The Holy Spirit and the Local Church
Jesus is the Lord of his church, and the Spirit of God can work vibrantly among his people. Too often our church life is devoid of the Lord’s spiritual dynamism. We become overly dependent upon human wisdom and planning, to such a point that we no longer rely upon the Lord who can deliver us. As we lift up the exalted Christ and depend upon him through worship, prayer and his truth, the majestic working of God will be manifest in the local churches.
The Greatness of God
God is full of might. And though he has the prerogative to manifest his power in any way he desires, the fact that God works to deliver his people spans both Testaments. God transcends this world. He is supernatural. It should not surprise us that our fellowship with him allows glimpses of the divine reality of his greatness. What good is our theology if our knowledge of God is confined to a theoretical understanding that bears no resemblance of our actual faith experience? The scriptures bear testimony that faithful men and women of God were greatly changed and empowered by him. They were always mightier in their works and bolder in their declarations. The Lord gave them ability that went beyond social phenomena or human understanding.
For the New Testament Church, the effect of God’s presence should yield a great spiritual dynamism. This potential is greater than during Old Testament times. We have God’s forgiveness through the atonement. We have the Spirit who indwells us. The Book of Hebrews describes Jesus as our high priest, who intercedes for our prayers. And we have a triumphant Christ enthroned in heaven. It is of great note that the Old Testament passage most alluded to in the New Testament is Ps 110:1: “Sit down at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool!” Jesus has authority to conquer; his triumph is certain.
But the triumph of Christ is often lacking in his Church. His manifest power is not seen. At times we seek it, but in the wrong ways, looking for it through some new technique which is biblically unsound. Then there are other approaches that tend to avoid spiritual dynamism by focusing on an intellectualism, or reliance upon human reasoning, or some business model that yields predictable results. There is often a great variance between the spiritual potential in Christ and the spiritual reality of our churches. We need to rekindle our passion for Christ and to fan into flame the Spirit that indwells us. Our strength is found in the spiritual realms and in the power that is found in Christ.
What does a church with a positive spiritual dynamism look like? What are some characteristics of the mighty presence of God within his church? I will present four characteristics. They are not exhaustive, but representative of the Spirit’s work in the church. They are: (1) a worship that experiences his presence, (2) a testimony of his corporate deliverance, (3) a people who are refined, and (4) a manifestation of his might in ministry.
Worship that Experiences His Presence
The Sunday worship is the most common corporate experience of all believers. There is no argument on the importance of worshiping God. But what needs to be discussed is quality of that worship. What is it that God is looking for in worship? This question needs to be addressed, because what is commonly practiced as worship often falls short of what God desires.
All too often, what is understood as good worship is determined by the people who lead the worship. If the music is good, if the sermon is moving, if we have the proper ambiance for the worship experience, then the worship excels. The postmodern age has rejected abstract truth and instead gravitates toward the experience, preferring the music and the ambiance. The modernist goes for the teaching. So we craft our services for the people to evoke a worship experience, great worshipful music that gives praise to God, or powerful preaching that enlightens the mind, or penetrates the soul. We may include a few PowerPoint slides, a video clip, or the strategic dimming of lights. Maybe the topics of the messages can be adapted to draw more people into the worship. But is this all there is to the worship of God?
What is worship? To answer this question we need to look at it from two perspectives: form and function. The form of worship includes music. The Psalms were originally set to melodies. Paul tells us to encourage one another with hymns and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19). The “new song” is echoed in the heavenly presence of God (Rev 5:9; 14:3). Then there is the teaching element. Jesus gave sermons; so did Peter. Teaching is found everywhere in Paul’s ministry. The pastor is the teacher (Eph 4:11), and so are the elders of the church (1 Tim 3:2). These are the two major formal ingredients of modern worship, but the function of worship is a quite different issue.
In understanding the function of worship, we need to see what happens when true worship is depicted. A good place to understand the function of worship is the Gospel of Matthew. In this Gospel, there are three clear instances of individuals worshiping Jesus: the Magi who bow before the newborn Christ (Matt 2:11), the disciples who worship Jesus after seeing his great power in calming a stormy sea (Matt 14:33), and the post-resurrection worship of Jesus (Matt 28:9, 17). In each these three instances, there is no music heard, neither is there a sermon delivered. The forms of worship are nowhere to be found, but these three instances are endorsed in the text as genuine expressions of worship of Christ. It is worship without the form, because the worshiper is responding to the realization of Christ’s majesty. It is very personal, and the spiritual reflex action is to bow and fall before his presence. Worship in the Gospel of Matthew transcends form. It is about what one truly believes within his soul about the majesty of Christ. This pure worship needs no external assistance.
Besides a personal understanding of the majesty of God, worship has another function, which is to cause us to repent and submit. The worship that God seeks cannot be left on the level of mere words of praise. God is not seeking the words, but the person behind the words. The function of repentance and submission is at the heart of worship. This concept of submission is seen in the temptation of Jesus. Satan wants Jesus to bow and worship him. But how does this temptation work? Jesus is the eternal Son of God. Satan is a high-ranking created angel. Satan can never be intrinsically higher in nature than the Son of God. But the issue is not about who has the greater nature, but who will submit to the other. Worship must include a submission and lordship theme. True worship grapples with the concept of submitting to God through themes of personal confession and repentance. In 1 Cor 14:24–25, Paul relates the process of an unbeliever hearing the words of a prophecy and getting convicted, as the secrets of his heart are opened, with the result that he falls on his face worshiping God, declaring his presence. Prophecy here is not the foretelling of the future, but is the bold forth-telling of our failings and weaknesses in our lives. In this passage, the true worship experience is the humbling experience before a mighty God. Once again, the true essence of worship is not in the form, but in personal understanding of God’s majesty and our own fallen nature.
At Sunset Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco, we are discovering how to go beyond the form of worship and into its reality. In seeking the pure essence of worship, we have rediscovered a simple answer. It is rather primitive. It is through prayer, prayer that is in accordance with the teaching of Jesus.
All our churches have prayer. But prayer is often given a second or third place in our ministries. Prayer may be limited to invocations and benedictions during worship. Sometimes we may add a prayer to introduce the chief focus of worship, the sermon. Sometimes we can add a mid-week prayer meeting which only a small percentage of the average Sunday morning congregation attends. Or we may include a time of special prayer at the end of the Sunday service, in which prayer warriors pray for those with needs. But prayer needs to go beyond the aforementioned variations if we are to realize the spiritual dynamism that can result. Christ’s teaching on prayer went beyond the formality, placing it as a vital element of a believer’s personal walk with God. There is no way in which a church can be spiritually revitalized without prayer.
Christ’s teaching reveals three transformational characteristics of prayer. First, it must be a major activity of the church. When Jesus chased the moneychangers out of the temple in Mat 21, he said, “My house will be called a house of prayer.” Though our churches cannot be equated with temple worship, the principle of prayer being at the center of corporate worship can be applied. If we are to have churches that have the spiritual vitality of Christ, prayer must be one of the focal points of our ministries, if not the main focus.
Secondly prayer is to be marked by an intimate confession of our need for God. This intimate honesty results in an enjoyment his presence. In Rev 3:14–20, Jesus speaks to the church at Laodicea. Here was a church that was materially wealthy, but was in total spiritual poverty. Christ demanded that they realize this true spiritual poverty. The passage includes a tragic description of Jesus standing outside his own church, knocking on the door seeking entry, promising a great depth of fellowship. Jesus is seeking an honest recognition of their neediness before him. We may be wealthy and self-sufficient in this world, but God knows our true state. As Jesus is calling the entire church in Laodicea to open up to him, so we need to have our entire congregation open up to him in honesty of our problems and weaknesses. We do not need well-crafted prayers. Jesus is not seeking prayers spoken by orators to impress the audience. Rather, he is seeking prayers of humility by the entire congregation so that we would understand who we are, so that we do not become impressed with ourselves.
The final feature of this corporate prayer is based on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught his disciples to go into their “inner room” to pray. Prayer is for God to hear. He tells his followers not to pray like the gentiles who equate effective prayer with wordiness. Rather it is about speaking to the God who already knows all things even before we ask. There is a very personal side to prayer. Privacy before God increases the potential for honesty.
Prayer at Sunset
For many years, I had adopted the usual pattern of Sunday worship. The worship service had a lengthy session of singing, which was then followed by the sermon. The sermon was given the most time, and was the most important component. A small amount of time was given to prayer, which was usually someone saying a prayer on behalf of the congregation. Focus and energy were given to the music and the sermon, and very little to prayer. The thinking was: “if the music is great, and the message is excellent, then people come because it is deemed to be a good worship service.”
But I have come to question the premise of this worship pattern. Singing and teaching are important formal elements of corporate worship, but often we stop short of their intended functional goal by not allowing the worshiper time to respond to God personally in repentance, commitment and dependence. Not only do we disallow the worshiper to come to God in personal worship, we can fool worshipers into thinking that excellent worship is determined by the competence of the musicians and preacher, or that the surrounding worship ambiance determines the quality of the worship. The quality of worship that Christ is seeking is not achieved by a handful of gifted individuals leading the worship, but by the personal worship of the total congregation. The form of worship is external, but the essence of worship is an internal matter. It is not the dozen people leading worship that is important; rather, great worship is determined by the hearts of the people sitting in the audience.
In order to focus on the corporate response in worship, we have made a dramatic change in our worship to include much more prayer. We wanted to change the church to have a culture of prayer. We did not want a church with a prayer meeting, but rather a church where everyone prays. We wanted to go beyond the 5 to 10% who come to prayer services; we wanted 100% participation. So, we brought the prayer meeting into the Sunday worship. Then it was determined that the worship prayer would not be for people with special needs, or be done by individuals gifted in prayer. Some churches have successful prayer ministries where people with needs come forward at the end of the worship service to be prayed for by those trained for such a service. We wanted to go beyond this, because prayer needed to be done by the entire congregation. I often tell people that it is the people who don’t acknowledge their need for prayer who need it the most.
In our Sunday services, prayer is now the most important aspect of our worship. We sing, we teach the word in truth and boldness, but the highlight of our worship is the time set aside for prayer. About 25% of the worship service time is given to prayer and other activities related to personal response. We develop the worship service around prayer, and the staff plans the worship calendar around the focus of prayer.
The manner of our worship prayer can be described as corporate and private. It is corporate because we are praying together. It is private, because people speak to God in their own words. Liturgical prayers have aided many people, but we wanted to focus on the individual response. Liturgical prayers can lose meaning over time, and they cannot reflect the true needs and heart burdens of the individual. Worshipers need to speak in their own words, and not in words we lead them to say. We pattern this time after Christ’s Sermon on the Mount teaching of going to one’s “inner room” to pray. Prayer must be personal and not for people to hear. People who worship at Sunset know that the prayer is the most powerful aspect of our worship, because at this time the individual worshiper responds to the taught word and personally communes with God in prayer. The taught word of God, intimacy with God, and personal assessment are streams brought together in the quietness of the worship prayer time. Sometimes there is soft music playing in the background. Most of the time there is silence.
As a result, the people greatly enjoy the time of prayer and cherish it. Many people have mentioned that they wished the prayer time were longer. Imagine, people wanting to pray to God more! Prayer is becoming such a major part of our worship experience that a Sunday service without significant time of prayer leaves us spiritually wanting.
When I lead the worship prayer time, it revolves around the major application points of the sermon. I lead them in a theme, and tell them to speak to God in their own words, silently, or in whispers concerning that topic. After a short period of time, I move on to a second topic, and then a third, sometimes a fourth. Everyone is basically praying back the sermon in application. Everyone is assessing his or her own spiritual life. Everyone is repenting. Everyone to telling God about their failures. Everyone is making plans for correction. The prayers are short, intense, and honest. As a result, the time of prayer brings the worship service to a noticeably different plane. It is not about listening to a message, or singing worship songs; it is about the individual worshiper opening a door to speak with God in response to the teaching of his word. There are no gimmicks. It is rather primitive. But the result is dramatic. His presence is felt. We often hear sobbing in the congregation during this time; at times there is a great deal of crying. I often feel weighted down when I lead in corporate private prayer. I often find it difficult to stand, bracing myself on the podium. I have gone on my knees in unrehearsed response when I am humbled by my own silent prayers. It is a strange sense of humbling, for it refreshes rather than discourages. It brings a sense of joy and vitality, because each is brought closer to God.
The prayer themes of personal response, repentance, and commitment are always included in our worship service, but we often include other variations in our corporate prayers. Sometimes we will pray for people going on mission trips. We either have them stand in the aisles and have people surround them in prayer, or have them come forward with the elders praying around them. Having people praying for those serving our Lord is important for the corporate body. All too often our worship lacks the corporate sense of working together for the kingdom of God. We neglect to pray for those who minister in our midst. To combat this tendency, at certain intervals, we pray for each Sunday school teacher, or youth worker, or elder by name in the worship service. I cannot imagine how Christ would be pleased with a church that neglects to uphold corporately her servants and leaders in prayer. We need to learn how to uphold those who serve Jesus in corporate prayer, and need to be reminded that we are part of a larger spiritual community. I remember one Sunday when we sent off about a dozen people at our 8:30 am worship for a summer mission trip. As they stood in the aisles, about 90% of the congregation stood up and surrounded them in prayer. Many of the summer missionaries were moved to tears as well as those doing the praying.
In addition to regularly interceding for those who serve the Lord, we also lead the congregation in intercession for needs of the people. We have times when we collect the names and descriptions of the seriously ill for a month. I sometimes give a sermon on praying for the sick, and then the whole congregation is given strips of paper with various names and descriptions on them. We then pray for them during the worship service. At other times we have collected the names of relatives, friends, and acquaintances who do not know Christ, and we pray that they may one day come to know the Savior. Is it not a spiritual war we are in? Is not the war won in the heavenly places through the power of our Lord? Corporate prayer is transforming us. It reminds us every Sunday of the spiritual reality of God, and our humble dependence upon him. We must not be afraid of this spiritual reality. Personal corporate humility before God transforms. I used to enjoy preaching the most. I still look forward to proclaiming the word of God, but now I deem it a greater honor to lead the people in prayer. I have come to the conclusion that I would much rather have the people talk to God than listen to me. Who am I compared to God?
A Testimony of Corporate Deliverance
Answered prayer can uplift a believer, but when God answers the prayer for a congregation, it invigorates the entire body. Western Christianity often focuses too much on the individual, with an approach of “what God can do for me,” as if he were the ultimate self-help guru to solve our problems. God can and does help the individual, but this is so often our central focus that we forget that Jesus stands in the midst of his churches working in them and controlling their destinies. The deliverance of his corporate people manifests his active presence and spiritual favor, and as a result churches with a spiritual dynamism should have stories that testify of it.
A Story of God’s Deliverance at Sunset
For many years we at Sunset Chinese Baptist Church have had a major need: more space. For many years now, we have had four Sunday morning worship services. Two of the worship services have overflow viewing areas. People sitting in the halls is not a figure of speech at Sunset. We are very crowded. We needed space, but there was a major obstacle: we are located in the city of San Francisco. Most people don’t realize how small this city is. It is only seven by seven miles, and this small area is packed with people. It is difficult to find large parcels of land available. And if a large lot were to become available, the price would be prohibitive for a church.
For many years we looked for a place to expand our ministry: the possible lease of an office building in neighboring Daly City, the purchase of a supermarket, a Christian Scientist church for sale. All these possibilities fell through. Then there was the bid on a furniture store that had been inherited by seven relatives. We were disappointed when the vote by the owners went 4-3 against accepting our bid. In the meantime, we purchased a twelve-unit apartment complex located on a 75 by 100 foot lot across the street from our present church facility. Some churches buy acres; in San Francisco churches buy by the square foot.
With the growing need for space and despite the city’s aversion toward such projects, the elders decided to ask the city for permission to tear down the twelve-unit apartment complex to build a new sanctuary. The chance for such approval was highly improbable. The voters of San Francisco had passed Proposition M, which stated that the city would make the preservation of affordable housing a priority for city planning. Apartments were not to be torn down, but were to be preserved. Shortly after we first submitted the building plans we received a call from a city worker with an offer to do us a favor. She had spoken with her colleagues and superiors and got word that the approval of our project was unlikely. So a kind offer was made to refund some of the fees if we decided pull out of the project now. While the offer was appreciated the elders decided to continue.
In soliciting help for the project, we decided to approach two individuals who could assist. One, a building permit expeditor, was well connected with the city planners, with a history of gaining approval for major building projects in the city. He was also a believer and offered to assist without charge. The other individual was the elected supervisor for our district. As a newly elected state assemblyman representing the city he wielded considerable political influence.
With the support of these well-connected and influential individuals we believed that we had a much better chance for approval of the project. The reality was yet another disappointment. They had both talked with the San Francisco city planning commissioners and the word was that the project would be rejected. The building permit expeditor told us we would never get the permit. The politician gave us the same report. As a matter of fact, on the day of the public hearing before the commissioners, the politician told us that the best plan would be to ask for a postponement on the hearing, for it would be better to delay the hearing than to proceed with it and have our plans rejected. The elders conferred and decided to proceed. About two hundred of our members attended the hearing that day. Even though one of our members who attended had by chance known the head Commissioner from public school days, the commissioner told his childhood friend that he couldn’t help him. It was a project that was doomed.
At the public hearing many of our members gave testimony in support of the project, from senior citizens to teenagers. They spoke of what we were doing and of what the church meant to them. At the end, the commissioners gave their decision one by one. Each one prefaced his decision by saying that he had come to deny the permit but changed his mind and was voting to grant it. The building permit was unanimously approved. How did this happen? Who changed the minds of the commissioners? We give the glory to our God.
God had brought us through the building permit, but he would also bring us through another aspect of the project: the financing.
I was given an audio CD by a famous pastor in the United States. It was a message on how to raise funds for a building project. It was filled with principles for a successful building campaign. One was to have the head pastor be the chief strategist and promoter. If you want to raise the money, you shouldn’t have laymen or secondary pastors do the fund raising; the Senior Pastor has to be the one. Another principle was to prepare for the pledge Sunday with a 90-day preparatory campaign. For three months remind the congregation that the pledge day is coming. Remind them of the vision for the new building, and make the pledge day a big event. Make special coloring books for the children concerning the building project so that everyone would be involved. The final principle I remember from the tape was always to raise funds during a booming economy. Do not raise funds during a recession. These are proven principles. The pastor’s church raised a great deal of money.
But in listening to the audio CD, I realized we had done everything wrong, and that it was too late to make any adjustments. The pledges were coming in and the due date for the final pledges was nearing. I had not been the chief strategist for the fund raising. We had formed a committee of laymen to do this task. There was no 90-day preparatory campaign. I just gave two sermons on the topic. There were no coloring books, no t-shirts, no literature. Finally, the fund raising was being done in the midst of the Dot-com bust in northern California and unemployment in our area was the highest in the nation. With such preparatory blunders, how could we ever expect to raise the needed funds?
Despite doing everything “wrong” from a marketing perspective, God was at work. This was clearly his work not just ours. The result of the pledge was remarkable. We raised more money per capita than the church of the well-known leader.
Even in the collection of the funds, we continually saw God’s presence. After the pledges, we needed to collect the funds in increments. Our first goal was for $500,000 to be collected by the end of the year. With one Sunday left, we were short $187,000. I didn’t think we would reach our goal. On the Monday staff meeting after the first collection goal due date, I asked our administrator what the final total was. The figure was $500,022.
Church growth can often be explained by good planning or other sociological factors. It is strange how church growth seems to always do better in a developing suburban area than in the inner city. Sometimes God works through our planning. But it is when God works despite our plans that brings praise to the name of our Lord, because it reminds us that it is the Spirit and power of God that delivers us. Our new sanctuary is being built as I type this manuscript. Every time I look at the construction, I am reminded of God’s deliverance, that it is ultimately not up to man, but up to Christ who sits at the right hand of God.
A People Who Are Refined
One often hears statistics of the high failure rate among seminary graduates once they enter the ministry. One report indicates that 95% of those who enter the ministry will not retire in the ministry. A gloomier study showed that 80% of seminary graduates leave the ministry within two years. Numerous explanations have been proposed for such high rates of failure. Perhaps it is the failure of the seminary training itself. Some argue that there is a disconnect between what is taught and what is actually needed for graduates to succeed in ministry. Perhaps theological education focuses on making the graduates teachers of truth, and does a poorer job of developing them into leaders of people. Others have cited the disillusionment of ministry. Graduates may have an unreasonably high expectation of ministry, but ministries, especially existing ones, have their darker sides which are hidden when the graduate candidates for the position. But the scriptures put forth an alternative to failure. There is the potential to triumph in any given ministry situation by transforming it through the work of the Spirit in his people. We must trust God in his ability to transform the local church. It is the mark of God to transform the “lost cause,” be it an individual or an entire church.
I have been a pastor for over twenty years. My first church was in a suburb of Chicago. My present ministry is in San Francisco. When I came to my present ministry fourteen years ago, I can describe it as a church with more infighting than could ever be imagined. Board meetings had a carnal tone to them, as voting could be forecast by alliances rather than by decisions that would promote the cause of Christ. There was the usual territorialism, and then experiences of spiritual backstabbing and personal bouts of emotional depression.
But during the last decade and a half, Sunset has changed and we are now exhibiting a unified peace among the leadership. What happened? What caused the transformation? The answer lies in understanding Revelation chapters 2 and 3, and its teaching that Christ stands in the midst of his churches, determining their destinies. In these seven letters to the churches in Asia Minor, Jesus is the one who can discipline the church, as well as the one who can bless it. The realization that Christ is active in the midst of his churches is just as great a comfort to us as it was to the early Church. Our responsibility is to be faithful to him, for Christ is in ultimate control. We often agonize over difficulties in our churches, or we put great effort in understanding and planning what needs to be done for it to grow. But our task is to remain faithful and uplift Christ. We must always remember that Christ is in control. He will bring things to pass. He transforms.
The transformation in an existing church takes time—years rather than months. The process is slow, but there will be one noticeable change that I will write about, the removal of pride and prideful people. Pride was the cause of Satan’s fall, and it is what the Lord hates. It takes many forms in the local church, but the variation that is most deadly is when the pride is exhibited within the leadership of the church. God cannot work with prideful people, because it puts our desires above God, it makes us self-sufficient, and it causes us to be incapable of realizing the weaknesses in our lives. Without an honest confession of our failures before God, we can never be in fellowship with him.
Pride among church leaders is manifested in many ways. Some leaders manifest it by making decisions that benefit themselves. It is not for the good of Christ or the good of the whole church, but the lobbying is driven by selfish motivation. Other leaders manifest pride by their insistence of always being right and their denial of ever being wrong. Over the years, I have graciously confronted many individuals who fall into these categories. Many sound very spiritual minded, but they are not, because they can never see the fault in their own lives. Pride makes repentance impossible. To make matters worse, prideful leaders can be embedded within a ministry, can have many supporters and friends, and they can be skillful in making opponents look bad. I have seen my share of this kind of person.
The solution is twofold. First, we need to take up our responsibility to speak truth in love. We cannot be silent here. A boldness to speak truth is a mark of the Spirit’s working throughout scripture. But our truth must be with grace and love. This is a difficult task, because we often go to extremes of a harsh truth without grace, or a graciousness that is devoid of God’s righteousness. Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that the end justifies the means. Since few people ever respond in a positive way to a rebuke, why then go through a process of a correction? But people empowered by the Spirit have always been able to speak the truth; it is a mark of the God’s presence.
The second part of the solution for spiritual pride within leadership is to trust God that he will do the refining, because we are his church. He has the most at stake. God will definitely intervene.
Over the years, through the process of speaking the truth in love, the church has slowly and steadily been transformed. Some leaders have left for legitimate spiritual reasons, some moved out of the area, but others have moved on because God removed them. We must have the confidence in God that he will defend and refine his church. We often rationalize our need for boldness, because of a fear of the short-term social disruption. But whose church is it anyway? Whose truth are we declaring? It is not my church, or the people’s church. Christ holds his church together; he is at the center. Our responsibility is to remain faithful to his teaching.
A Manifestation of His Might in Ministry
We now come to the discussion of the miraculous manifestation of the Spirit in the local church. I have chosen to place this topic at the end of this chapter, not to elevate the miraculous to the highest level of importance. Rather, the placement is to show that it is not the most important characteristic of a church’s spiritual dynamism. The miraculous working of God is not an accurate indicator of spiritual maturity. Seek after love and peace. Seek after prayer. Be faithful to God in truth and action; these are more important. The actual worth of miracles is important to understand, as we often place too much value on miracles. We must be reminded of Christ’s teaching in Matt 7:22–23, where many come to the Lord proclaiming that they have performed great miracles in his name, only to have Jesus deny even knowing them.
But though the manifestation of the power of God in ministry is not a primary goal, nevertheless, a church with a growing sense of the triumphant and transcendent God can experience it. Although the miraculous spiritual gifts may have ceased, this does not mean that miracles no longer occur. The power of God is not limited to an association with the spiritual gifts. Miracles occurred in scripture prior to the start of the Church in Acts. And in Jas 5:16, the power of God is connected to prayer rather than giftedness.
I have seen the power of God often in my twenty years of ministry. In retelling them, I do not make the miracles the goal of my spiritual experience or ministry. I would much rather lead a church which emphasizes a true spirit of prayer and worship than one which emphasizes seeing God’s miracles in our lives. But though the powerful working of God is not sought after, it is often a natural result of our prayers and the fact that God works in our midst.
On Thursday, February 12, 2004, Gavin Newsom, the Mayor of San Francisco, issued a decree to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex partners. It shook and still shakes the nation. In the fall of 2003, I decided to start preaching through the book of Genesis. Ten days after Newsom’s decree, the natural order of exposition led to Genesis chapter 18. This is the passage on the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. I had no problem thinking of an introduction for that sermon. In a few months, our church would play a major role in the San Francisco churches’ response to Mayor Newsom’s decision. When I gave the sermon, the entire congregation was in awe concerning the timing. I do not know how God coordinates these things, but we should not be surprised that he does.
One Sunday, I was introduced to the fiancée of a member of our church. I frequently meet engaged couples, but this was the only time that I felt compelled to phone the young woman and ask, “Is this an arranged marriage?” Her reply was, “Who told you?” No one told me. As a result a dialogue ensued. The episode had a great ending and she is now happily married. How does one know these things? I am not surprised that God can give such knowledge.
A church member once told me the story of his chronically ill coworker. One day he approached her and said, “In three days you will be well.” He had never said such a thing in his life. He was just as surprised as the coworker. He prayed for three days, and on the third day, the coworker became well. When the whole story was told to her, she became a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. What prompted this man to say such a thing? I am convinced that it was the Spirit of God.
On another occasion a woman came to my office with her mother. This church member had brought her mother because she was extremely bitter at her ex-husband, his friends, and his relatives. The divorce had occurred many years before, but every day she would retell the story of how she was bitterly mistreated. The daughter had heard the same stories over and over again for years. In the office, I heard the facts of the story three times! I told this embittered woman about Christ and about his forgiveness. She accepted Christ’s forgiveness, and then I asked her to forgive her tormentors. She agreed. She went through each name, forgiving them. Her demeanor completely changed after the prayer. The daughter told me that this was a turning point in her mother’s life. She has not heard her mother bring up the bitter past since. What caused such a quick transformation? Where did this peace come from? It comes from the triumphant Christ who guards our hearts and minds and gives a peace that transcends this world. It is the peace that Paul wrote about in Phil 4.
We have had episodes where demons were cast out, dreams that dramatically changed the path of individuals for the kingdom of God, and times of miraculous recoveries from illness. One incident of healing stands out in my mind as particularly dramatic. The doctors had given up hope on a comatose patient. We prayed and he made an unexpected full recovery. As a result of answered prayer in behalf of this man the whole clan came to the Lord as a result.
In seeing the miraculous side of the ministries, we are not to seek them via unbiblical means. All too often we go beyond that which is scriptural. There have been unsound teachings on spiritual warfare and territorial spirits. There are those who supposedly are gifted in releasing individuals from repressed memory syndrome, empathic healing, and slaying in the spirit. In 1 Thess 5:21 Paul tells us to test all things. We joyously testify of God’s power when it is based upon his teaching.
The Spirit of God within the Church
Sunset Chinese Baptist is not a perfect church. Like all churches, we have issues that we still need to deal with. But we have found a passion and a source of strength that gives us great hope and encouragement. Christ is triumphant, sitting at the right hand of God. May we be emboldened by the words of the Apostle Paul, “Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3:20–21).