Category Archives: Spiritual Gifts

Letter 54: Enthusiasm and Gnosticism

Back in the 1980’s, my parents were supporters of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL ministries.  As a matter of fact we stayed at the Bakker’s Heritage USA site twice, enjoying the waterpark and attending tapings of the PTL Club.  I even appeared in one of the camera pans across the audience.  It seemed wonderful, magical, and just a little false.

It as built out in the middle of nowhere, and while there was a drought on, the managed to keep the waterpark going and water all of the plants at the facility.  It was a place humming with excitement, as there always was another project to build for, and of course to raise money for.  It struck my teenaged brain as odd that they never seemed to finish a project before launching into the next one.

It became easy to lampoon the Bakkers, especially once their ministry collapsed amid according irregularities and sordid tales of sex.  This is why I found the below article so fascinating, by placing them within the arc of the American religious experience, and our strong temptation to Gnosticism.

Most of this follows from the uniquely American solution the problem of competing religious faiths: privatization. By making religious truth a matter for individual conscience, we cut out a cause for civic strife, but we also placed the center of all knowledge within ourselves. We chose what was right and wrong. And this narrative structure has come to dominate American thinking about religion and ideas in general. We seek conversion, rejecting whatever surrounded us before, and making a definite commitment, preferably throwing off the “shackles” of the past.

The strong emphasis on a personal encounter with God, a core element of both Puritanism and Evangelicalism, grounded in a well of experience, is a powerful story.  But these all revolve around the self. Without a sense of sin and it’s effects, it is all too easy to name ourselves as the arbiter of God.  Spiritual growth becomes self improvement.  Unleash the power within.  Master the secrets and become like God.  The sin of Adam and Even becomes the fulfillment of the truth within.

“The heart is deceitful more than anything else, and it is disastrous. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 (LEB)

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker: A Scandal of the Self


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Letter 40: Adventures in Combined Worship

Like many churches, our church has gone to a summer schedule of only one service.  This has brought some challenges, as we seek to combine elements of both a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service.  To my mind, the combined format has not worked very well.   While both services have their own flow and logic, as combined, the resulting service has a Frankenstein feel to it, with bits and pieces stuck together without much regard to how they function.

So, we start with two hymns, each sung singly, with a pause to move from one to the other, followed by a prayer, and then the worship set. The flow goes start-stop, start-stop, start, stop, then start, and continue on for the next fifteen to twenty minutes.  The rubric of the traditional service involves a series of discreet parts intentionally chosen (when done well), that are designed to focus and direct one’s mind.  The contemporary model seems to require broad bands of time, giving the Spirit room to work, chiefly on our spirit and emotions.

As we’ve worked with trying to combine the two styles, it has become clear to me that it is not the music necessarily, that separates the two.  Music is music, and one can perform it in virtually any manner imaginable, and I’ve seen hymns performed as worship songs, and worship songs sung as hymns.  Instead, the two styles have different flows and different foci that make it difficult to combine them, unless you wish to create something entirely different.

The traditional service has many individual components, which works to fulfill a checklist of sorts.  We come into God’s presence, express praise, worship, and awe.  We confess our sins, and offer up our prayers and petitions.  We then let God speak through His Word.  We may also partake of Him directly through His Supper.  We close in a statement of praise and purpose thence depart.  Each part is distinct, not unlike the singing, and few last long, except the sermon.

The contemporary service has far fewer parts, and most of them are of far longer duration.  It is unhurried, seeking, I think, to free the mind, and welcome the Spirit’s embrace.  It is intentionally unintentional from the standpoint of human thought and activity.  The discrete and rapid shifts of nearly every aspect of the traditional service jars with the contemporary worship experience.  Thus we are dropping the traditional hymn singing from the combined service, and we may not get to prayer.

The strength of the contemporary format is an openness to the workings of the Spirit (thought one is left in the lurch if the Spirit decides not to act).  The strength of the traditional format is a completeness in the range of worshipful activities offered, and the more conscious effort to ties the congregation together.  But the traditional approach can also be rote and stale.  How would a service that combines that openness to the Spirit with the fuller dialogue with God flow?

First, we are called to worship.  We hear God’s invitation to us, to turn out eyes and minds toward Him.  This is a communal act, and need not take much time.  Having drawn near, we engaged in praise and worship, and luxuriate in His presence.  Here, we can sing, dance, or remain in silence.  The challenge here is to draw everyone together.  The best way I can think of to accomplish this is to begin and end the set with strong congregational singing.

Following this, I know the hope is that people will spontaneously burst into prayer.  However, in my experience that tends to yield the same voices, often uttering the same prayers.  I think the prayer should be led and guided, making a point to address concerns of the congregation, hopefully submitted in advance, and other affairs of the moment, but also leaving space for people to pray as the Spirit leads.  Prayer is a time to speak to God in hope and faith, but also presenting our questions, fears, and doubts.  It comes from the time that we have spent in His presence.  Ideally, close with a few moments of silence, inviting God to speak to us individually.  This should then prepare us to hear God speak to us collectively through His Word preached.  Alternatively, one could place the corporate prayer after the message, placing it as a final response to God.

Close with one quick hymn or song, invite people up for further prayer if desired, and formally dismiss the congregation.  I did leave out a specific time for confession, something that has been a part of some traditional liturgies.  This can be incorporated into the time of prayer or the call to worship.

The time breakdown should probably run thirty minutes for worship, ten for prayer, thirty again for the message, and ten to close.  If one assumes a ninety minute block for the service, this breakdown leaves ten minutes as a cushion.  Obviously, if you have something like Communion or a baptism, everything needs to be shortened.

Part of the key to making this work and flow is to think about what each part is doing and how it relates to the whole of the service.  The Sunday worship should be a time for the people to come together before God, engage Him, and depart from thence into the world, renewed and reconnected.  Each part does its bit in that process, by drawing us in, uniting us, speaking to God, listening to God, finally going forth to do His will in the world. There should be movements and pauses as we make this journey.

That isn’t what my church doing, alas, but then I’m not sure they know what the various parts of a worship service are for, or that its significance is as a collective experience.  Something for you to add to your prayers for us.

Nov_ 29 combined

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Freedom From the Tyranny of Hyper-Spirituality:

The tyranny of hyper-spirituality our church culture had foisted on us set us up for disappointment because it held up religious experiences as the means of God’s grace, rather than the finished work of the cross.

Source: Freedom From the Tyranny of Hyper-Spirituality:

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Letter 35: A Prayer for Penteost


Come Holy Ghost,

Alight on us as a dove

And bring us peace.

For we are tempest-tossed

And would thy comfort seek.


Come Holy Ghost,

Singe us with your fire.

For we are cold and dark

And would thy better tongue

To speak.


Come Holy Ghost,

Free as the wind,

Fill us, propel us,

Drive us where you will.

Be ever-breathing still.


Come Holy Ghost,

Shaker of worlds,

Hold forth God’s power

That all the world, and we,

Would see, and believe.


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Letter 11: The Gift of of Being a Church Janitor – A Defense of Cessationism


I am interrupting my reflections on worship to spend a few moments responding to the sermon I heard this past Sunday. It was on the Person of the Holy Spirit. In general, it was an excellent summary of the Third Person of the Trinity, focused mostly on what the Holy Spirit does in the life of the Believer. Our preacher, like many in our congregation came from a Cessationist background, which he bluntly described as teaching the “Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” While this is probably a fair reflection of many churches in this country, I believe it does a disservice to those churches, as it is a reflection more of the poverty of their theological education, than their actual teachings and tradition. So, while not holding to every tenet of Cessationism, I thought it worthwhile to put forward a defense of Cessationism’s teachings on the Holy Spirit.

Cessationism was adopted by the Church fairly early on in response to a series of heresies that lay great emphasis on the immediate workings of God though the Holy Spirit on the believer, in such a fashion as to trump or contradict the teachings of the Church. This has actually been a continual issue within the Church, down to the present day. How does one respond to the person who claims to have heard directly from God?

Cessationism took as its starting point the decision to establish the canon of Scripture. This, too, was in response to several heresies. The Church took the position that the greater revelations of God were contained within the bounds of the canon. There was no need for further revelation, as we could now turn to Scripture. The Church took to heart Jesus’s warning at the end of Revelation that nothing should be added or removed from the written Word of God.

While those who emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit argue that the Church from this point denied the various gifts and the associated signs and wonders, this flies in the face of history. Certainly any history of the medieval church is full of tales of miraculous healings. Moreover, there were numerous men and women who rose up to speak with a prophetic voice. Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Savarnarola, John Wesley, Martin Luther King, Jr., amongst others, come to mind as examples of the continuation of prophecy in the Church, as they spoke God’s word to the Church and the times.

In the main, the Church has seen the Spirit’s presence and work as a much more subtle effort. The Spirit works through Scripture, for example, bringing it to mind, and applying it to our lives as we read or hear it proclaimed. The Spirit serves as God’s approval and empowerment of our work to advance His Kingdom. The Spirit is a tangible reminder to us of our salvation. The Spirit’s presence enlivens our souls, quickens our hearts, and by God’s grace empowers to become the people God has called us to be. As often as not, it does this work over time.

What a Cessationist would not do is focus on the gifts. Once you’ve dug through the underlying theology, it clear that Cessationists believe that the Spirit is very much active in the world today, and is a necessary player in all Christian endeavors. The difference, in part, is in emphasis. The gifts are adjuncts to the Church’s mission. Luke describes the gifts as the power needed to carry out our role as heralds and witnesses. (Luke 24:47-49; Acts 1: 4, 6-8) Without actually carrying out the work of the church, the gifts have no value.

A related concern is that as presented, Spirit-Seeking churches tend to dwell on only a few gifts, namely prophecy, healing, and tongues. They may admit to others, but say very little about them, which can lead to a lopsided church, which struggles to minister fully. While Cessationists may give short shrift to prophets, they do recognize a much broader range of gifts and ministries. We are encouraged to pray for the gift of tongues or prophecy, but does anyone pray to receive the gift of serving as a Nursery worker or church janitor? The Church needs all of them.

Our focus, then should be on the mission, trusting that God will bless our efforts with his power. Too often we stop short of this. We are called to be the people of God, making disciples of all people, and teaching them everything taught by Christ, much as we ourselves are to be transformed by them. That is the true measure of our faith. Many will speak that day of the miracles they wrought and the prophecies delivered, and the tongues spoken, to whom Christ will deliver the final verdict: “I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity [disregarding my commands].” (Matt. 7:22-23).

May that not be the verdict on us.

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