Pentecost Worship, Prayers to the Spirit, and Written Prayers

Q  I always am anxious about Pentecost. I feel pressure to create a service in which people experience the Holy Spirit in an Acts 2 kind of way. Any advice?

A  For starters, recall again the whole scope of the Bible’s teaching about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works through both order and spontaneity, both dramatic intervention and long-term formation.

The Spirit inspired powerful, spontaneous sermons in Acts, and carefully planned acrostic poems in the Psalms. The Spirit generated charismatic ardor on Pentecost Sunday but also brought order out of chaos in Genesis 1. The Spirit brought about the dramatic conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch and the process by which Thomas articulated a halting kind of faith in the context of doubt.

When the Spirit came upon those about to sing or speak, the results included the elegant and dramatic canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1), the spiritual perception of Simeon recognizing Jesus as the Messiah (Luke 2), and the testimony of Stephen about the glories of heaven (Acts 7:55). The Spirit works in more than one way. Without this awareness clearly in mind, you may not fully appreciate the ways the Holy Spirit is already at work among you.

Second, be very clear that nothing you do can make people experience the Holy Spirit. Worship leaders are not shamans or magicians. The Holy Spirit’s work is always a gift. We can and should pray expectantly and hopefully for the Holy Spirit. We can be alert to signs of the Spirit’s work. But we should resist even the temptation to think that we can engineer the Spirit’s work.

With these two principles firmly in place, you may still say “I still would like us to have more expressive and emotionally engaged worship.” That can be a very good thing, especially when a congregation is stretching both mind and heart at the same time.

This happens best not in a single service but over time. So consider patterns of prayer, musical choices, artistic contributions, and preaching practices that could lead to a crescendo of expressiveness not just on Pentecost Sunday but over a period of several months. If we do this only on Pentecost, we can unwittingly reinforce the half truth that the Holy Spirit is engaged merely with dramatic emotions, not with ideas or ordinary practices.

Q  Why do we pray to the Holy Spirit when there are not any prayers to the Holy Spirit in Scripture?

A  A very perceptive question! It is true that there are no prayers to the Holy Spirit in Scripture. And it is true that just about every song in the Pentecost section of most hymnals and songbooks is, in fact, a prayer to the Holy Spirit.

This difference is the result of theological debates about the Trinity in the third and fourth centuries. During this time, church councils ratified statements (including the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) asserting that the Holy Spirit is fully divine, just like the Father and the Son. Theologians like Basil the Great (especially in his work “On the Holy Spirit”) argued that praying to the Holy Spirit in both sung and spoken prayers fits perfectly with the conviction that the Holy Spirit is fully divine. One of the earliest hymns to the Holy Spirit (“Veni Creator Spiritus”) was later translated into hymns still sung today (including “Creator, Spirit by Whose Aid”). Later hymn writers followed this model, so much so that there are many more hymns to the Holy Spirit than there are hymns about the Holy Spirit. This is a classic example of how theology and worship go hand in hand.

Q  We like the Worship Sourcebook. But many people in our congregation do not like to use written prayers. What should we say to them?

A  First, feel very free to adapt prayers to your context. Many leaders use written prayers as a guide to extemporaneous prayer that a leader speaks. Meditating on written prayers prior to leading free prayer can help any leader expand both the range of compelling biblical images and topics for thanksgiving or intercession in spoken prayers.

Second, this might also be a good time to talk about the complementary value of free, unplanned prayer and written prayers. Free prayer is especially valuable for its spiritual intimacy and spontaneity, and for helping a congregation grow from the personal prayer life and spiritual strengths of a leader. Written prayers—like many psalms and the Lord’s Prayer—help us to learn new ways to pray. They help us resist the idea that corporate prayer is primarily a matter of listening in on the personal prayer of a leader. And they challenge us to be very intentional in our corporate prayer life, much like a friend or family member who writes a note to a loved one in order to communicate deep thoughts carefully and precisely. Both practices are invaluable!

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.