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“Spiritual Experiences”

Last week Emergent Pittsburgh hosted Ian Mobsby for two events – one focused on worship and the other focused on the Trinity and the structure of the church.

The event on worship was a nightmare for me in many ways.  My personality type (Myers-Briggs) contains an ST – Sensory Thinker, as opposed to Intuitive – Feeler.  I sense that if you did a poll of people at the event on Monday night you’d find that the majority of people were intuitive – feelers, and that’s to be expected.  I sense that many of those who are interested in things “emergent” tend to be more the intuitive – feeling type.  Anyway…

One of the things that Ian talked about was how worship, as opposed to being an attempt to satisfy God with a response, is a formative experience for people.  I’ve observed in my own ministry that what people draw the most from are the lessons in which they experienced something – when they felt a real sense of God’s presence.  The problem is, as someone firmly grounded in the Neo-Orthodox tradition, I have been taught to tremble in fear at the thought of relying on experience (and with a lot of justification, even if I do say so myself).  However, I’ve come to articulate something that I think gives experience its rightful spot.

The role of Christian leaders is to prepare people for, lead people in, and help people interpret spiritual experiences.

This may seem self-evident, but I think the preparation and interpretation part are really important.  At Youth Specialties in 2006 Kenda Dean interpreted the story of the calling of Samuel by pointing out that while it was Samuel who heard God,  he needed Eli to tell him that it was God’s voice.  I think this is a good way to look at contemplative ministry.  Much of experiential worship tends to be individualistic – while the whole community may take part, usually they are silent activities.  There is nothing wrong with this – but it is important that others in the community help each other interpret what they experienced.

Everything we do in ministry is essentially (or should be anyway) a spiritual experience.  But contemplative experiences are especially valuable because they take the emphasis off the “pastor” or “teacher” or “leader”.  The leaders become facilitators or guides, rather than communicators of truth.  It gives the Holy Spirit space to work and for people to hear the Spirit speaking in shear silence.  Personally I know that I am far more relaxed leading contemplative experiences than I do when I’m in a more traditional “teaching” role.  As opposed to relying on authority of a leader, contemplative exercises allow people to experience God’s presence for themselves.

Prepare, Lead, Interpret.

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