During three of my four years as a student at Calvin College I served on the Knollcrest Worship Service Committee. This was a group of about a dozen students who were advised by the two college chaplains. It was our job to plan and help lead the two worship services held every Sunday during the school year. We were also supervised by a consortium of local church councils that sent elder representatives to every service.
At the time, I had a lot of different thoughts swirling through my head about the nature of worship, particularly about the role of the Holy Spirit in worship. An uncle of mine had recently left the Christian Reformed Church due to his desire to join the charismatic movement of neo-Pentecostalism. He became an Assemblies of God pastor, and thus my family attended a good many services at the very large First Assembly of God church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Here we were exposed for the first time to speaking in tongues at every service and to a style of singing and music that was as different as could be from our traditional hymn and psalm singing (led by pipe organ only). My uncle and the other pastors of the church urged us to be more open to the Spirit, and they were not too subtle in asserting that probably our Christian Reformed congregations were pretty devoid of the full range of the Spirit’s activities and possibilities.
An Ill-Considered Plea
While at Calvin, in the second year of my involvement with the on-campus worship services, I had some friends who wanted things to be more charismatic at Calvin too. Long story short, the Sunday came when I was the student liturgist for a service, and I made the bold move of interrupting worship at one point to make an impassioned plea to get more Holy Spirit into the Knollcrest services and to ask what was wrong with everybody that we just couldn’t catch the Spirit and get with it, and so on.
It didn’t go over very well. Some students liked it, but the college chaplains were less sure, and the local church representatives who attended that particular service made it very clear to the leadership at the college that this had been an ill-considered tirade and that the student in question needed some redirection and counsel. They weren’t wrong.
Looking back, I cannot believe I did that. But I now remember it was a watershed moment in my thinking about the Spirit in worship and also, eventually, in preaching. I realize now that I was trying too hard—that I was attempting to tug on the wings of the Spirit to make the Spirit fly differently in our services. But the fact is, the Spirit was already there and always had been. And the Holy Spirit does different things in different places. I just was not noticing and appreciating how and where the Spirit’s holy wings had already been flapping.
Be True to Who God Called You to Be
Once I began seminary and started preaching, I likewise wrestled with this issue. There were those who told me that if I preached with a manuscript, I was squelching the Spirit. I’d never be free, never be open, never be charismatic if I relied on my “own” writing instead of the Spirit’s on-the-spot inspiration. All of us who preach have heard some version of this critique.
But, as I learned after my failed attempt to make our on-campus worship something it was not, so I have concluded that preaching is the Spirit’s work no matter what the preacher brings into the pulpit or how long the sermon is or how cranked up the preacher gets. Of course, if the whole enterprise is not bathed in prayer and week-long earnest cries to the Spirit for enlightenment and power, even the most outwardly charismatic sermon can be devoid of the Spirit. But with such fervent prayer and reliance on the Spirit, all kinds of preaching gets through to people as a singular—albeit wildly varied—activity of the one and only Holy Spirit.
The key is to be true to who God has called you to be as a preacher and to believe that the gifts you have and the style you bring to the pulpit and the preparation you undertake can and will be used by the Holy Spirit to bring a life-giving word. If you try to be someone you are not in the belief that the Spirit will work “better” if you do this, you will likely end up squelching the Spirit instead.
For instance, I am energized by African American preaching and the climactic move to celebration that is a hallmark of that homiletical style. I love the call and response. I love the musicality of preaching that I hear when I listen to my friend Luke Powery, dean of Duke University Chapel. I wish I could do it that way too, and on an occasion or two I have tried. And I have failed. It reminds me of the story Richard Lischer (who also has taught at Duke) tells about the time he did a pulpit exchange with an African American pastor. Lischer knew that good sermons in that church were met with choruses of shouted words like “Amen” and “Hallelujah” and “Preach it” and “There it is.” So he tried his best to elicit such responses but got nothing. Not a word. Not a single “Amen.” He sensed he was flopping. Finally an elderly black woman near the back of the sanctuary waved her handkerchief in the air, and Lischer thought that at long last someone was going to say something. She did: “Help him, Jesus!”
Help him indeed. Help any of us if we try to be something we are not in the thought that this alone will unlock the Spirit’s power in our sermons. The Holy Spirit works powerfully through the celebration of African American preaching. And the Spirit works powerfully through charismatic preaching in Pentecostal churches. But that same Spirit works powerfully through manuscript or outline preachers who know that every word they put down was motored along by the Spirit and who also know that what is in the manuscript—even if delivered word for word—is absolutely no predictor of what the Spirit will do with those words. One hundred people will hear the same sermon and could walk away with one hundred different convictions, applications, and feelings. The Spirit takes the most well-prepared of sermons and wings those words into people’s hearts in ways we pastors could never have guessed. We’ve all been thanked for things we never said.
The Spirit is Nimble
As we celebrate Pentecost once again, one of the things we should be grateful for is the remarkable nimbleness of the Holy Spirit. Across Christ’s wider body of the church, the Spirit does different things in different places through people whose styles are as different as night and day. But the Spirit does all of that in all those places to accomplish the exact same purpose: to bring life abundant through the preached Word. We preachers can all learn new insights and skills from those who are different from us. But at the end of the day we need to trust that the Spirit had something specific in mind when calling the uniqueness of each one of us to the ministry of the Word. We cannot force that Spirit to do something else with us. We just let the Spirit use us as we are and then watch the astonishing things that the Spirit does every single week when those holy wings flap through the sanctuary and flutter upon every heart.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu/.