You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
This Sunday is Pentecost, the day when we remember and celebrate that God poured out his Holy Spirit upon the church to empower the church for mission. In that upper room, the apostles communicated the good news of Jesus in languages unknown to them. Peter, the chief among the apostles, threw open the windows and cast the whole of the biblical story in the light of Jesus. “Repent and be baptized,” he told the crowd, “and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
And they did. The book of Acts tells us that about three thousand new believers were added that day (2:41).
That’s a lot of people who responded to the gospel. What I’ve learned along the way is that when we think about church growth, numbers aren’t everything, but they are something. We have to broaden our approach to measuring the church, loosen up our data set so that our understanding of success (if we even use that word!) takes in more than numbers in the pews and dollars on a spreadsheet. We need to look at ties within the church, the practice of hospitality, service in the community, commitment to prayer, and above all: growth in Christlikeness.
But at some point, we will come back around to look at growth in numbers, because numbers represent lives touched for Jesus. If the numbers aren’t there, those transformed lives aren’t there. If we’re not seeing response to the good news and repentance and baptism, then at some point we have to ask ourselves: why not?
Enter the Holy Spirit, who Jesus promised would empower the church to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. I’m struck that there are at least three ways the Holy Spirit sends and empowers the church for mission:
1. To proclaim the gospel boldly.
The Holy Spirit strikes a flame of boldness to speak and share and proclaim the good news of Jesus. Peter threw open the balcony doors and preached (Acts 2:14ff). Peter and John spoke before the ruling council of Jerusalem (Acts 4). The believers “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). Stephen testified to Jesus to the point of death (Acts 7). The list goes one.
It’s pretty simple: talk to people. Get out, start conversations, sidle up to people on the sidelines of the kids’ soccer games. Listen for opportunities to share your hope in Jesus (1 Peter 3:15).
We bought a used truck, and during the test drive the conversation swerved into talk about faith. I know: the salesman was a captive audience. But he asked, and I spoke. It was the most natural thing in the world. We were talking about what it meant to live well, and in that conversation, the uncomfortable thing would have been to keep quiet about Jesus.
2. To speak the language of the others.At Pentecost, the apostles “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:4). The crowd of religious pilgrims in Jerusalem heard the apostles testifying to “God’s deeds of power” in their own languages (2:1-13).
While the apostles’ gift was a supernatural event–one that has cropped up throughout Christian history–it also reminds us that in order to proclaim the gospel, we have to do the very mundane work of learning people’s native tongue. To enter someone’s world, you have to learn their words.
This means hitting the textbooks and catching the plane for parts unknown. But it’s also means speaking people’s language in the sense of meeting them where they’re at, understanding where they’re coming from, what matters to them.
My wife and I have learned to distinguish between Mexican pozole and menudo (which are different depending on where you’re from!) I keep trying–and failing–to pick up the language of disc golf. On a recent visit to Nebraska, I got schooled in Huskers football after it was revealed that I had committed a cardinal sin: not knowing the Huskers head coach.
3. To sit down, decaffeinate, and take the time to be with people.
When Paul and his companions were in Philippi, they went outside the city gate to a place of prayer. Acts says that they “sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there” (16:13).
That sitting down strikes me as important. Forget the soapbox, theirs was a moment to engage in conversation. For all Paul’s intense desire to carry the gospel to the ends of earth, he took the time to sit down. It’s much like what the apostle Peter did when, earlier on, he spent “several days” with Cornelius and his household (10:48).
We have to take the time to sit down with people. Know their stories. Build relationships. Understand something of where they’re coming from.
Once, my wife and I prioritized an apartment complex near our house for prayer and evangelism. We started connecting to people and inviting them to church events. At one point as we were hanging out in the central courtyard, the manager, who had seen us around, came out, slid into the picnic table, and said, “OK, what’s your schtick?” There it was: the open door. But no schtick. Just sitting down and talking to people about Jesus.
We think of the Holy Spirit energizing God’s people for mission. But sometimes, what the Holy Spirit has to do is slow us down, get us to take a seat, share a cup of coffee. Sometimes, we just need to be together. In our contemporary moment when so many churches have seen their membership drop, taking time to be with people can be a powerful countersign to our tendency to operate out of a place of urgent, caffeinated fear. We need young families with kids, and we need them now. Or something like that. But our God is a God of patience and relationships, and he calls us to nothing less.
It’s been a couple thousand years since the original outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. But the work of the Spirit hasn’t ceased. He’s still active, still empowering and sending the church on mission.
On this Pentecost, where’s the Holy Spirit sending and empowering you?