Controlling the Holy Spirit


“When I look back over the history of our congregation during my lifetime, it seems that we have been dying ever since we tried to control the Holy Spirit.”

That comment by a lifelong member of an all too typical declining and struggling congregation echoed a comment heard just hours earlier from another church member about another congregation. The member of the conversation had earlier in the day noted a decision by the leadership of his church to “partially but not fully open the door” to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. Two conversations with two different individuals from two separate congregations seemed like more than a coincidence and prompted a request for more detail from the second individual.

“Well, back in 1969 I was an active member in the high school youth group of our congregation with an average attendance of about 120 for Sunday services. During that time the Pentecostal movement made inroads into mainline congregations. Many of those congregations began to welcome the so-called “extraordinary gifts” of the Holy Spirit (such as prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues) into their corporate lives. Interestingly, some members of our youth group received the gift of tongues. This threw the leadership of the church into a tizzy. After several meetings, the youth were told to stop playing with fire; about twenty people left the congregation in protest. As I reflect on that season in our congregation’s history, it seems to me like the leadership of the church thought they could control the Holy Spirit. It’s like they had their hands on a spigot that they could open to receive as much of the Holy Spirit as they desired. In retrospect, it seems that, from that time forward, we discovered that when we turned the spigot open, nothing came out.”

I wonder how many struggling congregations will discover, if they dare to look back, that their decline began decades earlier when congregational leadership resisted the work of the Holy Spirit. Will they look back and discover a decision that led to the steady decline of their congregations’ influence and impact? Will they find a missed opportunity to journey by faith into an unknown future? Will they find a decision or behaviors that contradicted the revealed will of God?

If so, what may be needed now is not a new pastor or a new building or a new program or a new strategic plan or new technology or new music but something altogether different. The prescription for congregational malaise may be the same as that offered by the angel of the church in Ephesus: “I know your hard work and your perseverance…. But this I hold against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen.  Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:2, 4).

We may summarize that prescription this way: Remember, repent and resume! Remember our first love - Jesus Christ. Transfer to the Lord our love for the church as an institution, for the traditions of the church, and for the facility where the church gathers. As the Bride of Christ, rekindle and renew our love for the Groom. Then repent of waywardness, weakness, and willful disobedience to Jesus Christ, the head of the church. Repent for resisting the influence of the Holy Spirit, for conveniently ignoring the clear teachings of the Scriptures, for failing to live out our identity as the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Finally, having been assured of forgiveness, get back at it. Motivated by love for the Lord, let’s resume our hard work for Christ. Let’s persevere and press on in faith, believing that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine by his power that is at work within us. To Him be glory and in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, for ever and ever” (Ephesians 3:20-21).  

Two unrelated conversations with two different church leaders with the same message in the same afternoon: our church began its decline when, at a particular moment in the history of our congregation, the leadership tried to control the Holy Spirit.    

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Thanks, Sam, for your thought provoking article on your experience of a dying church from your past.  I take it that you think that many other churches that are declining are experiencing the same conundrum as your church, which is when the church leadership attempts to control the Holy Spirit.  

But I’m not sure what you are getting at when you talk about controlling the Holy Spirit.  Are you talking about losing a Christ centered priority?  That seems to be what you are suggesting when you explain the Revelation passage, “Remember our first love - Jesus Christ.”  Practically that could entail a lot of things.  But when you speak of your personal experience, it seems to be a matter of speaking in tongues which may or may not be a matter of giving Christ the priority he deserves, or for other churches your concern may be a matter of not using or recognizing the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit.  I’m not sure what you are getting at in your article?  Are you suggesting that churches that are not pushing in the direction of third wave theology or Pentecostal thinking are trying to control the Holy Spirit?  

You realize that most churches from the time of their inception were growing and robust churches, and if they were mainline churches or CRC churches that growth took place without an emphasis on third wave or Pentecostal thinking.  So to put the blame of trying to control the Holy Spirit, or the blame for declining membership, in the realm of resisting the third wave movement or wanting to remain traditional may be faulty thinking.  Maybe along the lines of advice given to the church at Ephesus, churches need to get back to what they were doing earlier when they were experiencing growth.  They need to, “Turn back to me and do the works you did at first.”  Maybe Christ’s advice had nothing to do with the miraculous gifts.  Depending on what you are saying, there may or may not be some fuzzy logic in your article.  I guess it depends on what you mean by trying to control the Holy Spirit.

I have read your article, Sam, and Andrew Beunk’s corresponding article, and I’m left wondering what you conceive of as the power of the Holy Spirit or trying to control the Holy Spirit.  What specifically is a Spirit filled church?  Is a traditional and conservative CRC church any less Spirit filled than a charismatic Pentecostal leaning CRC church?  And if Jesus advice to the church was a matter of getting back to their starting emphasis, then that likely had nothing to do with getting on the third wave train that a lot of our churches are getting on as of recent.  So a little clarity would be helpful.

Community Builder

Roger, thanks for the thoughtful response.  What prompted my blog was the comments by two separate individuals about two different congregations. These two individuals believed that their congregations began to decline after attempts by congregational leadership to control the Holy Spirit. I believe it accurate to conclude that the leadership for both congregations was wrestling with the place in the life of the church of the so-called "extraordinary gifts" of the Holy Spirit.

You ask what I mean by controlling the Holy Spirit. Good question. Perhaps we could agree that attempts to control the Holy Spirit (resist the Holy Spirit) involves attempts to reduce the influence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the local congregation. Add to that definition this presupposition: Jesus Christ seeks to exercise lordship over the church by his Word and Spirit.

If that be the case, one of the most effective ways to control the Spirit is to disobey (or simply neglect) portions of the Holy Spirit inspired Word of God. Another method would be to suppress or ignore the manifestation of the Spirit given to the church for common good (I Corinthians 12:7-11).  Also, since the work of the Spirit is to glorify Christ, we hinder the work of the Spirit when we fail to glorify Christ.

While the two aforementioned individuals connected congregational decline to specific responses to the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit, surely there is no end of ways by which local congregation resist or attempt to the control the Holy Spirit. I think it best for congregational leaders to assume that they have done so in one form or another - and then move on to remember, repent, and resume.

Not sure I answered all your questions. Come back at me if I have fallen short.  I appreciate the conversation. 

Community Builder

The Spirit blows where it will; our relationship with the Lord must allow for enough trust to be open to being controlled by the Spirit, rather than the other way around. I agree that our need for control can hinder the Spirit and his work. May the Lord open our hearts and minds to cooperate fully with the work of his Spirit in and among us.

Thanks, Sam, for your challenging response.  But I’m not quite sure how to respond to your comments.  I guess, on the one hand, I could say I agree with your final comment that “there is no end of ways by which a local congregation can resist or attempt to control the Holy Spirit.” And then we could just leave it at that and try to remedy our ways, whatever they may be.  But I don’t really think that was the point of your article.  Somehow I think you were digging deeper.  And maybe what you were digging at is rather controversial in our denomination.

First, let me apologize.  I thought the one example you gave about speaking in tongues was your own experience.  This, I now realize, was an experience of someone other than you.  It helps to understand this.

As you may know there is a movement in the CRC toward being more open to the operation of the Holy Spirit, as if the CRC was not previously open to the Holy Spirit.  Those on both sides of this movement have some skepticism toward the other side.  Your examples and the general advice you give seem to fall in support of this new “third wave” movement of the Spirit.  But you don’t quite come out and say it.  In contrast, your last paragraph (of your last comment) is so generic that it doesn’t really have much meat.  Sure we should all be looking for ways that our own churches can be growing in the faith and for ways we may be hindering that growth (another way of saying controlling the Holy Spirit).  So is your article addressing this more generic concern or is it addressing churches that don’t seem open to this third wave movement that is moving among a lot of evangelical churches today?

As to the two examples that you gave in your article concerning spiritual gifts, are you sure that the leadership of these two churches were really trying to control the Holy Spirit, if even inadvertently?  When someone in the congregation gives the opinion that his church only opened the door partially but not fully to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, was that the feeling of most others in the congregation, or was it this person’s own opinion, and what is the basis of his opinion? What would it mean, for him, to open the door fully?  And when a small group of teenagers from the youth group of a church started speaking in tongues (almost fifty years ago) and were told that they were playing with fire by the leadership, don’t you think it’s possible that these leaders had it right?  Should have the leaders simply said, from now on we are going to have tongue speaking and interpreting of tongues as part of our regular worship services?  And we are also going to make these teenagers the leaders of the church because they obviously have the Spirit of God present in their lives.  Just because someone in church speaks in tongues does that mean the church should all of a sudden be open to the so-called miraculous gifts?  Was there anyone in that church that could have validated the authenticity of the tongue speaking young people?  Is it enough to say, I can speak in tongues, or interpret tongues, or prophecy, or heal the sick or have a better understanding of prayer?  And are these the true signs of a church empowered by the Holy Spirit and a sure sign that our church is now ready to go places?

Again, I just am not sure what you originally meant by your article. Was it a more generic warning about being sensitive to the Holy Spirit as churches, or sensitive to what makes for a healthy church?  Or was your article meant to encourage churches to be sensitive to this newer third wave movement in churches which in the minds of third wavers is being sensitive to the Holy Spirit?  Originally I thought you were addressing this second perspective, now I think you may be softening that a bit.  Thanks again for the dialog.

I just noticed your comment, Bonnie, before getting ready to post this.  I’m a little baffled though.  Does being open to the Spirit mean that there is no room for others in the church to validate a member’s giftedness?  That might be fine if your being gifted affects only your own life.  That’s like saying, “let your conscience be your guide.”  That, too, is fine if your conscience is guiding your own life, but when it affects others, then there should be a system of checks and balances.  If your having the so-called miraculous gifts affects others in the church or the church as a whole then there should be a way to validate the genuine character of those gifts.  I get a little bit suspicious when I hear people telling me, the Holy Spirit told me thus and so, and then I am not allowed to doubt their opinion.  I find everyone has an opinion (whether you say it’s from the Holy Spirit or not), but that doesn’t mean everyone’s opinion is right.  And I don’t think such a perspective has anything to do with controlling the Holy Spirit, but has everything to do with common sense and logic.

Community Builder

Roger, now you got me thinking!

What was the original intent of my blog?  Well, while I am a self-described Reformed Charismatic and while the aforementioned conversations about two churches wrestling with the so-called extraordinary gifts prompted the blog, I did not right the blog to spark a conversation about the place of the so-called extraordinary gifts within Reformed congregations.

Instead, I wrote the article as an experienced pastor and as a church consultant who has had the privilege of working with churches in decline. The purpose of the article was to prompt declining congregations to consider that one reason for decline may be that at a particular time in their histories, they resisted the movement of the Spirit. In my experience, most declining congregations fail to even go there. Instead, they tend to think that health and vitality will return when they get a new pastor or a new program or a new building or a new something.    

What does resisting the Holy Spirit look like? Perhaps the Lord led 20 people into the church through profession of faith but because the twenty were of a different race than everyone else, the congregation did not embrace the members or even rejoice in their professions. Now, years later, they wonder why the church is in decline.  I am suggesting that the church first remember that event, repent, then resume. 

Thanks again, Sam, for your insights.  It’s interesting to listen to the perspectives of others.  You obviously have some wisdom and insight from working with a variety of churches, and probably many of them in decline.  But I also realize that giving advice to churches can be like a crap shoot, and not all advice is equally valuable.  Sometimes (not always) looking to the past is not very helpful, especially when all we have is the present.  There may have been a variety of things that caused a church or an individual or a marriage to get off track, but you only have the present to set a new direction. And for a married couple, as you suggested (or was that Jesus’ suggestion), they may need to get back to some of the things they did well early on in their marriage or life as a church.  But sulking over past mistakes doesn’t change the present or future.

In answer to what resisting the Holy Spirit looks like, you gave a hypothetical example of 20 people of another race not being embraced by the congregation, and the congregation eventually fell into decline.  Of course that may or may not be the reason for decline.  And that same congregation will probably not face that same situation again in order to correct that past mistake.  But what can they do now?    But let’s add to your hypothetical example.  Maybe that same CRC congregation today is faced with the prospect of twenty practicing homosexuals (ten legally married gay couples) wanting to be professing members of that church.  They all love the Lord and only want to participate in the life of the church like all other professing members.  What should the leadership of the church do?  They know that eventually the CRC will likely admit gays into full membership.  Are they going to turn away twenty people who love and want to serve the Lord and in so doing resist or control the Holy Spirit, or are they going to embrace them as full members of God’s family and put a smile on the face of the Holy Spirit?  Personally, I’d love to see that church embrace their homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ.  But I imagine that the church, at present will turn them away (like the rest of our denomination).  And then fifty years from now that same church can look back on a past serious mistake by which they probably disappointed the Holy Spirit and contributed to the decline of the church.

So, Sam, how do you advise this church today?  Looking back on a past error of judgment, what will you tell them today?

Thanks for the opportunity to respond to your article.  I’ve enjoyed the correspondence.

Community Builder

Well, you raise a good hypothetical (while my example was not a hypothetical; it actually took place).  I guess I would expect the leadership of the church to seek direction from her bride from his Word and Spirit - and then, once received, act accordingly.  I envision that the search for God's direction would begin with confession of sin, an acknowledgment of our limitations, and a petition for illumination, accompanied by a willingness to seek wisdom from others in the congregation and broader Christian community.  I have been privileged to watch elders work in such a fashion - and have been blessed.   And thanks to you for a stimulating conversation. I hope our paths cross some day.






I guess I'd have to lean towards Sam's point here regarding remembering and repenting of past errors.  You say that we should not "sulk over past mistakes" and should focus on the present and the future.  I think we would all agree that the final outcome is to dedicate ourselves to faithfulness in the present and the years to come.  But I think there's more to it then telling the church to "just move forward".  I am sure that you have been a part of, or known churches, where a pattern seems to have emerged over the years that has hindered the flourishing of that church--churches where every pastorate ends badly or prematurely, or where power plays seem to be fought over the most innocuous things, leading the people to say "why did this happen *again*?"  Something more is going on under the waterline.

In family systems terms, the anxiety has become chronic within the system, and it is recycling itself.  It affects the churches way of being in the world and carrying out ministry.  In those cases you have to go back before you can go forward.  And that may involve repenting of the behavior --individual or corporate--that led to the anxiety in the first place.

In terms of discernment, that can be a tricky thing, can't it?  I think one of the passages of scripture I'd like to understand better someday is that line in Acts when the apostles said "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us."--boy, I wish Luke would have filled that out a little more.

Community Builder

I would venture to guess that the apostles and disciples in Acts spent much more time together in prayer and in fellowship than most of our congregations do today. I wonder how much time is spent in quiet, submissive, listening prayer together as one way of discernment. I've seen consensus come to a group through quiet listening prayer after posing a potentially divisive question to the Lord. It was amazing to see how the Lord spoke both individually, yet with a collective voice, to this group of people who were quietly waiting, expecting to hear from him. I think in those kinds of moments is when I've come closest to sharing that sentiment, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us". And then I've been more confident going forward with the action that was decided. We serve a God who reveals himself to us - But are we willing to listen? 

I agree that it would be great to have the apostles' discernment process filled out a little more. Ruth Haley Barton spoke eloquently about discernment at the recent World Renew Partners gathering in Muskegon.

I also agree that there are times when it's important to go back first, to build the capacity to move forward - discernment with the guidance of the Holy Spirit is critical in this process as well.

Before I send this off, once again, I realize that both Bonnie and Jeff have posted comments.  I didn’t realize this until I was ready to send my comment.  Thanks for your thoughts and comments, but will wait to respond.  I think I have already said too much.

Thanks Sam.  I think your advice is probably as good as it gets.  But the problem with declining churches is not so simple as trying to control the Holy Spirit or grieving or resisting him.  I could imagine the church that in 1969 had a group of young people who spoke in tongues, or the church which in the opinion of one member didn’t open the Holy Spirit’s door wide enough, those churches could well have sought the advice of others, searched the Scriptures, prayed fervently, looked for denominational guidance, and did the best that they could at the time.  Sam, I’m not sure if your work is within our denomination or beyond, but as you probably know we can make Scripture say whatever we want.  Hence the variety of denominations, and the different positions, even in our own denomination, over the use of so-called  miracle gifts, the use of women in the church, the acceptance of homosexuals in the church, how to approach prayer, and the list of differences can go on.  On these issues and others most churches are interested in following the Holy Spirit’s leading.  They don’t intentionally do what is wrong and in most situations make an intentional effort to honor the Lord in their decisions.  So I would suggest that it may not be as simple as saying we controlled or limited the Holy Spirit by this or that decision in the past.  As individuals and as churches we do the best that we can at the time and trust God’s guidance.

In the past, Christians, even those in the CRC, had a religious jargon that was offensive to those on the outside of the church. We used religious terminology as though everyone understood what we were talking about.  Some even spoke a Christianese that reflected a King James English.  Most Christians came to realize that such talk was more offensive than helpful to an evangelistic effort and simply drew attention to Christians in an unhelpful and unwanted way.  Today, Christians of the more charismatic and Pentecostal leaning (becoming popular in our denomination) are coming out with a new kind of Christianeze, with talk of prophecies, or the Holy Spirit told me such and such, or talk of spiritual healing, or talk of demons, and the list could go on.  And people of this leaning talk with a sense of authority or even superiority that  is offensive to people not only outside the church, but inside as well.  They know what they should do in a given situation because the Holy Spirit was their guide, and who are you to question the Holy Spirit, or doubt the prophecy given to me by God? Or there is talk of controlling the Holy Spirit, as though they have a corner on knowing the mind of the Spirit.  And should another Christian talk about making decisions based on common sense or logic or what is reasonable, it is as though such a person must not be a Christian.  But isn’t a Christian’s logic and understanding influenced by his/her relationship to the Lord?

So Sam, I think I was picking some of this thinking up in your article, and maybe some of your responding comments.  I may be wrong, as I often am.  And my offense at some of this new Christian jargon and thought may also be wrong, at least in the opinion of many.  I also realize there is a growing openness to this third wave thinking in our denomination and that the church worldwide is growing especially where there are Pentecostal leanings.  Maybe our denomination feels this is the direction we should be pursuing, as this growth worldwide may be a sign from the Holy Spirit.  But for me, I want to throw up flags, and will miss the strengths we have had in the past.  I guess I should be content that being a Christian is a personal matter and can feel the leading of the Holy Spirit to stay on solid ground, as I understand Christianity.

I really didn’t intend to have a lengthy comment.  I’m sorry.  I have enjoyed the conversation with you and feeling free to be open in my comments.  Wishing you the best in your work and life.    Roger

A response to Jeff and Bonnie.  I can fall prey to the practices (or mistakes) that I often see others make, namely going to an extreme to make a point, when there should have been some balance in my statement.  I do think that in counseling situations (whether with a couple, an individual, or with a church) counselors can over emphasize the past in trying to reach a present solution.  I didn’t mean that we should totally ignore the past.  To say that in a decision almost fifty years ago or even five years ago, that we grieved or were putting controls on the Holy Spirit may not be so helpful.  We may say, with hindsight, that our decision was not the smartest or maybe we could have done something differently.  But to say a well thought out past decision (probably after prayer and contemplation) grieved the Holy Spirit may well be reading too much into the distant past.  But sure a look to the past is often helpful, especially if there were obviously bad decision making patterns in past history.  But the emphasis, in my mind, should be on the present and what we are doing now.  A church that is constantly looking back for bad history (control of the Holy Spirit) is not likely to be a forward looking church with a positive outlook. So perhaps a balanced approach with the emphasis on the present and what we can do now to curb decline would be my suggestion.