Simon Chan on the Life of the Holy Spirit in the Church

Simon Chan says that bad worship produces bad theology, which leads to an unhealthy church. That's why he suggests that churches make more room for the Holy Spirit to work in worship. A feature story exploring the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Discouraged and disappointed. Down in their hearts, worship leaders sometimes feel that way after Sunday worship. They work so hard to plan services that lift up the Lord, yet weeks and months go by without anyone saying, “The Spirit really showed up today.”

Worship leaders wonder why what they do in worship fails to prepare people for mission. Why is the congregation not saving souls and adding members? Why is attendance down? What can the staff and lay leaders do to read the culture and deliver more relevant messages?

Simon Chan, an Assemblies of God pastor and author who teaches systematic theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore, understands these concerns. He says the reason more people don’t experience worship as life-transforming is because they don’t understand the true nature of the church and its worship. Chan’s way of reframing the Bible’s overarching story can help your church be more attune to how the Holy Spirit works in worship.

The mission of the Trinity

Worship leaders who want to understand the true nature of the church and its worship must back up and consider who they are worshiping.

John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion begins by explaining that we humans cannot truly understand ourselves unless we contemplate “the divine character.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism starts with the conviction that our “chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”

But how can we know, glorify, and enjoy God? Simon Chan suggests focusing on God’s triune nature, especially, as he puts it in his bookSpiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life, “the inner life of the Trinity itself.”

We glorify God in worship when we respond to “God’s total character, more specifically to the triune God,” Chan writes in his book Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community. Note that wordrespond. It means that God initiates worship, not worship leaders.

“The glory of God is the glory of his self-giving,” Chan adds. The Bible pictures the relationship among Father, Son, and Spirit as other-centered love.

In a Christianity Today interview with Andy Crouch, Chan rhetorically asks, “What is the mission of the Trinity? The answer to that question is communion. Ultimately, all things are to be brought back into communion with the triune God. Communion is the ultimate end, not mission.”

The nature of the church

If God’s eternal purpose is to bring all things into communion, then you might think that the church’s job is to accomplish God’s purpose. This is the thinking behind worldview shorthand such as creation-fall-redemption-renewal or guilt-grace-gratitude or sin-salvation-service. Each view assumes that God made humanity so that humanity would bear God’s image and likeness.

But Chan begins Liturgical Theology by disagreeing with that familiar way of reading the biblical narrative.

Instead he proposes another storyline. “God created the world in order that he might enter into a covenant relationship with humankind…. Even if humans had not sinned, Jesus Christ would still have needed to come in the fullness of time, because only through that revelation is covenantal relationship realized in the fullest measure—as communion with the triune God….

“The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation; rather, creation exists to realize the church,” he writes.

To worship leaders eager to reinvent church, Chan cites Ephesians 1:4, which refers to the church as chosen in Christ before God created the world. That means the church is God’s creation, not ours. The Bible is the story of God calling out a people (Abraham, Israel, the church) so that the world will be transformed into the church.

Chan says the church’s basic identity is found “not in what it does but in what it is.” The New Testament’s main images for the church—people of God, body of Christ, temple of the Holy Spirit—show how the church reflects the triune God.

  • In both testaments, God promises, “I will be your God and you shall be my people.”
  • “To say ‘The church is the body of Christ’ means that Christ as embodied is available to the world…. The church’s primary mission, then, is to be itself, which is to be ‘Christ’ for the world,” Chan writes.
  • At Pentecost, the Spirit knit the church to its Head. The Spirit mutually indwells Christ and the church and constantly pushes this temple forward to ultimate communion.

Liturgy forms us into Christ’s body

If the church is God’s creation, then worship leaders may lay down the burden of trying to design cutting-edge worship that meets attendance goals.

At an all-day Reformed/Pentecostal dialogue on the Holy Spirit in worship, Chan said his favorite Bible verse is “And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’ ” (Galatians 4:6). The text reminds worship leaders that it’s not their job to “sing down” the Spirit or “bring down” the power of God.

Instead, worship leaders may freely accept the Spirit’s gifts, because Jesus promised at the Last Supper that the Spirit of truth will guide us into all truth. Chan sees these divine gifts as including Word, sacraments, and the fourfold worship pattern of gathering, proclaiming the Word, celebrating the Eucharist, and going out into the world.

“What worshipers do must be consistent with what liturgy is,” Chan writes. “The liturgy is simply a way of structuring worship that is faithful to what the Spirit is doing in the church: forming it into the body of Christ.” He sees the liturgy not as a lockstep framework but a descriptive pattern that the Spirit adapts to a congregation’s context in time and culture.

Recognizing the Holy Spirit in Worship

Many Christians understand the work of the Holy Spirit mainly in individual terms, such as being convicted of sin and led to faith, or in charismatic terms, such as speaking in tongues or supernatural healing.

But Simon Chan says we often fail to see how else the Holy Spirit works, especially through the church as a whole. Chan, an Assemblies of God pastor and author, teaches systematic theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore.

He says Pentecostal and Orthodox insights can help congregations see that the Holy Spirit works in both surprising and ordered ways. This broader recognition of the Spirit at work in the church often changes worship practices.

“The wind blows where it will”

As a pastor or spiritual advisor in Pentecostal churches, Chan has often been in services that “took a sudden turn after someone prayed or during a congregational song or when someone gave a ‘word of prophecy.’ ”

But his most memorable Holy Spirit experience happened outside worship. “Perhaps that was what made it so unforgettable. Who would imagine the Spirit’s working in an Assemblies of God business meeting!” he says.

An intractable issue was on the floor and tension was rising. The chairman made an unusual move by asking everyone to pray. Chan admits that Pentecostals sometimes use this strategy to intimidate each other.

“But in this instance, everyone seemed to think that praying was the right thing to do,” he says. He doesn’t recall the chairman’s prayer, just that it was short. “A hush came over the entire gathering. Suddenly a cloud seemed to have been lifted. Everyone seemed to be of one mind over the issue, when a few minutes earlier, no resolution was in sight,” Chan says.

He wonders whether a similar thing happened when the Council of Jerusalem split over whether Gentile believers should be circumcised and keep kosher. “We read, ‘The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul’ (Acts 15:12) and, in the Council’s decision, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28).

“If the same Spirit who transcends space and time is at work, then it’s not entirely impossible,” Chan says, that what happened in Jerusalem happened in the business meeting in Singapore.

The Spirit of life in the living gospel

Worship leaders who identify the Spirit’s work only with spontaneity worry about over-planning the service. Chan agrees that the freedom of the Spirit allows for many worship options. “Yet freedom of the Spirit is not opposed to form,” he writes in Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community.

“Even the most ‘unstructured’ charismatic service has a form—at least it takes on a form after some time. The real issue is whether the form adopted is consistent with the norm of revelation, the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he adds.

Some theologies end the gospel story at the resurrection and ascension. “The church is seen as the agent solely to retell or restate a story that ended with Christ’s resurrection…. Without telling the story of the church, which is the story of the Spirit in the church, we have an incomplete gospel,” Chan laments in Liturgical Theology.

Thanks to the Spirit of life, “truth is not a static deposit or some timeless proposition but the living Tradition, the life of the Spirit in the church,” he explains. Chan sees the Spirit’s work in developing Trinitarian doctrine, the canon of Scripture, historic creeds, ancient fourfold pattern of liturgy, and recent convergence movement.

Chan tells of a large church in the Philippines whose pastor he knows well. The pastor and worship leaders sensed that something essential was missing in their contemporary services. They felt led to make a major paradigm shift to more liturgical worship. They lost members but “did it anyway because they felt a matter of truth was involved.”

Celebrating the Eucharist weekly helped that Filipino church “understand more explicitly” what they had sensed implicitly, that “communion completes the mission of the Trinity,” Chan says.

As water smoothes stones

People in liturgical traditions don’t necessarily recognize the Spirit at work in worship. In his first Lutheran pastorate, Craig Satterlee remembers asking his bishop how to reverse declining attendance and giving. He felt let down when the bishop advised him to “preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, teach the faith, visit the sick, bury the dead, and leave the growth to God.” Satterlee feared that focusing on worship would turn the congregation into an inward looking club that never moved on to mission.

In When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By, Craig Satterlee recounts how he learned to “trust God to work through the things the church does in worship...rather than trust myself, my strategies, and my ability to explain them to my congregation.” He came to see worship and mission as God’s single activity of reconciliation.

“God works in worship over time to shape and move us, as surely as flowing water smoothes stones and carries them to the sea. Even when the current of God’s reconciling love does not knock us over and sweep us away, we can worship with the expectation that God is present, speaking, and acting,” Satterlee says.

Chan and Satterlee say that Spirit-shaped worship includes:

  • Worship basics handed down through time, such as the Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, baptism, communion, creeds, and fourfold pattern
  • Prayers for wholeness and healing each week instead of only at special services
  • Epiclesis (prayer asking the Spirit to make the Eucharist and gathered community into Christ’s body until Christ returns)
  • Active attentiveness and participation in worship
  • Music that reenacts the Christian story and reinforces the church’s identity as God’s covenant people
  • Readings, sermons, songs, and prayers using words from the entire Bible, not just the New Testament

Chan says that such worship might not feel transcendent every Sunday because liturgical habits, like balanced diets or reforested areas, are formed over time.

He’s noticed that liturgical worship often leads to more holistic mission, “not just in terms of evangelism but in various forms, like works of mercy. One church developed a highly successfully program to help expectant mothers prepare for natural births. In a poor country like the Philippines it became missiologically quite relevant.”

Learn More

Listen to Simon Chan’s 2009 Calvin Symposium on Worship workshop, “A Theological Understanding of the Liturgy as the Work of the Spirit.”

These three Christianity Today articles about Simon Chan, along with this discussion guide, are fascinating.

Read books by Simon Chan, including Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community,Pentecostal Theology and the Christian Spiritual Tradition, and Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life.

Check out Chan’s lecture on worship and theology; articles on spiritual discernment (how to know whether an idea comes from the Holy Spirit, yourself, or the devil) and “Rediscovering the Catechumate: How to help new converts discover their real Christian identity”; and a blog interview about Pentecostalism in Asia.

Simon Chan appreciates insights on the Spirit at work in the church from Orthodox theologians such as Alexander Schmemann and John Zizioulas.

Learn from the stories in When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By, by Craig Satterlee, and the God’s-story-as-a-river motif in Creative Preaching on the Sacraments, by Craig Satterlee and Lester Ruth.

Take the advice of Will Willimon on changing worship for the sake of the gospeland Howard Friend on pastoral conversations with parishioners wary of change.

Use resources mentioned in Reformed Worship stories on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Trinity.

Browse related stories on contemporary worship musicfaith formationOld Testament use in worship, and Trinitarian worship.

Start a Discussion

Talk about the Holy Spirit at work in your worship and congregation.

  • What do you think about Simon Chan’s claim that “the church’s primary mission is to be itself … ‘Christ’ for the world”?
  • In what ways does your congregation’s worship acknowledge, make room for, expect, or pray for the power of the Holy Spirit in worship? What first steps would help worshipers become more aware of the Holy Spirit?
  • How might worship, baptism, and communion practices change in your church if you understood each as God’s ongoing activity to redeem the world through the church?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about the Holy Spirit’s work in worship?  

  • Did you create a process to evaluate the songs and hymns sung most often in your worship to see how they describe God’s mission? Did you look at the balance among songs focused on Father, Son, or Holy Spirit? How did these insights change the way you worship and live out your faith?
  • Which resources—Bible studies, music, visuals, drama, video, online, whatever—have you found especially helpful in explaining to the congregation what you do in worship and why?

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