This particular cultural moment in church history is one of the more curious moments in recent decades, isn’t it? On the one hand, the dominant model of “doing church” in the West is largely one of inspirational pragmatism. It is not uncommon to see the best-selling books in the Christian marketplace pull double duty in the self-help section of neighborhood bookstores.
The primary message of these kinds of churches is that God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and wise—or at least functional, stable, and smart. Christianity in this vein has become one more option on the philosophical buffet line for self-improvement.
But on the other hand, our world is more interested in the explicitly spiritual than it has been in a long time. A 2017 Pew Research Center shows that the number of Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious” has grown by almost 10 percent in just five years, to a quarter of adults surveyed. Observationally, of course, we see the renewed cultural interest in supernatural themes all over the place, from TV shows and movies to young adult novels and the resurgence of cultic religious groups and New Age spiritualities.
How can the church navigate this strange renewed interest in spirituality without the religious trappings? I suggest that the two dominant responses embraced by many churches are unhelpful in their own ways. First, the attractional church model, characterized by the showy, production-heavy “experiences” of many megachurches—though certainly found in church communities of all sizes—is missing the boat by seeking to manufacture with creativity what can only come about by the Spirit.
The “spirit” in a lot of these churches is the spirit of pragmatism, turning a model into a formula—for feelings, for decisions, for growth. But the spirit of pragmatism is a quenching of the Spirit of the gospel, which cannot be created or controlled. What the attractional church misses, essentially, is real supernaturality.
On the other hand, however, some churches try to address the cultural appetite for spirituality by explicitly embracing and exhibiting a spirit of the supernatural. But too many of these churches fall into the ditch on the other side. With emphases on dramatic experiences and fixation on bizarre manifestations—gold dust, angel feathers, etc—they drift into a kind of spirituality the Bible actually warns about.
Some of the more influential churches in this movement even dabble in things that border on the occultic. The Holy Spirit is considered less the third Person of the Trinity and more a “force” that can be unleashed, activated, or some other verb unbecoming the human’s relationship to the sovereign God of the universe. What the hyper-spiritual church misses, really, is biblical supernaturality.
What’s the answer, then?
I believe what we need in our day is neither to exploit spiritual longing for its own end nor to presume the ineffectiveness of the Holy Spirit working through the preached Word but to repent of our decades of pragmatic methodology and materialist theology and to reclaim the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ as the power of salvation for anybody, anywhere, any time.
The United States desperately needs churches re-committed to the weird, counter-cultural supernaturality of biblical Christianity. And this means not stirring up ecstatic experiences or telling people to “claim their miracle,” but re-committing to rely on the gospel as our only power.
Creativity and intelligence can certainly adorn the gospel of grace, but there is no amount of creativity and intelligence that can waken a dead soul. Only the foolishness of the gospel can do that (1 Cor. 1:18). Not even sacrificial good works and biblical social justice can wake a dead soul, for the law has no power to raise in and of itself.
Only the foolishness of the gospel can do that. And it is a shame that there are an increasing number of churches that are blanching at the foolishness of the gospel these days. It is gospel-deficiency that is common between pragmatic churches and hyper-charismatic churches. But Paul knows that the hope of the church and the world is the alien righteousness of Christ announced in that scandalous historical headline. “For Christ did not send me to preach the gospel with words of eloquent wisdom,” he says, “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17).
Paul knows that too often our creativity and intelligence don’t adorn the gospel, but obscure it. In some church environments, even though unwittingly, they replace it. But the apostle encourages us not to be ashamed—intentionally or even unintentionally —of the gospel, for it is the only power of salvation we’ve been stewarded. There. is. nothing. else. “I have resolved to know nothing among you except for Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
I know some reckon that fixation on the gospel of Christ’s finished work do not amount to much compared to human ingenuity or charismatic experiences. But the Holy Spirit can do much more than we think or ask. Let’s not run ahead of him. Let this, from Maurice Roberts’s sermon “Prayer for Revival,” be our prayer as well:
It is to our shame that we have imbibed too much of this world’s materialism and unbelief. What do we need more than to meditate on the precious covenant promises of Holy Scripture until our souls have drunk deeply into the spirit of a biblical supernaturalism? What could be more profitable than to eat and drink of heaven’s biblical nourishment till our souls become vibrant with the age-old prayer for revival, and till we find grace to plead our suit acceptably at the throne of grace?
And because the Holy Spirit’s mission in the world is to shine the spotlight on Christ, to magnify Christ, to expand the glory of Christ, the more focus we put on either self or “spiritual experiences,” the more we fail to cooperate with the Spirit’s real work.