I appreciated Dr. Todd’s reflection on following Jesus from a Pentecostal perspective primarily because of how he reminds us of the significance of the altar and Holy Spirit in forming us as disciples of Jesus. In a religious culture in which many people avoid practices that might “other” them (i.e. speaking in tongues, expressing themselves as the Spirit encourages them to), Dr. Todd reminds us that responding to the Spirit is a critical component of following Jesus. And in doing so, he helps us realize that although we can experience God anywhere and at any time, there is something unique God does at the altar that shapes us as followers of Jesus.
Dr. Todd’s work reinforced how we must take seriously the move of the Holy Spirit and the role of the altar if we are to follow Jesus. He writes that “the altar is the space where Pentecostals learn what it means to follow Jesus through encountering the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.” We cannot ignore how the Spirit of God shapes us and reveals truths about Jesus that are unknown to us. The biblical narrative is filled with illustrations of how the Holy Spirit was with Jesus as He fulfilled his earthly ministry and how the Spirit assists us as we attempt to lead a life that demonstrates our commitment to Christ. Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, an experience that invites us to examine how to flee from temptation when it surfaces. Furthermore, Paul reminds us in Romans that the Spirit of God makes intercession for us in prayer, even when we don’t know what to pray for. God’s very Spirit goes ahead of us and seeks from God what we need while we are still unaware of that need. Other scriptures outline how the Spirit helps us to remain obedient to God’s commands and gives us the strength to persist in the Lord’s work despite our (sometimes) strong desires to give up. In other words, the Spirit informs us about various aspects of following Jesus that no book, biblical narrative, or sermon can do.
But we must notice where Dr. Todd articulates such an encounter with the Spirit takes place. Using some lyrics from the late Gospel singer LaShun Pace’s song “Is Your All On The Altar” as a reference point, Dr. Todd writes that “the altar is a place of expectation, waiting, a place of surrender and reception, before it becomes a place of transformation.” There is a reason why the ancient Israelites were instructed to treat the ark of the covenant with the utmost reverence. It was a designed space where people (primarily Moses) could come and commune with their Lord. Yes, God can be experienced in numerous places. But the altar is where we expect to hear from God and experience God’s Spirit. We trust that as we come humbly before God at the altar, God will begin to transform our thoughts and perspectives, reminding us of what God requires from us if we are to be authentic followers of Jesus. If there is any place where we hope to experience God, it is in God’s house (the church) and at God’s altar.
But many followers of Jesus, at an individual and communal level, have strayed away from the potential of the altar and Holy Spirit to form us into more consistent and dedicated followers of Jesus. Over the past few years, I cannot name more than 4-5 church services I’ve been in where the pastor or leadership team created space in the service for an altar call moment. There have been few, if any, opportunities for people to prostrate themselves before God at the altar and wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them, giving them the wisdom or insight they need to fulfill faithfully whatever assignment God has placed before them. I understand that the pandemic has demanded that we rethink some of our congregational protocols, and therefore, it is no longer safe to have large crowds communing around a space together during a worship experience. However, many churches were not even facilitating altar call spaces before Covid-19 with regularity. The worship service has become, for countless churches, a structured program that remains on a strict time limit so that people don’t have to be in church for too long.
The diminishing influence and impact of the Holy Spirit and altar is even seen at an individual level. I don’t know many believers of Jesus who create their own sacred spaces in their homes. Rather, they lean into the very true (but sometimes potentially detrimental) belief that one can talk to God anywhere. Pulling away from all distractions so that one has a designated space to allow the Spirit to speak is growing increasingly more difficult in a society dominated by social media consumption and a culture of overworking and burnout. “Catching the Holy Ghost” has now primarily been defined as an emotional or physical expression at a worship service instead of a conviction that where we are is not where God wants us to be, and the Spirit will assist us as we become more like Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong; sometimes we just need the Holy Spirit to encourage and revive us after we’ve dealt with a long, arduous week. If someone is part of a marginalized or oppressed group, such a reality is even more understandable. Furthermore, it just might be difficult at times to separate ourselves completely from all distractions so that we can hear clearly from God – we all have a lot of irons in the fire! However, Dr. Todd’s response was an urgent call for the body of Christ. If we don’t allow the Spirit of God to work in us, how will we ever grow in our capacity to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit, the evidence that reveals our commitment to following Jesus? If we don’t replicate altar call experiences in our private and communal life, how will we ever develop the discipline needed to quiet our voices so that we can hear from the Holy Spirit? Following Jesus is a difficult task, and we need all resources at our disposal – that includes the promised Holy Spirit that can imbue us with the strength to remain committed to Jesus in a world that by and large continues to reject Him.