You’ve heard the good stories about hearing God’s voice, but have you heard the bad?
You may have heard the good stories about hearing God’s voice, but have you heard the bad? A man hears God telling him to kill an abortion doctor. A pastor hears God telling him his wife was going to die and he will marry the worship leader. A businessman hears God telling him to quit his job and after near-bankruptcy, realises the “voice of God” was actually the symptoms of burnout. The problems are not new. Throughout history, murder, deception and abuse have all been justified by the claim to “God told me.”
And yet, the New Covenant Christian is marked by an ability to hear God’s voice. The Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost gave everyone the ability to hear God in the same way as the Old Covenant prophets (Acts 2:17). This long-awaited promise was then outworked in the early church as all the main players received Spirit revelations and acted on them. The result was a movement that turned the world on its head.
Reading their stories two millennia later, it looks so simple. But for us? How do we outwork the New Covenant promise in our churches today?
This was the key question driving my recent PhD research. As the founding director of a ministry that specialises in helping the Church hear from God, I was motivated to find out what was stopping us. So, I spent hours interviewing people about their experiences and investigating the three different churches they hailed from. Here’s what I found.
The theological problem
Some of the problems are theological. Through a stream of historic flip-flops, we’ve managed to disconnect the Spirit-speaking experience from the ministry and mission of Jesus. Read any scholarly (Protestant) or popular book on the topic and you won’t find the connection. The hearing God experience is not an “add-on” for the mystically inclined – it is central to discipleship. Jesus defined a Christian when he said, “my people hear my voice, I know them and they follow.” This pattern remains after he sent the Spirit as his continuing voice on his ascension.
With this understanding, Jesus’ ministry becomes the model for hearing God today. The Spirit speaks firstly to remind us of the truths Jesus established on earth (now recorded as Scripture) and then, to address areas that were “yet to come” (John 14:26; 16:13). This ultimately leads us to a cross, where sin and selfishness are put to death, and resurrection life flows. That means we’re more likely to hear the Spirit speak about forgiving our father than about the red sports car we’ve got our eyes on! Re-establishing the link between Jesus and the Spirit means that our God-conversations will be aligned to Christ’s agenda and not our own, an orientation that will minimise disillusionment and fallout.
The sociological problem
While some of our problems hearing God are theological, others are sociological. They relate more to our practices than our beliefs. All three churches in my study believed in the Spirit speaking, but not all had the same success facilitating and regulating it. Here are three features we need to be a church where everyone can hear the Spirit in ways that are theologically orthodox and pastorally safe:
1. A community that intentionally facilitates hearing God’s voice
Sociologist Margaret Poloma tells us that a world organised towards Spirit experience is more likely to experience it. While we can neither make God speak, nor make people listen, we can create an environment modelled after the early church, where hearing God’s voice is normal spirituality. We plant the seed and water it, so that God can make it grow (1 Cor 3:6). A crucial part of this involves training in discernment. Telling people, they can hear God’s voice without helping them to recognise it, is like giving a toddler a loaded gun. Training and modelling through testimonies, teaching and theological reflection are all part of the process.
2. A community that hosts spiritual conversations
The New Testament church tested their God-conversations in community (Acts 15:28), but we can’t follow their example unless our communities know how to talk about them. Not only do we need a common language to frame our experiences, we need an environment that is open to sharing them. This requires leaders to talk about their experiences publicly, so the conversation can be replicated privately. Three simple questions aid the process: 1. What do you think the Spirit is saying? How do you know it’s God? and, 3. How can I help you follow?
3. A theological framework for sociological disruption
Sociologists tell us that hearing from God is institutionally dangerous. God’s voice acts like a “third person into the mix, bringing the constant threat of social cleavage.” The research is clear – if you allow the Spirit to speak, disruption will follow! But we shouldn’t be surprised. Missiologist Craig Van Gelder reminds us whenever the Spirit spoke in the early church, there was “conflict, disruption and interruption.” Growth and development cannot occur without it!
In my research, all three churches were concerned about the risks of hearing God’s voice, but one handled it better than others. Instead of viewing it as a threat to their leadership, they saw it as a sign of the Spirit at work. The solution is to have a theological framework for a sociological problem. We must allow for the Spirit to be in charge of the growth process, even if it gets messy.
Hearing God’s voice may have its problems, but we must never forget its power. Both the testimony of Scripture and contemporary research show us that hearing from the Spirit leads to healing, generosity, service, evangelism and church growth. God knew the risks when he sent the Spirit, even as we work to mitigate them. Somehow, he knew it would be worth it.
Tania Harris, PhD is a pastor, author, practical theologian and founding director of God Conversations (www.godconversations.com), a global ministry that equips the church to recognise and respond to God’s voice.
 James S. Coleman “Social cleavage and social change.” Journal of Social Issues, no. XII (1956): 49–50.
 Craig Van Gelder. The ministry of the missional church: A community led by the spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007, p.158.
 Harris, Tania M. “Towards a theology of Pentecostal revelatory experience.” PhD Thesis, Alphacrucis College, 2020. Also, Margaret M. Poloma and John C. Green, The Assemblies of God: Godly love and the revitalization of American pentecostalism (New York: NYU Press, 2010).