The Holy Spirit's Sahara Lounge

We all have favourite places where we feel at home. One such place for us is a restaurant in Stanmore called the Sahara Lounge. It does the most amazing Lebanese food and the Crofts and Pilavachi have enjoyed many an evening there. The food really is incredible. The chicken is marinated for three days in a special blend of herbs and spices and melts in your mouth. However, the food is not the only reason we love the Sahara Lounge, we promise! The head waiter is an older gentleman from Lebanon called George, and George and Mike have become great friends over the years. As soon as we begin climbing the stairs to the restaurant George calls out “Michael! You’re back; I have missed you!” We have great fun as we argue with him over what we’re going to order, the other waiters all drop by for a little chat during the evening and the place feels like a second home. We like the atmosphere, the friendliness and the warmth.

The question we want to ask is, what kind of church do we need to be for the Holy Spirit to be at home? We have noticed over the years that there are particular attitudes or ‘cultures’ that seem to usher in the presence of the Spirit. There are certain things we can do, and ways we can be, that seem to welcome the Holy Spirit. There are undoubtedly certain churches and gatherings where the Holy Spirit regularly moves in power and we believe they all share certain characteristics. Here are some common traits that we see, first from Scripture, but also from our experience in churches where we have noticed the Holy Spirit seems to enjoy being.

A Worshipful Church

The Spirit loves coming to a worshipping community. He loves coming to a place where Jesus is exalted. It’s no accident that right through Scripture and church history revivals, moves of the Spirit have almost universally been accompanied or preceded by a renewal or revival of worship.

We see this at the dedication of the temple in 2 Chronicles chapters 6 and 7. King Solomon and all the people worshipped extravagantly and gave sacrificial offerings. Solomon alone sacrificed 32,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep and goats – now that would have been the barbecue to end all barbecues! As they worshipped they sang, “He is good, he is good and his love endures forever”. And whilst they were praising God with their singing and their giving, the glory of the Lord fell. It’s described as a cloud that filled the temple. The sense of God’s presence was so heavy that the priests couldn’t perform their duties and the people ended up face down on the pavement. Oh that we would have more times like this, where the glory of the Lord descends, the pastors cannot perform their duties and the whole congregation finishes the meeting facedown before God!

We also see that on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled the disciples, their first response was to spill out into the streets declaring the wonders of God in many different languages. Whilst in Solomon’s time the people worshipped and then the Holy Spirit fell, at Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell and then they worshipped. Both demonstrate the link between worship and the presence of the Holy Spirit, one ushering in the other. And we see at Pentecost that 3,000 were added to their number as the presence of the Holy Spirit drew people to understanding the truth about Jesus.

We have noticed this pattern again and again in revivals throughout the centuries. As Psalm 22:3 says, “the Lord inhabits the praises of his people”. The last great revival to sweep the whole of the UK occurred during the ministry of John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield in the eighteenth century. The nation was in a mess and many had turned from God. Then God moved in great power through his servants and it is no exaggeration to say the history of this nation was changed. One of the great secrets of that revival can be found in John Wesley’s journal. In the entry dated 1 January 1739 he wrote:

Mr Hall, Kinchin, Ingham, Whitfield, Hutchins my brother Charles were present at our love feast in Fetter Lane with about sixty of our brethren. At 3 o’clock in the morning as we continued instant in prayer the power of God came mightily upon us, in so much that we cried out in exceeding joy and many fell to the ground. When we had recovered a little [Don’t you just love the English understatement there?!] at the awe and amazement at the presence of his majesty, we cried out with one voice “we praise thee O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.”

On New Year’s Eve, in a tiny street in London, as they prayed and knocked on the door of heaven at 3am, they had their own Pentecost. Their response as the power of God came upon them? They cried out in joy and said, “We praise thee O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord!” Worship both ushers in the presence of God and is the first human response to the presence of God.

We see this at the birth of many church movements in our day too. The Vineyard movement has impacted much of the church in terms of culture, as well as being responsible for planting healthy, vibrant churches all over the world. The movement began in someone’s front room when a group of people who were aware of their sin and brokenness, got together and just sang simple songs of worship to Jesus. They were burned out with religion and were yearning for an intimate relationship with God. As they sang song after song the Lord met them. The Holy Spirit fell and signs and wonders and miracles followed.

There are so many other examples we could give, such as Hillsong and Bethel who both place a very high value on the worship of God. The Spirit’s role is to draw us into intimate relationship with the Father and the Son and worship is the language of intimacy. It is no accident and no coincidence that worship and the presence of the Holy Spirit go together as, “The Lord inhabits the praises of his people."

A Grace-Filled Church

The second characteristic of churches that see the Spirit move in power is they understand, love and live under the grace of God. By this we mean they celebrate that God loves us unconditionally. Their faith rests on the understanding that Jesus’ death on the cross was sufficient for all aspects of our salvation both now and in the future. Those of us who find it the hardest to receive the Holy Spirit and his gifts are usually those of us who feel we have to earn them. We think we need to be good, holy and righteous; we think it depends on how much we pray.

The Holy Spirit is a gift given to normal, broken people. It’s not an accident that in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) it was the younger brother (who was broken and had sinned), who received the Father’s inheritance. We are never told what happened to the self-righteous older brother. Jesus left the story open and hanging. It’s hard to receive the inheritance if you’re an ‘older brother’ who lacks an understanding of grace. We receive from God when we come to him knowing our hands are empty but trusting that he is good.

We encourage you to meditate on these words from 2 Corinthians 5:21:

"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God". Do we realise that even our greatest deeds are, at best, like dirty rags, but in Jesus we have become the righteousness of God? We are clothed in his righteousness not because we measure up but because of his gracious act. When we understand the truth of this – that he loves us and nothing we can ever do will change that – we are more likely to see the Holy Spirit move among us.

Throughout Scripture and church history, we see God coming to people who know they are broken. Of course God’s grace causes us to change but we change as a response to grace, not to receive grace. God comes to us as we are; he comes to us as a free gift. When we, as individuals and as a community of worshippers, realise that we come with empty hands, empty hearts and empty mouths, then we are ready for the Holy Spirit to fill us. The Spirit seems to move in greater power through a community who realise that they have nothing and that he is everything.

A Faith-filled Church

The Holy Spirit seems to love being in communities where people are full of faith and take risks. This is actually deeply connected with an understanding of the grace of God. To know God is to love him. To know him is also to trust him. When we are rooted in the gospel of grace, we know a freedom that allows us to step out; failure no longer seems as soul-destroying.

So often the church has been risk averse. It has been compared to the sort of marble statues you can see in old market towns. You can see horses with muscles bunched up and tense, they look like they are about to leap right off their pedestal. But if you come back years later, the horse is in exactly the same position! The church can look like it’s ready to fly but never moves; we talk the talk, but then we struggle to live it out. As communities we can be afraid of failure. We live in a risk-averse culture full of health and safety regulations and risk assessments and this attitude often pervades our churches. It means in practice we stay with the 11 disciples in the boat instead of joining Peter on the water. Faith is a secure trust in the character and saving power of Jesus. Peter got out of the boat because he trusted that if he began to sink Jesus would save him. Do we have the confidence that if and when we sink Jesus is both willing and able to lift us up and save us?

Let us be bold, putting ourselves in the place of trusting dependence on our Lord. Failure won’t kill us. Remember faith is a gift but, like a muscle, it grows as it is exercised. Those of us in leadership must encourage a culture of joyful trusting and courageous risk taking. That means we have to be willing to live with mess and to embrace and even celebrate occasional failure. Jesus rejoiced whenever he found faith; it’s no surprise to us that the Spirit seems to feel at home in communities that live by faith too.

A Merciful and Loving Church

Finally, the Holy Spirit seems to love spending time in fellowships that are full of mercy, compassion and love. Such churches tend to be unified; they see differences and doubts not as excuses for distance but as opportunities for love. Jude writes, “Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear – hating even clothing stained by corrupt flesh” (Jude 22-23). In a church that lives out this verse, those who struggle and are battling with doubts will find compassion rather than condemnation. We are clearly told to fear and avoid sin, but to be merciful to the sinner. Elsewhere James writes, “Mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2:13). One outworking of this is how the church treats people who have fallen into public sin. Whilst we must not indulge sin and we should all encourage one another to live holy lives, there are sadly too many people who have been discarded by the church because they have messed up. There are too few stories of joyful restoration for a church that follows a redeemer. We need to acknowledge that we are all broken people who receive undeserved mercy and forgiveness from our Father. We have noticed that churches that major on mercy also see more of God’s power.

It is striking that the New Testament talks at such length about loving one another. We are commanded to forgive one another, serve one another, encourage one another and bear one another’s burdens over and over again. Paul’s great chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, sits right in the heart of his instructions about spiritual gifts. Jesus left us only one new commandment before he went to the cross. “A new commandment I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love on another" (John 13:34). What did the apostle John write when he was an old man? “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). The Holy Spirit loves to hang around places where God’s people love each other. An atmosphere of love, kindness, commitment and acceptance is an open door for the Holy Spirit to move.

Fanning the Flame of the Spirit

The restaurant analogy we started with is limited. The Holy Spirit doesn’t wait for us to sort ourselves out and then arrive when we’ve cooked a meal and set an atmosphere. He is an agent in creating these sorts of atmospheres. Without the Spirit’s help we’re unlikely to want to worship, we’re unable to grasp the gospel, we’ll struggle to step out and our ‘mercy’ will be grudgingly given. Too often we want to keep the furniture and the menu the same. The Spirit will not force us to make these changes but, if we are willing to be led by him, he will make himself more and more at home among us.

May we create a culture in our churches where we pursue his presence and his ways. Only the Holy Spirit can create that desire in us; our job is to invite him. So we seek his face. We worship and glorify God. We step out in obedience. We love and encourage one another. We show mercy and we live in grace. We believe this kind of church is the Holy Spirit’s Sahara Lounge.