A recent issue of Christianity Today had an article by Steve Gaines on praying for the power of the Holy Spirit to show up when we gather together as Jesus-followers. His article has many things I affirm. It also has some things I feel are misguided.
I've quoted the entire article below. My comments and concerns and questions are in bold.
"When God Comes to Church Is it wrong to pray that God will show up?"
by Steve Gaines
It was a warm spring Wednesday night in West Tennessee. Fifty or so of us faithful Southern Baptists were in church for prayer meeting. I was the 20-year-old college intern. It was part of my job to show up for these kinds of things. "Our spring revival starts in just a week and a half," the senior pastor was saying up front. He named the evangelist who would be coming to preach and told some of his credentials. "We sure want people to come to Christ during this series of meetings. In fact, before we start the prayer time, let's make a list of people here on the chalkboard.
Who of your relatives and friends and neighbors do you want to mention?"
A middle-aged woman with dark hair near the front raised her hand.
"I'm going to invite my neighbor in the next apartment. She's having lots of trouble in her life, I know. She really needs the Lord."
The pastor turned to write Lorene's neighbor on the board. A man in a denim shirt spoke up next. "We could pray for my brother-in-law to come. He's got a drinking problem. I don't know if he'd ever show up or not. I sure wish he would." Roy's brother-in-law was added to the list.
"Who else?" the pastor asked. I raised my hand.
"Yes, Steve?" the pastor said. "Who would you like us to pray for?" I knew that if God showed up, sinners would be touched and Christians would be stirred.
With all seriousness I replied, "Let's pray that God will show up at our revival."
I wasn't trying to be a smart aleck. I meant it with all my heart. Awkward silence. Heads swiveled toward me, then faced the front again. "Well, yes, we know the Lord will be here," a deacon declared, setting the record straight. I could tell I had committed a major boo-boo.
Though I had been a Christian only two years, I had heard enough sermons to know that God, of course, is everywhere. I even knew the word for it, omnipresent. But I also knew I had been at some meetings where God's presence was undeniably real, and others where it wasn't. At times it was almost palpable enough to reach out and touch with your hand.
In those special, holy times, you didn't want to move or cough for fear of breaking the moment. The leaders or singers on stage were eclipsed by the presence of one greater than they. It was not exaggerating to say that "God was in the house." I yearned to have this happen at our spring revival meeting. I knew that if God truly showed up, sinners would be touched and Christians would be stirred.
Unfortunately, the week came and went, the evangelist preached solid messages, we sang "Just as I Am," but not much happened. It turned out to be just another set of meetings. The next Wednesday night, one of the dear saints was blunt enough to ask out loud, "So why didn't we have a better revival this year?" I wanted to raise my hand and say, "Because God didn't show up!" But I knew I'd already said too much for a rookie youth intern. I held back. The thought did cross my mind, however, that if I ever served as pastor of a church, I hoped to lead people to hunger for the presence of God more than anything else. It's as if the church motto is "Come as you are; leave as you came."
Here I am now more than 25 years later, a fully credentialed, seminary-trained veteran of pastoral ministry. The various diplomas hang in nice frames on my office wall … still, in one sense I haven't changed from that night long ago. The cry of my heart is still for God to show up.
I once heard an old-time preacher speaking about God sending fire from heaven onto Mount Carmel during the prophet Elijah's day (1 Kings 18). He said that the manifest presence of God is "when God shows up, and he shows off!" He comes in not to take sides but to take over. When he arrives in splendor and glory, it is obvious to everyone that he is present and he is in charge. The human agendas fade away in the overwhelmingly awesome presence of the King of kings.
For years now this has been my primary prayer for every worship service. The longer I live, the less interested I am in how many people we have in the sanctuary. What is far more important to me is how much of God we have in the place. If he comes, we will have a wonderful service, no matter if there's only a handful.
I am not suggesting that God's people engage in fleshly emotionalism. God gets blamed for a lot that takes place in today's churches when in reality he had nothing to do with it. The Bible does not support Christians barking like dogs, rolling on the floor, laughing uncontrollably, or jerking and contorting. Nor does it mention angel feathers appearing at the church altar, gold dust forming on the minister's hands, or images of Mary appearing on the side of a building.
[OK - the Bible does not mention gold dust. So...? One cannot conclude, "Therefore, God would never, ever bring gold dust." In the Bible there are a lot of things that would appear very strange in a Western Eurocentric Enlightenment paradigm. "The Bible does not support... laughing uncontrollably, or jerking and contorting." How does the Bible not support this? Because such things are not mentioned? Acts chs. 1 & 2 describe, e.g., behaviors that again would not fit in to the Enlightenment worldview. The author simply states that the Bible does not support such things. But he gives no support for such a statement. I doubt that he could support his statement biblically. In the actual Bible a lot of strange and weird things happen.]
Something else is at work there; God should not be held responsible.
[You mean, Satan? Or, "the flesh?" If we really want God to come and heal and deliver, then we should be open to God's choice of methods to do this. And, let's say God does come, and someone gets healed. Like the brother-in-law with the drinking problem. Should he not laugh or twitch or move if God actually heals him, and he knows he has been set free? Should he not jerk or contort or roll on the floor? To me, such a healing could be so overpowering that it would necessarily affect him physiologically. Since we are not mind-body dualists like Descartes and all Cartesians, we would expect a freedom of the heart to be accompanied by something physical going on. But if minds are metaphysically detached from bodies, then of course when a mind is touched and healed of an addiction the body would not have a clue that something amazing and glorious and powerful has happened.]
But when God is in the house, it's not fleshly emotionalism. It's far beyond some talented soprano nailing a high B-flat at the pinnacle of her solo. It's not just a speaker revving up the audience. All of these things are fairly easy to manufacture by someone who has secular stage presence.
[Emotionalism? Let us reject that. Displays of emotion? All non-Cartesians should expect that. Were you healed of alcoholism might you smile, displaying some faint emotion? Might you actually be happy? Could you even be ecstatic and "embarrass" yourself in an overwhelming physical display of emotion? I think so. But if this pastor really wants God to show up and sets limits on the display of emotion I imagine God saying, "No..., that won't be possible."]
I'm talking instead about something that is real.
[Which implies: emotional responses are not real? How false because, again, Cartesian.]
I'm referring to what I read about on the day of dedication at the new temple, when "the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God" (2 Chron. 5:14).
[Well..., if the priests could not stand..., did they fall down?]
That's one of the best definitions of revival I can think of: the glory of God filling the house of God. The Lord invaded the ceremony and basically took over, so that men and women fell to their knees and faces in reverent worship.
[Yes..., but surely they did not fall to their knees as a result of making a logical choice like, "Hmmm., the glory of the Lord is filling the house of God, so I will assume the proper position." Rather, the priests COULD NOT STAND. They were overcome physically as well as emotionally. In Hebrew psychology, the two are not metaphysically distinct.]
The New Testament tells about a prayer meeting where, as the early disciples poured out their hearts to God, "the place where they had gathered to gether was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:31). Those people lacked screens and microphones and all kinds of things we enjoy today in church life, but they had the manifest presence of God.
[The place was "shaken." Sounds rather upsetting to me. Hearts might have been beating faster, bodies might have twitched just a bit..., ]
What if the Holy Spirit would come and shake out the sin, the apathy, the pride, the self-centeredness, the satisfaction with church as usual. We don't need a bigger facility or a larger budget nearly as much as we need the presence and power of a holy God.
[I'd like this too. I don't find it odd, should the Holy Spirit come and "shake out the sin," that a physical body might shake just a bit as this is happening.]
Through the years I have seen glimpses of what I'm trying to describe. I remember one morning in Jackson, Tennessee, we had enjoyed a wonderful time of worshiping the Lord through congregational singing. When the choir began its song, I don't know how to ex plain it except to say that God walked in the room. You could sense his presence. People, without any human prompting, began to stand with their eyes closed, worshiping the Lord. Some slipped quietly to the front of the church, knelt at the altar, and prayed. At the end of the service, several lost people gave their hearts to Christ and became believers. It was like a little touch of heaven on earth, and we all left wanting more. I also experienced these "heavenly invasions" during a 14-year pastorate in Gardendale, Alabama. In the mid-1990s, many people in that church began to fast, pray, and seek the Lord's presence. People started getting right with the Lord and with one another. God began to bless our worship services with his presence. The Lord knew he was welcome at any time to do anything he wanted among his people.
[Except for... falling, laughing, twitching, gold dust, and a host of other banned physiological manifestations that would embarrass the heck out of Descartes and many Enlightenmentized Evangelicals???]
After all, it is his church, isn't it? He graciously enthroned himself on our praises (Ps. 22:3) and met with his people who were hungry for him. Again, I want to be clear that I'm not talking about anything unbiblical or weird.
[Nothing "weird?" Does "weird" = "unbiblical?" If so, we're reading different Bibles.]
What I'm speaking about is the real deal found in Scripture—the manifest presence of God.
[The "real deal" found in Scripture has some pretty strange stuff in it...]
When he shows up, no true believer in Jesus has to ask, "Is this really God?" The Holy Spirit within us confirms the obvious: Jesus is here. I am convinced that one of the reasons so many people are turned off from the idea of church these days is that it is all so explainable.
[Ban physiological manifestations and it will all remain quite explainable.]
Too many churches are growing simply because they are well-oiled machines. Church programs, in and of themselves, will not change one person's life for eternity. Rather, what causes a thief to quit stealing from his employer, what causes divorced people to soften their hearts and remarry each other, what causes a man to stop using pornography, what causes a homosexual to turn away from his lifestyle, what causes grown men to reconcile after not speaking to each other in years is the touch of God.
If the Lord is truly our focal point, needy people can come into the house of God and feel his convicting power even during the time of singing, before the preacher ever starts. James 4:8 says, "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you."
We have to focus on him first of all. It does no good to reach out to human beings ahead of reaching out to God. That's backwards. When we get close to God, he moves close to us—and peo ple come running to get in on the action. A lot of churches in America have become like the Wal-Mart Supercenter down the street. They desire to be efficient, offer a dizzying array of products, and be smooth at the checkout lanes; but there's little if anything that transcends the ordinary. There's no awareness or focus on the presence of God in the place. It's as though the motto of some churches is "Come as you are; leave as you came." They haven't been touched in their soul by Jesus Christ. It makes me wonder if God can find anybody who wants to pay attention to him. God's people, not unbelievers, are the ones holding back revival.
God wants to return to his people and to his houses of worship in great power and glory. He is graciously knocking at the door of our churches. Are we willing to let him inside?
Steve Gaines is pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis, Tennessee.