When I was leading a group on a tour of Israel, we went out on the Sea of Galilee in a tourist boat. We could see many of the special places where Jesus taught and ministered. The operator then played a recording of “How Great Thou Art” at high volume. We sang all three verses—with more and more gusto. In that setting among believers who knew each, our emotions overflowed. The experience blew me away. We were filled with the Spirit and special awe, joy, and unity.
The Spirit works through trigger events, like situations we associate with God. The feeling of awe was aroused by seeing where God walked in the person of Jesus. The feeling of joy came from singing a favorite hymn. The feeling of unity came from a special sense of fellowship with other believers we knew. There was a fourth trigger. The boat was rocking in the water, a mildly unsettling experience. The Spirit often does his work when we are off balance from our usual routines.
How do we know it was the Spirit moving? For us it was in the setting where the Father’s love and Christ’s grace were evident from Bible stories that happened there. Does it work that way for others? I don’t know. But I am certain this was the Spirit moving strongly to shape our feelings.
The Sacraments As Trigger Events
Social psychologists look for events that trigger predictable responses. Marketers fashion words or graphics that trigger a favorable response to their product. Counselors look for events in the past that trigger negative experiences a counselee is struggling with. Trigger events can be either good or bad.
In churches rooted in Word and Sacrament ministries, the ultimate positive spiritual trigger event is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In with and under the bread and wine are offered the body and blood of our Savior. That’s the event.
I have long been curious about the response of participants returning to their pew. We expect they have a sense of reassurance in their personal relationship with their loving, merciful Father. What other thoughts and feelings might some have? Could sharing such responses improve the experience of others? Comparing experiences can broaden appreciation for how the Spirit can work in participants individually. More discussion of responses could be better stewardship of this basic event.
The other basic sacrament is Baptism. Traditional mainline churches practice infant baptism. Conversion-oriented Evangelical churches expect believer-baptism of those old enough to make their personal confession of faith. Infant-baptism, I think, is superior because it emphasizes that saving faith is granted by God. In his personal struggles, Martin Luther would often find comfort in the assurance, I was baptized. What he meant was that God came to me. My relationship with God does not depend on me; it is a gift of God’s grace in Christ.
Infant baptism is superior because it embeds faith in the relationships of family and church, who take responsibility to bring up this infant in the faith they have confessed for it. When I was in full-time administration, I would get asked to baptize a child of a colleague. I refused, explaining that this act needs to be done in the context of a congregation that will care for that child.
Consider a new way to improve the trigger event of baptism. Many churches give the family a candle with the encouragement to celebrate annually that baptismal birth. Some families do, but I suspect most don’t remember. One practice I have participated in is to have an annual baptismal reaffirmation on the January Sunday marking Jesus’s presentation at the Temple. The baptismal font is placed front and center. The invitation is for all who have been baptized to come forward one by one to receive water on their forehead with words like, Remember, you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. After several services of looking into the eyes and expressions on the face of hundreds of participants, I am always reassured that the Spirit is alive and at work in them.
Additional Means That Can Trigger A Religious Experience
In Lutheran doctrine, the sacraments of Lord’s Supper and Baptism are listed under the Means of Grace. The first is God’s Word. The fourth is Confession and Absolution, which has mostly fallen out of use. Martin Luther himself added as a fifth means the Mutual Conversation and Encouragement of Brethren (Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article IV). This fifth means never got much traction in traditional practice. Small group ministries today are a good application. The writer of Hebrews challenges us to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us encourage one another.”
Traditional churches have relied on triggers for transcendent experiences, meaning above and beyond the ordinary. They meet in settings very different from weekday environments. Worship happens in sanctuaries with stained glass windows and in special gowns and Sunday best, with organ music, now associated only with churches. Sunday is meant to be a weekly uplifting experience. Transcendent worship is “formal.” These are highly structured triggers.
Younger Christians today look for immanent experiences closely related to their normal daily life. They respond to different triggers. They are comfortable meeting in buildings that have other uses, like a gym or mall. Clothing is casual, including that of the leaders. Music is with guitars and drums, much like what they hear in popular contemporary music. “Informal” is a very appropriate summary of the immanent style.
Traditional transcendent triggers do not work for everyone. For many, those cues from childhood bring negative associations of boredom or oppressive guilt. They don’t work either for someone who has never been in a sanctuary. Many young adults are out there whose only exposure to a sanctuary is perhaps involvement in a wedding, now just one of many other novel settings for the nuptials.
Two Church Cultures
Theologian John Shea observed that Church and Tradition enshrined a set of triggers. The problem is these are being questioned today. “The presence that people used to find in the dark back of Gothic churches they now claim to find in the bright light of the secular world.”
He describes how today the more-traveled path to having religious experiences is found in the multiple life situations in which people find themselves—of sickness and vitality, of questing for truth and struggling for justice, of loving and reconciling.
The transcendent church and Immanent church are two different cultures. Most community churches start with the Immanent church. “Non-denominational” is their code word to communicant this. The roots of traditional churches are in the now old-fashioned Transcendent culture.
These two approaches to church life often conflict in a congregation that offers both styles, even when the sanctuary service continues as it was. These are different church cultures. It’s like learning a new language. It is indeed a new and different culture with different triggers.