By Eddie Pipkin
As we arrive at the penultimate week of our blog series on revelatory discipleship strategies, we consider the fear faced by people who are interested in the concept of spirituality but frightened by the unknowns of what “letting go and letting God” might actually look like. We talk a lot in our churches about the leading of the Holy Spirit, but for many people in the pews (or the stackable chairs), the Holy Spirit remains a mystical enigma, at best a once-in-a-blue-moon sense of God’s divine presence. Beyond the fear of where God might lead us, however – please not some place challenging or unpleasant – please not some place hard – lies a true path to adventure, shown by an audacious guide who knows the way.
The workings of the Holy Spirit remain in large part a mystery to many congregations. I don’t mean, in this case, the kind of theological mystery that is at the very heart of our faith (beyond our grasp and worthy of a lifetime of study and contemplation) but a sort of basic ignorance about who the Holy Spirit is, what the Holy Spirit does, and how the Holy Spirit empowers us on our daily spiritual journey. Popular as a sermon topic on Pentecost Sunday and Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the Holy Spirit makes a dramatic appearance (literally) on those special days, but ask a person-in-the-pews about the Holy Spirit in a man-on-the-street interview, and you will often hear about a special surge of energy, intuition, and power that makes the Spirit sound like a supercharged energy drink.
Relegated to “special sermon Sundays” and rarely (if ever) the topic of educational seminars, Bible studies, or weekend retreats, the Holy Spirit becomes a sort of sidekick to the Father and the Son, rather than a co-equal part of the Trinity. As such, many of the people in our pews think of the Spirit less as an integrated and essential part of their daily decision-making and more of a superhero type who swings into action for the big crises.
Imagine if we changed that.
A big part of authentic discipleship is an openness to Jesus. Developing an ever-deepening personal relationship with Jesus (through using all of the applicable spiritual disciplines) is the direct pathway to being guided by the Holy Spirit in daily decisions (large and small), and such an openness and receptivity to the Spirit’s leading frees us up to break out of our bad life-scripts and unfulfilling routines and enter a new kind of fully-lived, emphatically-present experience.
It turns out that people are looking for that kind of fully-lived life (what the scriptures call “abundant life” and Instagram calls “living your best life”). For the millennials who are put off by the church, they associate this leading of the Holy Spirit with a bad-movie-inspired Pentecostal caricature. The truth is, of course, a rich, direct connection to Jesus which gives us confidence and courage to embrace the day, live out our purpose, and love others. To the extent that we have shoehorned this expansive vision into another set of rule-driven expectations, we have failed as leaders. We’re trying to stay organized, in consummate control, and enforce a safe speed, and thus we forget these truths about the working of the Holy Spirit:
- The Holy Spirit moves us forward – the Holy Spirit is not an agent of recalcitrance and defending old, tired regimes, but an agent of bold initiatives and passionate representations of God’s work in this world – check out your Bible! – if we profess to be a Spirit-led church, we should expect to be oriented in dynamic directions.
- The Holy Spirit moves individuals to audacious enthusiasms – if we tell people that they should live Spirit-led lives (and we mean it), they are going to be filled with an energy and fearless determination that will sometimes make us feel uncomfortable.
- The Holy Spirit is resistant to “boxes” – whenever the organized structures of religion have sought to box God up, hem God in, and tie God down to a specific set of rules and constraints, the Holy Spirit has busted out in new, unexpected, and creative ways. This is the history of Christianity writ large, but it is also the history of local congregations filled with people who take “being led by the Spirit” seriously.
- The Holy Spirit faithfully does exactly what we preach to people that the Holy Spirit is going to do – lead them to a usefulness that employs their unique spiritual gifts and passions. We routinely tell people this (as part of our mantra of things we know we should say as spiritual leaders), but we then most often try to channel their choices of how the Spirit can lead them into a predetermined set of options (very often guided by a narrow reading of select scriptures like 1st Corinthians 12:4-11).
For local congregations, there is much discussion about the need to understand and put to useful purpose our spiritual gifts, but there is generally a lack of an organized approach to understanding what that means and how to make it happen. Even if we have a rudimentary version of the classic “spiritual gifts inventory” for people to fill out, we very often fail to follow up in helping them understand the results or figure out how to use them to connect to real-world opportunities. Here’s what we should be doing:
- Give people a clear road map for determining their own spiritual gifts and unique talents and ministry passions.
- Giving people clear access to resources to more deeply explore their own spiritual gifts, unique talents, and ministry passions (once they have done the work to get a handle on what those are).
- Follow up with people (not just with a check-the-box-for-the-way-you’d-like-to-serve survey), but with a flesh-and-blood person who can help them think through their options for the ways they might be led to serve. [And if you are going to offer one of those check-the-box surveys, for goodness’ sake have an organized and timely follow-up. So many churches do damage by getting people enthused about those surveys only to completely flub the follow-through.]
Here is a link to the UMC’s spiritual gift assessment tool, as well as some explanation of understanding spiritual gifts. And HERE is a very interesting, different take on helping people think about how they are unique in their spiritual experience. It’s called a Spiritual Type Test, and it helps people visualize themselves as one of types that “illustrate how we see God, what we value, our type of spirituality, and how we interact with the rest of the world.”
- Sage– characterized by a thinking or head spirituality.
- Lover– a feeling type, whose spirituality comes primarily from the heart / emotions.
- Prophet– a crusader with a kingdom spirituality.
- Mystic– known for imaginative, intuitive spirituality.
In a pop culture environment in which any 25-year-old can instantly tell you which Hogwarts house they belong to (and often display the tattoo that proves it), it is useful to be creative about some new ways to help people understand their own spiritual orientations.
How does your local congregation help people understand and employ their spiritual gifts? How do you actively promote Spirit-led living? Can the people you lead articulate what a Spirit-led life looks like? Share your own inspirations and challenges. How has an openness to Jesus’ leading led you to unexpected adventures?