. But really, it's fine.

But community shouldn't be something we hope people stumble into after they join some random ministry of the church and find their home among other members of the Camera Club. Sunday mornings should be about meeting together and fellowshipping, we shouldn't just write off the time and say "well, even if they never meet or talk to anyone while they're here on Sunday, they'll have more of an opportunity to get connected after they join the Parents of Military Members Ministry." No matter how big the service, church should never not be about people, just like the service should always be about Christ resurrected, no matter how "seeker-friendly" the service.

Which brings us to "Spirit-filled." Christians like the Holy Spirit, I think, because it's like God without the baggage. There's no guilt with the Holy Spirit, no call to go and preach anything. You just start singing and *bang* there He is. Someday you might even get to speak in tongues, or heal somebody. Bonus.

I think when we say "Spirit-filled," we're implying that a service has spirit-filled people, which is what often happens when the Holy Spirit comes to town. Of course, it's also what happens when crazy people start cults, but let's not focus on that.

I'm not saying I'm against, in any way, the pure cathartic joy of dancing and singing in the presence of God, worshiping him, I'm saying I don't feel like packaging it up and selling it as a guaranteed product if you show up on Sunday and maybe leave a twenty in the offering plate.

The Holy Spirit is not something we buy and sell. Our only product is, and always will be, the salvation offered by Christ's death on the cross. It just doesn't fit as well on a billboard.

At August 21, 2008 9:32 PM, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have to keep reminding myself that it's not where they start but where they go. I'm uncomfortable with a lot of emotion with people I don't know, and suspicious of instant energy. But that comes from being a Lutheran-Puritan mix, and is just a cultural preference on my part. It might feel to me as if I am discerning shallowness in all these noisy others, but that is very culture-driven for me.

So I have to step out of that and look at "Where is this church going? What happens here over the course of a year? What changes?"

At August 25, 2008 7:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello to all:

I have enjoyed this discussion. I have a few thoughts to add.

If we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, then it encompasses all of the human conditions; emotions (heart), intellect (mind), spirit (soul) and body (stength). I want to love the Lord with all of me. The intellect is not superior over the emotions, etc., etc. God wants it all.

One of the things I have always grappled with is the fact that Jesus had to leave this earth in order for the Holy Spirit to come. For some reason, Christ and the Spirit could not be here at the same time? Whatever the reason for that is; I want Christ. Since the sacrifice was to give up Christ for the Holy Spirit and Jesus said that was the better thing, then I want the Holy Spirit. I love the relationship the Spirit has with me as Teacher and Comfortor. I love the fact that he convicts my soul every time I fail so that I can repent immediately. Okay, okay, sometimes I do not repent immediately and hang on to whatever sin I am engaging in until I can stand it no longer and repent. The Spirit does that to me and for me. I am grateful for the work He does in me.

But I digress, the subject, after all, is Spirit filled as in churches. Well, since the Holy Spirit fills people and Jesus is present whenever two or more gather, then that is how I get Jesus. This leads to great rejoicing, usually manifesting itself with music and exuberant singing (although I confess I am a musician and therefore naturally respond to joy in that way). Also, I like to dance when I am overjoyed, so I am that person most of you may shy away from in a Spirit-filled church.

Or perhaps I respond in this display of emotions because I was raised a Roman Catholic, which for me, was monotonous and filled with fear. I was always afraid to lose my absolution and therefore be denied entrance into eternal life with Jesus. I was afraid of purgatory. Any good I did was to earn extra "mercies" to get either myself or a previously deceased loved one out of purgatory. It was all so self-serving since Christ's work on the cross did not complete the job and therefore I needed to do good works to earn merit.

Yah, I really sing, dance, pray in tongues and believe for miracles after being set free!

LD&Js Mom

At August 26, 2008 6:40 PM, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

My suspicion is that you can get the same feelings at entirely secular events. With music and dance, it is not clear what is a response to joy and what is creation of joy.

God seems quite unashamed to use such things to bring us to Him. Hardly surprising, seeing that He made our minds and bodies. Temple-worship included smells, dance, food, music, torches, candles, recitation, and liturgy. I only make a distinction between using these things and confusing them with their secular equivalents.


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