by Geoffrey Thomas

The group was singing earnestly, the drums were pounding, the guitarists were strumming away, and the audience was tapping their feet—but the Spirit was not there. They sang songs for an hour, building up to a great crescendo and sitting down to an aura of well-being—but the Spirit was not there. The preacher gave his message, told his stories, made them laugh, and made them cry—but the Spirit was not there. He began his appeal and worked them over—some needed to come to the front to be saved, others to rededicate their lives, others for inner healing, others to talk to counselors about their problems. A crowd gathered. A man said to himself, “I want to be happy like these people,” and he went forward—but the Spirit was not there. After the service was over, the people talked to one another about their activities and plans, and nobody realized that again the Spirit was not in their midst.

Down the road in another church, the congregation sang the hymns of Toplady and Watts and a metrical Psalm—but the Spirit was not there. The New International Version was read—but the Spirit was not there. The preacher prayed for the congregation and the community; he thanked God for the gospel—but the Spirit was not there. Afterwards the congregation quietly went home, as aware as the minister had been that things were not as they should be, nor as they could be in the church of the living God.

When the blessing of God is removed from a gospel church which is worshiping in the old ways, the results are immediate and pathetic. If the Spirit of God is not inhabiting the praise of the people and the proclamation of the preacher, there is nothing left but bare walls. However, when the Spirit is driven out of a church which has handclapping, “loads  a choruses,” a band, racy sermons, laughter, and altar calls, it will be about a millennium or two before anyone notices that he has gone—because even when he is not there, they act as if he were, the atmosphere feels “religious.”

One day the preacher fell before God and cried, “Lord, I cannot go on without your blessing. David said of you, ‘He restoreth my soul.’ My soul stands in need of restoration. I seem to do everything like a religious robot, without even thinking of you or invoking your aid”—and the Spirit began to move.

The preacher searched the Bible, asking, What are the marks of the Spirit’s presence? He learned that defiant sin in his own life or blatant sin tolerated in the congregation quenches the Spirit. If he misrepresented God and his way of salvation, or if he fellowshiped with the ungodly, he found that he would grieve God the Spirit. He discovered that if he boldly preached on sin and righteousness and judgment, the Spirit himself came in his preaching and testified of these sober realities. Most important of all, if he glorified the Lord Jesus Christ and spoke much of him as God the Son and the Savior of all who trust in him, then that work which the Spirit most delightfully assisted and blessed was apparent.

The great lesson he learned, as if for the first time, was that the Spirit is given to those who obey God. He sought painfully to change his ways, discipline his life, be more resolute in studying the Word of God, spending longer in the presence of his Savior, avoiding those patterns of life that left him morose before the television to the neglect of his family. He went out after people who had been long on the fringes of the church and talked to them about their need of Christ. He gave more time to preparing his sermons, thinking of the people he was preaching to and the God in whose presence he stood when he spoke his Word. He continually acknowledged his own need of the Spirit—”without you I can do nothing.”

One Sunday he stood before his congregation and prayed, “Lord, we fear going through this service hearing the voice of men—our own singing of hymns, and the preacher’s speaking his own words. We dread the thought that we will leave this building in an hour and not have known the fellowship and secret sovereign testimony of your Holy Spirit to our hearts. We confess our sins to you; we cry out in our helplessness and in our need of you. Come and have mercy upon us. We can only erect an altar: it is your prerogative to send the fire.”

Then the forgiving Spirit, long grieved, modestly returned and breathed upon them all. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).

The author is the pastor of Alfred Place Baptist Church in Aberystwyth, Wales. This article first appeared in Reformation and Revival Journal, vol. 3, no. 2 (1994), pages 29-31. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2001.