I’m not an overly patient person. I like to get in, get to work, and get out. Maybe a lot of us are like this. We don’t particularly like to be still. We look at the inefficiencies of life and the opportunities to be seized and we start working towards them. We have every productivity tip available, with the apps and workflows to prove it. That’s not a bad quality, especially in America, where life moves quickly. But is it a good quality in the kingdom of God? Is it good in church leadership?
This is a tough subject. Leaders lead. Leaders act. Leaders get things done. But where does that leading come from? Where does that action receive its fuel?
The early church didn’t have it easy. Jesus had just been crucified, so they lost their leader. Three days later he rose from the grave, so they got him back. 40 days later he ascended to heaven, so they lost him again. He left them with a promise that could only come by waiting. Sigh. Waiting: a terrible word.
The work of the Lord through his church has never looked like a well-oiled machine. It is clunky at times. It seems inefficient and disorganized. And that’s ok, because life is that way. The church is made up of Christians, and the Christian life is clunky and inefficient and disorganized. But it is also glorious. The glory comes not from within, but from above. The Holy Spirit descended upon a people gathered – that is the glory of the church. It isn’t man-made. It is God-given.
The Church’s road is paved in adversity, toil, blood, and blessing. It’s a mixture of moments of clarity as well as confusion. If it were not for the power of the Holy Spirit’s work, the church would be a failed enterprise shortly after Jesus left. Just look at the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples before his ascension. “He ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5).
That’s a tough first assignment. Just sit and wait. That’s not the way to advance a new movement, at least not in our common thinking. It’s as if he’s commanding his people to not do anything: don’t plan, don’t prepare, don’t create, and don’t advance anything until you have the promise of power that is coming to you. How many of us could sit patiently?
What if the apostles did not obey Jesus’ command to wait in Jerusalem? What if instead they rushed off to Jerusalem to preach the gospel? What if they decided to hold counsel to prepare bylaws or a church covenant or to establish their beliefs on baptism and the sacraments? Wouldn’t they have been more prepared to lead? What if Peter had been preparing his Pentecost sermon? Instead, they just obeyed and waited. Crazy.
What if? Beginning anything in life often begins with this very question. Businesses are started this way. Inventions are started this way. Churches are started this way. And that’s not bad! But who is the subject of the "what if" question? Man-centered is not the way that Jesus wants to start his church. Instead, Jesus wants his people to wait for the promise of power from the Father, so the church will be God-centered. What if you succeeded in your own power? What would that gain you? What if you succeeded in the power of the Spirit? What would that gain for Christ?
I am willing to venture that in almost all of your churches at this very moment the leaders are asking the what if question. Leaders are often a good combination of dreamer and doer. Some more dreamers and some more doers (that’s one reason why plurality of elders is important). In any case, your church is on the verge of some decision. What is the most important factor in all of this decision making?
Waiting in prayer. Tom Petty was right; the waiting is the hardest part.
We do not wait on flesh and blood to deliver the promise. We do not, and cannot, plan or prepare appropriately for a church based on a hunch or a great idea. How many churches have fallen by putting too much faith in a man-made good idea? The wise church, with wise leaders, waits on the promise from God the Father in the person of the Holy Spirit through the mediation of Jesus the Son in prayer. The churches with the greatest eternal impact today and throughout history are the churches who are willing to humble themselves and seek the Lord’s face. The power in the church comes from one source and one source alone: the Holy Spirit. He’s worth waiting for.
The Spirit led church is the only church that will count in the end. Peter could have prepared a killer sermon for the day of Pentecost. The church could have been ready to receive thousands of new members by putting policies and procedures and organization and structure in place. They could have baked the communion bread, prepared the budget, and accomplished a thousand other things that must be done. But if they had done all that and not waited for God to move none of it would have mattered. It sounds crazy to us, but the most practical way to grow a church is to wait in prayer for the power of God. There will come a time for doing. But the church is born out of a power not our own rather than a power derived from within.
So for all of us impatient leaders, what are we waiting for? Why not wait for the promise of the Father? Why not wait for the power of God? It will come, and when it does, we must move. But let us bow ourselves to the Father and stay low before him first, patient and expectant. Then, and only then, will the church receive thousands for the kingdom. The waiting church is the powerful church. Counter-culture, I know, but biblical. Would the book of Acts exist as it does if not for those waiting hours at the beginning? Let us wait on God to act, and then let’s move. But let us beware of moving before God does. The church should be after what only God can do. We've seen enough of what man can do.
As Martyn-Lloyd Jones says in his wonderful book, Revival, “When God acts, he can do more in a minute than man with his organising can do in fifty years.”