Feeling the Spirit?
by Kent Philpott
I was once a wild-eyed Pentecostal. Before that I was a rock ‘n roller, feeling the beat, the louder the better. Detractors--those non-spiritual Christians who surely did not even have the Spirit at all, warned that what the people experienced at the church I pastored was emotion-based and not the Holy Spirit. I would laugh at the sour grape nay sayers, the wannabes who would be dancing to the praise and worship band if only they had one. I felt sorry for them as I imagined their dead, cold services.
Somewhere, somehow I changed my mind. It may have been the day I woke up to the fact that I needed more and more music, swaying, waving of arms, and singing repetitiously the same chorus to get to that happy place where I could say, “The Holy Spirit has shown up.”
The church I now pastor has a few folks who have come from charismatic/Pentecostal churches. At times they have pressed me to get more excitement into the worship services. Despite my recounting my days as a Spirit-filled rocking pastor, I could see that my explanation was not working. They could not see anything wrong with feeling the Spirit--after all, didn’t God make our emotions, too? And this one really hurt: if I was really evangelistic as I claimed, it would not matter how we got the butts into the pew, just as long as we did.
And then, what was the harm of having some good feeling going on at church? Of course, I can get just as easily get worked up singing the Gloria Patri, even the old standard Doxology, but young people need more, the argument goes. The new generation is unlike any other, and they respond only to cutting edge techy media stuff.
There are going to be feelings and emotions, happiness and tears, and sometimes more than that in a worship service. These can not be avoided and neither should they be. But, and this is the point I want to make, to equate the Holy Spirit with feelings is dead wrong.
Looking at the early Church
Acts 2:42 provides a glimpse of the day by day practice of the early church. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” And this is presented in the same chapter as the Day of Pentecost events and Peter’s sermon. There is not a word about music, yet in that era there were musical instruments and choirs in abundance, since it was common practice in the Temple worship to have both. Let me be clear that I am not against choirs and music—we have both in the church I pastor; in fact, I play choruses each Sunday on my guitar and am accompanied by a bass guitar, piano, a mandolin, and a drum. But it fits into the worship service, during a short bit of time, and it is not done in such a way as to produce a sense that the Spirit has now arrived. None of it is designed to produce an emotionally charged environment that must occur as the “praise choruses” are sung on and on to a rock beat.
Of the five “pentecosts” in Acts--two in Jerusalem (Acts 2 and 4), one in Samaria (Acts 8), another in Caesarea (Acts 10), and yet another in Ephesus (Acts 19), there is not one mention of any form of music. No, the message of Jesus was proclaimed and the Holy Spirit came in power to save. In fact, nowhere in the book of Acts is there any mention of music, much less a praise band and swaying to any beat at all.
Paul mentions twice in his letters the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (see Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16). For a Jewish man accustomed to Levitical worship his statements make perfect sense. This is a far cry from what goes on in the churches where the music dominates the worship and moves people into feeling, an emotion-centered activity that often morphs into what are thought to be charismatic gifts of the Spirit.
I spoke in tongues for years and introduced it to thousands of people in the 1970s. I have heard thousands speak in tongues in large meetings and in small prayer meetings. They were unintelligible, and no one thought they were hearing God being extolled as at the Pentecost of Acts 2. For many years I led people into prolonged singing of praise choruses until the singing in the spirit, the prophesying, and other more strange things, including wild dancing, began to take place. Always we thought it was soley due to the Spirit showing up. None of these things would occur during the preaching and teaching of the Bible and the Gospel, events which were fairly mild and calm. The idea was generated that the Bible preaching and teaching was only a run-up to the real thing. This mistake led us to greater and greater error, until today we have the Bethel thing in Redding, California, the Kansas City prophets and International House of Prayer, along with Mike Bickel, Rick Joyner, Patricia King, and so on.
The appearance of evangelistic success
Filling up a place with people is not the same as God’s calling, justifying, and glorifying (see Romans 8:30). An influx of people into a church may or may not be the result of genuine conversions. During the Jesus People Movement, roughly 1967 to 1975, those who were being saved came as regular as clock work. But once that wonderful awakening was concluded by God’s sovereign hand, the conversions were slower, really few and far between. Not understanding how God works, we manufactured attraction, and it was primarily through music. To a degree, that worked, or appeared to work, but it was different. We had to get professional, practiced, and careful in the creation of a worshipful ambience—but it was planning and process. We became entertainers, we were meeting felt needs, and we created networks of people so that social bonding would take place. We developed small groups that were designed to connect people. More people came in and we called it evangelism.
There was, however, something else that took place, and even now I am shocked at the unbiblical nature of it: We assumed that everyone who would enter into the praise and worship with singing and speaking in the “Spirit” had to be born again, since we were convinced that it required the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in order to exercise such gifts. That became our evangelism. There was virtually no need to preach the message of the cross, all we needed was a good praise and worship team. Some of us at that time detected, to a degree, that something was wrong. Our efforts to move many of these people into Bible study groups was not successful. What people wanted was the music and the bliss of zoning out on it all.
Let me confess that it took me two decades to see my error. I wanted so badly to succeed and was always mindful of having a family that required an inflow of money. What was I to do but go along with the dominant model? Then about 1995 I began to change. This was most evident in the plain and simple Gospel messages I began to preach. While there were a few conversions, they did not make up for the numbers of people who went elsewhere. Many a time I considered going back to the old processes. With all I was reading and hearing, it seemed I was out of step, an old fogie, someone trapped in a time warp. In a way I cannot understand, and certainly my feelings had nothing to do with it, I was content with presenting the Word to those who would listen. In describing myself I began to say, “I am an old time Gospel preacher.”
An outrageous statement?
There is not one shred of truth to the idea that the Holy Spirit’s work is to make us feel good. To put it another way, having feelings in a worship service or some other venue is not the direct action of the Holy Spirit. The objective is to worship the God of our salvation; it is not to have an experience.
There is no supporting biblical evidence that the senses are to be gratified during worship. Someone will say, what about joy? But joy is a state of mind, the sure knowledge that Jesus has rescued, forgiven, sealed, and indwelt the former dirty rotten sinner headed for hell. The Holy Spirit blesses us also, but there is no evidence that such a blessing is feeling-oriented. I am blessed whether I feel it or not.
My contention is that it is not the Holy Spirit who produces feelings. Feelings may be there, or not be there; in either case it has nothing to do with the Spirit of God.
Let me take it one step further. It is misrepresenting the Holy Spirit to equate His presence with feelings. Such may not fall into the category of blaspheming the Spirit, but it is error nevertheless.
Not that I think that there is anything like cosmic payback, but what I used to dish out to local pastors and churches—“we have the Spirit and you do not”—I am now receiving from young pastors of new church plants: Philpott? Well, all he does is teach the Bible. He needs the Spirit, but he doesn’t even have a band!
There is a catch phrase that goes something like this:
"Too much Word with too little Spirit, you dry up.
Too much Spirit with too little Word, you blow up.
With the right balance, we grow up."
That may not be exactly it, but we used something similar during the 1970s to essentially say that we had the right balance and others did not. Too much Word meant that the Holy Spirit was being ignored. Not us, since we had praise and worship with spiritual gifting for at least a half hour at each service. Of course, we assumed that what we were doing was of God. There was no proof of it; there was nothing in Scripture that would validate what we experienced. We took it for granted we were safe, because we learned it from well known and recognized leaders in pentecostal circles. How could we be wrong?
“Right balance.” How would one know when a right balance was reached? Is there any biblical passage that would serve as a gauge? Upon further consideration this little piece of sophistry is nothing more than a boast—a sectarian, if not cultic, way of saying we have it and you don’t.
A possible response
Let me admit that as a pastor I am troubled by the emphasis on feeling the Spirit. New churches continually show up in our county touting their music ministry and the power of the Spirit in their midst. For me it has the sense that there are wolves circling the sheep in the little flock under my oversight. In doing my job of protecting the flock I have lost a few battles. To a generation raised on rock ‘n roll, the band sounds awfully good and the old hymns seem, humm, old and hard to understand with all the Bible doctrine intertwined therein.
What can I do? By His grace I hope to keep doing what I know is right to do and preach the Word and trust that the Spirit of God is with us, because we gather in the name of Jesus. Remember Jesus’ promise, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20).
Finally, it is clear that what the mature believer wants is the meat of the Word and the joyful truth of the Gospel of grace. Faithful pastors and churches must not yield to what looks now to be successful and popular. We have learned that the desire to feel the Spirit becomes insatiable, just like the need for more and more miracles, and thus we are led farther and farther from the clear practice of the early Church.
Beware the feel of the beat and the flesh.
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