Joining in the Spirit’s Mission

Guest blogger, Jon Hoskin, leader at Saint Augustine
When the government announced New Zealand was moving to level 4 lockdown, a lot of church leaders found themselves on a fast, steep learning curve. The question on all of our minds was, “What are we going to do now?”  We had entered uncharted territory.

If you had asked our team if we were scared, we would have said no.  The truth is we were terrified. With little warning, we were tasked with the challenge of relocating our community to new online spaces—a foreign country for many in our church—while at the same time having to create, curate, and conquer new initiatives and support structures. Not one of us had the luxury of relying on the traditional ways of doing things.

 
Out on the edge, one step away from disaster, or worse, public humiliation, we did our best. We met on Zoom to plan live-streaming services. We called each other late at night when the computer crashed. We tried new things—we failed—we tried again. And, we prayed; a lot. In the end, we did an amazing job under extremely trying circumstances. We all did. We should be proud of ourselves. Thank God.
 
When our community looked to us during the lockdown, they were encouraged to find the team standing alongside them, responding quickly to the changing situation, and anticipating how the church could best respond during such uncertain times. Our communities weren’t the only ones who had noticed the team’s new dynamism during the lockdown; people who hadn’t thought about church in years were tuning into services, night prayers, vlogs, blogs, morning devotionals, and worship sessions. We might have been alone, but we were alone together. 
 
Why had the team’s response during the lockdown been so well received? The reason: as leaders, we learnt what it means to listen. What were we listening for? As we turned to face the unknown, we listened for the Spirit’s leading. This was more than simply enquiring about what our ‘next step’ should be; we listened for the Spirit’s “missional imagination” and we were blown away by how the Spirit led us! We did things we never thought we would, could, or should ever do! God has an amazing imagination (John 3.8).
 
Reflecting on the way the Spirit’s led us, one step at a time, in directions we could never have imagined—I’m a little embarrassed to say, it surprised us. But the Holy Spirit, as the leader of the church, is always working in advance of the church, preparing the way, so the church can partner with the Spirit’s mission. The Spirit gives direction and inspiration (Acts 8.29; 10.19; 13.2; Rev 2.7). The Spirit leads (Rom 8.14). We respond (Gal 5.16, 25). Doing all we can, but only what the Spirit is doing (Acts 7.51; Eph 4.30; 1 Thess 5.19).
 
If the Spirit is the leader of the church, what is the role of the church’s human leaders? Our role, it turns out, is simply to listen for the move of the Spirit. We listen to what God is doing, so we can join in.
 
Listening in this way is all about anticipation. Generally, it means not knowing the full picture; a willingness to be shown rather than controlling the outcome. It implies a certain amount of flexibility; being able to respond to situations as they unfold. It’s risky and scary. It often means being willing to lead communities into uncharted territory. But leadership, Alan Roxburgh points out, “is about cultivating an environment that innovates and releases the missional imagination present in a community of God’s people…An environment in which the Spirit-given presence of God’s future may emerge among the people of God.” The type of missional response Roxburgh describes here is not something we can simply plan for; rather, it must be discerned, and discernment only comes by listening for the movement of the Spirit.


 

What does this mean for the leadership team and our community?  Our challenge is to let go of the pre-existing plan for 2020 and to enable the type of prayerful discernment practised during lockdown to become our ‘new normal’.
 
We have felt challenged to rediscover what Graham Cray calls an “active leadership.” This type of leadership requires creating an environment in which the leadership and the community feel they can move with the Spirit’s leading rather than being locked down to a water-tight strategic plan—is there even such a thing? (Acts 16.6-10). Cray puts it like this, “the Holy Spirit works on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, and has different ideas for us about how much we need to know and when we need to know it! This is because he is in charge and we are not.”
 
We’ve found this to be true. For instance, throughout the lockdown period, we noticed the Spirit reordering our priorities away from our typical Sunday focus; instead, we felt to connect with people daily via morning and night prayers. At the time this served a specific desire in our community to connect on a deeper level with God and one another. But as people expand their bubbles, this need is now being met in different ways. So, rather than continuing with this new status quo, we’ve shifted our focus once again by pulling back night prayers to once a week.
 
Our focus now shifts to smaller home gatherings. We anticipate this will change too once we can meet again together on Sunday. As you can see, our challenge is to keep listening to what the Spirit is doing in each changing situation. In the meantime, we have experienced a burst of creativity in our community. Is this the Spirit’s missional imagination? As a team, we feel moved to explore this possibility. So again we shift our focus to creating local, home-grown expressions of discipleship: new songs, prayers, liturgies, studies and devotionals that we hope will speak to our community and the communities within our sphere of influence. We will continue to push into this space as long as the Spirit leads us in this direction. As a team, we are convinced leadership makes a difference. More to the point, the right kind of leadership makes all the difference. Our challenge is to prayerfully discern what the Spirit is doing so we can join in; this means continuing to remain flexible enough to adapt to the situation as required.
 
So, what are we going to do now?  The question we faced as leaders at the beginning of lockdown remains the question we must face in this new post-lockdown world. However, we have noticed a subtle shift in how we ask this question. Instead of asking, “What are we going to do now?” We have been asking ourselves, “Where is the Spirit moving? and “are we joining in?”