The most important thing I do as a pastor is help others see and experience the presence of God. Whether I’m planning a worship service, writing a sermon, visiting someone, or teaching Sunday School, underneath all I do is the hope that in some way people will experience God.
The trouble is, many congregations face substantial obstacles that make the daily practice of experiencing God more challenging. These obstacles can be as basic as being stuck in a numbers mentality, or as complex as generational patterns of viewing pastors as the only ones capable of experiencing God. For the eight years I have served as a pastor, I have found that before I can encourage others to experience God’s presence, I have had to address any obstacles that might be in the way.
When It’s Hard to Experience God
For many congregations, worship attendance has been in decline for years, even decades. Many denominations have attempted to stave off that decline through church planting initiatives. Numerical growth, measurable benchmarks, and financial viability have become the criteria for determining which churches are healthy and vibrant.
Experiencing the presence of God is not something you can easily measure.
In order to overcome the numbers mentality, it takes concerted effort and practice to discover non-numerical indicators of vitality. It can be done, but the mindset of growth = health can be an barrier for many churches desiring to experience the presence of God.
Another obstacle that can be very hard to overcome is institutional anxiety. The difficulty with this obstacle is that the root cause of the anxiety might be a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed, which can make the anxiety seem more helpful than it actually is. A congregation facing financial hardships may have a hard time seeing past its very real problems and recognizing God at work. A church that is in fight-or-flight mode cannot wonder about or see what God is doing.
Experiencing the presence of God can be difficult when anxiety takes over.
Anxiety often loses its grip with non-anxious, outside help. An outside view can help reorient a church to see the spiritual moments in the midst of the struggles. Even though the struggles are real, they do not need to prevent us from experiencing God.
A third obstacle to experiencing the presence of God is more of a geographical and generational one. In some regions of the country and among some generations, ministers are viewed as spiritual mediators. These people may have been taught from a very young age that clergy are trained and gifted to experience the presence of God in a way that others are incapable of doing.
Experiencing the presence of God is not something only clergy can do.
This obstacle is one of the most challenging because its roots run very deep. It is difficult to change a mindset that has endured in some places for many generations. The key to overcoming this is patience and time.
Learning to Look for God
As a pastor, I have encountered all of these obstacles in different ways. Rather than finding simple solutions to overcoming them, I have found that it is messy work that takes a lot of time.
Church leaders need to make space.
Moving from anxiety to curiosity about what God might be doing in our midst requires a major paradigm shift. In my ministry, as I work to encourage others to pay attention to God’s presence, I need to be mindful that I am creating an atmosphere where it is safe to explore and wonder.
Asking questions is a great way to make space. When I preach, my sermons often have more questions than answers. And it’s perfectly fine for some of those questions to remain unresolved. This may be frustrating for some, but making space, asking questions, and allowing things to remain unsettled can shift the culture in the congregation away from seeing Christianity as an instruction manual. This habit can lead to a richer practice of experiencing God even in the midst of our uncertainties.
Church leaders need to encourage the searchers.
In every congregation I’ve been part of, there have been people who were seeking God’s presence. They were spiritually attentive, saw things differently, and encouraged me to look for God everywhere I went. As a pastor, helping others experience the presence of God means encouraging the people who are already searching. They are already looking, and their different way of seeing can help transform the way others around them see things.
At Vacation Bible School every year, I like to ask the kids every night where they saw God. Their answers always surprise me and open me up to see things I had never noticed before. Children are often experts at seeing God’s presence. If we ask them, they will tell us what they see.
Church leaders need to model the way.
As church leaders, the best way to encourage others to experience the presence of God is to be in the habit ourselves. This means making room for silence, dedicating time to prayer and study, and not giving in to the mindset that bigger is better.
I cannot expect from others something that I am not doing myself. Committing daily to seeking God’s presence takes the focus off of myself and my own abilities, and reorients me to what God may be calling me to do in my life and in the world.
Encouraging others to look for God’s presence is not only the most important thing I do, it is also the most rewarding. God’s presence is something I can’t control, dispense, or predict. But, as people in my church and I watch together for God’s movement, we will all be amazed and changed.
This week at iAt, we are featuring articles on experiencing the presence of God in all things. On Monday, Jeff Ploegstra helped us consider how God’s creation is art. Tuesday, Ben Lappenga shared insights on how God’s presences can be known in the midst of life in academia. On Wednesday, Jason Lief helped consider how we can assist young people in encountering God in all things. Readers of iAt, how do you encounter the presence of God in your life?
God is present at all times in all places. It is simply we who are unaware. Silence, open space, and darkness help clear the mind so it can be still and KNOW. We should not seek God as a special experience, like a lost thing to find or an event that will only be special if we do the right things. (A good way that is to spoil any kind of “special event.”) Just as we are part of “nature” and always within it, we do not experience this continuously because we are so alienated from Creation and more so from God.
Jean M., I agree that we are the ones who are unaware. But, I don’t think we become aware by refusing to look. I think about Matthew 6, and Jesus’ words to “seek first the kingdom of God.”
This is an excellent article. I especially like the part where you say you ask questions in your sermons. It’s so wearying to hear sermons that are 3 steps to this and 7 ways to do that as if life and faith really is that easy, and then, when it doesn’t work exactly like the pastor said, people feel like failures in their faith.
Thank you so much, Kelly! It’s hard, and there’s a line to walk. If I’m not sure of anything at all, I can’t be a very good teacher. But, if I’m sure of everything, I’m not a very good student. We’re always students as we follow Jesus, and things aren’t always “three-step” neat and tidy.