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People of the Presence

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Preaching a series of sermons on the Holy Spirit at Five Stones Community Church in Ashland, Ohio, I asked what it would take for the un-taming of the church. That’s right. Un-taming. In far too many ways in far too many places, the church is tame. It frightens no one. People approach, enter, experience and leave the gathering of Christ’s people in a cavalier fashion. As if it is no big deal. And beyond that, they seldom anticipate that things there will be in the category of the “amazing.” Jesus touching people with the power of the Kingdom is kind of amazing.

The society in which we live is not tame. Nor is the unseen force of darkness that seeks to steal, kill and destroy. Beneath the surface of even the most civilized community lies tremendous brokenness and pain. People of every race, age, gender, economic level and religious disposition are impacted by forces, either subtle or overt, bent on misery and death.

Anyone who doesn’t believe that should spend some time listening to the daily news. From board rooms to bedrooms, across the street to around the world, in high class homes and on the streets with the homeless, darkness is taking an awful toll. The world is not a safe place and the powers behind it are definitely not tame.

Tame churches will not significantly impact an un-tamed world. The church can try to look nice, talk nice, even be nice all it wants. But to bring change and transformation, there must be far more than good lighting, flashy presentations and interesting film clips. There must be a power that is good, yet far from tame. A power that attracts the people of God, yet frightens them at the same time. A power that is mysterious, wonderful and amazing. A power that is holy in the truest sense of the word. That inspires awe, and transforms anyone and everyone who comes into its presence.

Presence. That’s the word, isn’t it? Presence. Gordon Fee makes a big deal about that concept in his book Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God. At the center of his thesis is a discussion of Israel as the People of the Presence. The phrase itself says it all. People of the Presence. It hits right at the heart of that missing something. It is a missing Someone. The Holy Spirit.

As a whole, the local church in the United States is in trouble. Even after thirty years of church growth strategies, the average congregation is small and declining. It is not that those leading are undedicated, for they serve sacrificially. It is not that the men and women are uneducated or ungifted. Many are seminary trained and bright people who previously had successful careers in the secular marketplace.

It is not that they are unwilling to try new things. Most pastors I know are willing to fly across the country at the very mention of another strategy for church health and renewal. The problem is essentially one thing. We, in the American church, are no longer identifiable as the People of the Presence.

I was teaching a doctoral class recently when one of the Nigerian students commented that for years he longed to come to America to experience the church here. He looked to the church in the States as the mother of what was happening in his own country. But upon coming he was struck by something. He said, “It was all words, no power. And I wondered what happened?” The apostle Paul would wonder the same. There are pockets of outpouring for sure. But as a whole, we of the church are a mighty tame group. Where is the power? Where is the Presence?

I long for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that increases boldness in witness, constructive involvement in the community and a prophetic voice against injustice. An anointing of God’s Presence that empowers healing at every level and deliverance from the forces of darkness that harass and oppress. An outpouring that births reconciliation, forgiveness, and generosity of heart among all. I have a longing. One that nothing else will satisfy, and to which little else compares. A longing to be saturated as a people in the Presence of God. Unmatched. Unmistakable. Unleashed.

Is such a thing possible? Of course it is. It has happened throughout the history of the Church. It is happening right now in many places around the world. The church in Korea, on the African continent, in Asia, is in many places experiencing a first-century outpouring of God. Worship is enthroned with the very Presence of God. Lives are being transformed, healings are taking place and freedom is being experienced. Even in places that do not use PowerPoint!

Should such an outpouring of Presence be normative? I believe it should. My friend Charles Kraft believes that being agents of the supernatural should be natural for all Christians. The problem is that we have allowed our training and education to filter out the supernatural. We have grown to expect things not to happen. Somehow we have grown satisfied with words without power. It has left us as a community of Christ empty and ineffective. And, I might add, boring!

I want you to imagine something. It is the inner city during a sweltering hot week in the dead of summer. Temperatures have soared to record levels. The overload on electricity has rendered air conditioning unavailable, and the water has been shut off for days. It is dry, and dusty, and uncomfortable.

People are growing nasty under the oppression. They are hot, thirsty, tired and dirty. They gather in the streets to express their outrage. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a water main breaks and shoots a stream of fresh water high into the sky. It is powerful, and wonderful, and refreshing.

Children come running, laughing and dancing beneath the waterfall. People hurry to get every container available to fill to overflowing. As the water pours onto the dusty street it becomes slick. People slip and slide as they make their way to and from the waterflow. Everyone gets wet. Not a little wet. Soaking wet. They get wet from the geyser, wet from bumping into one another, wet from falling, laughing, playing and running.

It is indescribable, uncontrollable and welcome. No one in the presence of the waterfall has the luxury to act proper and sophisticated. It’s just too powerful for that. And few if any are interested in explanations, descriptions or lectures about water. They are caught in the moment and soaked to the core.

That is for me the image of what the church is to be like. A place of incredible, indescribable, wonderful life, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Not always proper, sometimes messy, but absolutely and undeniably alive in Christ by the power of the Spirit. . . .

Calvin Miller rightly said, in Into the Depths with God, “heady inebriation this Spirit intoxication. It is a glorious addiction. If we but take one sip, we pneumaholics must have more of the Pneuma. We may not be wholly doctrinal or crisply theological, but we are alive and the life is in the wind and the fire. Fire that burns to ashes our need for printed programs and stiff constitutions. Such worship vitality comes in what might be called glorious chaos1.”

There are some who would find such notions dangerous. I hope so. Dangerous is what the church is to be. Safe? Of course. Scriptural? Without question. Sound in doctrine? Yes, as it serves the journey with Christ. Evidencing the fruits of the Spirit? Naturally. But with all that said, the church should be un-tame to the core.

Someone should stand up before the service and give instructions like those heard every day prior to takeoff. “God will be here today and we may face turbulence. When He comes, . . . put your seat in the safe and upright position. Fasten your seatbelt. It may be a bumpy ride. If needed, oxygen will be supplied for all who find themselves gasping for breath. The air gets thin where we are going. And thanks for choosing to worship today with the People of the Presence.”

1 Calvin Miller, Into the Depths with God (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2000), p. 127.

Without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we can accomplish nothing.
(1 Cor. 2:4-5)

Condensed and adapted from Untamed Christian, Unleashed Church: The Extravagance of the Holy Spirit in Life and Ministry, ©2010, Leafwood Publishers, Abilene, Tex. Used by permission. Available from Amazon.com.

What can we do…

to become the “People of the Presence,” manifesting the wonderful, amazing and often untamed reality of the Holy Spirit in our lives? While the fulfillment rests ultimately with the Lord, here are some ways in which we can position ourselves for an outpouring of His presence:

Read the Gospels and the Book of Acts with an eye to the activity of the Holy Spirit. Pay attention to the relationship Jesus had with the Spirit. Meditate on Jesus’ teachings related to the Holy Spirit, particularly the Lord’s discussion of the Spirit as Paraclete (“one who comes alongside”) in the Gospel of John. Then move to the Book of Acts and see how the Spirit became a living reality to the followers of Christ.

Gather with other followers of Christ and pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon your lives, churches and ministries. Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as “the gift the Father has promised” (Acts 1:4–5) and told His disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit before they launched out in ministry. They did wait, not passively, but praying night and day until the Spirit revolutionized their lives and empowered them as the People of the Presence. Pray!

Read about the men and women of faith who, through the centuries, allowed the Holy Spirit to fill them with His presence. Whenever you find a world-changing Christian, you will find a man or woman who allowed the Holy Spirit to number them among the People of the Presence. Read the story of their lives and you will see that they were untamed by the infilling of the Holy Spirit. What the Father did in them, He will also do in us if we ask. A good starting place? Read the biography of A. B. Simpson, Wingspread.

Pay attention to what the Holy Spirit is doing today. There are amazing stories, as exciting as those recorded in the Book of Acts. Stories of God’s transforming power intersecting with the lives of broken men, women and children. Stories of light invading darkness, love overcoming hate, inclusion replacing rejection, freedom where there has been imprisonment, redemption for those locked in bondage. Tales of life. Tales of the Kingdom. Tales of the People of the Presence.

Remember that faith is spelled R-I-S-K. Step out when the opportunity presents itself and allow the Holy Spirit to move through you. Share Christ with people, pray for the sick, intercede for those locked in bondage, ask the Lord to meet the needs of those who are facing trials and hardships. Do this in the Name of Christ and by the power of the Spirit and soon you will have your own stories to tell. You will suddenly discover that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and numbers you among that untamed, unpredictable, dangerous bunch known as People of the Presence.

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