Do Formality and Structure Really Hinder God’s Spirit?

Throughout history, God has poured out his Spirit in revival by introducing the grace of Christ to multitudes of people at one time. In the beginning of Acts, we see revival at Pentecost. You cannot adequately talk about the history of the United States without telling about the First Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s led by men such as Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield, or the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) on the frontier and in established New England towns. Historians rightly evaluate such movements by using the tools of historiography, but believing historians also know that the tools of historiography are incapable of fully explaining the mysterious workings of God.

With that history in mind, I rejoice in what is going on at Robby Gallaty’s church in Hendersonville, Tennessee. By all accounts, Gallaty’s church is experiencing a genuine movement of God’s Spirit in which over 1000 people have been baptized since December. I pray for God to do such a work where I pastor. I long for our people to pray like Baptist missionary William Carey (1761-1834), expecting great things from God and attempting great things for God. I would love to witness multitudes coming to repent and put their faith in Christ.

What concerns me, however, is a statement Gallaty makes in the aforelinked article. At the end Gallaty says, “The greatest hinderance to a move of the Holy Spirit is formality and structure. If God wanted to break into our services today, we’d have no time for Him. [At Long Hollow] we still have a plan, but we’re OK if God interrupts the service.” In context, I get what Gallaty is saying. Before they decided to allow spontaneous baptisms, there was not an opportunity for such things to occur. Now there is.

However, I find his dichotomy deeply problematic. Is it really true that formality and structure is the greatest hindrance to God’s Spirit moving? Is that even true in Gallaty’s church? Gallaty himself admits to still having a plan. I went to the church’s website and found a very impressive website that organizes a lot of information about the church with all kinds of attractive graphics. I watched a video of this past Sunday’s service. There’s all kinds of formality and structure. There’s a time for singing. There’s a time for preaching. There’s modern stage lighting, a state-of-the-art sound system, impressive videography. The musicians have clearly practiced a lot. I imagine they are reading music. There are signs of formality and structure everywhere. In fact, God is clearly using this church’s immense commitment to formality and structure to reach a massive amount of people. This church clearly works hard to pull off weekly ministry that motivates people to desire to participate, and the Spirit of God is clearly working within that structure to introduce the grace of Christ to many.

My concern here has nothing to do with Gallaty’s ministry model, nor am I critiquing what is going on at Long Hollow Baptist Church. I’m all about more dependence upon the Holy Spirit and more prayer. I’m more concerned with the thousands of pastors who are going to read BP’s article and try to replicate what Gallaty is doing. Could a rural church that doesn’t have any of the resources of Gallaty’s affluent church pull off a similar movement after abandoning a commitment to formality and structure? Would Gallaty’s own church be experiencing this wonderful growth without a prior commitment to formality and structure in place? One could possibility make the argument that the commitment to formality and structure has actually created the freedom within which the Spirit has sovereignly moved.

The Spirit of God is not limited by formality and structure. In fact, in the most relevant New Testament passage that deals with this kind of topic, Paul concludes, “But all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). Don’t limit the Spirit of God by thinking that he needs our formality and structure. But don’t limit the Spirit of God by thinking that our formality and structure hinders him either. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

Keep praying. Keep preaching. Keep evangelizing. Keep trusting God to do his work. Keep planning and organizing and working hard. You may get to see a revival. You may not. Only God can bring such a thing about. But remember this, your formality and structure is only in the way if you trust in it. If you trust in your removal of formality and structure, you’re still not trusting the Spirit of God.

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