In our call to make disciples, let’s not relegate the Spirit to the backseat

Jesus is still speaking today

Lola was a successful executive living in New York when she made a decision to follow Jesus. Her life had been rich and exciting, filled with business opportunities, lavish parties, five-star dining and international travel, but now her heart had been captured by God’s grace and she was forever changed.

Soon after her decision, the Holy Spirit spoke; “Give away all your belongings.” Lola didn’t hesitate. She packed a charity truck full of designer gowns, handbags, artwork, furniture and jewellery and watched as they were driven away. So began a journey of seeing God reset the foundations of her life so that she learned to live by kingdom values. Years later, Lola testifies to the freedom and contentment she has found in following Jesus. With a heart for the lost, lonely and downtrodden, Lola is now committed to bringing God’s kingdom to the wealthiest and most powerful spheres of society.

We know that the core mission of the church is to make disciples and that discipleship is all about following Jesus, but what does this look like in practice? How do we literally make disciples?

Often our strategising falls to the human side – what we do to help people follow Jesus. So, we encourage new Christians to become a part of a church community, receive teaching about the Gospel, read their Bibles, pray regularly and strive to live in godly ways. These are all important to the discipleship process. But there’s one crucial component missing – one that is evident in Lola’s testimony.

That component, of course, is the Spirit.

The Jesus-shaped Spirit

Jesus summed up discipleship in the call to hear his voice and follow (John 10:27). But since Jesus is no longer here to lead us, how do we follow? This was the same concern of the disciples when Jesus announced his departure. In response, Jesus said he would send the Holy Spirit to continue his ministry and mission (John 16:7). The Spirit would both remind people of what he had established on earth (now recorded for us as Scripture, John 14:26) and speak about “things to come” (John 16:13).

Then, as promised, Jesus left and the Spirit came (Acts 1,2). The rest of the New Testament tells of how the Spirit vividly fulfilled Jesus’ words, reminding people of the Gospel and applying it to their lives. Thus, the Spirit spoke to bring salvation and healing (Acts 9; 1 Cor. 14:25) and give instructions about how to build the church (Acts 10). The Spirit spoke to lead mission into new areas (Acts 13:2; 16:9) and new people-groups (Acts 8:26-40). The Spirit spoke about personal situations to bring people into closer relationship with God (2 Cor. 12:1-10) and to show them how to respond to new challenges (Revelation). Each time, the message of Jesus was applied by the Spirit to new places and situations. Each time, it was consistent with what Jesus had already said. In response, the church heard the Spirit and followed. As they did, people were saved, disciples were formed and Jesus’ mission was continued.

Spirit-led discipleship

Of course, the Spirit hasn’t stopped fulfilling Jesus’ mission. In my recent PhD research on the theology and practice of hearing God’s voice, I saw the same process at work in the lives of dozens of Australian Christians. In interview after interview, people told of how after hearing the Spirit speak, they were healed and transformed, released into their giftings and spurred into mission. One woman saw a vision of God’s hand reaching into her heart and woke up healed from the wounds of a painful divorce. Another man dreamed of an unknown building that later became the location for a new church. A young Christian dreamed of a group of veiled women with a sign saying, “prepare to go.” Ten years of fruitful missionary work in Far East Asia was the outcome.

As I listened to their testimonies, one thought stood out: the Spirit was doing the work! Whenever the Spirit spoke, people grew in faith, transformation came and the community was reached. One genuine Spirit-inspired experience provided the motivation, resource and grace to fulfil God’s purposes. Whenever the Spirit spoke, disciples were made.

What is the Spirit saying to you; how do you know it’s God and how can I help you follow?

In the interviews, I also noticed that the Spirit was speaking to people about vastly different things. One person was being challenged to forgive his father. Another was receiving deeper revelation of God’s love. Another was being called to be generous to their grumpy neighbour. Lola was learning to topple the idols of materialism and social status. In clever and strategic ways, the Spirit tailored the discipleship process to each person. While the pathways were different, the goal was the same. In all of the stories, the Spirit was leading the process. Jesus was still calling his disciples to heed his voice and follow.

This truth positions the Spirit at the centre of discipleship. It also clarifies our role as disciplers. If the Spirit speaks as the continuing voice of Jesus, our job becomes to facilitate that process in the lives of those around us. The question becomes, what is the Spirit saying to you; how do you know it’s God and how can I help you follow?

The Church who hears God’s voice

On a practical level, this requires us to build churches that facilitate Spirit-led discipleship. While we can neither make God speak nor make people listen, we can create cultures where people are equipped to hear, recognise and respond to the Spirit. We can provide the context for people to come in faith and expectation to hear the Spirit directly and equip them with the tools for active discernment. Then we encourage them to actively follow, whatever that looks like.

This puts our human efforts into context. All the service organisation, follow-up and program development in our churches become opportunities to create a community where the Spirit can speak and act freely. Our posture reorientates leadership away from us towards God. We become facilitators rather than directors. We are leading people to follow Jesus, not ourselves.

Let’s not relegate the Holy Spirit to a backseat or try to usurp God’s role. In the early church, the Spirit was at the centre, leading all church activity and growth. Today, the Holy Spirit is here to continue Jesus’ ministry and mission. So, in our thinking about discipleship, let’s talk about “following Jesus”, while also recognising the Spirit as Jesus’ continuing voice sent to further God’s ministry and mission in our lives. We may not have Jesus physically with us, but we do have a ‘Jesus-shaped Spirit’ to listen to and follow.

Adapted from The Church who Hears God’s Voice: Equipping Everyone to Recognise and Respond to the Spirit by Rev Dr Tania Harris. 

Tania Harris is a pastor, speaker, author, practical theologian and the founding director of God Conversations, a global ministry that equips people to recognise and respond to God’s voice.

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