A few weeks ago a friend and I were glancing through a Christian magazine and noticed how often people referred to “God’s presence.” It’s a hot topic these days.
In his kindness and mercy, God often reveals his active presence to us. By “active” presence I mean God’s presence as distinct from his omnipresence and his promised presence, both of which we accept by faith. Whether we “feel” it or not, God is present when his Word is faithfully preached, when his people meet in Jesus’ name, when we celebrate the Lord’s supper, when we sing, and we were serve in his power (1 Tim. 6:13; 1 Cor. 5:4; Mt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 11:27-32; Acts 10:33; Eph. 5:18-19; 1 Pet. 4:10-11). At those times and others we can know that God is with us, empowering what we do.
But there are times when God makes his presence known more clearly, more tangibly. Like in 1 Cor. 14:25, when the secrets of a man’s heart are revealed by prophetic words and he declares, “God is really among you” (1 Cor. 14:25). We experience it when our hearts are flooded with peace, or we are suddenly aware of God’s greatness and majesty, or when someone is healed. It might come as well when God’s preached Word pierces to our heart and we find ourselves weeping at the Holy Spirit’s conviction or God’s mercy in Christ. We think, “God is really here.”
While God’s active, or manifest, presence is to be treasured and even sought after (Ps. 27:4; Ps. 105:4), there are some unhelpful perspectives about God’s presence we want to avoid.
1. We can’t manufacture God’s active presence.
Good intentions notwithstanding, no one can consistently and meaningfully “bring God’s manifest presence” to a group of people. No musician, no pastor, no singer, no preacher, no leader – nobody. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit and he functions on his own terms, not ours (John 3:8; 1 Cor. 12:11).
Of course, the Spirit uses means. When God’s Word is preached in an engaging, faithful, Christ-exalting way, people will often experience a greater awareness of God’s presence. When we sing biblical truths together, God will often make his presence known among us in a tangible way. It’s the rare Christian who hasn’t at some time experienced the nearness of God at a Sunday meeting.
The richness of those experiences can tempt leaders to think our ultimate goal is helping people experience the presence of God. Well, yes and no. If “helping people” means doing everything I can to exalt the glory of Jesus in their minds, hearts, and wills through biblically informed words and actions, then yes. But if my goal is to have people “feel something,” and if the measure of my success is the degree of emotional fervor in the room, I’ll tend to use what ever means I can to produce that emotional response. I may start to believe my song, my leadership, my voice, my set list, or my playing will bring God’s presence. And it’s possible I’ll begin to view every experience, regardless of its source, as the result of an encounter with God.
One year John Piper spoke at our WorshipGod conference. Before his message I told him that while the conference was going great, it was going to be even better because he was speaking. In inimitable Piper fashion, he challenged my perception that any man, even John Piper, could insure that “God was going to show up.” To be clear, God did “show up” and we were greatly encouraged. But John’s point is true – no man can guarantee the active presence of God. And we shouldn’t try to manufacture it.
2. We can’t market God’s active presence.
Marketing God’s presence refers to promoting my ministry, song, book, or concert on the basis of how consistently people experience God’s presence as a result.
I recently received a promo for a Christian artist who said his ministry goal is to “take people into the presence of Jesus Christ where there, they are forever changed by His amazing love!” Actually, I can’t take people into the presence of Christ. But I can proclaim the gospel that assures us we have been brought near to the Father through the finished atoning work of Christ (Heb. 10:19-22). I leave it to the Holy Spirit to apply that to people’s hearts.
I’ve been invited to attend conferences, download songs, attend concerts, buy books, and listen to preachers who all claim they will bring me into God’s presence – for a price. But we can’t buy the presence of God. Simon the Magician realized that when he saw the disciples laying their hands on people with dramatic effect. He offered them cold cash, saying, “Give me this power.” Peter rebuked him.
God’s power, like God’s presence, can’t be bought or sold. God doesn’t call us so much to be facilitators of his glory as faithful to the gospel. Our job isn’t to create an “environment of excitement” but an environment of response to the true God through the gospel in the power of the Spirit.
If I want people to spend money for something related to my ministry, I want to be clear that it’s for production costs, salaries, resources, and a commitment to be faithful to God’s Word – not because it will bring them into the presence of God.
Tomorrow, I want to take a more positive tone and share some thoughts on the dangers of minimizing God’s presence.
It has been this attitude that God can be called up like the spirit of Samuel whenever the worship team requires that has turned me off of Evangelical churches. I am very pleased that you are calling these charlatans out.
I love you and your ministry and this blog. There are some things you said in the first point that I believe were either 1) unintentionally confusing or 2) a true articulation that I disagree with.
I agree with your opening paragraphs regarding the varying ways we experience God’s presence, and that at times His presence is “manifest” or “tangible”.
I was blown away that as a worship leader you breezed by your statement “God’s active, or manifest, presence is to be treasured and even sought after (Ps. 27:4; Ps. 105:4)”. I think that was the most important sentence in this whole blog, and I don’t think that your blog was encouraging people to seek God’s presence at all. It is encouraged in the Scriptures as you point out to seek after God’s presence. I have found that when I seek, that I find! This includes God’s tangible presence. We have a good Father who loves to pour out the Holy Spirit! This does not always elicit the same emotional/physical responses every time we experience His presence, but there is always some level of tangible encounter with God as I seek Him in a biblical way (you mentioned these ways – worship, the Word, etc.). He is faithful to meet with us.
Your statements get confusing in the third paragraph under heading 1.
“The richness of those experiences can tempt leaders to think our ultimate goal is helping people experience the presence of God. Well, yes and no. If “helping people” means doing everything I can to exalt the glory of Jesus in their minds, hearts, and wills through biblically informed words and actions, then yes. But if my goal is to have people feel something…”
You somehow turns “experience the presence of God” into “have people feel something”? Did you mean… have people feel the presence of God? If so, then isn’t that a good thing?
The Scriptures are faith-filled passages about passionately seeking after God! We certainly don’t manufacture anything, but we certainly do have the privilege of experiencing God at any time because of what Jesus has done! Not because of songs or music or whatever, but because of Christ. I believe we should seek God’s tangible presence with expectation. Christ has torn the veil and made a way for us to experience Him! There is no hindrance or barrier! Let’s press in! Let’s seek! We’re not after a “worship experience”, we’re after GOD HIMSELF! And we can know, love, experience, and yes, even feel His presence thanks to the cross.
I’d encourage you to use your platform, Bob, to stir people’s faith to encounter God and His presence. This blog seems to create hesitancy about pursing His presence and inviting/encouraging others to do the same (as we lead them in worship). As worship leaders let’s seek His presence, encounter Him and invite others to seek Him with the expectation that He will be found!
Thanks for the helpful thoughts, Matthew. Very much in agreement with you. That post us coming tomorrow. Just couldn’t get it all in today.
Thanks for tackling such a ‘hot’ topic. Your distinction between God’s active presence and omnipresence is helpful.
I can see what some Pentecostals talk about now when they refer to God’s presence, but am still uncomfortable with the way that some expect God will “show up” because of a human influence. It’s laughable really.
“God is even present in my pea soup” (Luther) but His saving revelation is in His Word, alone.
Very good and helpful thoughts, thank you Bob.
Hello pastor, may God bless you, and those around you.
I want to ask for you permission, to translate this series of blog post’s to share it with all or some of my brothers and sisters in Christ of my church.
Thank you dear brother, and may God prepare you more and more for proclaiming buy the things He has put in your hands, the Glory of Jesus Christ, are redeemer and saviour.
Antonio, please do translate them but send a copy or a link to bob at worshipmatters dot com. Thanks!
Thank you for this blog. Love the distinction between experiencing God’s presence as a result of humbly coming before Him, and trying to manufacture the same thing twice, often with instruments played to create ‘atmosphere’!!
There is a total difference between the worship we are accustomed to and ministering before the Lord. Many stand with hand held high receive a fuzzy feel good experience which is self fulfilling but when one ministers before the Lord they are giving to God what HE desires from us HOLY HOLY is THE LORD GOD ALMIGHTY what the angels do before the throne is worshiping the Lord. No words stating what we are seeking or need. Uttering our spirit before HIM in words that ascribe to HIM and only HIM. The presence of the LORD will be entered into. It’s the difference between the outer court and the inner court.
Thank you Bob, for dealing with this topic with caution and care. Coming from a background where worshipping with music can oftentimes be centered around feelings, I can appreciate your article as a whole. However, I feel as though in parts you may possibly be in danger of nitpicking (and I understand that there is a very fine line).
Take the case of the Christian worship artist you mentioned, whose ministry goal was to “take people into the presence of Jesus Christ where there, they are forever changed by His amazing love!”. Could that not be interpreted as this person wanting to do “everything [he] can to exalt the glory of Jesus in their minds, hearts, and wills through biblically informed words and actions”? (On that note, is it possible for the glory of Jesus to be exalted in a person’s heart and for there to be an absence of any sort of emotive response?)
Perhaps ‘take’ was not the most appropriate word to use, but I do think that word alone is insufficient to draw conclusions about that person’s understanding of God’s active presence and his role in it.
I just wanted to raise this point because I think we need to treat caution more cautiously. Take it too far and it can easily become unwarranted dogmatism (at its worst), or a fear or hesistancy to address our affections towards God (at its best).
Ruth, thanks for the comment. Good point. I wasn’t seeking to draw attention to the person’s heart, only in the way they expressed their goal. I think what you’re saying is probably true in terms of the person’s intention. But over time, saying things in an unclear way can have an effect on our theology which eventually has an effect on our relationship with God. We can start to think that certain people CAN bring us into God’s presence.
Thank you for taking the time to read and address my comment. I definitely understand where you’re coming from. Thanks again for clarifying!
Very good and touching lesson.