While listening to worship music recently I was struck again with the particular category of songs asking the Holy Spirit to “fall on us,” “come down,” or something similar. I can say just from my own experience that there have been a steady trickle of such songs at least since the Jesus music of the 1970s. I’ve always held these more or less at arm’s length, not hating or loving them, thinking they’re too Pentecostal or—something. But when I realized how relatively unformed my criticisms of these songs were, I decided to think it through a bit more.
First, two important concessions for the sake of all the faithful worship leaders out there: it’s important to 1) allow worship songs to be art, which means giving plenty of slack for poetic language and the imprecision that often goes with it, and 2) not demand too much of any single worship song—no single song can say or be everything that songs can say or be. So, rather than deconstruct particular songs about the Holy Spirit, I decided to construct a way of thinking about the Holy Spirit’s role in corporate worship (particularly the musical parts). I don’t want to create a checklist of criteria (which can’t help but be reductionistic), but consider what we hope and expect the Holy Spirit will do in us as we worship. There’s more to it, but I want to share three do’s and a don’t.
We DO Want to Bear Fruit
The characteristics of the faithful Christ-follower are called “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22), and one who bears this fruit is said to “live by the Spirit” (v. 25) and “walk…according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). We should go to our worship gathering with the expectation and hope that God’s Spirit will stimulate us toward greater fruit-bearing, encouraging us about the fruit that is already there and convicting us in areas where we are hindering such fruit. Songs about the Holy Spirit that carry that intention can play an active role in that cultivation process.
We DO Want to be Purified
On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would come and would “convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). Now, this perhaps isn’t referring to exactly the same thing as when we Christians claim that “the Spirit really convicted me about my temper,” but it shows that bringing a heightened awareness of sin and righteousness is a particular interest of the Holy Spirit. Since we are “temples” in whom God’s Spirit dwells, it seems right to ascribe this conscience-activating ministry to the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, songs that participate in this convicting work are most welcome as they confront our failures and exhort us to follow Christ more closely. Unfortunately, there aren’t many good songs like this, and the songs that ask for the Spirit to fall on us don’t seem to be headed in this direction.
We DO Want Revival
Here’s where the songs can get a little weird, like when we are calling on the Spirit to rush over us or overwhelm us or sweep us away, or some other inundation imagery. The songwriter’s goal is apparently to draw on the Pentecostal imagery of Acts 2 and ask for a similar event now. On the one hand, I don’t think God intends for us to keep experiencing the particular phenomena of that amazing day—many people speaking different languages at once to communicate the glories of Christ to different people groups. On the other hand, we DO want the gospel to go forth in great power, transforming the hearts of sinners and saints alike, don’t we? If that happens dramatically in a single service or over a period of time (Great Awakenings, anyone?), it’s cause for rejoicing, and it’s something we should desire and pray for. If we sing songs asking for a dramatic work of the Spirit, we need to know what we’re asking for. Songs that provide a vehicle for us to cry out for revival together are a good thing.
We DON’T Want Vacuous Feel-Good Experiences
Speaking of knowing what we’re asking for, I fear that some of these songs about the Holy Spirit lead us to ask for an indefinable, dramatic feeling of being overwhelmed that’s not attached to any of the good things I describe above. I’m an enthusiastic proponent of contemporary worship music (as well as the best of old hymns), but it seems to have led many to believe that the goal of worship music is to take us to heights of happiness—to make us feel really good. And when we call on the Spirit to fall on us and rush over us, we’re asking him to create this feeling in us. But that’s a terribly misleading expectation.
Some of my most dramatically transforming worship experiences have not brought tears and happy mountaintop feelings so much as a deep calm—an almost palpable sense that everything difficult in my life has happened according to the perfect wisdom of infinite Love and Righteousness, embodied in the glorious Person of King Jesus.
Never once did we ever walk alone,
Never once did you leave us on our own.
You are faithful
God, you are faithful!
It’s literally taken my breath away and made me stop singing. No tears (this time, at least), just a strong feeling of—“this is right; all is well; Jesus is Lord after all.” I didn’t ask the Holy Spirit to give me this flood of serene joy, he just did it.
In contrast to this, I’ve also had some musical worship experiences where I’m afraid I couldn’t explain why I feel so wonderful. But the reality is simple: I love music, and when it’s done skillfully and arranged to facilitate emotional expression (which is a good, not bad, thing), I feel so good just participating. Being carried along by skillful players playing skillfully. Even when the lyrics are good, I can be too wrapped up in the musical experience and just feel—mountaintoppy. It’s a feel-good experience without spiritual transformation, and it’s not the work of the Holy Spirit. (Here’s where we should have a talk about how corporate worship is work that requires effort, but that’s not what this post is about.)
All that to say this, even at the risk of being reductionistic: songs that make us feel good should make us feel good for particular reasons that we can articulate in words—even if it’s difficult to describe—and should have effects that last beyond the worship service. In worship we should not be asking the Holy Spirit for good feelings that are void of the fruit he produces. In fact, when we genuinely plead with him to come invade our lives and do his work in power, we should expect that he just might do this by giving us dramatically bad feelings—like sorrow that leads to repentance (1 Cor. 7:9-10). In any case, we must know what we are asking for when we ask the Holy Spirit to “rush over us.”
Ask What You Will
Two footnotes I can’t resist including:
- One unintended consequence of songs like this in particular is that we can be left with the impression our songs somehow bring the Holy Spirit “down.” On the contrary, we the church are his temple. He is with us when we meet. The question is whether we will rightly acknowledge this by submitting ourselves afresh to his authority and transforming power.
- Much depends on those who are leading the service. They bear the responsibility of guiding our thoughts as we approach a song about the Holy Spirit, reminding us of what we’re asking for and exhorting us to do so humbly. On the other hand, we worshipers bear the responsibility of singing from the heart with the right desires. Corporate worship requires alertness, intentionality, and a reverent humility.