Isn’t it significant that no-one was added to the Church before the day of Pentecost?
Being with Jesus for three years and being witnesses of the resurrection did not fully equip his disciples to preach the gospel. They needed to be filled with the Spirit not in some formal, religious, Temple-authorised way with candles and decorum but with visible fire on their heads, a mighty storm blowing through the room – and with uncontrollable languages pouring from their mouths (Acts 2:1-4). No wonder they wanted to get out of the upper room!
And, if that wasn’t enough, they then experienced a kind of after-shock event in which the building they were meeting in was shaken following the release of Peter and John from prison (Acts 4:31).
I’ve never understood how any Christian can read these accounts and not directly connect experiences of the Spirit as a necessary preparation to evangelism – including experiences which might well be quite overwhelming. Being “cautious about the Spirit” is about as far removed from the book of Acts as it is possible to get. Jesus does not say, “I send you as lambs amongst wolves – but do be careful, won’t you?”
This country, it seems, has almost entirely rejected our faith as a relic of history. Our choices are either:
1. disappearing or
2. becoming truly missionary.
To do the latter, we must cry out for the power of the Spirit. I confidently predict that only those Christian movements committed to evangelism in the Spirit, as Jesus and his disciples were, will survive – even in the short term. Because God has not changed his tactics and the nature of unbelievers remains exactly the same.
Very sensibly, people have rejected dead religion. Many have had enough of dreary religious formality with incomprehensible words and music forms. Many were put off by boring school chapel services, or seeing the hypocrisy of some ordained ministers, who should have been examples of people on fire but weren’t. They know unreality when they see it; they know what is cold, hard and dead.
Whether we do is another matter.
I have just written a book about the work of the Spirit and at the end of each chapter, I included a true story from a member of my congregation. So that’s fifteen stories of power encounters today, often involving conversion. Those accounts include the complete healing of someone at the top of the heart transplant list, the complete healing of someone whose pelvis was misshapen since birth and who had multiple fractures in her spine and the complete healing of a woman who had cancer in five different parts of her body.
A woman recently walked past our church and was attracted by the fact that people didn’t wear formal clothes. Some months later she was woken by a voice telling her to go back to the church. She cried her way through the service and went on to receive prayer many times. She has a horrendous past of pain and mistreatment. However, thanks be to God, she broke the power of a secret she had carried for twenty years – that she had been raped – by telling the church. Also, the vision in one eye that had been lost due to mistreatment as a child, has been fully restored.
I fully believe in preaching the gospel and we run the Life Course three times a year as our main way of doing so. I believe in engaging the culture intellectually and in proclaiming the message of Jesus in terms that a largely agnostic/atheist culture can understand. We work hard to help people evaluate the role of science and contemporary philosophies. We work to explain the meaning of the cross and the resurrection in the thought categories of central London. However, I also believe in demonstrations of the Spirit’s power and I can honestly say that we have seen him do extraordinary things over the years and this is why our church has continued to grow through conversion.
Whatever else has been true of St Mary’s over the years and of course, it has many weaknesses and has failed in various ways, we have always had the joy of new birth. There are always people around on the fringes, checking us out and interestingly, often having no qualms about coming forward to receive prayer. I would say that non-Christians in our church often experience the power of the Spirit before they come to believe in Jesus. Don’t think for one moment that I confuse the two; I do not. But I recognise that just as people often belong before they believe, so they often taste and see that the Lord is good before they fully know him. Just as they did in the Gospels.
So, as Pentecost is at hand, are we going to celebrate simply by looking back to what God did once – or are we going to embrace what he wants to do today, so that today (not just then) many are added to the Church?
If you want to read more from John, here are links to a couple of books he’s written: