The Holy Spirit in Christian Worship

The Holy Spirit in Christian Worship:
An interview with Dean Theophilos and Leigh-Ann Des Roches

Dean Theophilos is a graduate of St John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, and is currently pursuing a Masters in Addiction Studies through the Hazelden School in Minnesota. Dean works as an alcohol and drug counselor with Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, and attends St George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, MN.

Leigh-Ann Des Roches completed undergraduate studies at University of Wisconsin: La Crosse. She holds a Masters in Addiction Studies from Hazelden School, and also works as a drug and alcohol counselor for the Hazelden clinic.  Leigh-Ann grew up worshiping at the Wayzata Evangelical Free Church, and is expecting to be baptized at St Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral this summer.

Hi Dean and Leigh-Ann. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.  This month, Wonder is focusing on the Holy Spirit. Each of you has explored Christian worship in multiple denominations (we’ll cover your backgrounds more as we go along), so I was hoping you could share some thoughts with us about the Holy Spirit in Orthodox and other Christian worship.

Dean, let’s start with you.  You’ve grown up in the Greek Orthodox Church. Where do you see the Holy Spirit in the context of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy?

D: I understand the Holy Spirit as, well, the engine driving the service.  The Sprit gives our liturgy a sense of weight, or value. A sense of direction, of momentum, a sort of continuity, but mostly, I see the Spirit as the driving force in Liturgy.

Leigh-Ann, I’ll circle back to your thoughts on Orthodox worship, but first, how do you understand the Spirit in Evangelical worship.

onfireL: I’ve been thinking about this question for a week or so now, since I agreed to do this interview, because the question is actually hard to answer.  The trinity is simply not talked about.  The focus is almost entirely on Christ within Evangelical worship.  God the Father seems very remote in the prayers and in the discussion. And the Spirit isn’t really seen as a separate ”˜person’ so to speak.  So the focus is always on Christ.  So what is the Spirit?  I guess I would say that the Spirit is basically like the Ghost of Jesus.  Maybe like the energy of Christ. It’s really hard to explain…does that make any sense?

Sure, I think I know what you’re getting at.  But is this a hard question for everybody: Who is the Holy Spirit?

D: I think that the Holy Spirit is highly complicated.  The two of us took a catechism class this spring, and spent a class session on the Holy Trinity, and it’s incredibly complex.  Very few people can really give a thorough, clear, and accurate explanation of the Trinity.  Although I don’t feel pressured to, either.  The nice thing about Orthodoxy is that we are able leave room for “mystery.”  This seems fitting for the Holy Spirit, for the Trinity: a mystery that we can’t completely grasp.

Dean, what’s been your experience when you’ve seen or participated in Protestant Worship. How would you describe Protestant understanding(s) of the Holy Spirit?

D: Well, through Teen Challenge I’ve been exposed to Pentecostal worship and beliefs, and among the Pentecostals there is a continued use of expressions of “On fire for the Lord” and “Feeling the Spirit.”  They see an encounter with the Holy Spirit as a personal experience. There’s this fervor involved.  And even more, it seems that they need that experience – that fervor – that emotional engagement to make the worship ”˜real.’

evangelical worshipL: Yeah, we would use the phrase “On fire for God.” And it was this definite sense of emotional movement.  If you don’t feel emotionally moved, we would say “you don’t have the Spirit.”  I feel there is a very clear expectation in Evangelical worship to have an emotional experience.  And the whole program caters to our emotional needs, and is tailored to create this emotional effect.  Look at Christian Rock. It’s incredibly modern music, meant to directly impact us, resonate with us, and move us.  That’s how and why the music is used.  And that movement – that’s the Spirit.

Dean, what do you think – is there place for emotional impact or personal experience within the Divine Liturgy?

D: It’s certainly not required, but that idea that the Spirit is there, and can move us, I believe is still available in our worship. That’s why I said at the beginning that the Spirit is the engine driving the service. The service still happens, whether or not I’m caught up in the moment, but the power that makes that happen – that can definitely be felt, and that’s the Spirit. Plus, we do have a sensory experience in the liturgy, and particularly through the Eucharist.  This should not be overlooked.

Leigh-Ann, what do you think about Orthodox worship and the Spirit?  What has your experience been so far.

L: Orthodox Liturgy is so radically different from anything I have ever experienced before, I’m still working to accept that. I had no idea growing up that any Christians would worship in this manner.  It’s incredible, and I’m still sorting it out. Which is why I’m particularly glad that there isn’t an expectation that we have to understand it – that it can remain a mystery, because Orthodox Liturgy is still very much a mystery to me. I find myself returning to that idea often.

iconcornerLeigh-Ann, what is one thing that you find to be a positive change in leaving Evangelical worship and coming to Christian worship?

L: I am so glad that my experience of the Divine Liturgy is not dependent on the Sermon, or the Gospel, or my personal experience. The Gospel and Sermon are there, but they aren’t the only feature in the service.  More importantly, I don’t need to be emotionally brow-beaten or condemned, or I don’t need to be emotionally validated, for the worship to have meaning.  So I’m realizing that I’m experiencing the ”˜same’ Liturgy differently each service…I hope that’s a good thing.

Dean, what is something you find uniquely positive about Protestant / Evangelical worship (and I apologize for using these terms so loosely – please offer clarification where you can!)

D: Something unique about Grace (mega-) Church is hearing that long, engaging sermon.  Each homily is so powerful that it offers a unique take on our faith, and on the Holy Spirit, for that matter.

L: Both of us try to visit a number of different denominations of Christian communities, because we’ve found that we’re better able to relate to our clients, who often have serious emotional trauma with religious underpinnings. So even the briefest exposure on our part can give us some insight into the pain these people are experiencing.  And it helps us see what’s out there.

Leigh-Ann, can you share some thoughts on the positives and negatives of Evangelical worship? What aspects (as it relates to the Holy Spirit) of Evangelical worship are you ready to leave behind, and what do you hope that you can retain as you transition to Orthodox Christian worship?

L: A large part of my coming to Orthodoxy has been becoming OK with how I grew up. So this is a difficult question. The negative, I feel, to Evangelical worship, is the idea that an emotional response is required. If you don’t feel the Holy Spirit (or however it’s phrased), it’s a problem. Perhaps you’re not good enough, perhaps you’re trying too hard. But it’s something that you’re doing wrong. So the Christian experience becomes contingent on our emotion. I think that dependence is bad. In fact, I’ve heard the emotional experience of faith given such priority that – you know how people have a ”˜saved date,’ right? The day they were saved.  I’ve talked with people who have changed their ”˜saved date.’ Or were contemplating changing it, because they felt saved at one time, but then they felt even more saved later, so they are suddenly questioning the validity of that first experience, like maybe they didn’t actually feel the Holy Spirit like they thought they did.  That understanding of salvation doesn’t sit right with me.  These struggles with our own feelings seem almost abusive – to attribute our emotional experience to God’s actions.  Meanwhile, as I’ve been preparing for Orthodox baptism, there has  been no discussion about what I may or may not feel or experience.  We’ve discussed the ritual, but not how it will or should impact me.  It’s just a stated fact that I will receive the Holy Spirit as part of the sacrament, whether or not I happen to feel anything.

Also, the Evangelical experience is highly stimulating. It really caters to us. The music. The lights. The homilies which help us deal with real life. There’s not enough looking back.

resurrectionOn the positive side, I really enjoy the idea that we should have a personal relationship with Christ. That we can feel Christ, or connect with Christ, or know Christ in some way, without going through other mediums.  This seems very different from Orthodoxy, with the structured liturgy, icons, sacraments.  I’m still sorting this out.

Dean, what do you see as positives and negatives?  Or, if there is an element to evangelical worship that you feel Orthodox Christians should consider more seriously, what would that be?

D: I agree with Leigh-Ann: the idea of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is really powerful. Plus, the possibility of emotional experience, of being personally moved during worship is also healthy. To ”˜feel the Spirit’ really keeps a person engaged. It keeps our whole selves involved in worship, and allows us for a heightened awareness of God’s presence.  If we don’t allow for this possibility, it’s easy to depict God as very removed from our daily lives.

On the other hand, it becomes negative, and perhaps dangerous, when that emotional experience is required for the worship to be ”˜authentic’ or ”˜alive.’ Also, people need stillness.  Christians need stillness.  From my experience, there is simply not enough stillness in Evangelical worship.

L: I agree. My experience involved almost no idea of stillness, and it’s almost perceived as a bad thing – an absence of Christ.

D: Yes, and in fact maybe it’s better when people struggle. Our experience isn’t always positive in life. Why should our faith always be easy and positive?  I remember bringing Leigh-Ann to her first anastasis Pascha service, and watching her struggle to stay awake for this liturgy which was entirely incomprehensible to her.  And I remember thinking that in a very real way, her struggle to stay awake is an experience of the Spirit, of faith. It is as authentic as mine. Why can’t we see the Holy Spirit in that person? Why do we just see the fervor? Of course the Spirit is there, with all of us!

My final question for both of you is whether or not there is a place for dialogue between East and West; between Orthodox and Protestant or Evangelical Christians, on the Spirit?  In other words, there seems to be a layer of jargon here -Orthodox Christians that I know don’t often speak in terms of a personal relationship with Christ, on fire for the Lord, or feeling the Holy Spirit. But if we were to understand these terms, is there room for dialogue? Or are we still just so radically different?

otechestvoD: Well, theologically, the doctrine of the Trinity is very difficult. East and West, all of it is hard, and I won’t lie, it doesn’t help dialogue at all. Most Trinitarian Christians are bad at explaining the Trinity. Now, on the practical or experiential level, yes! Absolutely, there is a place for dialogue. Orthodox Christians should be able to discuss our experience during worship, and we should be prepared to share that with outsiders.  What is it that all visitors say when the come to our Liturgy?

L: that it’s gorgeous, but boring.

D: yes, boring. Now, whether they should experience anything is one question, but hopefully the liturgy is not boring to us, and we should be able to share our experience to help explain why we worship with the complex ritual we have. That’s where the dialogue is: how we worship, in any form that matters. That’s what is important for Christians to share with each other.