Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Ministry time

Over the last week, for various reasons, I've been in three different churches, with three different styles of 'doing church'.

The most noticeable difference between the three approaches was in the way each of the three offered ministry - that is, the opportunity to have someone pray for you or pray with you.

In the first (the most traditional), the opportunity 'to have someone pray with you' was offered right at the end of the service. As most of the congregation went to get a coffee, three folk remained near the front, one who wanted to be prayed for, the other two to pray for her. The 'prayer ministry' was carried out seated, with the lady who was to be prayed for explaining what her need was before the other two proceeded to pray for her.

In the second, after the sermon, the pastor said 'we want to pray for you' and explained how, in the next section of the service, the various (badged) members of the prayer team would circulate round the congregation and pray for everyone - if you didn't want prayer you should make your way to the back of the room where a couple of rows of chairs were designated as a 'no go' zone for the prayer team. During this ministry time the band played quiet worship songs, but the words were not up on the screen, so it was clearly not intended for the congregation to join in the singing, even though several folk did. During this time members of the prayer team would approach people (of the same gender) and simply start praying for them - they didn't ask for any particular need, they mostly prayed that the person would experience the Spirit more. There was quite a lot of shaking going on, some falling over and other external phenomena. At the end of this time the pastor asked if anyone who wanted prayer hadn't had it yet, and those folk were prayed for before the band returned to leading the congregation in worship.

In the third, after the sermon, the pastor simply said (with no explanation for outsiders) that it was 'ministry time' and asked the congregation to stand. He then 'invited the Spirit to come' and made a few (brief) comments about 'the Spirit of God drawing near' and about receiving from Him. Shortly after this, a few members of the congregation went to the front and spoke, quietly, with the pastor. After a moment of silence the pastor named two folk in the congregation that he 'sensed the Spirit was resting on'. Then the six folk who had gone to the front, in turn, explained the 'pictures' they had been given and suggested an explanation which may be relevant to one or more folk in the congregation. The pastor then invited folk from the congregation, who felt the 'words' might be relevent to them, and the two folk he had named, to come forward for prayer. The folk at the front prayed for those who came forward, standing. There was no significant external phenomena (shaking, tongues, etc.). Then the pastor declared that the service was over, although several remained at the front in prayer for a while.

I have mixed feelings about each of these approaches. In many ways, I prefer the latter two because they both have an expectation of God's presence and an expectation that he will actually do something, whereas the first seems to want to distance most of the congregation from actually interacting with God - prayer ministry is only for the few, and only for those with specific needs. But I'm not sure how I would feel about taking a non-believer into either of the latter two settings. Without a lot of pre-explanation (which would probably be off-putting) I don't think a non-believing visitor would be particularly comfortable in either setting.

In the third church, the clear expectation was that 'God will have something to say to us (through the medium of 'pictures' or 'words of knowledge') at every service'. But what if God said everything he wanted to through the preacher? And how can we know if the 'pictures' or 'words' expressed by the members of the congregation came from above or simply out of an active imagination. Indeed, one of the 'pictures' shared this week was of a car advert - one that is on tv fairly regularly - it wouldn't take the involvement of the Spirit to bring that picture to mind, merely an aimlessly wandering thought process. If God wants to speak in such a way to that group of people on a weekly basis, does he also want to say such things to the first church, but they're not listening? Or is He not speaking loudly enough?

I'm not totally trying to dismiss seeing pictures or having words of knowledge - I have experience of receiving both myself - but not on demand or on a weekly basis. How can we be sure of the origin of these words?

Words and pictures were also shared in the second church (indeed, I have heard them occasionally shared in the first church too, but not every week or even every month) but there they seemed more like an added bonus rather than an expectation. The attitude there was much more 'we expect to be filled with Your Spirit, and if You choose to speak to us we will be listening'.

One of the things about the third church that was notable was that there was no music or other emotive thing going on during ministry time. People were not coerced into any particular state of behaviour. I liked the fact that nothing was forced, but I actually found the silence uncomfortable. In the second church it is much easier to claim that there is some emotional manipulation going on in the environment (gentle music, dimmed lights) and that some of the phenomena could be a purely emotional response, although there is certainly real stuff going on there too. Here, at times, the noise was uncomfortable.

Having recounted all this, I don't think I really have a point to make. I certainly am not saying that one way is 'right' and the others are 'wrong'. All three have some value, but I can see negative aspects of all three too. I couldn't even say which style I preferred (although I might incline slightly towards the second, due to the fact that everyone is prayed for and due to the music). This is just me thinking out loud. If anyone reading this has any insights I'd love to hear them.


Chris Hamer-Hodges said...

Ricky, I think your observations clearly show that while there is only one Spirit, there are many administrations of the ministry of the Spirit. Administrations that stand or fall on how effectively they impart what the Spirit wants to say and give to the people of God, not by any particular style.

Holy Trinity Brompton is a great example of how (even) an Anglican style meeting can be used to powerfully minister in the Holy Spirit.

Your observations also show that too little control over what is brought can be as much of a hindrance to the genuine moving of the Spirit as too much control.

Marcus Green said...

I've been preaching here in Pontypridd over the past few days on these words from 1 Corinthians 12.7: "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good".

We don't do any of the things you experienced, and we need to. The Tuesday homegroup is starting a series of studies on the gifts of the Spirit, and my prayer is that we get to a place where this kind of debate has a place in our church! So I am trying to build that expectation that God's Spirit works in everyone, and that when he does so it is not for show or to show favour or favouritism, but rather simply to do us all good.

I have a theology that tells me in my church we are all called to share our faith, but some are called to be evangelists: I don't know who they are; and we must all pray for the sick, but some people are specially gifted in this way: I don't know who they are either. It is time for us to explore these gifts, and to use them and to delight in the Giver of good gifts more and more.

And I expect there will be administrational headaches along the way, as you are seeing in the places you are visiting, and when we have solved them, I will let you know!

jojo said...

My experience has been that God works and manifests himself where ever and whenever he pleases. And he does so on a daily basis. To say that you "expect" him to do so in this context is problematic, that is, we tend to put him in a box, a box of our making. None of us are innocent of this. We need to only see the things he does each day for what they are, unless you believe that God does not ordain the mundane as well as the supernatural (or at least the supposed supernatural). May I suggest to you that if you are the scientist you claim to be, that you stop embracing the "spiritual experiences" you say you've had, but rather, put such experiences to the empirical testing that you hold as a means to the truth. If you are going to be an honest scientist, then take that discipline and diligently apply it to spiritual matters. After all, even our own senses and experiences may fool us. You are not a man who is unfamiliar with testing and research. Perhaps your calling is to take these and apply them to not only your beliefs, but to Christianity at large. Who is more afraid of the truth, the one being tested, who is the truth, or the one who is doing the testing, who knows not the truth? Come on now, I dare you.

Ricky Carvel said...


Now you're confusing me! On this blog I am generally using a kind of scientific method and applying it to Christian belief and scriptural 'truth'. The scientific method is (more or less) to propose a theory and then try to disprove it. If the theory can be falsified then it is not the truth. But you have openly criticised me in your comments for questioning the 'truth' - its just me applying my scientific method... as you are now encouraging me to do!

And I am exceedingly critical of my own spiritual experiences. I have to be, I am naturally sceptical and inquisitive by nature. Some experiences I have had in a church setting I can explain by non-spiritual and purely psychological reasoning, but some I can't. In 1994, when the 'Toronto Blessing' was in full flow, I went to a meeting in Edinburgh lead by the Toronto Vineyard folk. People were falling to the floor left right and centre, but I fought with the Spirit internally to make sure that I wasn't going to be psychologically manipulated. I made sure that I was convinced that anything that happened to me was real and not fake. I was one of the last to fall in the whole place, but I ended up on the floor like everyone else and for a blissful period (don't know how long) I lay and basked in the warmth of God's presence - not some psychologically manipulated altered state of consciousness.

And I am glad that you, like me, question the word supernatural.


jojo said...

Sorry if I confused you with what I said. The point I was trying to make was essentially that it's easy to be confused. In my last response I said, "After all, even our own senses and experiences may fool us."
You have said that you're "using a kind of scientific method and applying it to Christian belief and scriptural 'truth'." What kind of scientific method are you using? You haven't honestly proposed a theory and then tried to disprove it. You are simply doing what you claim to do---throwing out thoughts for others' comments. At least in this regard you are consistent. It seems to me that you're much more given to the art of modern day journalism than to scientific method. A case in point is your account of the 1994 meeting you attended. Where is the proof? Why should any of your readers believe you more than they should the evening news? Please forgive my stern posture, but it is stirred up by your use of the double standard. That is, you doubt some things written in the scriptures and at the same time have no problem accepting your own experiences without putting them to the same level of scrutiny. Can you tell us exactly why you were the "last one to fall....and basked in the warmth of God's presence"? Maybe, in light of this challenge, you can somehow temper your questioning of Noah and the flood, or of the creation narrative about Adam and Eve.
Now, about questioning the supernatural. I think you are referring to the common use of the term. The problem here is that we too often think in terms of the common when we speak of the supernatural. Everything from strange coincidence to the boogie-man to people shaking or falling down in the aisle at church come to mind. What I'm getting at is that from God's "point of view", there is no such thing as the supernatural; for him, there is no such distinction (except that he knows our point of view). What we see as normal day to day experiences are not only natural, as we see them, but supernatural inasmuch as he is sovereignly ordaining whatever comes to pass. Yet we marvel at the former and are bored with the latter. And so, my blogging friend, may I suggest that you not only offer up questions and doubts, but give an answer to those who ask about the hope you have within you.