About 15 years ago, I decided to survey my congregation to ascertain what they really believed on a range of doctrines (as opposed to what I thought they believed). My survey contained three questions that related to the Holy Spirit. Mindful that we have non-Christians who attend each Sunday, it was pleasing to see that 92% of people agreed that the Holy Spirit is God, since he is clearly referred to as God in the Bible*. However, there was some confusion as to whether or not the Holy Spirit is a person.
When asked the question “Is the Holy Spirit a force?”, 21% of people agreed, while another 12% said they were not sure and 16% did not respond. Clearly, ‘Star Wars’ was affecting this discussion.
There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit is powerful, and in that sense he could possibly be described as a ‘force’ that prevails. But he is much more than just an impersonal power; he is not just like an electric current. What did people mean when they described the Holy Spirit as a force?
My fears were realised by the answers to the next question: “Is the Holy Spirit a person?”. Less than half the people in my church agreed with this statement, while 38% disagreed, 2% said they were not sure, and 11% gave no answer.
It’s hard to express how devastated this pastor felt knowing that, under my watch, only half of my congregation understood that the Holy Spirit is a ‘he’, not an ‘it’. The Spirit of God is not merely an extension of the Father or the Son; he is a distinct person in his own right. When Jesus commissions the first band of disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, the Spirit is every bit as much a distinct person as the Father and the Son (Matthew 28:19).
I took some comfort in discovering that part of the problem lay with confusion between the notion of ‘person’ and the idea of being ‘human’. Nevertheless, the congregation was bombarded thereafter with a constant diet of teaching on the personhood of the Spirit of God.