Pentecost: The Absurdly Unified

Pentecost has to be the most frustrating of the liturgical holidays. Frankly, it’s annoying.

Easter is all resurrection celebration. Good Friday holds our wounds and our sins in divine compassion. Christmas, while potentially painful for those hurting, is typically a chance for the weary world to rejoice. Palm Sunday, the ascension, the transfiguration—depending on how deeply you dive into the liturgical calendar, there are countless surprising and meaningful ways the Good News is told throughout our church year.

But Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, is the birth of the church. It’s the new and constantly ongoing formation of a community—the community of The Way. That means it’s the celebration of the Spirit taking a bunch of people with little common ground, little reason to spend any time together on purpose, and somehow, mysteriously, making them one entity linked together by new life in Jesus.

I suppose what I mean when I say “Pentecost is annoying” is actually “Pentecost is mind-blowingly beautiful, but it means we have a lot of meaningful, hard work in front of us as the church, and I don’t always want to do it.”

Spiritual Transcendence

Although those in the earliest church were easily divided across lines of nationality between those who were Jewish and those who were not, the apostle Paul describes the new identity of those believers—and all believers—through the lens of their baptism. “All of you were baptized into Christ,” he writes in Galatians 3:27 (emphasis mine). Therefore, all of your other identities are transcended. The divide between Jew or Gentile no longer exists! Nor do the dividing lines of slave or free, male or female (Galatians 3:28). These are the dividing lines the first generations of Jesus-followers were forced to wrestle with most, but perhaps you see parallels to today’s talking points in the church. Paul says, “You are all one in Christ Jesus.” If you belong to Christ, then you belong to each other, and together you are heirs to the promises of God’s covenant (Galatians 3:29).

The Holy Spirit sweeps in with tongues like a fire, and everything changes: differences are transcended by a divine unity in which the identity we are given as those unified with Christ in his death and resurrection means we now belong to each other. That’s stunning. It’s impossible, really. Thankfully, with our God all things are possible. Every difference—tax bracket, gender, race, culture, location, political perspective, ability, background—is welcomed into the Spirit’s creative act of building a community that shares resurrection life together.

Those differences aren’t eliminated, though, which means I now have to learn to be humble and curious about people I don’t understand, don’t get along with, or don’t even like. I suppose I should say that I get to learn this sort of humility. It truly is a beautiful way to live. It’s unity without uniformity. It’s a deference to our difference, but through the lens of the cross.

This is what true “spiritual transcendence” looks like. We don’t create unity; that’s the Spirit’s sacred work and is, mysteriously, already a reality. But we’re called to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” according to Paul (Ephesians 4:3). One body. One Spirit. One Lord. One faith. One baptism. One God and Father of all.

If the communal dimensions of our faith are truly the work of God’s Spirit in the church, then our faith is personal but never individual, internal but never private. . . . Healthy communal worship will aim us on a trajectory toward our shared faith, even with (especially with?) those different from us.

A Different Type of Pentecostal Worship

Such a staggering and grandiose work of God is not only possible; it’s a reality. How we worship can play a vital role in forming us within this new reality. But how?

If the communal dimensions of our faith are truly the work of God’s Spirit in the church, then our faith is personal but never individual, internal but never private. Our faith will always have and need public, shared expression, which is more difficult in many of our cultural contexts shaped by on-demand consumerism and hyperindividualism. Healthy communal worship will aim us on a trajectory toward our shared faith, even with (especially with?) those different from us.

If we’re willing to do a little self-interrogation about our worship planning, we can check on how we’re reinforcing individual desires, needs, and priorities and how we’re encouraging our shared unity. What are our habits and tendencies? What language are we choosing to guide worship? Are we encouraging the work of the Holy Spirit, or avoiding it? This is, perhaps, a different type of Pentecostal worship.

Visualizing Our Tendencies

I’ve discovered the value of the 2 x 2 grid for quickly visualizing relationships between two unique ideas. Simply, there’s an x-axis and a y-axis, like a giant plus sign, creating four spaces in a grid. Plotting points within the grid lets us see how concepts or actions might be related to each other. Perhaps this tool can help us here.

As a quick example, I recently had a chance to talk about technology and faith with a college class at my alma mater. Specifically, we wanted to discuss how healthy our relationship with technology is, especially if God is moving us from isolation to community and from consuming to creativity. We created a 2 x 2 grid where the x-axis represented the movement from “solo” to “shared” and the y-axis represented the movement from “consuming” to “creating.” Then we could plot all sorts of tech-related activities to see where they land. There are healthy and unhealthy aspects in each corner of the grid in this instance, but if God is generally moving us from isolation to community and from consuming to creating, then we don’t want the majority of our time to be spent in the Solo/Consuming quadrant. It’s unhealthy.

What about worshiping as a unified body full of differences?

Perhaps we could keep that Solo–Shared x-axis. Our liturgical expressions certainly should have some spaces for our personal, individual faith to be expressed. But I believe God moves us from self-focus to shared community, particularly in public worship.

For the y-axis, we can try a few different ranges. Let’s begin with a Listening–Speaking y-axis.

We now have a grid with four areas: Solo/Listening, Solo/Speaking, Shared/Listening, and Shared/Speaking. 

Now, recall your most recent worship service. Think through how the service unfolded, and plot each liturgical movement somewhere on the grid. We can do this with our liturgical actions (call to worship, prayers of the people, baptism, etc.). But perhaps it’s more clarifying to drill down a level to investigate a few different aspects of each liturgical action. 

Let’s start with language. What words were used in our call to worship, in our prayers, in celebrating baptism? How would you plot the language shared over the course of the worship gathering? By placing these plot points, we can see a quick visual representation of how much time is spent focused on individuals and how much is spent focused on being a community. Particularly in light of the Spirit’s pentecostal work, what do we bring to God in worship as individuals, and what do we bring to God as a community? How do we listen for God’s voice individually, and how do we listen communally? How is the diversity of our experiences represented in our expressions of worship? 

Again, there are healthy and unhealthy expressions in all four quadrants. But to do this for a season of worship gatherings can reveal trends and patterns, some of which might be encouraging and others of which might reveal places to consider new practices. 

Try this same exercise to look at who is leading worship in your context or to plot the lyrics of the songs and hymns you sing. This exercise isn’t overly time consuming, and it can give you a glimpse into tendencies over the course of a worship service or a season of worship services. Are we confessing sin constantly as individuals, but never as a community? Does the shared leadership in our worship represent the diversity of Christ’s body? Isn’t it encouraging to see how frequently we’re sharing testimony of God’s work in our broader community when we’re gathered in worship?

What’s more, we can use this tool to quickly gauge our relationship with the global church across denominational lines or other dividers. I may not be able to lead the same songs as my friends in a local immigrant church, but perhaps they’d be willing to share one of their common prayers to be prayed together in solidarity. Those living and working missionally in other countries or cultures can help guide our hearts toward the global church, and our faithful imagination for what God’s church actually looks like can expand because of it.

Remembering the Good News—Together

Worship is narrative. At its best, our shared worship is a beautiful expression that is both artistically free and meaningfully planned. If you decide to try using this tool to evaluate a season of past worship plans with your leadership team, then, I’d encourage you to be careful. If you want to dissect something, you have to kill it first. You don’t want to do that with the life-giving dialogue of worshiping together in God’s presence. But perhaps the 2 x 2 tool can help us notice trends, both helpful and unhelpful, and allow for a deeper sense of the Spirit’s call into our shared unity within our diversity.

With Christ as our example, not considering equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, but pouring himself out and taking on humanity, we follow him in humility and self-giving love. How beautifully frustrating and frustratingly beautiful that following Christ’s humility includes the Spirit’s sacred work of forming us into one body of belonging and one body at worship.

Chris Walker is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and serves as pastor of worship and the arts at Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, where he has served and worshiped with his family since 2010.

Reformed Worship 151 © March 2024, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.