The Role of the Spirit in Church Direction

How does a church set vision and direction? How do we, as mentors, help leaders discover where their churches need to go?

Well, that’s easy enough! Tell them to read the appropriate books. Take them to websites that walk them through the visioning process. Help them conduct a demographic study of the congregation and community. Study with them the history of their church, looking for past initiatives and themes. Show them how to analyze the church’s financial and ministerial resources. Promote a dialogue about felt needs within the neighborhood. Go with them to interview churches in the area to see what others are doing. Help them identify a church consultant. Oh wait! They have! It’s you!

If we are not very careful and prayerful, even so holy a thing as “vision for a church” can be reduced to a formula. Put Tab A in Slot B. Is there any way that we, as mentors, can encourage the act of visioning to become an act of worship? Can we help those seeking a vision for the church to experience a profound listening to God?

Keeping in Step with the Spirit

There is a sense in which the Spirit “keeps in step” with us by ministering to our particular wounds, recognizing our individual limits, and knowing our specific strengths and weaknesses. But there is also a sense in which we are called to “keep in step” with the Spirit, learning his will and adopting his ways.

Paul gets at this idea with phrases like: “live according to the Spirit” and be “controlled by the Spirit,” “keep in step with the Spirit” and be “led by the Spirit.” He believes Christians inhabit a Spirit-environment in which they “speak by the Spirit,” “worship by the Spirit,” “pray in the Spirit,” “love in the Spirit,” and bear the “fruit of the Spirit.”

Everywhere we turn, everything we attempt, every action we take—according to Paul—is done within an environment of God’s Spirit. We live, breath, and have our very being within the Spirit’s realm. The Spirit lives in us. And, because of that, we must—consciously, faithfully—live in him.

This is the new perspective that shapes the Christian’s life. The Holy Spirit has charge of our time, money, actions, attitudes, and energies. Our task is to keep our eyes on him and follow where he leads. In exactly the same way, it is this perspective that also shapes the life of the church. The Spirit has a plan and purpose for the church. He knows where he wants us to go. He intends to lead us there personally.

Visioning (at its core) is the process of helping a church keep in step with the Spirit. Where is the Spirit taking our congregation? What are the Spirit’s ambitions for us in the future? If we accept the Spirit as our Teacher and Guide, how can we hear his voice clearly enough to know his will for this church, in this place, at this time?

Only in the absence of this awareness, can we imagine that the “purpose” of the church is to expand parking lots, prop up sagging ministries, and conduct membership drives. Silly us. The Holy Spirit is striding out in front of our churches, leading us into a world-changing future, and inviting us to keep in step with him! Without this consciousness of the Spirit’s role in the life of our churches, visioning gets reduced to unworthy aims, uninspiring goals, and timid plans in which our reach never exceeds our own tiny grasp. We bog down in the swamp of the ordinary. And the Spirit is forced to slow down—yet again—and limit his stride to our own puny pace.

Look There!

When we work with church leaders, it is our privilege to lift their eyes from the pressing and the mundane to the significant and the eternal. And make no mistake … serious lifting needs to be done! For events often conspire to drag down the focus of leaders to matters that, in the end, don’t matter very much. All the minutia related to the business of doing modern church. This member’s Sacred Cow, that member’s urgent demands. Programming. Squabbling. Committee meetings. Zoning commissions. Jammed copiers.

It is so easy for leaders to allow tiny things to crowd out the central and to lose sight of God’s purposes  for his people. Yet if leaders don’t lift up their eyes to higher aims and worthier goals, who will? If leaders don’t focus on the far horizon, how can we expect our churches to look beyond themselves and the little church-box they know?

One of the most valuable services offered by those of us who mentor church leaders is teaching them to look up … and to keep looking up. To refuse to become mired in the mundane and the minuscule.  To constantly seek the will of God—“our best for his highest.”

And I suggest we do this best, not by offering a bibliography or reviewing other churches’ vision statements, but by showing leaders how they and their churches can keep in step with God’s Spirit. Let me offer a few practical questions for you to ask yourself:

  1. Do the church leaders you work with have a good pneumatology—an adequate understanding of who the Spirit is and how the Spirit works (his indwelling presence … his teaching, guiding, and equipping)? If not, are you equipped to lead them to a fuller understanding of Spirit?
  2. Are the leaders you work with convicted that the Spirit has an “agenda” (a specific will and plan) for their personal lives and for their churches? It is useless to speak of the Spirit’s “leading” if we’re not really convinced he knows where he’s going and has a specific destination in mind. Those you walk with may not know precisely what that “agenda” is. But they will never begin the search for a plan if they are not convinced it exists. Do you believe in such a agenda for yourself and for the Kingdom work you do?
  3. Do the leaders you work with have a trustable process for listening to the Spirit, conversing with the Spirit, and discerning the Spirit’s will? Periods of prayer and fasting? Communal discernment? Casting lots, for goodness sakes! (The “how” is less important, I suspect, than the attempt.) Leaders and churches need some way of asking the Spirit questions and hearing his answers. Can you help those you mentor devise a “trustable process”?
  4. Do the leaders you work with have a clear understanding of what the Spirit’s agenda is … for themselves and for their churches? Is it a worthy aim, a Kingdom goal? Is it an agenda you can see Jesus giving himself to? Will it make an eternal difference in the lives of God’s people and in the world? Have you answered these questions for yourself?
  5. Are the leaders you work with confident that the Spirit is actually leading their churches? Personally? Intimately? Practically? Do they look constantly for signs of that leading? Do they talk openly about it with you and with the church? Do they sense that the Spirit is “striding out in front of the church”? Are you pointing out (to them) how you see the Spirit leading?
  6. Finally, are the leaders you work with determined to keep step with the Spirit? Do they attempt to match pace (personally and congregationally) with the Spirit? Are they committed to following where the Spirit leads, staying faithful to the Spirit’s direction?

Leaders who have sought the Spirit’s vision for themselves and for their churches, who have caught that vision and seen it clearly, who have submitted to that vision and dedicated themselves to its pursuit—such men and women are leaders indeed. These are the people who will make a difference in the world and for the Kingdom.

And you and I, mentors of those people, have the privilege of pointing them to God’s far horizon so they can make that eternal difference.


[My recent book—A Spirit for the Rest of Us—explores how we can experience a more vibrant relationship with the Holy Spirit without jumping off a charismatic cliff. The clue is found in the Final Discourse, where Jesus speaks repeatedly and profoundly about the coming Spirit and how he will work in the lives of believers. In the Paraclete Passages, Jesus promises a Spirit who will live in disciples forever and bring companionship, competence, courage, conviction, and change. Published by Leafwood Publishers,]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.