Radiohead sang, “When the power runs out, we’ll just hum.” As church leaders, we’re tempted to do the same. A.W. Tozer put it this way: “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.”
Church is all about the living God, but sometimes we don’t sense his living presence. Has the church been using entertainment as a substitutionary form of life support; an iron lung that replaces breathing in the air of God’s presence? Many of our services are gimmicky, flashy, and funny, trying to simulate an experience with God. I know. I’ve tried that. As leaders “leap about and cut on themselves shouting all the more” like the prophets of Baal, the church gets further away from experiencing his presence.
But people are desperate for something that is real, something serious. Something less trite. Something Holy, Leaders know this, but don’t know what to do about it. We lay awake at night haunted that we won’t to be able to continue to attract enough people to keep the machine going.
Our predicament needs answers, but the answers come only after we ask the right questions. We need to be asking: What value do we place on God’s presence? His real presence, not a manufactured simulation. And in the absence of God’s real presence, what do we tend to substitute for it? For some, it’s entertainment. For others, it’s rote theology or hyper-spirituality. Whatever we do in church, the presence of God is the one thing that can’t be fabricated, but it can be easily substituted with something else.
A Pentecostal church leader once confided to me, “The weakness of our movement is that we aren’t comfortable when God isn’t moving, so we tend to whip it up, rather than falling on our knees, patiently waiting on him and asking the right questions.”
When the King of Egypt raided the treasures of Rehoboam’s palace and plundered the gold shields Solomon had made, Rehoboam replaced them with shields of bronze to mask the shame of defeat and keep up appearances (2 Chron. 12:10). E.M. Bounds in The Power of Prayer observed, “All around us we see a tendency to substitute human gifts and worldly attainments for that supernatural, inward power which comes from on high in answer to prayer.” Churches can be just as guilty as individuals.
Why are these people here?
It’s not necessarily the temptation to draw a crowd that’s the issue. The question to ask is, Who is drawing these people? At Pentecost, the first thing that God did was draw a crowd of thousands. When God draws a crowd, it’s because of something supernaturally caused by the Holy Spirit. There’s nothing wrong with lights, music, or dynamic presentations. God just didn’t need any of them. We do.
All he needed was himself. It’s all we really need too, if we only believed it. Years ago, Matt Redman wrote “The Heart of Worship,” convicted that worship was no longer about worship. His church scrapped worship altogether for a time, convinced that God wasn’t in any of it, because it wasn’t about him anymore.
As a serial church planter, I have learned to start churches without buckets of cash, on shoestring budgets, or no money at all. The Holy Spirit himself is the one thing needful, and his presence the indispensable power. An old Methodist preacher once said, “He needs no decoration to heighten his beauty, no prop to increase his stability, no girding to perfect his strength.” We feel the necessity to don Saul’s ill-fitting armor to fell giants, when all we need to reach for is the Spirit of God and a slingshot. On the front lines of mission, bereft of church trappings, I’ve had “take your shoes off” moments as I stood on Holy Ground and felt the overwhelming presence of God. They never happened because of my efforts to produce them.
I’ve been in prayer meetings in people’s living rooms where it seemed mere minutes had elapsed until we all glanced at our watches shocked that it had been 5 hours long! I can remember a baptism in an old Welsh chapel where the presence of God was thick. As I stood in the water, God filled the room. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been afraid of the manifestation of God’s presence, but my hands began to tremble. That night we baptized a heroin addict who had slit his throat in the entrance of a supermarket and converted after being rescued by paramedics. Another woman was baptized and her two construction worker brothers were there, felt God’s presence, and were saved on the spot and set free from addiction.
We baptized the first of a series of college students who invited his friends, and a couple of them came to faith that night. From the water, I glanced into the eyes of the nonbelievers, wondering if they could sense God’s presence, and their eyes were wide with fear.
The litmus test of whether God is moving isn’t how many Christians you’ve crammed into a room, but the effect upon the lost. “Big G” was in the house, and it was evident to all. I was the punk who turned up for the ride, because it had nothing to do with me. That was the beauty of it.
This is what believers have been craving. It’s what you’ve read about in Acts but so want to feel in your soul: a holy encounter with God. Could it be that the next generation has left us because they’ve concluded that our Sunday services are one of the last places they would expect to find it? Dissatisfied with spiritually anemic fare, they were unwilling to go through the motions any longer, unwilling to take one more step on a Sunday without him. Unwilling to sit through another act of Waiting for Godot.
Ironically, they may be the ones that see more than anyone else, and are looking for him somewhere else. Like Moses, they’ve pitched their tents in the wilderness away from the congregation.
Drew Dyck in Yawning at Tigers wrote, “God is always present, I believe. But he doesn’t always manifest his presence in the same way. The remarkable thing about these experiences [of God’s presence] is that they take me by surprise. In those services in which I have sensed his presence, it wasn’t because the music was particularly good or the prayers particularly profound. It was because there was a collective sense of God’s power and glory, of his holiness.”
If the Atheist Church in London can replicate our services in the name of the Universe and there’s no noticeable difference, it’s time to take a pulse. If all it takes is songs and inspirational talks and service projects to mimic us, then we’ve lost the demonstrable presence and power of God in our midst. Paul boasted that “the gospel did not come to you in word only, but in a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” Can we say the same? How would we know that God was in our midst? Conversely, how would we know that God was not in our midst?
When I was serving as Evangelist in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s legendary church Sandfields, where the Spirit had powerfully moved in the 1930s, the elders would huddle in prayer before the service kicked off. Assured that Jesus had promised to be present when two or more gathered, they still yearned for more. They consistently prayed that his “felt presence” would be among them. The waves of revival that Wales had experienced had left an indelible mark on how they prayed. They longed for God to turn up, and if they didn’t sense it, they said so, and begged for him to show up the following Sunday.
As I reflected on what they meant in praying this way, my mind went back to, “Then they shall know that I the Lord have been in your midst.” Isaiah ministered faithfully in a business-as-usual manner as priest and prophet, but one day, God tore through the rafters of the Temple and the hem of God’s garment wrecked his world. Moses was hidden in the cleft of the rock and could barely absorb the after burn of God’s glory. A frustrated “Holy Club” devotee George Whitefield threw himself on his bed at Christ’s College, Oxford, and cried out, “I thirst!” and as the Spirit fell upon him, the evangelical world irreversibly shifted. God interrupted. God broke in.
What if God wanted to break in on us? We haven’t left him any room. We haven’t admitted his "felt presence" is absent.
Checked at the door
In our worship services, we leave time in every service for people to respond to God. They can share a verse. A prayer. Sing a song. Sometimes all we have is silence. It’s no big deal, and nobody gets weird, but by not leaving room for the silences, churches have inevitably failed to leave room for God to speak. Could the Holy Spirit be as much a spectator as the people sitting in the pews, watching the leaders do everything?
When you refuse to allow the people to participate, you block the door where the Holy Spirit is most likely to break in. When we let people participate, the Spirit begins to move through their gifts. This partially explains why there has been a move toward home groups and missional communities.
We are afraid of silences in our services because we believe it will betray our nagging fear that “nothing is happening.” Yet “something” happens when a church is willing to be quiet and listen through the silence. When the smallest opening is created, the Holy Spirit can enter. Paul said that when nonbelievers came into the gatherings of the Corinthian church, they should experience a Jacob-style awareness that God is in their midst and be afraid as the people participate in the service. Perhaps it’s not the silence we’re drowning out as much as the voice of God.
Kicking it Old School
In generations past, leaders used to get on their faces and cry out to God for him to take back his church. That generation may be dead, but so is the power they knew. They were not impressed with themselves, and did not want anybody else to be. They abhorred spiritual “selfies” and wanted all eyes to be on Jesus. They were more honest than we care to be about times of God’s seeming absence, about what wasn’t happening in the church.
When God showed up, they, like prophets of old, pointed clearly to heaven so that the crowds could celebrate the true champion. They were players on the field, but they knew who won the game.
A.W. Tozer attracted crowds. So did R.A. Torrey. Yet for these men it wasn’t enough. They didn’t spike the ball in the end zone and dance the victory jig after their ministerial touchdowns, or count the numbers as a sign of success. Torrey locked himself in his room for three days, determined not to come out until he’d wrestled with the angel and received the blessing of God, the filling of the Holy Spirit. These men were honest about what they lacked and sought the power and presence of God. They were rarities in their day, and extinct fossils in ours, yet these dry bones might yet live again.
Perhaps if admit our emptiness and call on God to show up, we too might spring to life, ready to channel the Spirit’s power in these dark days.