I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak of his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.
We long to be a Spirit filled and Spirit empowered community. Our vision is not just that our church would maintain Sunday services, get people busy in the church and wait for Jesus. Our vision is not even just that we want to grow the church, get people connected in meaningful relationships and have a tangible impact on our city. All that is well and good. But more than anything: we want to see an absolute work of God in our midst. We want to see the Holy Spirit spread through this city and others in such a powerful way that there’s no reasonable explanation apart from revival at the hand of God. We long to be part of something bigger than Sojourn and bigger than Louisville.
But one of the most important questions we can ask, and answer for our congregation is this: What exactly does the Holy Spirit do?
My friend and our lead pastor, Daniel Montgomery (nickname: Wildcat), taught a sermon entitled, “The Story and Work of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John.” He described seven functions of the Spirit of God.
Baptizing—the Spirit unites us to God
Regenerating—the Spirit makes us alive to God
Indwelling—the Spirit fills us with God
Reminding—the Spirit brings us to remember God’s truth and presence
Convicting—the Spirit convicts unbelievers of sin, unrighteousness and judgment
Teaching—the Spirit reveals to us the truths of God
Empowering—The Holy Spirit of God empowers the people of God for the mission of God
Now, how does the Holy Spirit empower us for mission? What does that look like?
The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Godhead that produces maturity and godliness within us. His role is to take the truth of God and the words of Christ and impress them upon our hearts. He doesn’t speak on his own, but he brings glory to Christ through his ministry within us.
As the Spirit grows within us, we become more and more like Christ. As the apostle Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18,
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
As we grow in Christ, I have seen the Spirit bring about particular shifts or movements within his people. Each movement turns us outward, focuses us on the things Christ is focused on, and produces further maturity in us.
The first movement of Spirit empowered mission is From Belief in Christ to Participation in Christ.
I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer… Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing… This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples. I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. – John 15:1-9 (The Message)
We live in a pocket of Christianity that has strongly emphasized the importance of saving faith. But we are prone to forget that Chty is more than about agreeing to the right things and doing the bare minimum “to get in.” Author Dallas Willard suggested (in a great book published after his death last year) that our whole contemporary theology—creation, sin, Cross and heaven—has been built apart from discipleship, apart from walking with God and being formed by his Spirit, and now we are reaping the unfortunate results.
The Christian life is about participating in the life of Christ—being joined to him and filled with his Spirit, shaped in his image. Apart from Christ (without the Spirit to connect us to him), we don’t produce anything. Nothing truly good comes about. In our Bible reading, marriage, work or spiritual leadership, there would be no lasting fruit apart from the Spirit.
But in Christ, we can progress from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity, and learn to recognize these stages of development in others.
The Life Cycle of a Christian Disciple
A recent book describes four stages in the Christian’s life cycle. The Spiritual Infant is characterized by ignorance, and as leaders, we must share truth, life, habits. We must answer fundamental questions like, “Why is community important?”
The second stage is the Spiritual Child. This individual is characterized by self-interest, and we must connect him or her to God and others. So often, the spiritual child won’t be asking questions any more, but will instead be making statements like, “I don’t need community!” The child’s self-interest is displayed in a critical spirit toward the church: “The music is too loud.” “We should have more Bible studies for single young professionals.” “I’m leaving because I’m not getting fed.” Most of the emails I get from our congregation are from the spiritual children. It’s important to realize that this is a distinct spiritual phase, whether it lasts a few months or several decades. As pastors, we’re not surprised and frustrated by these folks (well, sometimes we are), but instead use their criticisms and demands as opportunities to direct them to an abiding relationship with God and deeper fellowship with others.
The third stage is the Spiritual Young Adult. These great folks are characterized by service, so we must equip them for ministry. Whereas the infant asks about community and the child makes demands about it, the young adult will believe and tell others, “We all need community!” These blessed folks are rare in some churches and abundant in others, and we should do everything we can to pray and resource them.
The fourth and final stage is the Spiritual Parent. All parents are characterized by multiplication—by definition, a parent has children (whether biologically or adopted). The spiritual parent has his/her own spiritual children. They’ve raised up friends and church-goers to come to Christ and begin their own journey toward maturity in Christ. It’s our role as church leaders to empower and release them to lead others. So the Christian has made the journey from “Why community?” to “I don’t need community!” to “We all need community!” to finally, “Others need me to establish and lead community!”
To quote Willard again directly:
“Disciples are those who have been so ravished with Christ that others want to be like them. Others look at those disciples’ lives in the Kingdom of God, and they say, ‘This is the best thing I ever saw in my life. I must have that.’”
Disciples are people who are in the process of becoming like Jesus, and it’s contagious. Their lives overflow into others’ lives. They multiply themselves naturally because others see Christ in them and want to be around them, want to be like them. Mature believers are typically surrounded by broken people!
The call for us is not to “Push” people to faith—“This is what you have to believe!” And it’s not to push others into maturity—“Do this and then this and stay away from this, and you’ll be fine!” Instead, we can “Pull” people toward Christ and maturity by our life and offer of the Gospel. As the Prodigal Godfather says, our spiritual leadership should compel people that the Gospel truly is better than anything. People walk away from their sin when they see God as better and more compelling than life itself.
From General to Particular
The teaching role of the Holy Spirit is important here. The Spirit takes the general and makes it particular. He takes general knowledge and makes it a particular relationship. He takes the objective truth and makes it an inner reality. So for example, he takes the truth, “God is love,” and turns it into the inner reality, “God loves me.” Or, he takes the truth, “The Holy Spirit indwells believers” and turns it into an ongoing awareness: “I am full of the presence and power of the Spirit of God!” Simply put, the Spirit’s focus is on the heart.
Similarly, the Spirit takes general people and makes them a particular family. “I have good neighbors” is a truth about the people I live around. But the Spirit makes sets these particular people on my heart, and as a result, I long for Darren and Mary’s salvation. It’s the same with leading a community group or a spiritual leadership team. The general people become a particular family—a part of your life and mission. Once again, the Spirit can only do this by taking aim at the heart of man.
The second movement of Spirit empowered mission is From Fear of Rejection to Spirit Empowered Love.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other. – John 15:9-16
To be “in Christ” is to be, like Christ, “in the love of God.” It’s impossible to be vitally connected to the God of Love and not become like him in his great Love. His Spirit is the Spirit of Love. The greatest love is this: to lay down your life for a friend. This is what Jesus has done for us, and what we do for one another in the world.
Notice what Jesus says that we have been chosen and appointed to do. “Go and bear fruit—fruit that will last!” See, Jesus isn’t pushing us into evangelism; he’s pulling us into a better way of life. It’s good for us to be a part of God’s mission, to bear fruit in Christ!
Of course it’s nerve-wracking to “go and bear fruit” because Jesus guarantees people will hate us! This rejection is part of being united to Christ by the Spirit. But we have three secret spiritual resources to empower our Christ-proclaiming mission.
Three Resources for Mission
The Holy Spirit is our first and greatest resource for mission. It’s not up to us to change anyone’s hearts. The HS does this; this is what he does! We must give him the opportunity. We proclaim the truth (Christ is Lord) and the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to change the hearts of some and not others. We don’t know what is going to work and there’s no perfect presentation. He leads and guides us into conversations that glorify Christ—this is what he loves to do. Acknowledge him!
Today at a coffee shop in my neighborhood, the woman next to me was visibly and audibly stressed. She was talking to herself and to her laptop, and when she realized it, she looked over and apologized. When I asked her what she was working on, she said she was an art history professor and had a major presentation coming up. I know nothing about art history but I’m generally interested in people, so I asked her what the specific project was. She excitedly asked if she could pitch her book idea to me, and I of course agreed. After a brief conversation about this obscure art movement that came out of a small and oppressed African community (it was quite interesting), she asked what I was working on. (I’ve always found that if you’re genuinely interested in others, they’ll give you a gift-wrapped opportunity to say something interesting yourself. And what’s more interesting than the availability of life with God here and now!?)
I explained that I was a pastor, preparing this talk—speaking to our community group leaders about how (as Christians believe, I explained), there are several transformations that happen within our hearts and souls as we grow in our faith, and each one makes us less self-centered and more loving toward others. She was really interested and asked to hear more, and I presented these three movements and shared the gospel within them. As I was following the Spirit, I could sense that she was hearing this old truth with fresh ears, but didn’t press her for a gospel decision. (Thankfully, I go to that coffeeshop a lot and will see her again.) What is my point in all of this? The Holy Spirit works in us to prepare us to speak Christ to others, and then puts us in scenarios where we can do so.
Our second resource is Prayer. Jesus says that whatever we ask in his name, he will give it to us (verse 8 above). Jesus’ brother and early church pastor James adds a caveat: We need to ask without doubting, because the doubting man won’t get anything.
In my church tradition (young, angry and poorly dressed Reformed people), we’re so quick to explain away the power of Jesus’ teachings on prayer with a dozen caveats. “Well, we don’t know if something is really God’s will so we should just ask once and he’ll do with it as he sees fit.” Now what is that? That’s how a bitter old adult prays. Jesus was constantly using children as the best example of Godly prayer. Why? Because children ask their parents for the same thing over and over and over and over! And they truly believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that their parents will finally relent and give them what they want. This is our model for prayer!
When we lived back in Missouri, my wife Jessie was at the public library with our son, who was probably 6-9 months old at the time. As she was sitting in our car in the parking lot, a lady backed into our car. Our car, at the time, was our beloved 4Runner, but it was already 13 years old and had well over 200,000 miles on it, so we weren’t too worried about bumps and scrapes. But this lady gets out of her car, and she’s freaking out. She starts weeping and begging for forgiveness and blurts out that her husband is leaving her for another woman. Whoa dang, Jessie’s probably thinking. The woman rants for a bit, thanks Jessie for not worrying about the minor damage and drives off. A few minutes later, Jessie calls me and says she felt like she should have said more or prayed with the woman. We prayed over the phone for the woman, and asked God to bring her back into Jessie’s path. Less than 10 minutes later, Jessie was pulling back into our apartment complex and saw the same woman!!! She pulled over and asked the woman, who had dropped something off at a friend’s place in our complex, to come to our home for lunch. The woman happily accepted the invitation and shared much more over lunch. Jessie was able to point her to the God of all comfort and to the Man of Sorrows, Jesus Christ, who was crushed that we might be made whole. (Probably not her exact words, but you get the picture.)
My boy Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, told his students: “In due time, the weeping intercessor will become the rejoicing winner of souls.” As spiritual leaders, when was the last time we shed tears over an unbelieving friend or neighbor? Prayer pulls us into their true spiritual need and empowers us through the Spirit to connect with that need.
Lastly, the Church is a great resource for mission. Sojourn especially is a great place to bring lost people. Our community groups are also designed to be an easy first step for those separated from Christ.
A newlywed couple in our group, Mark and Allison, have been building a friendship with ones of his co-workers in hopes of seeing him restored to God. The guy (I won’t share his name of course) is dating a girl and it seems serious, so first Mark and Allison invite them to hang out as couples. They don’t immediately invite them into a church service or even try to comprehensively share the gospel in the office. Instead, in these off hours, on neutral turf, Mark brings up subject of faith. The young man and his girlfriend admit they need to figure something out about religion, and the girl seems especially interested. (And so, of course, the guy is suddenly interested as well!) Within a week or two, Mark and Allison brought the couple to Sojourn and then to our community group. Mark gave his friend a Bible with helpful study notes, and they’ve been able to dialogue over some passages for several weeks. What a great example of a holistic approach to mission!
See, when we grow in Christ, the Spirit draws us into a vital connection to God—that’s the first movement—and then produces his own power of love within us—that’s the second movement.
The last movement in Spirit empowered mission is From Passive Awareness to Eager Expectation.
Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” – John 20:21-22
I don’t want to get us lost here, but consider the beauty of the Trinity for a moment. God has eternally existed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—in a fellowship of constant love and joy. Then the Father and Son create man to share in this joy, but he loses us to sin. So he sends the Son to get us back. The Father orders our lives to put us in a place to hear the Good News, and he sends his Spirit to change our hearts. In this, he connects us to himself in love and joy. We are now tied to the eternal God, sharing in the same powerful fellowship and union that he’s always had. Can you believe that!?
But then, just as God sends his Son and the Spirit, so now the Son sends us with the Spirit. This is the pattern of mission in the Bible: God draws us in to send us out. He draws us in to know him, and sends us out to make him known. Consider the callings of Abram, Moses, Isaiah, the disciples, Paul and basically everyone else in the Scriptures: God calls someone to himself, then sends them back out to make him known to others.
An important point here is that if we are vitally connected to God and full of the Holy Spirit, then we shouldn’t just be passively aware of the Spirit. We should be eagerly expecting him to do great things in our midst!!
Any Christian will tell you there’s no greater joy than seeing someone come to Christ! It gives you (and especially your community group if he or she attends for a while before trusting in Christ) great confidence in the power of the Gospel and the Spirit, and you go out again. When we passionately expect the Spirit to show up and renew us, and to change the hearts of others, we go boldly into our neighborhoods.
On same occasions, the Spirit does this ordinary transformation in extraordinary measures. At the mysterious will of the Father, the Spirit is released in such a way that an entire spiritual community experiences renewal around the gospel. This has traditionally been called “corporate renewal” or “revival.”
Three Marks of Christian Renewal
The Prodigal Godfather, in his incredible textbook Center Church, describes several marks of Christian renewal in a group of people. (He gives four marks but I’ve condensed and re-phrased them into three because of my love of odd numbers.)
Gospel Rediscovery: True revival always begins with a recovery of the Gospel. It’s not always that a church movement has to correct wrong doctrine. Typically, the task of the church is to place a newfound emphasis on life with God and the power of the Spirit to change hearts and lives. What happens is that the general truths of Christianity become burning, passionate realities in the souls of the people being renewed. Keller says that the first thing that happens in historic revival is the conversion of nominal (name-only) Christians. To fit with the life stages described above, the renewal movement then renews spiritual infants and quickly matures children and young adults in Christ. There can be no true Christian renewal without a rediscovery of the good news about Christ!
Extraordinary Prayer: Every true movement of God has one main characteristic, and it’s not denominational affiliation or doctrinal position. In fact, there’s no correlation between doctrine or tradition and revival. Similarly, revival can’t be traced to a specific way of doing church or even an emphasis on corporate renewal. No, there is only one thing that happens in every historic revival: extraordinary prayer.
In revivals, people pray like God is who Jesus said he is! They pray with a deep longing and expectation for the Spirit to move. They become like Jacob, wrestling with God until he blesses them. They become like Elijah, who refused to eat until God brought rain onto the land.
Not even a bad Calvinist would say that God doesn’t respond to our prayers. But they might live like it! I can’t explain the dynamics of divine sovereignty and human prayer, but I know that we have a God who answers prayer, who loves to give his children good gifts, and who rejoices more over one sinner coming home than all the religious people in the world tithing and going to church! If only that truth would sink even more deeply into my heart and become a burning motivation.
Consider Jesus’ prayer life. (I may post an essay on his inner spiritual life soon.) Was anyone more persistent and intense in prayer than Jesus? We need to be in prayer for our people and our neighborhoods. We need to make a habit of “Thy Kingdom Come” prayers! We shouldn’t be ashamed to pray in church and community group around non-believers. They expect us to be different. We might as well give off the impression that God is real, his Spirit is active and he answers prayers!
Creative Application: Lastly, the third mark of a revival is “creative application” of the gospel. In historic revivals, there is almost always a creative/innovative approach to the spread of the gospel.
Now, I’m no Gregg Allison (one of our elders and the author of the best book ever on historical theology), but I do know that the Great Awakening (an American 18th Century revival) occurred as preachers began the new practice of traveling on a new system of roads on horseback, preaching outdoors to huge crowds as cities began to populate the northeast states. I also know that the 19th Century revival in New York City began with simple lunch-hour prayer meetings on and around Wall Street. I also know that Billy Graham would never have been so successful in preaching the gospel to hundreds of thousands of people at a time, in hundreds of nations, if air travel hadn’t just become accessible (and soccer and football stadiums holding over 80,000 people became common in major world cities). Of course, the grand-daddy of them all, the Protestant Reformation, spread rapidly right after Gutenberg’s printing press allowed the written word to multiply across Europe like never before.
So what is our creative application of the Gospel? We don’t know for certain; the Spirit blows where he will. But what about meeting in homes around the city every week for prayer, Bible study and evangelism? What about small groups of generous believers throwing huge neighborhood-wide parties that no one will miss? What about small groups going into homeless shelters, nursing homes, mental hospitals, and prisons? Maybe it’s workplace Bible studies, medical clinics, healing prayer during worship services—who knows!? But when we look at all the things we are doing as spiritual leaders—especially in community groups—we may be looking at a dynamic opportunity to unleash a spiritual revival in our city through the exact things we’re already doing!
In other words, we don’t necessarily need to do more or better things. We need to do what we’re doing with more intentionality and expectation. We need to be as tangible as possible in our love for the world and take big, bold risks—and be willing to fail miserably—to reach people with Christ!
Jesus is inviting us to go deep with the Father and eagerly expect the Spirit to move. He’s inviting us to become a Spirit led and Spirit empowered community.