The South Broad stakeholders had a lot of good ideas on Saturday morning! I think we were just getting warmed up when our two hour time-allotment was over. I was impressed with the work of the Holy Spirit among us. We have gifts and vision – and the Lord has transformed lives in so many ways! People told stories to illustrate what they were saying over and over — transformation is so common among us we can use the instances as just another example. We should trust that Spirit.
We don’t make the body, Jesus does. We’re just working with the Spirit of God, here.
The Holy Spirit is just as ready to guide us as he guided all those people in the New Testament. The Lord is the ultimate church planter. The Spirit has never reduced church planting into a reproducible model. The everfresh work of church planting must be reduced into a loving, dependent relationship! Every cell, congregation and church is planted a unique way. So if you are called to plant the church (and you are) you need to develop an ever increasing, intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit and trust the Lord’s work.
Seeing how the Lord was working and seeing how we need to stop worrying, controlling and judging instead of trusting, made me want to remember how the Spirit is guiding us. So I have two things for us. First, I want to lay out how the Spirit planted the first churches on three continents and how that inspires us. Then I have one piece of advice for keeping up with Jesus as you plant with him.
Jesus told his disciples to WAIT for the Spirit before beginning to make disciples in the city. As they obediently prayed, the Spirit showed up and empowered courageous witness that pierced the hearts of 3000 unbelievers. What a way to launch a church plant! It has never been done quite the same way since.
How did your church start? Do you even know? Or do you think it started when you showed up? It was probably impressive and it was probably so long ago that most people can’t even relate to it. It is interesting to look back and learn things. But the more important question that looking back usually begs, “How is the church starting NOW?”
After this impressive start, what happened next? No doubt the disciples never predicted that persecution was the church planting strategy the Spirit would use. For instance, Philip was one of the Acts 6 leaders who were recognized as being “filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” It seems the Spirit helped Philip stay on task rather than panic once persecution scattered him to Samaria. The Spirit empowered his message of Jesus there until there was “much joy in that city.”
Terrible things in the world, great failures in leaders and in communities are often just the new seedbed of the next church. Aren’t we experiencing that right now? The oddly-successful church planter Robert Schuller was fond of saying, “Turn your scars into stars.” We have some failure among us; don’t you? Do you think we can trust God to turn it all to good when we trust the Spirit?
Africa and Caesarea
Next, to plant churches in Africa, the Spirit inspired an encounter between an evangelist and a seeker. The Lord said to Philip, “Go toward the South…” Philip did his part, “he arose and went.” He came upon an Ethiopian court official reading Isaiah and the Spirit said, “Go over and join this chariot.” Philip and the Ethiopian discuss Jesus; the man asks to be baptized and continues his journey home to plant the church in Africa.
Stories like this pile up in Acts just like they pile up among us. In Caesarea and Joppa, both Peter and Cornelius received visions that brought them together to move the good news of Jesus into new territories. When Peter spoke about Jesus in Caesarea, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” The believers who had traveled with him were “amazed” that Jesus poured out such grace “even on the Gentiles.” The Holy Spirit was building quite a church planting resume: Jerusalem, Samaria, Africa, and now Caesarea.
Stories almost as strange were told this month among us. God spoke in dreams, through random encounters, through random acts of kindness and deliberate plans. Boundaries were crossed. We can trust the Holy Spirit to plant the church.
Next, we see “the hand of the Lord” was also simultaneously with the believers who were scattered by the persecution in Antioch, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem. During one of their meetings, “while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said.…” As we know from experience and from looking at the story in Acts, the Holy Spirit was not dictating rules and regulations, Jesus was leading his body to ACT. Our job is always to “keep in step with the Spirit.”
The leaders in Antioch were reshuffled, much like we have done since we began our “second act” in 2015. Three leaders stayed in Antioch and two leaders, Paul and Barnabas, were sent out by the Holy Spirit on a great adventure to plant churches throughout Asia Minor. During their second visit to each city, they appointed elders in each church, because the Spirit had been at work calling, gifting, and guiding.
The Spirit at times says “GO” and sometimes says “NO” to our plans. Paul had the noble desire to go back on the road to strengthen the churches that had been planted. However, in the middle of that noble work, he was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” to speak the word in Asia. Next, the Spirit of the Lord didn’t allow them to go to Bithynia. There are limits to what we can do.
The Holy Spirit is bigger than our imagination. We can only hope to appreciate our own slice of the mystery. We are always doing more than we are capable of doing; we are always given less than we think is necessary. When we look over our meager work and our troubled region we may respond with passion or despair. More deeply, we should respond with trust and gratitude. Our cup is half full. It is amazing there is living water constantly available at all!
When the Spirit says, “No,” we can often expect something better. In Paul’s case, the Spirit gave him a vision that sent him to a new continent. He ended up in Philippi to plant the church. The leading city of Macedonia had no synagogue, where he would expect to begin his work. He didn’t panic. He found a few God-fearing women meeting at the river. The Lord opened the hearts of Lydia and her household. The next core group members added to the church at Philippi were a freed slave girl with a spirit of divination and the jailer. The Spirit impressively planted a church in Philippi with an unlikely cast of characters and through an unpredictable series of events.
I know people are reading through Acts right now and are getting the rest of the story. It is impressive. The are anticipating new acts. It is time to move into the next territory and the Lord is leading us to do just that.
We can trust the Holy Spirit
Each cell, each congregation, each church is special. Each challenge is unique. Each core group is unpredictable. It just takes the Holy Spirit’s guidance and the message of Jesus to successfully plant a church from its smallest form to the largest — not fabulous talent or charisma. The Holy Spirit goes before us and leads you every step of the way. Jesus is so impressive, we don’t have to be. You just have to trust Him.
Jesus has already been where we are going. When we look over the meeting room on Sunday or in the cell, Jesus is with us and in each of us. We don’t need to get people to do what they don’t want to do, we need to catalyze what the Spirit is already doing! We are cooperating. If we are creative at all, it is all about co-creating. We don’t need to feel over-responsible for what people do our don’t do; Jesus is with them. We don’t need to protect them from what they fear; Jesus will save them.
Following the Holy Spirit is about the character of our relationship with God, not the competence of our job performance. It’s about a relationship to be developed with the person of the Spirit, more than a technique to be mastered. Dallas Willard says it well: “Perhaps we don’t hear the voice of God because we don’t expect to hear it. But perhaps we don’t hear it because we know that we fully intend to run our lives on our own and never seriously considered anything else. The voice of God would be an unwelcome intrusion into our plans. By contrast, we expect the great ones in The Way of Christ to hear that voice just because we see their lives wholly given up to doing what God wants.”
From the apostles in the upper room, to Phillip after the persecution, to the people worshiping and fasting in Antioch, they were all “wholly given up to doing what God wants.” They were done trying to run their own lives. Ray Ortlund Jr. says: If our purposes rise no higher than what we can attain by our own organizing and thinking, then we should change our churches into community centers. But if we are weary of ourselves and our own brilliance, if we are embarrassed by our own failures, then we are ready for the gift of power from on high”(The Gospel, 104-105).
When I look around us, I admit I see plenty of people who are not weary of themselves yet — and they are wearisome! But those people are far from the majority. Most of the people in our church did not get involved with our radical little group of subversives to look great. Like the stakeholders demonstrated the other day, they got involved to follow Jesus and plant the church. They got involved to give their gifts in love. And they can be trusted to give them, just as the Spirit can be trusted to use them.