What do you think of when you hear these phrases?
- Your special someone.
- A special day.
- The daily special at your favorite restaurant.
I bet you thought of something or someone specific, or could, for each of those ideas.
special |speSHəl | adjective
- better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual: they always made a special effort at Christmas
- exceptionally good or precious: she’s a very special person
- belonging specifically to a particular person or place: we want to preserve our town’s special character
- designed or organized for a particular person, purpose, or occasion: we will return by special coaches
Apple Dictionary v2.2.1
When something is special it is unique to you. Although special does carry the sense of being better than ordinary, it also has this added dimension of being designed for a particular person or purpose. In fact, I would argue, that targeted design is what makes something special.
Of course, if everything is special, nothing is. That’s kinda the thing with special, isn’t it? Special is not average. It is that unique experience, targeted at this specific group or person. Special is the opposite of one size fits all.
You rarely get to special with a tried and true approach, with copy and paste, with leftovers.
We all have our favorites. There are foods or books or music or movies that we return to again and again. Given the right circumstances, or in a certain setting, these favorites can also be special. But usually they are not. We enjoy them specifically because of their familiarity. We want to return to that flavor, that experience, or that mood. While there is nothing wrong with that desire, special is the opposite of familiarity.
American fast food is not special by design. A fast food item is supposed to be the same regardless of when and where you order it. The ability to create and work that system and reproduce consistent results is the entire goal of the enterprise. It’s what keeps the cost down and what keeps the customers coming back. But even fast food chains don’t ignore the idea of special. Through seasonal items, specific promotions, and short-term temporary menu items, fast food restaurants know how to keep their customers coming back for more.
Our services are special to the degree that they are unique from the ordinary, and specifically targeted.
There is a built in specialness in our once a week, weekend services. After all, six days of the week, people do not gather in this building and sing these songs, listen to this speaker, and participate in this liturgy. That’s the given. Here we will take it one step further in how we make our services special.
Also, if you haven’t guessed already, this post is going to explore the idea of how special depends on a specific target.
Services that are unique, not ordinary
Too often we give in to our culture of always wanting new and better experiences. We’re addicted to novelty. But I don’t come to church to get something unique, do I? I mean think about how crazy that is for a second!?!?
Are you after unique theology? No. Uhm, that sounds like heresy.
Do you want a new and unique interpretation of the Bible? Not really. That seems dangerous.
Do you want to sing all new songs, never repeating anything? ever? Of course not.
But this isn’t completely true, is it?
I expect to learn and expand and improve my understanding of theology. In that sense I want something new. I don’t have it all figured out. I am not even living all I profess to know. So yes, my understanding of God needs to expand into new territory.
I want the preacher/pastor/priest to say something I had not thought of before or show me a twist or nugget or word definition from a Bible story that I didn’t know. In fact, if I never get anything fresh, I’d be tempted to say that I am not getting anything out of the sermon (something people say quite often, in fact).
I don’t want to sing all new songs all the time, but neither do I want to sing the same three songs every week. How boring would that be?
My point is hopefully obvious. When we gather as a Christian community, there is plenty of room for special among the familiarity of our consistent liturgy and shared experience. A sprinkling of special is the seasoning that keeps our relationships and life fulfilling and fresh. We were made this way. Not to chase special. Not to try to make everything special. But we need some flavor every now and then to spice things up.
One final thought before the next section. I would say God is pretty special, and my relationship and life with Him is special. It is extraordinary and precious. But God also never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Furthermore, God’s relationship to me is unique even though He does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34).
Consistency and specialness are both found in God. Our worship of God as a reflection of Him, our community of faith as a reflection of Him, can hold and reflect this tension in God’s character. Special, as a goal, is not something we force, but neither is it something we ignore.
Special = uniquely targeted
In our relationship with God, it would not be a stretch to say the Spirit uniquely targets us. Maybe in a song, maybe during a Bible reading or a devotional, we can sense the Spirit breathing new life and revelation to us. We recognize that our relationship with God is personal — in evangelical circles we use the phrase “personal relationship” to communicate that God wants a unique relationship with everyone. It’s not as if we think God is showing every person the exact same truth during their daily devotions, right? God doesn’t have a “one size fits all” mentality. I doubt if I am saying anything new. However, if I turn the corner and say that our church services should be uniquely targeted, I have a feeling that doesn’t sit as easily. Yes I know I am playing a little word game there and switching the meaning of the word targeted. God uniquely targeting each person with a personal relationship and us narrowing to a targeted audience are two slightly different things. But I’m suggesting they aren’t completely different.
In my opinion it is hubris to think that our church can target and reach everyone in the same way God does. We are finite after all. Humility would seem to dictate that God wants to use our churches to go after individuals he has uniquely called us to reach. A lot of ink has been spilt teaching churches how not to alienate people accidentally, and now people are starting to look more and more into the concept of having a target audience. The real challenge in all of this is that most people pushing for this are focused on reaching the same people with middle class, white suburban, family values. At least that seems to be the focus of most of the author’s teaching this sort of thing and I am not even sure they are aware of this myopic view.
The most important thing I would like to highlight is that, just like in the example of our personal relationship, it is the Spirit who communicates unique value. It is the Spirit who takes the worship or the sermon and uses it to uniquely speak to hearts. So for something to be special, in our church context, it must be Spirit-breathed.
- The Spirit is what (who) is special.
- The Spirit is better, greater, and otherwise different from the ordinary.
- The Spirit is exceptionally good and precious.
- The Spirit takes our inadequate work and anoints and applies it for a particular person and place.
- In fact, what we do, and how we do it literally belongs to the Spirit. It is His fruit and His gifts in operation.
Conclusion — How do we get to special?
If it is the Spirit that ultimately gets us to special, what are some practical takeaways we can work with?
1. Be honest about who you are and how God is speaking to you.
Instead of trying to see what a targeted audience might want to hear, pay special attention to what the Spirit is saying to you in your own life. What are some things God is leading you into? What are some truths that are becoming more real to you?
Pursue these things and watch the Holy Spirit take those truths and make them special to each person in their context.
2. Rely on the tried and true traditions of the faith that foster community-openness to the Spirit.
Just as spiritual disciplines make room for God’s work in our lives, corporate disciplines make room for the Spirit in our community gatherings. In Pentecostal churches, we too often have thrown the baby out with the bath water. We equate the Spirit with only spontaneity and therefore have shunned liturgical, corporate disciplines. The problem is that the liturgical, corporate disciplines open our communities to the Spirit’s work.
3. Make room for the Spirit.
This is where good planning comes in. In the same way that my personal calendar can be so full of activity that I never slow down and make space for the Spirit, our church calendars can look the same way, our service orders can look the same way. I’ve written about this a lot, but take time, look at your calendar, look at your service order, plan in unplanned space. Trust the Holy Spirit to show up even in a way that you cannot measure.
The bottom line is this: the Spirit is special and leads us to special.