THERE’S NO PROMISE that if I use self-deprecating humor, tell personal stories, and talk about personal struggles with weight and women, I will write a book that sells as well as Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. And there’s no promise that if I wear funky tennis shoes, slap on some low-slung jeans, spike my hair a bit, sport a goatee and wear an untucked T-shirt, I will be able to sing like Brenton Brown. Imitation has its place, but the one thing imitation doesn’t promise is results.
Unfortunately, a lot of church leaders don’t get that fact.
The essential theory, though no one readily admits it, is this: Find a ministry that works, go hear them tell you how they do it, get their program and their theory and their lingo, come home, drop it on your home church and—Bingo!—similar results.
While many successful (a word that begs careful definition) ministries publicly state their theories and programs can’t simply be uploaded in new communities, the presence of conferences and provision of programs in notebooks seems to suggest otherwise.
The unobserved factor in all this is how it was that the successful ministry found their niche and discovered an effective strategy.
Imitation is the order of the day, and it does draw attendance to conferences, but it rarely works. Perhaps we should focus once more on the Spirit-driven and Spirit-empowered dimension of establishing ministry. How can we be more Spirit-empowered?
The answer can be found in Acts 1-2: We have to be the kind of people who pray, who turn our hearts toward God, who empty ourselves before God and invoke the presence of His Spirit on all we do. What I’m suggesting is that we spend as much time in prayer invoking God’s Spirit as we do attending conferences and filling out questionnaires. The order of the day, then, is Spirit-led leaders and Spirit-led congregations.
Until we get in tune with God’s Spirit, we won’t participate in His movement in the world, what theologians call the missio Dei—the mission of God in this world. There is no genuine movement of God apart from God’s empowering Spirit. Which leads me to one observation of what a Spirit-empowered movement looks like: The New Testament suggests Spirit-empowered movements articulate the Gospel for a particular context for that day.
One way of putting this is that Spirit-empowered movements discern a contextual articulation of the Gospel for a specific context and a specific time. Here are my examples, and I begin by expressing a 20-year frustration.
My specialty for doctoral studies was the Gospel of Matthew or, more broadly, I was a Gospels specialist and I focused on the first three Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke (called the Synoptics). This meant I learned to see the Gospel, theology, church work and ethics through the lens of one central category: the Kingdom of God.
Being a Synoptic Gospels specialist, gratefully, did not mean I could avoid Paul and Peter and James and Hebrews and John—or even the great theological formulations of the Church. But, still, my focus was “Kingdom of God” and my instinct was to think through that expression.
Because this was my lens, and we all have lenses, I never could read Paul or Peter or James or Hebrews or John without a sense of tension. For me, they were always just slightly askew. Instead of talking about “Kingdom of God,” they were talking about justification or salvation or true religion or eternal life. What bothered me about each of them was that I wanted them to talk like Jesus and to think through the terms Jesus used. They didn’t.
For me, the most important discovery in the last decade of biblical and theological studies was two-fold: First, I realized Jesus’ language was not sacrosanct for Paul and Peter and others.
Second, I realized they were doing exactly what Jesus was doing. That is, Jesus wasn’t “imitating” anyone when He articulated the movement of God in terms of “Kingdom of God.” He didn’t find this in Moses or David or Isaiah and just copy it or restore it to its proper place, and the early Christian apostles didn’t “imitate” Jesus by expressing the Gospel with “Kingdom of God.”
Soaked as Jesus was in this ongoing history of Spirit-led articulation of the Gospel for particular contexts, Jesus swept up that entire history, taking big ideas especially from David and from Isaiah, and said, again through the Spirit-empowered articulating power of God, that God’s work is the “Kingdom of God.” Brilliance doesn’t even capture it.
As Christians, we affirm the apostolic witness, what we call the New Testament, provides the God-inspired articulation of the Gospel and therefore forms the parameters outside of which we are not to wander and the parameters within which we are given freedom. We must be careful to learn to articulate the Gospel today within these parameters.
Furthermore, the Church also did not simply puppet the words of the Bible, but sought to articulate the Gospel in new contexts—like the early philosophical debates at work in the Nicene Creed—while being faithful to the apostolic witness. That apostolic witness formed the parameters within which God’s Spirit was at work for each generation from the days of the apostles until now.
Let us humble ourselves before God, let us bathe ourselves in the Spirit-drenched biblical Story, and let us invoke God’s Spirit to give us the word of the Gospel for our day as we seek to be faithful to the Spirit-empowered witness of the New Testament.
What we need is less imitation and more discernment through God’s Spirit.
This article originally appeared in Neue magazine.