The Holy Spirit in Worship

Beyond a “God of the Gaps”


I hear a lot of colloquial language about the Holy Spirit that doesn’t feel right to me. For example, one of our leaders likes to say, “I didn’t have time to plan—what a great opportunity for the Holy Spirit.” What do you think?


I affirm your concern, and I want to challenge every worship team, worship committee, church staff, and church leader to rethink how we too often undermine full biblical theology of the Holy Spirit in the way we talk together.

In the past month alone, I have heard otherwise wise and well-meaning leaders say things like:

  • “We need to plan less and rely on the Holy Spirit more.”
  • “Wow, worship went off-script today—the Holy Spirit was really on the move.”
  • “Worship today was so emotional. The Spirit was at work.”
  • “That was a Holy Spirit thing. We didn’t plan it.”

It’s important—essentially important—to affirm our need to rely on the Holy Spirit, to be clear that nothing we do will offer lasting gain without the work of the Holy Spirit, to savor how the Spirit works through emotional engagement, and to celebrate those times where extemporaneous speech and surprising developments were used by the Holy Spirit to encourage or challenge us.

But to imply that the Holy Spirit works primarily, if not exclusively, through spontaneity and emotion is just as narrow a vision of the Holy Spirit’s work as it would be to claim that the Holy Spirit works primarily through planning and intellect. This is a partial theology of the Spirit, and it limits our vision for the full range of what the Spirit may well be doing among us.

Consider the stunning work of the Holy Spirit in inspiring Scripture. The Holy Spirit worked over a period of many generations to inspire writers, editors, and copyists to give us the Bibles we all regularly use. Those Bibles include records of spontaneous speeches and literary masterpieces, like acrostic psalms that give every evidence of having gone through more than one draft. Consider Mary’s marvelous song of praise (Luke 1), which is a paraphrased improvisation on Hannah’s song (1 Sam. 2), an example of the Spirit’s use of Mary’s prior formation in the faith to equip her with the key convictions that would shape her praise.

This is why the World Communion of Reformed Churches’ document “Worshiping the Triune God” casts a broader vision of the Spirit’s work: “Wise is the worshiping community that recognizes how the Holy Spirit works through both reason and emotion, through both spiritual disciplines and surprising events, through both services that are prayerfully planned and through moments of spontaneous discovery.”

Importantly, that statement comes from a communion representing 108-plus countries and cultures—cultures that vary widely in terms of expectations for planning and spontaneity, emotional and intellectual engagement. The statement resists the temptation we all face to remake the Holy Spirit into our own image, conveying our own preferences and dispositions regarding emotional engagement and spontaneity.

Resisting a “God of the Gaps” Approach

There is also a powerfully instructive comparison here with a lot of recent work related to faith and science. When Christians consider how God is involved in creation, one common theological mistake is to slip into a “God of the gaps” mentality, saying, “If science can’t explain how something happened, then God must have done it.”

Left unchecked, this approach leads us to think about God less and less over time. The more we can explain by science, the less God must have been involved. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat” (Letters and Papers from Prison).

The Bible shows us another way, depicting God as always interacting with creation, frequently working through the very processes that are built into creation. The God of the Bible is not only an occasional interrupter in creation, but is also actively engaged through creation’s normal processes.

For this reason, when someone returns to health after an illness, we can rightly praise God for the gifts of medicine and scientific research, as well as surprising developments in a given situation that doctors or nurses may not have expected.

Likewise, in worship, there are any number of ways the Holy Spirit may be at work. The Holy Spirit may be at work in the heart of a stubborn, callous, stone-faced worshiper who gives no appearance of being engaged with anything going on. The Holy Spirit may be using what happens during a power outage or through an exhausted leader who couldn’t sleep the night before church. The Holy Spirit may be at work through the multiple drafts of a sermon that a preacher develops or through the craft of a visual artist or musician whose composition takes weeks to perfect.

We discern the Spirit’s work by noticing what leads us toward more complete discipleship to Jesus, toward a more robust experience of the fullness of Jesus’ kingdom. With that criteria guiding us, it is remarkable, especially in retrospect, to see the multiplicity of ways the Spirit has worked.

The Holy Spirit Will Teach You What To Say

I do think it is worth pausing to note that some of the speech patterns that concern us may well arise from a text like Luke 12:11-12,

where Jesus said to his disciples: “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say,” or again in Luke 21:12-15: “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. . . .”

These texts are a profound word of encouragement in the face of anxiety. We are challenged to set aside any worry that we might have about the ultimate outcome or fruitfulness of our words as we engage in preparation for preaching, for worship leadership, for talking to our neighbor about Jesus, or for responding to persecutors. The Spirit will see to it that the Spirit’s purposes are accomplished. We can be free from the burden of thinking that this all falls on us. And this can also rightly lead us to set aside anxiety if, in a given week, our preparations for worship are less than we deeply hoped for. The Spirit can still work powerfully through those circumstances.

But this does not mean that in any and all circumstances we should ignore preparation and trust that it will all work out. It does not mean that that Holy Spirit only works “in the gaps” when we don’t prepare. It does not mean that the Holy Spirit prefers spontaneous utterances to less-than-spontaneous utterances in every circumstance.

So let us all test ourselves and challenge each other to resist a diminished view of the Spirit’s work that is so often implied in common ways of speaking together so that all of us are better equipped to “walk in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 122 © December 2016, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.