the shape of leadership

Leading People to the Spirit's Life

Three pastoral doorways for leading people toward the Holy Spirit

Last Sunday in church, we sang:

“Holy Spirit, You are welcome here

Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere

Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for

To be overcome by Your presence, Lord.”

Being the spiritual leader that he is, our pastor, Jeff Peterson, did not miss the moment, or change the subject. He stepped to the front and encouraged us as a congregation to open our hearts to the Spirit’s presence, just to linger and receive. As he prayed, we prayed. The familiar, yet inexplicable, presence of the Spirit touched us. This, as the song lyrics remind us, is what our hearts long for.

Some of my earliest childhood memories involve waking up during altar calls at church, weeping. My parents actually talked to the pastor about it at one point. Wisely, he reassured them that nothing was wrong. Rather, everything was right. I was responding to the wooing, tugging presence of the Holy Spirit as only a young preschooler could — with tears. Even today, tears come to my eyes when I feel the Holy Spirit beginning to move. And over the years, I have always loved hearing people who are new to church say, “Pastor, whenever I come to a service, I cry.”

Although they may not understand at first, they are experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit.

God’s presence is what we need. His Spirit melts us down and fills us up. We were made for His presence. In 1 Corinthians 6:19, Paul asked the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”

God’s personal presence in us and with us has always been God’s passion. In the newly created Garden of Eden, God personally walked where Adam and Eve lived (Genesis 3:8). In the newly built temple in Jerusalem, God’s glory filled the house and eclipsed even priestly activity (2 Chronicles 7:1­–2). In the midst of the newly formed Church on the Day of Pentecost, God’s Spirit came with power and evidence (Acts 2:4). And in the new heaven and new earth, “God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3).

If our gatherings are devoid of God’s presence, and if we are happy simply with the mechanics of ministry as they are, without Him, we have robbed people of what they really need. It would be better to lock the doors and not waste our time. If those we lead never encounter a holy fire in their hearts that is greater than the false fires of human hype and religious manipulation, how will they ever stay faithful to Jesus, keeping their affections on fire for Him, in the kind of world in which we live? In our pursuit of ministry relevance, might we actually be depriving people of some of the same encounters with the Holy Spirit that shaped and propelled our own lives?

I have come to understand ministry as a marriage between excellence and anointing. Excellence represents the best we can do, but anointing reminds us that our best, at its best, is not enough. Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

The people we serve desperately need encounters with the power of the Holy Spirit if they are to be free and filled.

What worries me most about that statement is the period at the end. It’s not, “apart from me you can do nothing — until you get the right facilities or finish your education or find the right worship leader.”

It is an unqualified assertion that casts us upon the Lord and reframes our whole perception of ministry.

My friend Kevin Kringel pastors an Assemblies of God church in northern Illinois. Under his leadership, the church has grown from 18 people to well over a thousand. There is a decidedly contemporary feel to the church, but Kringel has determined along the way not to minimize the person and work of the Holy Spirit, or to underplay our need for His presence.

In his recent book, Relevant Acts, Kringel writes, “Whatever your style, your environments can look and sound like you, but you must be strategic as you expose your people to more of God Himself. Why? Your people may not otherwise learn how to foster divine fellowship with God on their own. What they learn in church relating to meeting with and listening to the Spirit of God will end up in their personal lives.”

So where do we start? Let me focus on three pastoral doorways for leading people toward the Holy Spirit.

Mentor When You Preach

At the 2015 General Council in Orlando, Fla., Jack Hayford said, “A passion for the Holy Spirit is more than holding a doctrine, but the discipling of people into the life of the Spirit … a discipleship dimension that most pastors are deficient in. How to live life in the Spirit needs to be covered Sunday mornings.”

It may seem out of step with common practice to address “walking in the Spirit” topics on Sunday mornings, but in many ways, life in the Spirit is what all of Scripture ultimately points us to.

Hayford went on to say, “You can’t expect people to be open to the Spirit’s fullness with little understanding of, or introduction to, the person of the Spirit.”

Indeed, we do people no favors when we edit Scripture and hide the Holy Spirit from them.

The mentoring question is this: If somebody listened to me preach for five years, what would they look like spiritually? This kind of intentional approach requires breaking down what living life in the Spirit is all about into its component parts and then aiming message applications specifically toward those ends — knowing God, Spirit baptism, walking in faith, hearing God’s voice, intercession, spiritual authority, transformed character, life-giving relationships, personal evangelism, spiritual gifts, the priesthood of all believers and I could go on. I personally had to start looking at sermons as opportunities to equip and mentor, not just exhort and motivate.

Unfortunately, in my early preaching life, most of my sermon applications boiled down to little more than “pray and be more committed.” People felt pushed, but not equipped. Or I would catch myself thinking, I’ll just let God apply the point. But vagueness on my part gave place to vagueness on everyone else’s part as well. I found that to mentor when I preached, I needed to allocate a lot more of my preparation time toward simplifying my messages down to a focused point and then praying through specific equipping types of applications.

I also realized that I often preached right to the end of the service and left no time for congregational or individual response. God’s Spirit and His Word always work together. The Word is the sword the Spirit uses (Ephesians 6:17). To leave no time for the Spirit to work His Word into people’s hearts short-circuits the whole empowering process. I needed to aim for anointed impact rather than needless length. So after my message outline was essentially developed, I would go back and try to cut out 25 percent of it. Amazingly, I usually succeeded. It is surprisingly easy to ramble when we haven’t yet focused what we are trying to say, or to try to say too much. I would sometimes also reverse the Sunday order of service — preaching first and having singing and worship as an extended response. Those tended to be especially powerful services because we were giving God’s Spirit time. 

Teach People to Feed Themselves

Although my father always felt called to the business world, he was one of the most active local church volunteers I have ever known. He refused to criticize pastors, but instead served on their boards, led home Bible studies, taught new believers’ classes, directed choirs, superintended Sunday School programs and led outreaches — whatever it took to minister to people and help the church grow. One day, he went to his pastor and expressed how much he enjoyed his sermons. Then he asked, “Would you teach me how you study the Bible?”

Whether out of insecurity, or perhaps a sense of loss as to what to say, the pastor’s only response was, “No, just keep listening to my sermons.”

A few years later, I became an engineering student at a secular university. One day, I showed my father what our campus ministry leaders had taught us about feeding ourselves spiritually. I took an 8-1/2-by-11 sheet of paper, turned it sideways and drew two lines, top to bottom, creating three equal columns. At the top of the first column, I wrote, “What does it say?” At the top of the second column, “What does it mean?” And at the top of the third column, “How does it apply to me?”

That was all Dad needed. A spiritual revolution erupted in his life. He would get up early every morning to study the Word and seek God through the lens of those three inductive Bible study questions. Years later, I heard him give a talk in which he described publicly the spiritual adventure that was still ongoing in his life, all starting with that sheet of paper turned sideways.

Over many years of pastoring, I have noticed that something fundamentally shifts in people’s experience of the Spirit when they go from only being fed by others to feeding themselves spiritually as well. If God’s Spirit is the flame, His Word is the fuel. Giving people the encouragement and tools to engage Scripture and listen to the Holy Spirit for themselves is one of our highest pastoral callings as spiritual leaders. After all, intimacy with Christ and walking in the Spirit’s life are the heart of Christianity — not being busier than we used to be, or putting more events into our schedules, or even having more Christian friends. We can be busy with Christian activities and still be devoid of the Spirit’s life. Our pastoral goal has to be more than getting people involved. People need to connect daily to the Spirit’s life, and they can learn how to do that if we help them.

Create Encounter Moments

Preach with mentoring application, and give people tools to walk daily in the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:14). However, do not replace the need for specific power encounters with the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit comes upon us, He does what we could never do. As Pentecostals, we believe this, and it has shaped us.

If those we lead never encounter a holy fire in their hearts that is greater than the false fires of human hype and religious manipulation, how will they ever stay faithful to Jesus?

The new believers in Samaria experienced this when Peter and John came down from Jerusalem and laid hands on them. According to Acts 8:17, they “received the Holy Spirit.” More than once, Paul referenced the moment when believers laid hands on Timothy and a spiritual impartation took place that affected the rest of his ministry (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6).

With fairly tightly scripted Sunday morning services, the only time most people are in a corporate worship setting these days, the opportunities for people to experience the laying on of hands for prayer — or experience baptism in the Holy Spirit, healing ministry and the gifts of the Holy Spirit — are diminishing. The people we serve desperately need encounters with the power of the Holy Spirit if they are to be free and filled. In fact, I personally ask people to lay hands on me and pray for me from time to time out of my own need for this. Yet the majority of people in our churches may never have that opportunity unless we intentionally create contexts and moments for that to happen.

If we are mentoring when we preach, then we are also always preaching toward moments of faith response and encounters with the Spirit’s power. Even with multiple services, let’s not give in to having time for everything but altar response, prayer ministry and waiting on God in one form or another. The Holy Spirit wants us to leave room for Him and to give Him time to work. This is why I periodically switched the order of service, preaching first. I also almost always invited people forward for personal prayer while the musical worship was taking place.

Beyond Sunday mornings, leaders can create opportunities for people to encounter the Holy Spirit, even where there are no regular Sunday night or midweek services. Consider these possibilities:

• Invite evangelists and ministers gifted in leading others into experiencing the Holy Spirit to minister in special services in addition to Sunday morning, even if not everyone attends. These can be Holy Spirit conferences, revival meetings, camp meetings or spiritual renewal events — the label is not as important as the content.

• Encourage ministry teams and small groups to take time to pray for one another every time they meet. Teach people to listen for and discern God’s voice, to overcome their natural hesitancy to pray conversationally out loud around others and to step out in gifts of the Holy Spirit as the Lord prompts them. Always affirm that all believers are ministers — and that the Spirit living in them wants to flow through them.

• Conduct special midweek or Sunday night classes on the Holy Spirit, and provide time for people to ask questions and receive prayer. Teach people how to yield to the Spirit’s fullness, and help them understand why speaking in tongues is important in their lives well beyond the moment of Spirit baptism.

• Have Friday night through Saturday afternoon retreats for leading people through the issues of repentance, forgiveness, deliverance and Spirit baptism. Over the years, I have worked with the multiweek Alpha Course for prebelievers and new believers, which included a Holy Spirit weekend in which people received prayer for Spirit baptism. (It requires only minimal adjustment of the curriculum to bring it fully in line with our Statement of Faith on the baptism in the Holy Spirit.)

• Encourage a week of prayer and fasting every few months. Ask people to fast a meal a day that week, or a full day (or more). Follow this with a Sunday night healing service structured around a short time of worship and a 10-minute message on receiving from the Lord, devoting the rest of the time to worship and prayer ministry.

• Amazing things can happen when we make way for the Spirit to work in people’s lives. Often, our fear is, What if nothing happens? As a pastor, I finally had to decide that’s God’s problem, not mine. The pressure was not on me. And when I appear before Him someday, He will probably not look at me and say, “You believed Me for too much,” or, “You prayed for too many people.” Quite the opposite!

Let us be unapologetic about the Holy Spirit. May we make ourselves available for Him to flow through us, and may we also equip others to live life in the Spirit. 

 James T. Bradford is general secretary for the General Council of the Assemblies of God, Springfield, Missouri. This article was originally published in the April/May issue of Influence. For more print content, subscribe here. For more articles on this subject by James T. Bradford, see "7 Core Commitments of a Spiritual Leader" and "3 Life-Giving Biblical Experiences."

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