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The Spirit in the Emerging Church
by Patrick Oden
09/03/06
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Seven weeks after Jesus died and oddly enough reversed the process by leaving the tomb, an event almost as curious happened in the midst of the earliest church. This wasn’t long after Jesus left the disciples a second time, not into death but into life, returning to the Father for reasons no one really quite understood. The angels knew, and when Jesus rose into heaven they wondered why the disciples were mulling about, murmuring and confused.

“Why are you standing here staring at the sky,” the angel asked.

We are not told the response but I imagine more than a few at least wanted to say, if in fact they didn’t, that they were staring upwards because the Messiah who had come from a womb had just left into the sky. We’re not told this, but I would guess at least one or two, likely John, wanted to say, “We’re keeping our eyes on Jesus.”

But Jesus had been taken away from them, taken back into heaven. Even though he would come back the same way, he had gone, and left the disciples in a curious sort of position. They had a Messiah, but this messiah disappeared into heaven. He had risen again, but then after a little while he rose even further.

For several years they were his disciples, able to sit at his feet and ask stupid questions to which they were given wise and brilliant answers. Now that Jesus was gone they were a bit lost. Who was in charge now? What exactly was the message they were going to share? The story thus far had included some amazing events, but now it seemed the source of the message and the power had left them, without all the changes they felt sure were going to happen first. That they didn’t quite get it even to the end of Jesus’ time on earth is reflected in their last question, “Lord, are you going to free Israel now and restore our kingdom?”

“Um, no,” Jesus said. “And I’m not going to tell you when that’s going to happen. But wait. Wait for the Spirit to come and you’ll receive power to tell all people about me, people who you know, and people who look and act entirely different than you.”

Seven weeks after Jesus died and rose again the disciples had shown their willingness to listen and spent their time praying, praying continually as a matter of fact.

“Suddenly,” as the story goes, “there was a sound from heaven like roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were meeting. Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.”

The Holy Spirit came. Now this wasn’t necessarily a surprise, because Jesus had repeatedly told them in his last days that this is what they were waiting for. Indeed, this was why he had left. If he hadn’t left, the Spirit wouldn’t come. This is an unusual statement to be sure, and one we would likely argue with if in fact Jesus hadn’t been quite explicit about saying this was in fact the case.

“But now I am going away to the one who sent me,” Jesus said in John 16, “and none of you has asked me where I am going. Instead you are very sad. But it is actually best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Counselor won’t come. If I do go away, he will come because I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment.”

When Pentecost came, and when the Spirit came like a dam had been broken and the stored up water gushed out onto all the low-lying villages, suddenly not only were there tongues of fire, and various languages, and sounds of windstorms. There was power. Power to do exactly what Jesus said. The Spirit incited the disciples to begin the process of convincing. They were no longer sad when the Spirit came.

Even when Stephen was being stoned, he was no longer sad. When James was beheaded, he was not sad. When Paul faced shipwrecks, and beatings, and alienation, and frustration, weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities, he was no longer sad, but indeed content in all circumstances. When he was weak, then he was strong. All because the Holy Spirit had empowered him not only to do, but to become.

Pentecost is a curious event indeed. When the flood waters settled after the dam had been broken, the life giving water now flowed to all those who follow Christ. The Spirit had come, and come in power. What might be more curious, however, is that we don’t really pay much attention to this fact. Sure, there are the Pentecostals who talk about the Spirit and obsess over the shiny things of God, but they don’t really know the Spirit when it comes down to it.

We know Christ, we study Christ, we make Christ the subject of countless books, sermons, conversations, and arguments. But who is the Spirit? Who is this person who came upon the Church at Pentecost. If this is the Spirit who is to empower, and teach, and lead us all into the depths of Christ, the one who alone will convince the world of its sin so as to find fullness in the Divine community, then it seems a worthwhile use of our time to try and understand the nature of this Spirit, and the methods and qualities of the Spirit’s work.

Theologian and Psychologist James Loder notes this when he says, “In the formulation of the early creeds of Christianity, the doctrine of the Spirit was the most frequently neglected theme of any which was at the same time absolutely central and formative for the life and faith of the church. Today, this doctrine, which is decisive for the doctrine of God, of Christ, of the church, of the Word of God, and of the encounters of Christianity with the world, remains the most elusive (if not simply unaddressed) topic of modern theological thought.” (James Loder, Knight’s Move, Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1992: 20)

Since Loder wrote this more than a decade ago things have changed somewhat. There have been a small number of very insightful books by significant theologians seeking to focus on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. However, these studies are still rare. A recent computer search came up with 242 articles dealing with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. There were 5,830 articles dealing with the doctrine of Christ, suggesting we are a lot more interested in the one who left than the one who is with us.

Even these occasional studies of the Spirit have not, I would argue, encountered the ministry of the street with anything resembling influence. Those in the Church still do not understand or comprehend the nature of the Holy Spirit, and our churches reflect this lack of understanding. Instead, the Spirit is an addendum to our already established structures of thought and activity, an addendum which adds texture but is seemingly intended to make sure the apple cart is never upset.

“In the West,” writes Killian McDonnell, “we think essentially in Christological categories, with the Holy Spirit as an extra, an addendum, a ‘false’ window to give symmetry and balance to theological design. We build up our large theological constructs in constitutive Christological categories, and then, in a second, non-constitutive moment, we decorate the already constructed system with Pneumatological baubles, a little Spirit tinsel.” (Killian McDonnell, “The Determinative Doctrine of the Holy Spirit”, Theology Today vol 39, no. 2: 142)

The fact is that theology isn’t just something to keep the intellectually inclined folks among us busy with inconsequential concerns. Theology means something. Indeed, one could argue theology means everything. How we understand the work of God and his reality in this world vitally affects all other things we might do. Everyone has a theology, with the only question being whether it is a good theology. The theology we have, then, moves us to act, and believe, and respond in specific ways as we seek to move through our time in this world according to the reality which we have appropriated.

Our lack of reflection on not just the tinsel of the Spirit but upon the work and nature of the Spirit throughout time and space has meant we have developed lives and communities which are built on incomplete awareness of God’s work in this world. Yes, we have Christ, but Christ himself said that it is the Spirit who will convince the world and who will constitute the Church in this world. In leaving out a well considered doctrine of the Holy Spirit we are, essentially, leaving behind our power, and wisdom, and worth to this world. We ignore the words of Jesus when he emphasized the work of the Spirit, and in our supposed devotion to staring at the sky we miss out embracing the one who was sent.

Instead, as Jesus noted in John 16, we are very sad. Our churches are very sad. Our communities our very sad, our ability to reach out into this sinful and hate filled world are very sad. We have massive edifices and complex organizations all designed to help spread the message of Christ into this world by any means possible. Instead of doing this with a measure of bounty and joy, however, we are sad, and the world considers us sad.

Surely, however, we are not all sad. For despite our lack of noticing and understanding the Spirit continues to go about the business of convincing this world of its sins and redeeming this world so as to become in full what God originally designed. We are sad when we neglect the Spirit’s work and try to work on our own, finding the burdens all too heavy and the yoke frustratingly oppressive. With this we enter into a terrible rhythm of what can only be considered works righteousness even if we might deny such a thing in our testimonies.

We work, and work, and work to do God’s work, burning out, and losing light, to be replaced by others who similarly work and work. The Church is, in military terms, much like a Civil War regiment who gathers in a line of battle and slowly advances in the face of brutal musket fire, not because it works but because that’s how things are done.

That’s not how the Spirit gets things done, but as we have not considered how it is the Spirit does work we have only relied on the methods that have been passed down through the generations, methods which have, from very early on, suffered from a significant lack of Spirit consideration.
The Spirit is entirely not sad. The Spirit works and if we can gain hold of how the Spirit works, and the oftentimes non-intuitive ways the Spirit works, we can begin to experience the fullness of power in this world which convinces people of who Jesus was and is.

Now, what is interesting about the Spirit is we can’t just go and say what we want about the Spirit as though our opinions are binding. With Jesus we are given a set of stories, and a number of prophecies, and a lot of early reflections on who he was. These things give us the primary evidence which we can then use to paint a picture. This picture was wrestled with for centuries, especially in the 4th and 5th century, so that now we have a concept of who Jesus was as a man and who he is as God.
The Spirit, however, is still writing the story. We can go back to Scripture and see how the Spirit worked in the lives of the prophets and heroes and disciples. But, we can’t be limited by this. For the Spirit is still about the very same work, meaning our analysis has to be both a study and an observation. We begin with a look at the Spirit in Scripture then must look around at history even until our very day to determine the methods and styles and approaches the Spirit uses in order to really be a convincing Spirit in this world.

When we see the fruit of the Spirit, and the gifts of the Spirit, and the joy of the Spirit then we can get our hands around the fluidity of the Spirit in this world. And in doing this we can embrace those aspects which the Spirit is doing and let go of those aspects which we insist upon as being Christian, but are not really part of the Spirit’s nature.

So much of our churches have been built upon an anemic understanding of the Spirit’s work that we have developed significant amount of structures and styles which are in essence human substitutes for the Spirit, for in our lack of consideration we cannot leave a vacuum but instead create models of church which fill in the blanks, and get us to display ourselves in a way we think is for Christ, even as these things are not really of Christ.

Theology makes a difference, and the sad fact is that our churches should be a reflection of our theology and our understanding of each person of the Trinity. Rather than having a flexible understanding of church, however, we have a committed understanding of Church which is really the only unimpeachable doctrine. For most people the doctrine of the Church trumps all other doctrines, and leaves us in a state of disunity and sadness because having built a lovely building we can’t bear to remodel it just because God has revealed aspects of himself anew.

The Spirit demands doing such, however. And so a renewed study of the Spirit’s style and nature cannot just be a rhetorical exercise but insists upon practical change. In this a thorough study of the Holy Spirit both watches what the Spirit does in this world, and as it learns it also creates. We learn from the Spirit by watching the Spirit’s movements, and we respond to these movements by renewing our churches to best encourage freedom for the Spirit’s methodology.

And with this all said, I now come to what I think might be a very instructive approach to a better understanding of the Holy Spirit in this world. This study entails looking at the burgeoning Emerging Church movement, which in my estimation, exhibits in its core values a profound Pneumatological theology.
This theology arising from practice actually points towards a significant step in our historic Christian faith. This is not an intentional theology, but rather one which comes out of the instinctive practices of those who lead the Emerging Church communities. By letting themselves go, and letting the seemingly hardened concepts of Church go, these people have, in my estimation, actually tapped into a fuller picture of the Holy Spirit, fuller than anything yet before seen.

A study of these Emerging Church values would, then, help us move towards a better understanding of the nature of the Spirit, and in giving us this better understanding would echo back into our communities and sharpen our focus to emphasize these aspects. More than instinctive reactions to frustrations and concerns, a developed understanding of the Holy Spirit would give us a profound intentionality in our efforts, and in doing this bring us out of a state of ecclesial sadness into a wonderful Spiritual joy.

I note this partly because of my own personal journey which had me engaged in the most cutting edge churches for most of my life thus far. Having burned out on Church I stepped away, finding solace in the depths of historic Christian study and in reflecting more deeply on the sparse writings about the Holy Spirit. It was with some measure of surprise, then, that I find myself back to thinking about Emerging Church stuff. I did not come to it out of my desire to do something new, but rather in reflecting long and deeply on the nature of the Spirit, and in considering what a truly Pneumatological community would look like I surprisingly formed a picture almost entirely like what the Emerging Churches are now expressing.

I am curious about the Emerging Church because I encountered it from the back door, by leaving all church things behind and letting go of my own ecclesial ambitions. From the direction of Spirit studies, however, I find myself back to where I left. And so, now, I do not only have scattered writings to work with, but now, seemingly real people, and real contexts, and real creativity all of which point to the same Spirit, whose work in this world is indeed powerful and convincing. We are offered the chance to ignore this work or participate in this work, and so it behooves us, if we want to participate, to look and listen and learn that which the Spirit is doing and how the Spirit is doing it.


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Birdie Courtright 03 Sep 2006
Although we hold a different point of view of 'The Emergent Church', kudos for a very well written and intellectually stimulating article. You aroused my curiousity (perhaps my ire, just a little) and made me think on a deeper level. That's what great writing should do. Thanks!




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