While posting the Soul Whisperer YouTube series, one routine comment that we have gotten prompted this blog. At times, Christians on Facebook will see our appeal for mission training and reply: “We just need to follow the Spirit.” Let me be quick to affirm that following the Spirit’s lead is a biblical concept and applies to all conversations, and it appears to have a prominent place with those outside the faith due to the supernatural dynamic inherent with people being saved through Christ. Since it is God who saves, the role of the Spirit is essential to invoking receptivity and response to the good news message. In addition, allow me to direct attention to the picture on the cover of Soul Whisperer. When selecting the cover photo, I rejected two previous mock-ups by my publisher, because I wanted to depict artistically the dynamic work of the Spirit in drawing the soul. (It was not easy to capture the “spiritual” dimension in a photograph!). Thus, I am in agreement that following the Lord’s lead is a vital part of the evangelistic endeavor, and I give it proper treatment in my book comparing God to following a lead dancer.
However, each time I have fielded that “Follow the Spirit” reply, I feel like there is something going on in people’s minds that does not sit well with me at all. Let me cut to the chase. Although God is the primary agent of drawing and saving, what I am hearing is the notion that we are somehow passive conduits in that divine process—as if little of our own mind, intellect, and training are involved. In other words, you don’t need to learn anything, just “follow the Spirit.” It is that insinuation, the contention that God will do it all, and that we do not have to be methodologically or intellectually prepared, that I am countering today. I do not believe the “mere-conduit mode” is biblical in any sense. Let me explain why this reels in relevancy and importance.
Other than the moments where God chooses solo supernatural intervention, like when He intercepted Saul on the road to Damascus with a voice and light from heaven, evangelism, by its very definition, is a partnership between God and his servants. And that divinely led partnership includes the full array of human faculties and senses. I am qualifying that faith-sharing is a spiritual activity, where God does not bypass our human capacities. I believe it is biblical and theologically sound to say that the mind and Spirit work in concert (I am not implying that our minds are always spiritual.) Jesus, as God, is the perfect example of one being led of the Spirit, and we should note how He gave in-depth intellectual answers to the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 22. Each response was according to His understanding of where these groups had gone astray: The Sadducees failing to value the full biblical canon (they only accepted the first five books of Moses), and failing to fathom God’s resurrection power; and the Pharisees (who interpreted the Scriptures hyper-literally), for not seeing how David prophesied the Messiah as his Lord, not his son (Ps 110:1). It was Jesus’s comprehension of their errant foundations that guided his potent words. The same idea is true in all his personal encounters, where he speaks to deep issues of people’s lives, according to his particular knowledge of them—such as his famous conversations with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman (John 3 and 4). In the Bible, Jesus’s intellect and intimate awareness are fully engaged in every human encounter.
Backing up for a moment, I realize there is the spiritual gift of knowledge, where God reveals something through a specially gifted servant. Yet outside of that special gift, God does not lead Christians into Spirit traces with downloads of sudden unbeknownst info when they speak to an unsaved person. Instead, the Christian’s mind is actively engaged, combining their current understanding with their personal skills under the Spirit’s guidance. That means, my friends, that our education, training, and missional learning are all in play. When I teach evangelistic mission skills, it always involves utilizing our minds to read others, a kind of counselor-like discernment. That relational process utilizes information gathering from your conversations with the person. As to the specific skill, we call this: “drawing.” We ask questions to draw out, so we can better understand, and that God might expose what we need to know to convey the gospel resonantly. If we are to be effective as God’s messengers, in many instances today, we must read a person’s life condition and also decipher a developmental path to reach them. Let me say this straight. You won’t reach an atheist or religious person or a moralist or progressive in the same way. They have different barriers, requiring that you hone your approach. If I did not use a repertoire of faith-sharing skills, and have knowledge on what I needed to do in each case, I would not be effective in sharing the gospel with many people. God uses all of who we are to reach others, and often there is a code to crack (emotionally/motivationally), and a platform to build (rationally), and a journey to be made (relationally). The Spirit is working in and over all of it.
This next statement may sound almost heretical to some: But the Spirit will not make you more knowledgeable or more adept than you already are. God uses people’s preparation to achieve his gospel ends. Consider his choice of the Apostle Paul as his primary messenger to the Gentiles (Act 9:15). It was not made haphazardly. God selected Paul because his formal Hebraic training (the school of Gamaliel, Acts 22:3), and his cultural background (man of Tarsus, a Roman citizen), and his scandalous persecutor story had prepared him to address the issues of the Christian faith rising up from Judaism in a Roman occupied world. Paul’s intellect and reasonings were fully on display when he brought people the gospel. God, by his Spirit, used his preparatory training. It’s why he was so effective and often created such a stir in the Jewish synagogues, he was good! It’s also why he was able to adapt to wider groups like the Areopagus gathering in Athens, because he had a broad background, including even their poets, to draw from (Acts 17). It was not as simple as: Just follow the Spirit.
As another example of this collaboration, you might think that pastors do not need to study and prepare to give a sermon. They just need to follow the Spirit’s lead, right? But outside a special endowment from God like the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2), the LORD uses every bit of their preparatory study to deliver His message. Their mental discipline is a major part of them bringing a powerful Spirit-led talk. We should not be surprised that He does not make us mindless robots in his work. God created us as holistic beings with intellect, emotion and will—enabling our capacity to learn and grow and excel. His Spirit uses every dimension of who we are in the communication endeavor.
The sobering implication is this. When you are talking with a neighbor or workmate, an atheist or skeptic, Muslim or Hindu, hostile God-accuser or irreligious person, if you do not understand what is required for faith formation to occur in their personal context, do not think that you are going to reach them with an out-of-the-blue prompt of the Spirit. It doesn’t work that way. The thinking that God bypasses the believer’s ability and overrides the nonbeliever’s comprehension need is not normative. To the contrary, our minds and relational manners are full factors in the redemption story. Believe me, I have reached some people in the categories listed above. It takes knowledge and skill to do so. It also takes great commitment and love for a lost soul. To say to someone trying to learn how to reach others that all they need to do is “Follow the Spirit” is a cop out, missing this vital truth. It leaves Christians ineffectual. That, by the way, is the pandemic problem we face in today’s church. Christ Together’s recent study of 60,000 Christians concluded that 73 percent had never led another person to faith. 73 percent! The fact is, the more prepared, the more knowledgeable, the more skilled you become, and the more representational of Christ you are—the more the Spirit can use you!