Nitty Gritty Training for Missional Communities

Acts 29 recently hosted the Gospel Formed conference aimed at equipping communities groups to practically live out the essentials of Gospel, Community, and Mission. Each talk got nitty-gritty with challenges and opportunities in each area. I found so much of it to be insightful and encouraging that we posted the videos to our City Group leaders Slack channel.

Will Walker: Gospel

  • Provides a couple “gospel grids” to help lead discussions deeper into Jesus.
  • Guidance in how to draw out vulnerability and lead people into application for real life change.

Todd Engstrom: Community
  • Marks of true community: intentionality, sacrifice, imperfect.
  • How a community can deeper grow: affinity, proximity, crisis, mission.

Jonathan Dodson: Mission
  • What to do when facing challenges and fatigue in mission.
  • Guidance in how to organize, diffuse, and stoke evangelism, mercy, and justice in your groups.

3 Ways to Discern the Spirit’s Voice

During a particularly difficult season of ministry, I felt the Spirit calling me to dig in and fight for joy. But Sunday after Sunday I sensed a thick and sinister darkness. When I stepped up to preach, it felt like a devil’s bony finger was pointing directly in my face.

After preaching my heart out a visitor walked up to me and said, “God wants you to know that your joy is your weapon.” Then she walked away. I did not know this woman, and she knew nothing of my circumstances. Yet, her timing was undeniably providential. Her word from the Spirit filled me with encouragement, like a finger pointing me to the Fountain of joy.

Perhaps you’ve had an experience in which you felt the Holy Spirit prompting you to do or say something. Or perhaps you’re very suspicious of this kind of thing? How do we discern if our thoughts are from the Spirit?

A Subjective Task

Scripture recognizes a degree of subjectivity in discerning the Holy Spirit’s leading. Advising Gentile churches, the elders of the Jerusalem church wrote that their counsel “seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28). Regarding instruction to widows who want to remarry, Paul concludes they are better off to remain single. In support he writes, “And I think that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 7:40).

He did not say, this is God’s will (as he does in 1 Thess 4:5) or record his inspired words without qualification. He “thought” he had the Spirit’s leading but wasn’t one hundred percent certain. What should we conclude? This advice is wise but not warranted in every case. Paul knew discerning the Spirit’s leading and counsel can be a subjective task, yet an important task nonetheless. He demonstrates considerable dependence upon the uninspired prompts of the Spirit throughout his missionary travels.

However, the only error-free source for the Spirit’s speech is Scripture, and even that should be read carefully. Exploring the Spirit’s more subjective communication should be done with more caution. We can use several “tests” to discern if our thoughts are actually from the Spirit.om

Scripture Test

First, we can apply the Scripture test. Sometimes people confuse their own voice with the voice of the Holy Spirit.

I was talking with someone one day who told me he had a prompting from the Spirit: God had told him to divorce his wife. I followed up by asking why he felt he should divorce his wife. He rattled off a number of reasons, but not one of them constituted biblical grounds for divorce. His prompting clearly wasn’t a prompting of the Spirit because the Spirit does not violate Scripture’s teaching. His motives weren’t godly and his aim not biblical.

The husband I described earlier did just this. He should have used the Scripture test. If he had, it would have been clear the Spirit had already spoken on the matter, and obeying him would have saved himself and his poor wife a lot of heartache. Whenever a so-called “prompt” or spiritual impression contradicts Scripture, we must always go with the Bible.

Wisdom Test

Second, we can use the wisdom test. Sometimes our impressions lack wisdom. It’s not uncommon to hear people say the Holy Spirit told them to do something, like quit their job while not having another source of income to support their family. When confronting this lack of wisdom I’ve heard various objections such as, “God will never let me down.”

Think about what would have happened if Jesus used similar reasoning when Satan tempted him with fame to jump off the highest point of the temple. However, instead of saying, “God will never let me down,” Jesus said, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Lk 4:12). “God will never let me down” reasoning puts us—not God—in charge, treating him like a corporate sponsor for any wild-haired idea we may have. We must be cautious of using over-spiritualizing our reasoning, using God to endorse our agenda. In this case, it would have been wise to consider his wisdom in 1 Timothy 5:8, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

In zeal, I hear Christians sometimes say God is calling them to sell their house and move overseas for missions. And yet, when I ask if they’ve made disciples in America, they come up short. These “prompts” fail the wisdom test. While it’s certainly possible for the Spirit to impress on us a change of job, home, or country, it’s important we screen our impressions with wisdom. There is safety in an abundance of counselors (Prov 11:14), so we should make important decisions in community. Humbly seek out respected spiritual leaders before taking the leap.

Ministry Test

Finally, we should consider the ministry test. Whenever we start a sentence with, “The Spirit told me . . .” we’re on fallible ground. Nevertheless, the Bible does show us examples of people being prompted by the Holy Spirit to do various things. The interesting thing about these prompts is that they are typically ministry-minded things, like when the Spirit prompted Philip to witness to the Ethiopian eunuch, Peter to share the gospel with the household of Cornelius, and Paul to spread the gospel in various cities. The ministry test, evaluates a prompt based on an “others first” ministry orientation.

When I moved to a new city to plant a church, I had to office out of coffee shops the first few years. Occasionally, before I left the house or while I was driving, I would pray and ask the Holy Spirit to direct me to a coffee shop where I could meet people he was calling into the kingdom. Sometimes I would get the sense that I was supposed to go to a specific shop, and other times I wouldn’t. When I did receive a prompt for a specific place, I often ended up having an evangelistic conversation with someone.

Several of these turned into long-term relationships, with some of them coming to Christ. But there were also times when I ended up at a place and simply worked.

I’d be willing to bet that just about any time we are prompted to share the gospel or meet a need, it’s likely the Holy Spirit. I’m so glad the women who ministered a word of joy to me, in a difficult season, heeded the Holy Spirit.

 

Adapted from Here in Spirit

 

“I’ll Pray for You”

Have you ever shared a need or struggle with someone, and in response hear them say, “I’ll pray for you”? And had a sneaky suspicion they wouldn’t? Why is that? Is it because we’re cynical, skeptical or because we’ve been that person saying, “I’ll pray for you,” knowing full well we wouldn’t?

Prayer is one of the most loving things we can do for someone. Prayer takes people’s greatest needs to the most powerful Being in the universe. The reverse is true too—neglect of prayer is a serious lapse of love. How cruel would it be to know someone who could meet our friends every need, and refuse to connect them?

Perhaps you’ve walked away from a conversation wishing a friend would have prayed for you right then? I know a number of people who, after listening intently to others, respond by offering to pray on the spot. What would happen if we did that? Not in a cultic, lockstep kind of way, but whenever we sensed it was good timing, when prompted by the Spirit? That would be a force to reckon with.

So why not?

I read an article years ago suggesting the “mediatorial elite” are a barrier to spontaneous prayer. It described a social dynamic among Christians where people often don’t pray out loud, or at all, because we’re intimidated by what others will think. Prayer on the spot?–that’s for the spiritual giants.

The author went on to debunk this idea by pointing to the priestly work of Christ. Jesus died and rose to make it possible for all people–young and old, fresh convert or seasoned sage, to draw near to the throne of God with confidence to receive grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:14-16). In other words:

There is no mediatorial elite.

To follow through on our promise to pray, and to be bolder in praying on the spot, we may need to confront the false notion of a “mediatorial elite.” Begin by repenting of exaggerated concern with what others think of your praying. Ask Jesus to forgive you for minimizing his priestly work on your behalf. Then take Jesus up on his promise–grace to help in time of need! Any time, any place.

We are a kingdom of priests, living stones that compose a holy, cosmic temple where the Spirit dwells. He prompts the priests to pray for the people and mission of God. So let’s get on with praying out loud, on the spot, in intercession for others.

Walking with a friend through the streets of a village in northern Thailand, we were surrounded by opulent Buddhist temples covered in gold flake. As we reflected on the spiritual poverty around us, we were cut to the heart. As we lamented the beautiful deception, my friend piped up and said, “Let’s throw up the true temple and pray for this place.”

As we prayed and called on the name of the Lord, the Spirit’s presence throbbed in our presence. Who knows what the Lord did in answer to those prayers? Now, just think what could happen in your town, city, church, if you “threw up the true temple” more often and prayed on the spot!

You can read more about praying in the Spirit in Here in Spirit: Knowing the Spirit who Create, Sustains, and Transforms Everything.

 

Hearing the Spirit

Listening to the Spirit can sometimes feel like trying to hear someone over a band at a concert. How do we make out his voice? What exactly is he saying? To hear the Spirit, to become acquainted with his voice, we have to quiet the noise. One form of noise is busyness.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “We have lost the art of being still and doing nothing.” Can you remember the last time you did nothing? Really, stop and think about it. I have to talk myself into doing nothing sometimes, and when I am doing nothing, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to do nothing. I even have to shoo away the guilt for not being productive so I can just sit and enjoy grace. Occasionally when I’m reading the Bible, items for my to-do list materialize. They distract me and try to push God’s words around my mind. Suddenly getting a task done feels more urgent than meeting with God!

Once we slow down long enough to eliminate busyness, we may not like what we see. Danish philosopher and father of existentialism Søren Kierkegaard wrote volumes of thought-provoking philosophy that required gobs of doing nothing. Yet in reflection he described himself as a spectator in life, someone who learned about the views and theories of others while contributing nothing to the greater base of knowledge. He envied “great men” who pursued interests with great success, while struggling to find his own purpose. He struggled with a profound sense of inadequacy.

Do you ever feel inadequate? I think of mothers in our church who feel the pressure to accomplish something: well-disciplined children, organic, gluten-free diets, well-kept homes with inviting interior design, a stand-out hobby, side job, or great career. If they don’t accomplish these goals, they feel like they don’t measure up. Or men who are so driven by work and platform building that they have lost touch with the Spirit of God. We often mistake accomplishment for purpose.

Kierkegaard eventually saw through all of this: “Let us never deceive youth by foolish talk about the matter of accomplishing. Let us never make them so busy in the service of the moment, that they forget the patience of willing something eternal.”

He came to the point where he realized the futility of busyness in the service of temporal things and began to value the importance of slow, patient eternal things. This is particularly challenging in our age, where we believe just the opposite—that we need to accomplish a bunch of great things in order to be purposeful.

In this milieu, how do we hear the voice of the Spirit? We may need to begin by renouncing accomplishment, to throw off the claim that a meaningful life is based purely on what we do and instead learn to rest in what God has done. We must patiently set aside productivity to slow down enough to value the things of God. Embrace the value of silencing other voices in order to make out the sound of the voice that matters most. This is a lifelong endeavor: cultivating the patience of willing something eternal. And it is worth it, every single bit.

You can read more about listening to the Spirit in Here in Spirit: Knowing the Spirit who Create, Sustains, and Transforms Everything.