It’s Sunday morning. The worship is flowing. Which of course follows that the delay must be flowing. The led lights fade to a soft blue a la Editors concert of five years ago; splashed across stretched white triangle sheet sails that cascade across the stage a la every church in America because ‘relevant’ refers to what Mars Hill is doing, not to what your local congregation cares about. Hands are raised, people are singing, and you put the last tasteful note atop your searing anti-solo, and slide down to a climactic G tonic…no wait…oh, I guess we’re doing the chorus again…so…C chord! Half a beat late. The keyboardist smiles tauntingly at you because he didn’t hit the wrong chord. It’s his one consolation for being asked to hold a single G note pad through the entire 8 minute song…it works in every chord.
You all walk into the green room as the pastor closes worship with a prayer, hugging each other as you individually congratulate one another on being titans of the worship universe. Someone makes the obligatory worship team green room joke about Van Halen and the brown m&m’s, everyone laughs, and then someone else seriously says, ‘But seriously…where are the m&m’s? Who’s on hospitality this weekend?’ The guitarists immediately huddle and begin discussing which pedals they had on for what parts, the drummer and bassist start surfing youtube on their phones, and the female vocalists start talking about things that to this day remain mysteries to those of us of the male persuasion. If the keyboardist is handsome, he talks with the female vocalists. If he is not, he orbits from group to group, hoping to be noticed. ‘Pads? Pads? I was the one playing the pads?’ Finally the worship leader smiles as he brushes his tousled hair out of his beard, and says, ‘Sorry about that last chorus, guys. When the Spirit leads, the Spirit leads.’
No. I’m sorry, but I feel like it needs to be said, so I’m just going to come right out and say it. No. Sure, there is no reason why the Holy Spirit cannot lead you to do another chorus. But do we need the Holy Spirit’s leading to look out at a group of people, realize they are into it, feel the emotional energy in the room and in the music, and decide to do another chorus? No. And there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with using our everyday observation skills to make judgement calls, even when it comes to more spiritual matters. The problem is that we as Christians (myself included) tend to have a habit of attributing all of our spur of the moment emotional judgement calls, to the Holy Spirit. And in so doing, I feel like we have created this little box in which the Holy Spirit works. And that little box is about a five second window before the time of the action we feel He is leading us to do. Change a song, go long on the message, give a worship sermon-ette, change the capo on a song, go acoustic without telling the band…all changes that we attribute to the Holy Spirit, and that take place five seconds before it’s time to execute said action. Which begs the question: Is the Holy Spirit incapable of knowing what is going to be needed before it actually happens, or are we incapable of doing anything other than using our senses to perceive an emotional mood in a group of people, change accordingly, and then attribute it to ‘sensing the Spirit’ simply because it was a change based on emotion?
Again, it is not as if the Spirit ‘can’t’ or ‘doesn’t’ lead us to do things on the spur of the moment. But when He never ever seems to lead us to those changes prior to the moment, logic really does push us to question whether or not all those spur of the moment decisions really were from the prompting of the Holy Spirit. If another chorus was needed, or if you needed to stop a song because the guy in the red shirt needed prayer, or if you needed to explain the true meaning of worship before a given song, why did the Holy Spirit not lead you to those conclusions before you heard that the music was going well and another chorus felt right, or before you saw the guy in the red shirt that was crying, or before you saw that no one in the congregation was worshiping so you decided to give a little dissertation on worship? If the Holy Spirit is not bound by space and time, and doesn’t need to make decisions based upon observable data in the given moment, then I feel that at least a portion of those leadings would come in advance. I remember one of my old pastors once saying, ‘I can never understand why the Holy Spirit can’t lead you to prepare.’
So what I am left with, is that many of the split-second decisions we make during a worship service, are from our own logic. And again, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that! Making changes based on perceived emotions can be a great thing! God gave us minds that can sort data…even emotional data. Using those observational skills to make judgement calls that can help bring people into the worship of Him is an incredible skill to use and to hone. But here’s where I feel we as a church whole are starting again to have trouble. We should be very careful what we attribute to the Holy Spirit, before we start viewing every emotion and trembling within our little sinful selves as ‘the movement of the Spirit.’
This is quite dangerous in two distinct ways. In the first and more obvious way, we run up against the danger of mistaking sinful and amoral emotions for leadings from God, simply because it is something we ‘feel.’ Many times, this starts innocently enough. We make a judgement call to do another chorus based on how we are feeling the energy of the room, and then that added chorus just goes off. So we attribute it to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Then we see a homeless guy who happens to look like someone in our family. This triggers an emotional response, we give the guy money, feel good, and attribute it to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Bear in mind that none of these acts are bad in any way whatsoever. But if we do not understand them and ourselves correctly, before we know it, if we feel something, we immediately think it must be the leading of the Holy Spirit. We in essence simply give every emotion that feels good, a new name. ‘Holy Spirit.’ Besides the falsehood it is to attribute our own natural emotional tremblings to concrete leadings from the God of the universe, if left unchecked it can lead to other dangerous things:
- It feels very good as musicians to do a song for 18 minutes. But is that the leading of the Spirit when moms don’t get to hear the pastor’s invitation because the song is going on so long that they have to leave to go get their kids?
- It feels very good to be in our air-conditioned churches, rather than out in the city caring for the people about whom we say we care. But that does not mean that the Holy Spirit is prompting us to stay in our churches, as has happened for years and years, and as is happening with me right now as I feel good writing this blog with the air-conditioning blowing and am feeling convicted.
- It feels much better to watch a Hallmark movie than it does to watch a movie that brings up some dark emotions in ourselves that we have locked away and never dealt with. But that does not mean that the Holy Spirit is not calling us to deal with the pain, and teach us something through it.
- It feels very good to follow the energy of a service, and announce that you just sense the Spirit calling people to make a decision for Christ today. And sometimes that is based purely on emotion, and not on the leading of the Holy Spirit. The pastor goes on about it for five minutes, about how the Spirit is calling people right now…he can feel it! No hands go up, no one comes forward, and the unbelievers in the crowd justifiably think, ‘Yep. Just another weird emotional cult.’ What may be even worse is that the pastor then, rather than rethinking his own emotions and thought process and where they should intersect with the Holy Spirit, doesn’t question his own emotions because in his mind they have become so intrinsically tied with what he feels is the ‘leading of the Spirit’, that to him to question his own emotions would be to question God. So he makes the only other logical step, which is that it was the people’s fault for not following the leading of the Holy Spirit. And his messages and his life become more and more forceful, more and more angry, and more and more bitter as people continue to not respond to what He believes to be the Holy Spirit, which challenges His worldview, which He won’t rethink because He feels it is questioning God, which makes Him more frustrated, and the cycle continues. I’ve unfortunately seen it many, many times. And the same unbeliever comes to a service two years later, hears the passive-aggressive undertones of bitterness in the sermon, and once again thinks, ‘Yep. Just another weird emotional cult.’
In the second way, we encounter the danger I was hinting at of putting the Spirit in a box, and missing all the leadings and promptings that do not come through emotions. Leadings that may tell you the night before to prepare the band to do a second chorus. Leadings that might come through reading the words of Jesus. Leadings that might tell you what setlist the congregation needs to hear, two weeks in advance! (Imagine that. ) Leadings that might even tell you the night before the service, to focus less on emotion. Or, conversely, to focus more on emotion, or even to focus on Him leading you through emotion in the given moment during the service. The point is not that emotion is bad, or that the spur of the moment leadings are never from the Holy Spirit. The point is that emotion is not the Holy Spirit. And one of the first steps to following something completely, is to figure out what it is not.
Be careful. Be so careful. There is an amazing God of the universe, and His Spirit is real. We are decidedly less amazing. Let’s be careful attributing things that originate with us, to having originated from that all-powerful God. Emotions are a wonderful thing, and used by the Holy Spirit a lot, I believe. They are not the Holy Spirit.