“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8
How do you know when you are ready to start a new work?
Think back to that moment when God tapped you on the shoulder.
Did you feel ready? Willing? Capable?
Or did you question if God knew who it was he was calling?
For many of us, the calling to plant a gospel community begins with training, experience, and exposure that lead to the heart for planting a new expression of the church among an unreached people. For me, it begins with mouse ears on top of my head. Yep, Mickey Mouse ears. On a family vacation to the “happiest place on Earth,” I found myself overwhelmed with a calling that I could not shake. As I sat on the balcony of our hotel, with a perfect view of Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom, God had my heart and mind’s attention on a different kingdom.
As a college pastor in a sleepy Southern town in the heart of the Bible belt, I felt as if God was beginning the early leadings towards rethinking “church” in the Southern context. Before the missional vocabulary had ever been introduced to me, I knew in my heart that in many cases, the church lacked the taste and flavor that was present in the early church. And I wanted to rediscover it.
So there I was, untrained and insufficient, decked out in Disney gear wrestling with God on the who, what, when, where, why, and how’s of pursuing this calling. I had every excuse under the warm Florida sun to offer to change his mind, but the calling I felt that day was undeniable.
Fast-forward six months to a group of about 50 people sitting together under a neon sign in a local bar in our downtown area tangibly seeing this vision for our city unfolding as we gathered together to worship, pray, and dialogue on the hope for our city. Our church didn’t begin with a flawless plan, a dream team of leaders, or a fool proof plan. There are still so many areas of insufficiencies that cause fear and concern for sustainability as we seek to impact our city with the gospel. So what keeps us moving on despite our insufficiencies and inabilities?
From the conception of the New Testament church, followers of Christ did not have a prescriptive method for “doing” church. There were no labels, denominations, defined methodologies, or shared language. The church was simply a group of people who had been changed by Jesus, and who were being led by the Holy Spirit.
If we had no outside influence on the understanding of ecclesiology other than what we learn from God’s word, it would be undeniable that God’s intention for his church was to catalyze the spread of the gospel by infusing the power of the Holy Spirit into the lives of common people who had experienced Jesus. He said that they would not only receive power, but they would be the means by which he would choose to spread the gospel to the ends of the Earth.
In our church culture today, the strategy that we often attempt to implement in order to saturate our contexts with the gospel often lacks any influence from the Holy Spirit. We create processes and systems to achieve the desired outcome. We no longer spend time in prayer for the Spirit to grow the church both deep and wide because we have marketing to do that. We no longer pray for life on life discipleship to be happening in our communities because we have assimilation to accomplish that. We no longer practice the Biblical definition of hospitality (kindness to strangers) because we have welcome teams and plans to accomplish that.
Now let me be quick to say that out of our dependency on the Spirit of God at work, these things may/should very well be present; however, if our church experiences overshadow the powerful work of the Holy Spirit among our people then we will not witness “immeasurably more” than our anticipated outcomes, but we will witness exactly what we expected to happen through our efforts.
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We have the good news in our hands through the gospel of Jesus. In our understanding, we recognize the fabric of the gospel woven together with the threads of creation, fall, redemption, and ultimate restoration. We may even understand how to communicate this to those around us. So why do we still live in a culture that often seems void of the gospel? How is my context, in the middle of the religious South, still full of so many who have access to the gospel, but have not responded to the grace of God through Jesus?
I am firmly convinced that the reason the message is not growing deep roots in the hearts of many today is because we as the message bearers have lost connection to the power. Though this is by no means an exclusive list, I see several reasons to believe this is true:
1. We have lost an undeniable reliance on the Holy Spirit’s power. The early church recognized the necessity of the Holy Spirit to empower the gospel, like they recognized the necessity of oxygen to empower their physical bodies. How else do you explain a distinctive community described in Acts? How else do you explain the contrast between Peter’s denial of Christ in one instance and his proclaiming of Christ that leads to the salvation of 3,000 people in another? The power of the Holy Spirit.
2. We have lost an unwavering sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s leading. The mission of the early church did not commence until the power of the Spirit had filled them. They didn’t move beyond the Spirit’s leading, nor reluctantly choose to not follow as the Spirit prompted. They had no agenda other than God’s agenda, and it shaped all facets of life for them.
3. We have lost an unexplainable expectation of the Holy Spirit’s presence. The early church lived in an expectation for the Holy Spirit to do the unimaginable. They were filled with awe and wonder. God was moving and changing lives in a way that was unexplainable, yet undeniable. And he was doing it through his called out people who represented the means by which he was reconciling the world to himself.
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The early church was filled with the Spirit. Jesus was filled with the Spirit. Yet the church today has often settled for a cheapened manifestation of the Spirit, which is often not an expression of the Spirit at all.
As we respond to Jesus’s calling by living our lives with missional intentionality, may we never lose touch with our need for the Holy Spirit working both through us and for us to engage in the work we are called to. As church leaders and planters, may we never stop motivating our people to pray with urgency for the Holy Spirit to act on our behalf. And may the church rise up and lead this generation towards a sustainable gospel movement that brings the good news of the kingdom to all people.