The Holy Spirit and Mission

‘Oh God of burning, cleansing flame: Send the fire!’ pleaded Salvation Army founder William Booth. The essence of this familiar and well-loved hymn emphasises the vital need for the Holy Spirit within all aspects of the Christian life. Biblical images of the Holy Spirit:

~**Counsellor (John 14: 26)*~~*Life Giver (John 6: 63)*~~*The one who brings God’s power (Acts 1: 8)**~

provide some insights into the third person of the Trinity. Often our notion of the Holy Spirit is in relation to ‘gifts’ (1 Corinthians 12 & 14) and ‘fruit’ in terms of personal character (Galatians 5). Although both these understandings from Paul’s letters are important for the Church, and should be evident in our lives as followers of Christ, I believe the work of the Holy Spirit involves far more than these things alone.

The presence and work of the Holy Spirit is not limited to the Church. The Spirit is also active within the lives of people outside the Church, indeed within all of creation, though some may not recognise who it is. John Wesley supported this view in his theology of prevenient grace – God already at work in our lives before we are aware of it. Many of us would testify that long before we made a commitment to follow Christ we had a sense of being sought by God in some way. We may not have expressed it that way at the time, but as we look back we can see how God by his Spirit was drawing us to himself.

Continuing with the image of fire, Emil Brunner’s often quoted phrase: ‘the Church exists by mission as fire exists by burning’ is a powerful metaphor for mission in the power of the Spirit. Mission is not an optional extra, but rather an integral part of the Church’s heritage and purpose within the will of God. This view, however, is not always true of Christians’ perception and experience of mission. Where there are feelings of anxiety and apprehension about mission, some people view it as invasive, daunting and out-dated.

Mission becomes more exciting and seems to have more purpose when we approach it with an understanding of the prevenient and ongoing work of the Spirit. We live in a society which Stuart Murray has described as ‘post- Christendom’1. In other words, people’s search for spiritual direction and meaning to life is frequently experienced in places other than the Church. When we accept the idea that the Holy Spirit is at work outside the Church (as well as within it) we adjust our approach to Christian mission.

Our commitment to mission as Christians can include more than people’s spiritual reconciliation with God through Christ. Awareness of social justice and environmental issues are also key facets for holistic Christian mission. If we believe God is concerned for all creation, then surely this should influence our approach to mission. Recently, I have been working with a church in Sheffield whose members have effectively embraced this holistic approach to mission. They have been bringing together Christian witness and environmental work within the local community. Church members work collaboratively with their local council and with people who have no association with the church, doing monthly litter picking and tending a council-based wildlife garden next door to the church. Perhaps previous generations have focussed so much on the spiritual dimensions of mission2 (vitally important as they are) that they have underplayed mission’s social and environmental dimensions. A holistic approach to mission embraces them all.

Theologian David Bosch identifies Luke’s writings both in the Gospel and Acts as a model for Spirit-led mission. He believes the Spirit became ‘the catalyst, the guiding and driving force of mission’ for the early Church. Indeed, the book of Acts contains numerous accounts of mission initiated by the Holy Spirit. Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch is just one example. In his analysis of Luke’s writings Bosch concludes that the Holy Spirit ‘sealed the kinship between God’s universal will to save, the liberating ministry of Jesus and the worldwide mission of the Church.’

Cliff College has a heritage of dedication to the Holy Spirit and mission. These two facets are part of the DNA of Cliff College – its past, present and, I believe, its future too. When I first came to study at Cliff in 1993, I had a raw desire to share the Gospel with people. This passion for evangelism, coming from a love for God and for others, was developed, honed and equipped whilst I was a student at Cliff. In my work now as an Evangelist on the staff at Cliff, my heart for mission has grown and broadened. I have been privileged to engage in mission with local churches, Christian charities and prison chaplaincies across the United Kingdom, Europe and Africa. In every situation I have encountered the presence and work of the Holy Spirit both inside and outside the Church. Here is one story:

During a busy mission in Chesterfield town centre last year, as part of Hope 08, a student and I were walking back from a lunchtime church service to another mission event. On our way we met a young man who had been in the lunchtime service and recognised us… (maybe the fact that we were both carrying Bibles and wearing brightly coloured Hope 08 t-shirts was a bit of a give away!). He shared with us how he had felt drawn to go into the church for the service and said he really wanted to talk about things with someone but was not confident enough to speak to anyone whilst in the church. He said it was a ‘miracle’ that he had seen us walking along the street and recognised us. The student and I had the most amazing conversation with this man and offered to pray for him, which he readily accepted. This unplanned encounter some might say was coincidence; I believe it was an example of the Holy Spirit at work within mission.

As worship leaders and preachers we have a responsibility to relate Scripture to contemporary settings, holding together the biblical text and today’s understanding of real life. In addressing this challenge, many churches today use themed preaching in their Sunday services, bringing a greater sense of connection between Church and society. In our preaching and worship leading we can help congregations (and ourselves) to connect with the world more effectively and to look for signs of the work of the Spirit in the ‘everyday’. When this happens, mission becomes a more natural and integrated part of life.

I believe that our society is longing for genuine signs of hope and transformation. These can be experienced through engaging in contextual, holistic approaches to mission, initiated, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Advances in mission do not spring from education, planning, committees or conferences. They do spring from God’s determination to work through his people by the power of the Holy Spirit AND our commitment to follow his lead and join in his mission.

As we celebrate the outpouring of the Spirit and what many would describe as the birth of the Church at Pentecost, may we all remember the inextricable connection between the Holy Spirit and mission. God through his Spirit initiates and guides mission; brings wise counsel and conviction; brings people into a living relationship with Christ and empowers the Church for works of service.

Together, as brothers and sisters in Christ, let us join God in his mission, to show God’s love and grace to all people. We go in God’s strength – through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.