The Pastor, the Holy Spirit, and the State of the Church

By Thad Rockwell Barnum
Assisting Bishop, Anglican Diocese of the Carolinas

You’ve been asked to speak at a pastor’s conference. Your topic: “Three Most Urgent Leadership Principles for Today’s Pastor.” How would you respond? What are your top three?

Would He make the list?

Does He matter? Would you talk about Him?

In many Anglican churches in North America, we self-describe as “three streams.” Word. Spirit. Sacrament. He gets top billing, at least in concept. When I ask pastors to talk about this stream of the Holy Spirit, I find He’s often relegated to the prayer ministry during communion — and that’s it. It makes me wonder: Why don’t we just say we’re “two streams” if that’s who we are?

I don’t think a lot of pastors would like my top three.

He’s all I’d talk about.

Can You Hear Him?

This is not hard.

The Lord Jesus said it clearly to His seven churches in Revelation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” 1 Simple rule: Healthy ears, healthy church. The danger is we don’t listen. We do to Him what the Laodiceans did to Jesus and push Him out. Can you see Him standing outside, knocking, urging: “If anyone hears My voice and opens the door”? 2

If you can hear, can you hear?

To the people of Israel, the Lord persistently sent prophets with one message: “Listen to My voice.” In Hebrew, the word for listen and obey are the same. They did neither: “Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in the stubbornness of their evil heart…” 3

It’s my first principle: Can you hear Him?

Think about the gospels, same story. Our Lord was brutal with the religious leaders of His day. They upheld the traditions. They devoted themselves to Scripture. They were gifted “two stream” leaders who could hear the prophets of the past but killed the prophets of the present. Jesus called them, “snakes” and wept over Jerusalem, calling her “the city that kills the prophets…” 4

They refused to listen.

Stephen was just as brutal. To the same leaders, before they stoned him to death, he said, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.” 5 The diagnosis: Uncircumcised heart and ears! Is that you? Are you resisting the Holy Spirit?

Can you hear Him?

We know this principle. It’s what keeps our marriages healthy. Try it, stop listening, and we feel it. We drift apart. It’s the same with the Lord the moment we stop “hearing what the Spirit says.” Show me a healthy leader and I’ll show you someone who lives and breathes Isaiah 50:4 every day: “He awakens Me morning by morning. He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple.”

We’ve got to start here. First principle: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says…”

Can You Follow Him?

This kind of hearing changes us.

When we give this gift to each other – to listen, really listen – we make it possible for trust to deepen, our relationship to grow, and our love for each other to reach new heights.

It’s what our Lord wants for us. Before He ascended to His Father, He promised the Holy Spirit would come to teach us all things; guide us in all truth; disciple us in character; convict of us sin; protect us from evil; empower us in mission; and always – always – glorify Him. 6

He wants us to be in relationship with the Holy Spirit.

“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 2:38

Soon, we learn to hear His voice. When we sin, we feel it. We “grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” 7 When we exercise too much control in worship services or in decisions on leadership council and staff, we find we “quench the Spirit.” 8 But when we listen to Him and, in obedience, follow Him, we find ourselves being led by Him. It’s why Scripture says, “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons and daughters of God.” 9

So I ask: Is He in the lead, or are you?

What does it look like for Him to lead? We see it in Acts 15. The apostles faced a terrifying crisis. It had power to rip the young churches apart. It was urgent for them to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” And this is the key: They knew exactly what that meant. They had a relationship with Him and knew, 1- how to hear His voice and, 2- how to follow His lead.

First, He speaks to us in the body of Christ. By using the spiritual gifts He gives to us, we find the saying is true: He speaks to His people through His people. 10 The first thing they did, in 15:6-12, is listen intently to Him by listening intently to each other.

Second, they knew the Holy Spirit never speaks contrary to Scripture. Everything He says and does is confirmed by the word of God. In 15:13-18, He brings Scripture alive to James so that he sees the “the prophets agree” with the testimony of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas.

It’s essential we see the word “agree.”

This, too, is exactly how the Holy Spirit speaks to us. He unites; He brings to one mind; He gives us the gift of experiencing “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” 11

This is the testimony of Acts 15! The apostles and elders met together in a time of great conflict. They were in desperate need of the Holy Spirit’s counsel. They listened to Him by listening to each other; by listening to the Scriptures; and by following His lead as He united their hearts and minds in one accord. It’s for this reason they could say with confidence:

“…it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…
Acts 15:28

It’s the second most urgent principle: Having listened, we follow. We let Him lead.

Can You Surrender to Him?

Now comes the hard part.

We stay safe, we stay “two stream.” In public worship, we follow the order of service. In our preaching, same thing. It’s all planned. If we stick our toes in the third stream, we’re cautious. We don’t like surprises. If we allow for the spontaneous, we plan for it, we control it. It’s how we do life. It’s how we do relationships. We call it — leadership.

But what if it’s not? What if it’s really called – control?

What if leadership is the exact opposite? It’s about – surrender, the yielding of control?

It’s this principle that’s in Mary. That moment, in spontaneous surprise, when she was suddenly in the presence of the mighty angel Gabriel who said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you”? 12 At a time like that, is anything in our control?

It got worse. He told her the plan and, upon hearing it, she didn’t understand it. How could she have a child yet remain a virgin? When she asked, Gabriel surprised her again by telling her the secret that unlocks the mystery of the kingdom of God.

It’s all about surrender.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…”
Luke 1:35

She could have said no. Surrender is never forced. It’s always a choice. But Mary didn’t say no. She offered herself willingly to the plan and purpose of Almighty God in these unforgettable words: “Behold, the Lord’s bondservant; may it be done to me according to your word.” 13

This sound of surrender — is that you?

Years later, on the day of Pentecost, the 120 gathered faced the same choice. The Lord Jesus was sending them on mission but required one thing: To wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them – just like Mary. They, too, had to make a choice of surrender.

Can you surrender to Him?

Many of us say yes and mean no – we can’t let go control. The experience of Pentecost scares us. Spiritual gifts scare us. The idea of teaching our people how to listen, follow, and surrender to the Holy Spirit scares us. It’s why we stay “two stream” and dabble in the third.

Do we realize the impact of saying no? When we take control, we push Him away. When we’re in the lead, He’s not. When we ask Him to bless our plans for the church, do we think He will? When we preach surrender, yet live control, are we being the leaders He has called us to be?

Can you stay yes and mean yes?

Our Lord Jesus sends us out “lambs in the midst of wolves.” 14 He does not send us out alone. We are to be filled, empowered, and led by the Holy Spirit. We can’t do life; we can’t do church; we can’t do mission without Him. We all need Him, and we need leaders who know we need Him.

Leaders who say yes.

Times have shifted. Like the churches in Revelation 2-3, we’re living in a culture hostile to God; defiant to His word; drunk on sexual immorality; and fixated on the idolatrous worship of self. It is in this context, our Lord issued the command, “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Say yes and hear Him. Follow Him. Surrender yourself to Him. In the times we’re living in, we need Him in the lead. And that means, the urgent need today, is leaders who know it and live it.

Three principles.

He’s all I’d talk about.

 

Notes

1 Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:8, 13, 22
2 Revelation 3:20
3 Jeremiah 11:7-8
4 Matthew 23:33, 37
5 Acts 7:51
6 See John 14:26; 16:13; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 and 2 Peter 1:3-11; John 16:8; Eph 6:10-20; Acts 1:4-8; John 16:14
7 Ephesians 4:30
8 1 Thessalonians 5:19
9 Romans 8:14
10 I first heard this saying in the preaching of the Rev. Dr. Everett “Terry” Fullam
11 Ephesians 4:3
12 Luke 1:28
13 Luke 1:38
14 Luke 10:3