The Spirit Incommunicado

Though the anthropological approach to mission was proposed and made popular by decidedly non-Calvinist leaders (R. Winter, D. McGavran), reformed thinkers such as J. Piper and J.D. Greear have adopted the philosophy and developed missiologies around it. For those who believe that the eternal destiny of human souls depends on the Church’s evangelistic efforts, it makes sense that they would want to “expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.” But for those whose theological persuasion alleviates that burden of guilt, the anthropological approach might seem like a non sequitur.

The discussion has been happening among the different tribes on the interwebs, but it’s still relatively unexplored. Until J. Piper’s book, “Let the Nations Be Glad” hit the scene back in 1993, reformed Christians were seen as the foil to the Church’s fulfillment of the Great Commission. In focusing on the supremacy of God’s glory as the basis of global mission, the reformed found the key to human involvement in God’s predestined activity. “Reaching unreached ethnolinguistic people groups” became the point of cooperation for Christians of various theological perspectives.

Henry Blackaby teaches that Christians should follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit and get involved where they see Him at work. Most in the missions world emphasize the importance of an individual’s “calling” to missionary service. Many in the reformed camp ridicule these positions, claiming that looking for such guidance from God amounts to seeking “extra-biblical revelation.”  They say that we get all the guidance we need on mission from the scriptures. That the Spirit-led missions of Paul, Peter, Phillip, and the early church were unique to that early time in the Church’s history, and in no way normative for us today. (EDIT: Tim Challies’ recent series makes this argument) After all, they say, who is a missionary today to compare himself to the Apostles? God doesn’t have a “specific” will for our missionary service, they say. Instead, they propose that our involvement be motivated by our reading of scripture, our obedience to the Great Commission, and our application of wisdom.

It takes some theological leaps to arrive at the conclusion that after commissioning the church to make disciples in all nations, God went incommunicado.

Firstly, all of the Biblical examples of the church on mission were Spirit-led. Jesus sent out the 72 and told them that they would know they were in the right place when “their peace rested” there. Peter was led by a vision that challenged his understanding of the gospel. It “seemed good” to the Jerusalem council to send disciples to the missional church at Antioch, but it’s clear that what “seemed right” to them was heavily informed by step-by-step guidance from the Holy Spirit. Paul and Barnabas were sent out from the Antioch church when the Holy Spirit spoke to the congregation, calling out the two men as a they worshiped. Yes, all of these were historic “firsts” for the church. But if the Apostle’s utter dependence on the Holy Spirit wasn’t meant to be normative for the church on mission today, why doesn’t God provide us with examples who were strictly canon-led?

If there really isn’t any further direction from God when it comes to our participation in His global mission, it makes sense that we should hold tightly to a framework that “seems good” to us. It’s understandable that we would extrapolate a goal and then devise a plan to complete the task. But then we’re left to split hairs over Christ’s understanding of “ethne” and what to do about the Unreached People Groups who have already become extinct (without, to our knowledge, ever hearing the gospel).

But if you believe that the Holy Spirit (who lives in us) is not silent today, we must allow Him to orchestrate our efforts- even when they contradict the strategies we’ve developed out of our interpretation of scripture. Here’s how this plays out practically:

  • Sending: The church must only send those who have been called. This calling is made by the Spirit and affirmed by the local church. Even if someone meets all the criteria for service, we cannot assume it is good to send him out.
  • Strategy: Statistics and ethnography are good tools for us as we organize our resources, but ultimately we must do what the Spirit leads us to do- even if it doesn’t fit our expectations. If God leads us to minister among a “reached” people, we must be willing to obey.
  • Evangelism: Knowing that people are moved to faith by the Holy Spirit, we should be in constant communication with Him. Because He knows the “hearts of men,” He knows what we should say and when. He knows whose hearts He is preparing. Mission happens on His time, not ours.
  • Church Planting: Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain. As we make disciples, churches are formed. But what those churches should look like, what they should redeem and what they should reject, must be done according to scripture as illuminated by the Spirit. Otherwise, we get contextually inappropriate expressions of church.

Does God have a “specific will” for us as believers? I don’t know. Should we ask Him for guidance in every little thing? Probably not. But when it comes to our obedience in His mission, the pattern is clear: With an attitude of worship and humility, we should do what “seems good” while listening for His guidance and watching for the circumstances of His providence. This isn’t looking for “extra-biblical” revelation, it’s relying on the Spirit of Jesus for the interpretation and application of His Word.