(EDITOR’S NOTE: A few months ago, on a team retreat, our Vibrant Faith Team read Australian pastor and culture expert Mark Sayers’ new book A Non-Anxious Presence. Sayers makes the case that we’re no longer navigating on land, with solid ground under our feet. We’re more like sailors getting used to a foundation that dips and pitches and slides under our feet. In this last of a five-part series I highlight one final guiding buoy on our ocean path…)
In A Non-Anxious Presence, Mark Sayers spotlights a spiritual practice his friend Terry Walling calls “voice recognition.” Past our strategic and organizational abilities, which gravitationally pull us toward self-dependence, Walling is calling ministry leaders back to the Spirit-dependent pursuit of hearing and following the voice of God. Sayers explains:
“Only through voice recognition can we begin to orient ourselves correctly in the world in which He called us to lead and minister. This leads us to an important principle: detection precedes direction. Before Samuel could gain direction from God’s voce, he first had to learn to hear God’s voice; this is the missing component for many leaders. We are awash in rich resources on how to lead. Yet much of it, even some Christian works, emerges from an observation only attuned to the earthly environments. The secular approach to leadership refuses to acknowledge or tune into the heavenly signal of God’s voice.”
In my upcoming book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church(Spring 2024), I explore the mechanics of our dependent relationship with Jesus in the context of our ministry leadership. Dependence is just another way of describing voice recognition—an imperative Jesus spotlights when He is teaching His followers how to follow: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). It’s so simple that we can easily miss the colossal importance of what Jesus is trying to say. In order to follow we must recognize the voice of Jesus and learn how to depend on it—we must know Jesus, and be known by Him, to lead others in His ways. Here’s a short excerpt from by book that grapples with this truth…
Dr. Carl Ellis, professor of theology and culture at Reformed Theological Seminary, and a lover of improvisational jazz, offers an incisive metaphor for living in the tension between our head and our heart: “Music is very mathematical. What makes a harmony sound good? Well, that’s mathematics. But I don’t only think of music. When I hear a harmony, I don’t think of it as math. I think of it as beauty. I feel it. We need to learn how to feel it more. Analysis is good, but sometimes things are just meant to be just enjoyed for their beauty. At the same time you’ve got to do more than feel. You also have to be able to analyze. But relax and let it impact you.”
Ellis is describing the way harmony in music impacts us, but he’s also describing what harmony looks like in our relationship with Jesus. We appreciate, study, and analyze His teachings for truths that will impact our understanding of goodness (the “math” of our relationship)—but if we leave it there we aren’t following Jesus. Harmony in our relationship invites us to “taste and see” the heart of Jesus above all else, giving ourselves over to the influence and intimacy of the Spirit (the “feel” of our relationship). In His last extended mentoring session with His disciples, Jesus targets this aspect of harmony: “I will send you the Advocate—the Spirit of truth. He will come to you from the Father and will testify all about me… In fact, it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you… When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 15:26; 16:7; and 16:13).
To live in Spirit-dependence means we toggle our attention from the head’s understanding of biblical truth to a heart-experience—a “feel” for the presence of Jesus, made possible by the Advocate inside us. John Eldredge explains: “The mind is a beautiful instrument, but the mind was given to us to protect the heart, not to replace it. In most discipleship models the heart is not central, but if you look at the discipleship model of Jesus the heart is very central. ‘These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me’—don’t give me lip service, I want your heart. Jesus urged us to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ The mind and the heart were never meant to be in opposition to each other—they work beautifully together. Let’s not make them enemies.”
We depend on our heart to access an in-the-moment relationship with the Spirit of Jesus. The Rabbi Inside “guides us into all truth,” and then we act on that truth with an obedience driven by affection and love. For example, I know my wife hates to drink cold water, even in the summer, so I “obey” that understanding by serving her warm water, because I know something that helps me love her more sensitively. After a while I know so many things about her heart that my “obedience” to the “truths” that matter to her develops into something like breathing. And if I forget and serve her cold water, I’m not just forgetting a preference, I’m forgetting her. I’m “formed” to serve what pleases her heart.
Learning to trust the guidance of the Spirit is an art, not a science—we move from a performance mentality to a posture of warm obedience. The catalyst for this movement is dependence. We consciously turn from trusting only our own sensibilities to inviting the Spirit’s sensibilities to guide us. We listen with expectation. We try little “trust experiments.” We believe, even if we’re buffeted by unbelief. When the results aren’t what we expect, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s much more like play than work. In fact, my friend calls dependence on the Spirit “playing.”
In Mark 9 a desperate man brings his oppressed son to Jesus’s disciples for healing. But they’re unable to cast out the “evil spirit” that is keeping the boy from speaking. Jesus charges that those closest to Him—those who have seen what He can do, over and over—remain “faithless.” They struggle to believe in His true nature, and that He has authority over both the natural and supernatural world. So Jesus asks the man to bring the boy to him. “How long has this been happening?” He asks. The man replies, “Since he was a little boy. The spirit often throws him into the fire or into water, trying to kill him. Have mercy on us and help us, if you can.” And Jesus, playfully, responds: “What do you mean, ‘If I can’? Anything is possible if a person believes.” And this honest, determined, and humble man cries out: “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” Then Jesus rebukes the spirit, commands it to leave, and the boy is released. Later, His disciples ask why they’d failed, and Jesus explains, “This kind can be cast out only by prayer.” We can extract from this story a crucial truth:
Dependence is the key to everything in ministry leadership.
Like the disciples, when we rely on “technique” or formula in our leadership we’re soon out of our depth. When Jesus explains why the disciples’ efforts didn’t work, he points to prayer—they thought they could “work up” the strength and authority to cast out an evil spirit on their own, but forgot where that strength and authority comes from. Dependence and attachment allow us to access the vast resources of the Kingdom of God. When we do, we recognize that we are simply the conduit for the power of God, not its source. We actively remember, “Only God is good.” And as conduits, our only responsibility is to open ourselves and believe.