But if we meet with other people at each of these different levels, what about meeting with God?
I serve within a church where there is a very high premium placed on experiencing an intimate encounter with God during worship services: this is how God wants to meet us here today; let’s not hold back and miss out on the opportunity.
This is fairly common in charismatic evangelical churches. And, as someone who chooses to identify with charismatic evangelicals, I must confess to feeling really uncomfortable with that expectation.
Broadly speaking, in any given culture, there is social behaviour appropriate to the public, the social, the personal, and the intimate spheres: for example, physical touch in the public sphere, in the culture I live in, is generally expressed at the level of a handshake; social touch at a brief hug; personal touch, say between friends, is more frequent with each touch lasting somewhat longer than social touch; and intimate touch may be quite prolonged, such as one of my children sitting on my lap while we watch TV together. There are, of course, certain conventions that allow us to behave in one context in a way that would normally be reserved for another: for example, the professional relationship between doctor and patient allows for physical examination that in another context would be intimate. And, of course, if I meet a friend in a public space, who is with someone I don’t know, I may greet my friend with a hug and this new acquaintance with a handshake – that is, in one space respond in different ways towards two people.
Here’s the thing: I have every reason to believe (not least because I see Jesus, who reveals the will of the Father, relate to people in all these ways in the Gospels) that God wants to meet with us at the public, the social, the personal and the intimate level.
This is entirely possible. Indeed, we do this all the time: I relate to my wife and children differently in different contexts. In a social context, I may encourage my children to run along and play, whereas in an intimate context I might read them a bedtime story. In a social context, I might touch my wife in an intimate-but-non-sexual way in passing, but neither of us will want to be so focused on the other as to ignore others, or make them feel uncomfortable. I spend time with my wife in the public sphere (e.g. shopping together), the social sphere (e.g. at a party), the personal sphere (e.g. in our home), and the intimate sphere (e.g. really vulnerable conversations) – and it would be unhealthy if we didn’t engage at every level, as appropriate, including appropriate frequency. The majority of our conversations are not at the intimate level, but the public (“what do we need from the supermarket?”) or social (‘small-talk’ such as “what’s going on in the book you’re reading?” “what’s on TV tonight?” or perhaps, discovering something about the other we don’t know, “where would you like to go on holiday?”), or even the personal (unpacking how our day has gone). If we only spoke at the intimate level, our children would soon starve to death! And strange though it may sound, couples who never speak at the social level – small talk - grow apart.
A church service is a public space, a public event. Within this event, there are conventions that allow for social, personal and even intimate encounters with God. For example: reciting the Creed is a public encounter with God, in the very affirmation of what we believe; listening to the sermon might be a social encounter with God, as we discover something new about God and decide how we want to respond, moving closer or withdrawing a little; a particular worship song might help us to encounter God in a personal way; and in prayer ministry we might have an intimate encounter with God.
It is important to appreciate that we can meet with God at different levels, and that we can have an intimate encounter with God even in a public context. My discomfort is with the belief that we ought to meet with God in an intimate way in a public context.
Here’s the thing: if, in a service, we need to keep an eye on our small children, we may very well not be able to lay everything aside and have an intimate encounter with God...or, if we do ignore our children in order to meet with God, their running around may well prevent someone else from having an intimate encounter with God. If it is your responsibility to play a particular role in the service, it may be very hard to encounter God intimately at the time (it may be easier to meet with God beforehand, in the preparation, than in the execution of what we have prepared).
And if we are told, especially if we are repeatedly told, that we are supposed to meet with God intimately and we don’t, then what? We end up believing that we are not as holy as other people, or believing that other people view us as less holy than them. We hear the hopefully unintended message that we are second-rate citizens. Over time, the hope of ever meeting God the way we are told we ought to meet with God dies within us. Or if we do encounter God intimately, we find ourselves subtly tempted to believe we are better than those who don’t...
Then there are in our public services those who do not know God at all, those who are at the stage of wanting to know something of God, and those who are getting to know God more: and the most appropriate level for them to encounter God is most likely the public, the social, and the personal level, respectively. Yes, there are ‘road to Damascus’ encounters, but where we ask too much of people too soon they may very well back away and stay away. And yes, there is a strong desire to show baptismal parties that we have an intimate relationship with God – just as in a ‘high’ church there may be a strong desire to show baptismal parties something of the transcendence of God - but in fact any facet is neither the whole truth nor very often an honest reflection of our experience.
We need to know that it is possible to meet with God at different levels in the same service: that that is not only possible but okay: and that it is not only okay, but that God might actually want to meet with us in a different way to how he wants to meet with someone else.
This might very well come down to God knowing the season of life you are in at the moment, or specific circumstances you are in right now...
There are times when a passing, “Hi! How are you?” just doesn’t cut it; and times when not only is it the only level I have the energy for, but in fact an absolute lifeline when I am in that place. While I have young kids running around in church, for God to say, “Hi! How are you? [Don’t worry: I know you don’t have the capacity for a deep encounter right now, and I’m not offended]” is just what I need to hear. On another occasion, what I need to hear from God is “Don’t worry about all these other people: I’m omnipresent, after all: I’m here for you. Let me comfort you...”
If God meets me at a public level, that is good. If God meets me at a social level, that is good. If God meets me at a personal level, that is good. If God meets me at an intimate level, that is good. Jesus met with people at all these levels – and met with his closest followers in all these levels. Moreover, according to Jesus, sometimes our experience of God is that he has gone away on a long trip, and we are called to be faithful in his absence.
My expectation of any given worship service is this:
that God will meet with the greatest number of people at a public level:
that he will meet with a good proportion of those people at a social level as well as at a public level:
that he will meet with some of those people at a personal level as well as at a public and social level:
that perhaps only one or two people will be able to honestly say that they encountered God at an intimate level:
and that some people - whose relationship with God I could not dare to doubt, who are not living in un-confessed sin - will say that in their experience, God was away on a journey, and they have come out of faithful obedience alone.
My role is to affirm all of the above, to somehow cultivate an environment where all of the above can happen, and to allow people to encounter God as appropriate to them and not as appropriate to me.