I recently heard someone describe the Holy Spirit as gentle and occasionally wild. Something about that phrase resonated with me: Gentle, and occasionally wild. Most of the time, I find the Holy Spirit is gentle with me; God takes special care with me, and treats me with gentle grace. But there are those occasional times when the journey with the Spirit feels wild.
My daughter can be that way: gentle, and occasionally wild. She likes to cuddle, wear pretty dresses, and speak kindly. But she also dances in the rain, rides horses, and watches professional wrestling. She laughs really hard and cries just as hard. I know her really, really well, and yet I still find her unpredictable. Some days she wants her hair just right, other days she is hanging her head out the window while we drive. Sometimes her ability to change quickly exhausts me, but most of the time it delights me. She is beautifully alive. She is gentle and occasionally wild.
We are in a season of change in the church. Conferences and conventions have ended, new appointments are beginning, and many of us are reexamining how we do ministry in light of a culture that is rapidly changing. Others of us are on grieving the loss of a beloved pastor, and welcoming a new one into our church. We are in a season of change and it is in these times that the Spirit can feel especially wild. We might wonder, What God is up to in this time? Where is God leading us?
As we experience change in the church—and in the unique contexts in which we live and serve—it is easy to strive for a God we can get a handle on. We desire stability and clarity, so we look for a God who fits neatly into a category that we can easily explain and predict—but we don’t have a God like that. We don’t have a God we can tame. Not a God who does what we want. The Spirit of God is lively, free, and wild; this often means that things change and our surroundings look different. God moves us to a different place, or calls someone new to join us. It also means that we should seek to look at the changing surroundings with eyes of the Spirit, rather than only through the lens of our past experience.
New statistics from the Pew Research Center show that between 2007 and 2014, the number of Americans who identify as Christians dropped by nearly eight percentage points—a statistically significant drop. The report confirmed what many of us already knew; fewer and fewer people are going to church.
The statistics also show, however, that the number of people in America who say they have had some kind of spiritual experience—in essence, something they couldn’t explain, something mystical or transcendent—has gone up. The number of folks who claim that kind of experience has gone up thirty-eight percentage points in the last fifty years. Fewer people are going to church, but more people are saying they have experienced something bigger than themselves, something only God can do. More people are looking to give a name to something outside of what their normal words can articulate: something wild.
It is a reminder, of course, that though the church is experiencing change both locally and globally, the Spirit of God is still on the move. God is still calling out to God’s people. It makes me wonder what would happen if those people—you know, the people who aren’t going to church, but are still experiencing God—knew the church as something gentle and occasionally wild? What if our ministries and our blogs sought not to explain, but to point to a beautifully alive, mysterious, and gentle God? Kind of like at Pentecost, when Peter let a wild happening of the Spirit be an opportunity to tell people about Jesus, and how He had changed his life.
It is natural in these times of transition to feel anxiety and cling to that with which we are comfortable. Instead, I think this is the time to let the lively Holy Spirit give us courage to embrace change, and no longer conduct business as usual. Instead, we ask our new congregation or our new pastor to help us look with new Spirit—eyes at the people and places to which God has sent us. I’m trying to remember that change is part of the journey with God. And I am trying to remember that God is gentle, and occasionally wild.
Jacob Armstrong is the founding pastor of Providence Church, a six-year-old United Methodist church plant in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, reaching twelve hundred people each week. His latest book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation, co-written with Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, is available at Cokesbury.com.