Pentecost Change

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Because Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit, we usually offer special prayers that the Holy Spirit will fall afresh on us. But do you think we really mean it? I’m not so sure.

Read the passages appointed for this day again. Notice that while each of them talks about the Holy Spirit in a distinct way, they are all in harmony on one point: when the Holy Spirit comes, things change. Acts might be the easy one as — goodness gracious — any previous notions of the Gospel being limited to the Jerusalem disciples are exploded or, maybe better given the imagery of the story, are incinerated. Acts scholars will want me to be clear that all those involved are Jews from the Diaspora returning to Jerusalem to worship and not yet Gentiles. Fine – duly noted. Nevertheless, I think Luke’s theological drift is clear: this thing is way, way bigger than the disciples thought. (And this, of course, is just the beginning….)

In the Romans passage the Spirit indeed comes to help, but it is to help us name those needs and desires to deep for words. The whole world — including those of us with the Spirit, Paul makes clear — groans with anticipation and struggle as we wait. The Spirit helps us name these pangs, but doesn’t alleviate them. Similarly in John, Jesus talks about the coming of the Advocate (whom we also call the Comforter), but the Spirit comes to testify that we might testify, often to a hostile world.

In each case, the Spirit’s presence is as at least as disruptive as it is comforting. Why? Because resurrection isn’t more of the same, it’s life from death.

So I’ll ask again: Is this really what we want? I mean, while I’ve never heard anyone actually pray, “Come Holy Spirit that we might remain exactly as we are,” that’s often how we act. For whatever we may mouth on Pentecost, most of the time we resist meaningful change in favor of “the way things have always been done.”

The thing is, there is no “the way things have always been done,” only “the way we’ve done them in recent memory” — which of course really means “the way I’ve gotten used to them being done.”

I understand this focus on tradition — it’s not just a matter of comfort or personal taste. It’s also a matter of confidence. Lots of the things we do — our church practices, if you will — we do, quite frankly, because they’ve worked. And so we trust them. But my hunch — actually, it’s strong than that — my conviction is that the population for whom our tried-and-true practices are working is only getting smaller, while the population and generation for whom they are not working is only getting larger. Which means that it’s time to start innovating, and wondering, and exploring, and experimenting and in all these ways try to figure out together what works in this day and age…for those who are coming, for those who haven’t been coming lately, and for those who have never come.

Which means, I think, that we could use a heavy dose of Holy Spirit to grant us both the creativity and the courage to enter into this spirit of invention and experimentation.  And, believe me, it takes both. We need creativity to help us think outside the box and courage to not give in either to our insecurities or to the insistence of others that we can’t change because “we’ve always done it this way.”

Four thoughts about living into this vision of Spirit-led change:
1) Creativity, I’m learning from a variety of sources, is highly combinatorial — that is, it’s not nearly as much about having original ideas (is there any such thing?) but rather paying attention to what others are doing and being surprised and inspired and applying that creatively to your own context. Last week I posted an article on “Ten Things Churches Can Learn from the Apple Store” that has gotten a lot of play. Two quick notes on that piece: a) the ideas (as I state up front) aren’t mine, but I found them helpful in thinking about our congregational life; b) while some folks resist learning from a corporation, most love the fresh insights another field can bring to our own.

2) While we’re on the topic of Apple: I saw a documentary on Steve Jobs life not too long ago where he said that the most significant moment in his life was when he realized that “reality” wasn’t a given but rather was constructed by a previous generation of folks who weren’t, in the end, any smarter than he was. Once he realized that, he was willing to poke the “is” to see “what might be.” What would it be like for us to recognize the same about many of our church practices? What might we dream up to help us share the gospel with others?

3) Keep in mind that you don’t have to come up with all the innovation yourself. Lots of folks are innovating in their personal lives and businesses and have a lot to offer us if we invite them.

4) When folks resist changes in favor of the tradition, I find two things immensely helpful: a) honor the tradition in question as something that has been meaningful not only for your dialogue partner but most likely for you — many of these practices nurtured us in the faith and deserve our respect; b) then ask if they are still working for the children (and perhaps grandchildren) of your dialogue partner. I find that many conversations turn markedly when we shift from the “what” (the proposed change) to the “why” (reaching out to those we love and miss at church with the Gospel). If pressed to choose between the “church of their parents” and a “church for their children,” most of us will choose our children…hands down.

This change stuff is hard. It makes us nervous. But the Holy Spirit we celebrate on Pentecost has a way of not only shaking things up but also granting the courage and confidence to see things through. For this reason we should pray, perhaps now more than ever, “Come, Holy Spirit!”

Thanks for all your Spirit-led work, Working Preacher. This isn’t always an easy time to be a leader in the Church, but it sure is an important time, and I’m grateful for your faithful labor.

Yours in Christ,