What Is a “Spirit-filled” and “Spirit-led” Church?
Recently I engaged in a conversation about the meanings of “Spirit-filled” and “Spirit-led” church. Specifically, we discussed how to recognize such and how to move a church in those directions. What is my opinion about this? How do I recognize a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church? How would I suggest a church move toward being those?
Of course, these are complicated questions that would take much more than a brief essay to answer. And I don’t think there’s any litmus test or formula to answer them. So here I can only offer a few musings (as the title of this blog suggests) that point toward fuller, more formal answers.
First, how do I recognize a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church? I would not consider any church Spirit-filled or Spirit-led that is not evangelical in the broad sense of that word. It must embrace, live from, worship within, and promote the gospel of Jesus Christ. To put it another way, the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, must be at its center, must be its heartbeat.
Assuming that is the case, I look for a healthy balance of dynamics and form, charisma and liturgy/sacrament. A church that is all dynamics without order, leadership, and ritual is unlikely to be truly Spirit-filled or Spirit-led. On the other hand, a church that is all form without dynamics, tradition, ritual and order, without openness to change, is unlikely to be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led.
A Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church will be alive, “crackling” with energy and passion, without fanatical extremism that focuses attention on ecstatic experiences rather than on the grace and glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Its people will come to worship and other meetings with excited expectation and not out of a sense of duty or with unhealthy fear. In a truly Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church visitors will come to see what God is doing among them. They will testify that “God is busy” (Hauerwas) there. Lives will be transformed in noticeable ways.
A Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church will manifest the fruit of the Spirit, including joy, and the gifts of the Spirit, including prophecy, words from God (whether ecstatic and spontaneous or folded in the messages preached from the pulpit).
Such a church will be open to the “sovereign unpredictability of the Spirit” (Du Plessis) even as it celebrates tradition. This requires risk on the part leadership; leadership will leave space for the Spirit to move and work in ways that transcend traditional forms.Such a church will believe in and pray for supernatural interventions of God in delivering people from bondages to sin and sickness; it will include testimonies of such deliverances that give all the credit and glory to God alone. (No great spotlight will be shining down on the pastor or evangelist or “prayer warrior,” etc.)
Such a church will lay all decisions before God for guidance and direction and move only through consensus of the spiritually mature people of God within the church. It will not be led by a dictatorial individual or small group that serves his, her or their interests.
Finally, such a church will be outwardly-focused with a strong sense of participation in the mission of God in the world. It will expend much of its energy and resources on meeting the spiritual and material needs of the communities outside the church.
I visit and speak in many churches. I have been a member and leader in about twelve churches in my life. Through my students I am aware of hundreds of churches. I read about churches. I grew up in a pastor’s home. My uncle was president of our denomination. Many of my aunts and uncles have been pastors or missionaries. My sad conclusion is that many, perhaps most, American churches are not very Spirit-filled or Spirit-led. Many are truly only going through the motions of church. On the other hand, I have known and now know of many churches of most denominations that are Spirit-filled and Spirit-led. The Holy Spirit cannot be confined to one tradition or denomination. (Not that I am against traditions or denominations as I have made clear here several times before!)
Here I have written as if every church is either one hundred percent Spirit-filled and Spirit-led or is totally devoid of that. That is not the case, of course. Here I am treating “Spirit-filled and Spirit-led” as an ideal type—not a bounded category into which every church can either be inserted or omitted. The characteristics I mentioned above form the center of a centered-set category. Deciding whether a church is Spirit-filled and Spirit-led is using a “sliding scale” rather than a litmus test: more or less.
In Part Two of this two part series I will offer some suggestions on how a church might move toward being more Spirit-filled and Spirit-led. What practices tend to enhance the freedom of the Spirit to fill and lead in a church?