The idea of ‘being ‘led by the Spirit,’ is often touted and dropped in cliche-esque fashion into Christian conversations. It’s use by others (“You need to be led by the Spirit”), tries to invoke an “ah ha” moment, as if by saying it, the receiver says, “Oh yes, that’s it, that’s the key to everything, ‘being led by the Spirit!’ But, after only a bit of self-reflection, it retracts into what everyone already assumes. Namely, that the same Spirit that moved over the face of the waters in creation (Genesis 1:2) is the same power mover of recreation, regeneration, and reconciliation today.
“Of course we’re supposed to be ‘led by the Spirit!’ Duh! And so, we’re left with another powerless platitude that fails to engage our hearts, minds, souls, and strength in the divine mover’s mission. The Spirit is sanctifier (Romans 8:12-13), comforter (John 14:16), informer (1 Corinthians 2:10), empowerer (Acts 1:8) animator (Acts 17:28), and guider (John 16:13). If He is to be all of those things in our one to one relationships with God, then He is certainly to be those things in our one another relationships with people. It seems counter-intuitive, but the church doesn’t take a bunch of spiritually empowered individuals, cram them together, and get a power enabled body for mission. The church becomes a mission power as it walks together collectively in Spirit directed and centered service to Him and for others.
Before going any further, I think it’s important to explore the often felt but rarely expressed subjective nature of being led by the Spirit. What do I mean? Well, as many times as I’ve heard “the Spirit told me,” or “you need to listen to the Spirit,” I’ve often sensed that those phrases used pithily, are empty attempts to get me to come around to another’s way of thinking. Or to stealthily suggest that you’re not being led by Him. Those independent streams of thought are rarely based in truth, wild in speculation, irresponsibly imaginative, and in many cases, outright falsehoods. The urging to test the spirits (1 John 4:1) is met with incredulity and pride. “How dare you question what the Spirit is telling me?”
I don’t believe that the Spirit will speak anything into an individual heart or a collective that is blatantly contrary to what He has already breathed out in scripture. “For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24) The Spirit was promised to the first gospel missionaries long ago by Jesus when he said “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” That some of that was later tattooed on pages changes nothing. There is, like in the days of the Old Covenant, a written source by which we can sift spiritual action and proposition. There is Kingdom nobility in comparing prior revelations with current machinations. (Acts 17:11) Attempts to minimize the the Spirit’s breath-out scripture only serve in being led by a self-fabricated spirit.
The retort “But, the early church didn’t have the bible and they did just fine,” is an inadequate contribution to the discussion of being led by the Spirit. Additionally it is moot.
That said, I think it’s far easier to see what roles the Father and Son play in mission. The Father was the first mission sending agency ever. He sends His son into the world, and later sends the Spirit in the Son’s name. (John 14:26) The Triune God is the premier sending organization. With Jesus the Son, the art of missioning becomes very clear by recounting His worship, works, and words in the world. The various commissionings of Jesus and His subsequent examples of action in scripture are both blatant and authoritative. There is a certain objectivity to be had in determining mission’s course of action by what both Father and Son have already said and confirmed.
This leads us to where we began. How exactly, are we supposed to be ‘led by the Spirit’ in Missions?
While the Spirit plays a critical role in the personal sanctification, He also empowers the Church as a whole for “works of service.” (Ephesians 4:12) Mission is the supernatural outward result of the Spirit’s inner-working. It should be noted here that corporate sanctification, or in particular, the setting apart of certain people for certain tasks, as in the case of the great prophets and teachers gathered in the church at Antioch, is a given. The Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2) There wasn’t any doubt or wondering whether what the Spirit said was from Him, another source, or the gatherd’s imagination. Likewise, and later on, the Spirit tells Phillip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” (Acts 8:29), He tells Peter “three men are looking for you” (Acts 10:19), He also tells Peter “to have no hesitation about going with a group of men,” (Acts 11:12), and that the Spirit “kept some from preaching the word in the province of Asia.” (Acts 16:6) These examples represent but a few cases by which mission was ‘Spirit led.”
The Spirit’s leading in these examples are purposeful, directive, informative, encouraging, and in the case of the last, prohibitive. There is a curiosity in these examples in that none of them were solicited requests for information on what to do next. They were all prompted by the Spirit as the receivers were already worshipping and doing mission. I’m not saying that the church shouldn’t solicit the Spirit on “what to do next,” but in many cases, individually and corporately, the church seems to seek out the Spirit’s approval of what it wants to do regardless of the Spirit’s leading and after the fact. So much of the church’s spiritual gyrations are given license by claiming that the Spirit, when asked, gave His approval for such, or that it’s obvious because ‘everyone else is doing it too,’ or because the manifestations are happening independently by people groups that have no contact with each other and so considered a ‘move’ of the Spirit. I can’t help but think about ‘holy laughter,’ ‘barking like dogs,’ gold dust falling from above, and flopping around on the floor as if you’ve been tased. These manifestations, while fascinating, seem only to bolster emotion and ecstasy that leads nowhere in mission.
How else are we to be ‘led by the Spirit in mission?’ I think that beyond listening and waiting for directives, we should expect that our equipping and empowering by Him, the gifts, are to be fruitful. Incessant preparation without action, teaching without deployment, consumption without production, and conferencing without execution only lead the church deeper into having an imaginary friend called the Holy Spirit.
I’ve left this a little open-ended for the sake of conversation, but how else, specifically, do you suppose that you as an individual, or the church as a whole is supposed to ‘be led by the Spirit,’ in missions?