Hopeful Church

Spiritual experiences in church

A ‘no’ or a ‘yes’?  

by N. Graham Standish

For years, when leading retreats and seminars on spiritually transforming congregations, I’ve often asked a revealing question:

How would we react to someone who told us on a Sunday morning, “Hey, I want to share an amazing experience I had the other day. A few us got together to pray. Suddenly, a wind started blowing through the room, even though the windows were shut. Papers and stuff were blowing all over the room. We looked at each other and noticed a flame flickering over each of our heads. Then we began to speak, and we were all talking and praying in different languages. Isn’t that amazing?!”

How would you respond?

Would we think the person was crazy, dismiss the expeience as a wild dream or assume it was some sort of group hysteria caused psychological illness. Or would we simply look back with a blank stare, muttering, “uh … uh … uh …”. Yet it was this very kind of experience that started the Christian church on Pentecost.

The reality is that we don’t know what to do with unexplainable spiritual experiences. We’re a realistic, rational people. Pentecostals have those kinds of experience, not us. Why don’t we seem to have these kinds of experiences? I’ve had them, although not quite as dramatic.

I had one years ago after preaching about the expeience of God all around us. During the sermon I played a video of the great jazz bassist Victor Wooten’s song, “I Saw God.”  He sang, “I saw God the other day/she looked like you/he looked like me,” as people walked by carrying signs such as “God in me” and the like. I was a little worried some might struggle with the theology of the video, but after praying I sensed that it should be part of my sermon.

After our first worship service, a church member came up to me and said, “Graham, stay here! I have to get something out of my car.” He came back holding a bumper sticker and said to me, “This morning, as I was leaving my house, I kept having a strong sense that I had to go get a bumper sticker sitting in a drawer. It was so strange and so compelling I sat in my car thinking I was crazy. Finally, I went in and got it.”

He continued, “All morning I’ve thought about how weird it was that I felt so compelled to get it. Then I heard your sermon and I knew why.” With that he handed me the bumper sticker and proceeded to tell me that he had gotten it years ago at a Victor Wooten concert. The bumper sticker was a quote using different religious symbols for various letters, saying, “I Saw God the Other Day.” Chills ran down my spine. The coolest thing was that I got to add this story of his experience to the sermon in the following service. The bumper sticker is now one of my most cherished possessions.

What do we do with experiences like this one? Do we encourage people in our churches to have these kinds of experiences? Do we validate them when they happen? Do we encourage people to share them, or do we give off a vibe that says “keep them to yourself”?

Experience matters more than thinking

Most committed churchgoers believe that they are committed Christians because it makes rational sense, but I don’t think that’s true. The reality is that Christianity doesn’t really make logical, rational sense. Think about these deep teachings: God is one and God is three; to be strong we have to be weak; to be rich we have to be poor; to live we have to die; to save our lives we have to lose our lives; faith withers in a garden and blooms in a desert; to be exalted we have to be humble; we’re blessed when we’re poor, mourning, meek; and so much more. These are paradoxes that lead to a deeper spirituality and to deeper experiences. Most people become committed Christians because of their experiences of God. They’ll choose the evidence of experience over the speculation of logic.

What causes people to become committed to a life of faith are experiences of the Creator, Christ, and/or the Holy Spirit. The most vibrant and committed churches of any sect are those that nurture experiences. Their worship services offer dynamic experiences through music, preaching, ritual, community and more that help people connect with the Creator, Christ and the Holy Spirit.

What really ratchets up a sense of congregational commitment is our embrace of spiritual experiences. In my ministry we did a number of things that nurtured and embraced experiences:

  • We consistently evaluated our worship service and asked of each element, “Does this lead to a vibrant experience of God?” If not, we changed it. For example, we swapped a traditional responsive call to worship with a Taizé chant and a time of quiet prayer; put more art and color into our sanctuary; offered both projected contemporary songs and traditional hymnal songs; and much more.
  • Listened to people’s spiritual experiences and shared them with the congregation. I encouraged people to share with me their experiences, and when appropriate I would share them in my sermons (of course getting permission from them first). Over time we gathered written accounts of people’s experiences, and twice published them as Lenten devotionals. It makes a difference when people know others in the church who are having these experiences.
  • Created classes and groups that studied and discussed spiritual experiences. We created small groups around deeply spiritual books, offered a group exploring accounts of near-death experiences, offered several prayer groups including contemplative prayer ones, and invited guest speakers to talk about their experiences.

The key thing to reflect on for our churches is that mainline denominational Christians, and Presbyterians in particular, often don’t know what to do with experiences, especially if they clash with cherished theological beliefs. But vibrant churches are spiritual churches that not only allow for them, they nurture them.

Reflect on your church and ask:  Is it a safe place for people to experience God?

A pastor for 31 years, the Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is now executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he leads their Caring for Clergy and Congregations Program. He is the author of seven books on spirituality and congregational transformation, with a new one, “…And the Church Actually Changed,” due in Spring 2020. For more information, go to ngrahamstandish.org.