The Little Church Where God Spoke
I grew up in a small, quiet, unnoticed town in Michigan. Tucked in a corner of that town, hidden in the hills and woods, is a small, quiet, unnoticed church. You probably wouldn’t find it unless you were looking for it or happened to live on the humble, residential road that hosts it. On a crowded Sunday, it might boast about fifty attendees. Compared with the mega-churches, the televised multimedia worship experiences, and the intrepid ministerial campaigns of widely-respected Christian leaders, that little church composed of a handful of Jesus-loving town folk might be called an insignificant speck in the universe of Christendom. But it was in that little church, unlike so many of the mega-churches, worship experiences, and ministry campaigns, that I often heard God speak.
My parents first took me to that church before I was old enough to remember. Throughout my childhood, teen, and college years, I went through on and off periods of attending that church. The most recent period of attendance was after I graduated from college in May of 2012 and spent the succeeding nine months living with my parents. During that time, I served as my late grandmother’s chauffeur, driving with her to the church every Sunday morning. She had faithfully attended the church from before the time of my birth and continued to do so until age and declining health prevented it. It was through her that I frequently heard God speak during those nine months.
But she wasn’t the only instrument God used to communicate His words. Another was a quiet, unassuming man named John. John and my grandmother both consistently manifested spiritual gifts of utterance. For those not too familiar with Pentecostal perspective, spiritual gifts of utterance are those spiritual gifts the Apostle Paul describes that pertain to verbal expressions inspired by the Holy Spirit, namely tongues, interpretation, and prophecy. Frequently, during Sunday morning worship services, my grandmother would speak a brief message to the congregation in a foreign language. She would then speak in English the interpretation of what was spoken in the foreign language. John, on the other hand, would simply speak in English the inspired message he received. As I learned in a class on spiritual gifts at my alma mater, my grandmother’s utterances would be classified as the gift of speaking in tongues followed by the gift of interpretation, while John’s utterances would be classified as prophecy, the “forth-telling” of a divinely given message in the native language of the congregation.
Every spiritual gift of utterance bears a message from God addressed to His people, communicated through the individual endowed with the gifting. Over those nine months, I heard a number of messages spoken through John and my grandmother. They sometimes differed widely in their content. Some were comforting reminders of God’s love for His people. Some were invitations to draw near and seek healing. I recall one that exhorted the congregation to remember that God’s position as Lord and King laid greater expectation on us than our democratic culture likes to accept. One was a firm, unflinching call to obedience. Ranging widely on the spectrum of truths God communicates to humanity, I observed that these utterances were like small servings of truth, exhortation, and encouragement that God, in His wisdom, considered relevant to the experience of His people at that time and place. All the utterances reflected and agreed with the truths expressed in Scripture. I noticed that hearing these truths expressed directly from the Holy Spirit, in real time, with unique language relevant to our local culture and experience, caused the truths to take on a sense of being even more present and close-to-home compared with reading them in scripture.
Another curious thing I observed during those nine months was the emotional experience that involved John and my grandmother as they delivered these utterances. The emotional experience for my grandmother was intense. From the moment she began receiving the divine inspiration for the message, through her expressions of the message in both tongues and English, until after she finished speaking, she experienced strong emotional effect. Though she wasn’t sad or angry, the emotional intensity was on the level of, say, what you and I might experience in moments of strong grief or anger. My grandmother would typically speak loudly and forcefully, breathe heavily, and even weep as she delivered the utterances given to her. John, on the other hand, delivered the prophecies given to him with so much calm, tranquility, and phlegmaticness that one could imagine that he were merely reciting a few stanzas of his favorite poetry rather than being touched by divinity. While my grandmother cheerfully accepted the intensity of her utterances for years, her advancing age during those nine months caused the intensity of the utterances to tax her greatly. Eventually, her distress at the intensity of utterances became so great that she attempted to avoid giving them. Sometimes, when sensing the oncoming of divine inspiration, she would leave the church sanctuary in an effort to separate herself from the environment to which the message was directed and, thus, the need to serve as its conduit and experience the accompanying physical and emotional exertion. Yet the force of the inspiration remained so strong that she eventually became reluctant even to go to the Sunday service out of apprehension for the possibility of the draining utterance.
It was in this context that I observed something one Sunday morning that intrigued me even further. From my position at the back of the small sanctuary as the manager of the PowerPoint slides, I had opportunity to witness a curious exchange. As the song service was ending and the congregation stood silent in reflective worship, I saw my grandmother turning to look at John who was seated one row back and several seats to the left of her position. John was standing with his eyes closed in worship, hands hanging clasped in front of him. Maybe ten to fifteen seconds passed as my grandmother looked directly at John, making no sound, only watching him. Suddenly, John opened his eyes and immediately looked directly at my grandmother. My grandmother pointed at him as if to give him a cue. John immediately closed his eyes again and began to speak a prophetic utterance. After the service, I listened to the two of them talk about the experience. My grandmother expressed that she knew there was a message that was supposed to be spoken but waited because she wanted John to speak it instead. John understood what was happening and behaved accordingly. Analytical Jesus nerd that I am, I marveled to myself at the implications of what I witnessed. Having their respective spiritual gifts, John and my grandmother were both able to sense when God had a message to give to the congregation, and both of them could have served as the instrument for it. But they also had enough command over the message that they had a measure of control over how and when it was delivered. While they were invested with the message, they weren’t dominated by it. I found this manner of interaction between divinity and humanity both incredible and beautiful.
Witnessing these spiritual gifts in operation during those nine months impacted me. The other churches I attended during my teenage and college years virtually never, if ever, saw the operation of such gifts. They were good when it came to fellowship, music, preaching, and teaching, but hearing God address the congregation in the present, local moment? Not so much. Hearing God speak live in that little church was like receiving a drink of water after being long thirsty. Often in my Christian walk, I’ve desired and sought the closeness and voice of God only to struggle with the sense that heaven is very far from earth. To stand in moments where God was speaking directly to us in the present provided an incredibly encouraging sense of His presence. While I frequently struggle to remain undistracted in the familiar environment of a worship service, I find myself always brought to attention and reverence at the hearing of a divinely inspired utterance. While the human-assembled words of sermons or praises remain good and important, hearing words assembled by God to be given to His people in that moment has remained especially precious to me.
Witnessing the operation of the spiritual gifts at that little church even encouraged me in my beliefs that God exists and personally interacts with humanity. Analytical Jesus nerd that I am, I’m familiar with the opposing claims of atheism. I’ve considered what the firm skeptic would say upon observing the operation of spiritual gifts of utterance. The atheist would believe what is verbally expressed is the product solely of the mind of the one speaking. Perhaps the speaker wants to appear spiritual or thinks the message is an edifying word that would be beneficial for the congregation. Perhaps what is expressed is even subconsciously generated, but it remains strictly and purely human. But by witnessing my grandmother’s great reluctance to participate in the utterances due to their intensity, I know she didn’t speak for the sake of her own glory. And, by witnessing the way John and my grandmother interacted in both of them perceiving and managing the delivery of a message, the idea that the two of them were both perceiving the influence of a spiritual entity makes much better sense than the idea that the human mind consistently and subconsciously works itself into a state of believing it has received a divine message.
But mark my words, though I fully believe God supernaturally enables people to express His personal words to His people, I also know that people frequently speak human messages in the name of God. When I was in my pre-teens I witnessed another man stand up in the same sanctuary and speak words I know were human. They were addressed from the human perspective to God, a prayer. But the man felt they were divinely inspired. No, not as a gift of utterance. The gifts of utterance carry God’s messages to His people, not the other way around. Again, at my alma mater I once attended a prayer meeting in which the focus was on seeking God and His spiritual gifting. One young man came to a microphone set up on the platform and delivered a message in tongues that I believe was divinely inspired (it’s possible to humanly contrive even speaking in tongues). Having reached the end of the inspiration given to him, the young man left the microphone, trusting someone else would be inspired with the interpretation. Unfortunately, I watched as the school’s resident hyper-spiritual strode up to the microphone, desiring to deliver the anticipated interpretation. He put one hand on the microphone, one in his pocket, and bowed his head for a moment. He then lifted his mouth to the microphone and delivered an “interpretation” that, to this day, I believe was just a human thought that sounded true and biblical enough to pass as divine. To this day, I believe we all missed the true interpretation because it was obstructed by that human message. Again, during a chapel service at my alma mater, someone delivered a message in tongues. The same hyper-spiritual individual took it upon himself to interpret the message by reading from the Psalms. (What?!) Fortunately, the president of the school corrected the error from the platform by explaining that, while scripture is good, we were looking for an interpretation the Holy Spirit would make available to someone. The president directed us to wait in receptive silence for someone to receive the true interpretation. A moment later, someone received the true, divinely-given interpretation. Spiritual gifts have their origin in God. But because they interface with us flawed humans, there is space for error and mistake. Even for people who consistently operate in gifts of utterance, the difference between divine and human, God-thought and self-thought can be difficult to distinguish. This is why the Apostle Paul instructed the Corinthians both to allow and pursue gifts of utterance and also to judge them upon use for quality and truth.
Another thing I’ve come to learn about spiritual gifts is they’re not a cure-all. In my younger years I used to yearn for the expression of spiritual gifts such as prophecy and healing. I felt as though God was closer to us at those times. And if we could just daily operate in hearing His voice and receiving His touch in our lives, wouldn’t our spiritual walks then soar to some kind of incredible spiritual height? I now understand the answer is no. Much more is required to build a proper spiritual walk then only supernatural manifestations. The entire Old Testament is a long saga of a nation that heard God’s words spoken directly to them and witnessed His miraculous power yet abided in horrendous disobedience. Even Jesus said many will cite the miraculous things they performed in His name as evidence of their positive spiritual standing, but He will deny them as performers of unrighteousness. (Matt. 7:22-23) This is why the Apostle Paul said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels but don’t have love, I’m just making noise. If I have prophecy…but don’t have love, I’m nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:1-2 — my paraphrase) It’s better to have a heart that genuinely loves God and others than to perform supernatural manifestations.
But once our hearts are in the right place, we must recognize something else. Spiritual gifts are important and must not be lost from our worship and pursuit of God. For all the desires of Christians to know God and His word, to perceive His presence in our lives, and to live in light of His transformative and healing power, why do so seemingly few seek, much less attain, the manifestation of the spiritual gifts prescribed in scripture to aid us in the above pursuits? For all the sensibility of the idea that a real, living God who desires to interact with us should demonstrate influence in our lives here and now, why does only a segment of all of Christendom expect as much should be a daily part of our lives and worship? And why does that seem to be shrinking from the inside?
My alma mater is a Pentecostal school, yet I noticed within it a disturbing trend. My generation seems to be increasingly skeptical compared with my grandmother’s generation that spiritual gifts should appear in their lives and worship or can appear in their lives and worship reliably. I think this trend is based on a number of influences. Firstly, across the last two generations has come a massive shift of ideology from modernism toward postmodernism. Experience has come to have greater weight compared with fact. In conversations with my grandmother, I got the sense that her generation thinks according to the model of “if you don’t have the gifting of the Holy Spirit that you should then obviously you should seek it.” It seems reasonable. The Apostle Paul taught the Corinthians to seek spiritual gifts. (1 Cor. 12:31; 14:13) But I’ve gotten the sense from conversations with peers that my generation thinks according to the model of “I’ve never spoken in tongues or prophesied, so it’s just not for me.” Even the young, Pentecostal church I attended recently didn’t see the manifestation of spiritual gifts of utterance, instead feeling like a seeker-sensitive church. At one point the pastor did a sermon series on spiritual gifts. Why? Because it was a field in which he personally struggled and the church needed to grow. If even the Pentecostal churches have started to struggle to make use of spiritual gifts, what’s gone wrong? I fear what my generation will lose if it neglects the aid and blessing God intended His spiritual gifts to provide. Perhaps I’m presumptuous in saying that. After all, I’ve never operated in the more supernatural seeming gifts such as prophecy or interpretation. However, God distributes gifts to each as He sees fit. (1 Cor. 12:11) But having seen in my own life just how frequently I don’t expect to encounter the power and presence of God, I hope I am qualified to speak from my own place of need in saying we must not neglect the gifts God has provided to supply that need in all of us. I preach to myself as much as anyone.
The spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit are not dispensable. We should value and seek the use of spiritual gifts in our corporate worship and our pursuit of God. No child, when his or her father offers bread, should be happy to go hungry. Nor should we be willing to remain in a place of lack when God has, in His provision, given the spiritual gifts for our blessing.
Image courtesy of Beau Considine.