How do we recognize where God is at work? This is a pertinent question for mission work. Henry Blackabee first turned me on to this line of inquiry in his book Experiencing God, when he identified the key to experiencing God as “Watch to see where God is working and join Him” (p. 15). Hey, I want to experience God. But how do I figure out where He is at work? That seems easier said than done.
Earlier this year the mission organization I serve with, One Challenge International, adopted a new strategy statement that says, “We ask how God is at work, then assist the body of Christ to bring God’s transformation to lives, communities and nations.” This comes at our question from another angle and adds the “how” element to our question. So what guidelines might we use to recognize how and where God is at work?
I believe that Scripture provides with a framework that enables us to discern how and where God is at work. To start off, let’s look at Matthew 16:13-18 (NIV)
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
In this passage, Jesus reveals two indicators of God’s work.
First, Jesus declares that God the Father reveals to people that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (see verse 17). In the church where I grew up, this passage was often referred to as “Peter’s Great Confession,” and I was taught that confession leads to conversion or salvation (as per Romans 10:9-10 NASB: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”) Much later I observed that God the Father is directly involved in bring about people’s confession or conversion. You might guess that I did not grow up in a church in the Reformed tradition!
Other passages in the Gospels also reveal that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are involved in the conversion process. For example Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:44 NIV). Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ words where he claims “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27 and Luke 10:22, NIV translation). In John 16:7-11 Jesus speaks about the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (NIV)
As we turn to the Book of Acts, we find that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are active in conversion process. For example, Acts 2:47 says, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The account of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9, which Saul, aka Paul, retells in Acts 22 and 26, highlights Jesus’ direct involvement. Acts 10 highlights divine intervention in the conversion of Cornelius and his household, specifically an angel, visions and voices from the Lord and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Lydia’s conversion, mentioned in Acts 16:14, indicates “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (NIV). So we find continuity between what is promised in the Gospels and what happened in the history of the early Church as recorded in Acts. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all involved in the conversion process.
I’ve digressed a bit, wanting to broaden our understanding of the divine work involved in conversion. So let’s turn to Matthew 16:18 where Jesus reveals a second indicator of God’s work.
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Emphasis added)
Here, Jesus states that he will build his Church. Tom Julien, in his excellent book, Antioch Revisited, calls this passage Jesus’ “Great Prediction” (p. 91). I usually refer to this as Jesus’ Great Promise. Either way, it describes Jesus’s ongoing work: He is building his Church. Note that Jesus did not say, “Peter, you will build my church” or “my disciples will build the Church”. Jesus said He himself would build his Church. So practically speaking, when we see the Church growing, either in number or holiness or by geographical dispersion, these are a good indication that Jesus is involved.
Conversions and Churches – Signs of God’s Work
We have made two discoveries from Matthew 16:13-18 that help us discern how and where God is at work. Conversions: when we see people confessing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, this is a sign that God is at work. Churches: new churches and healthy, growing congregations are signs that God is at work.
Since the early 1980s, I’ve tracked the numbers of baptisms and new church starts, first for a local church, later for a whole nation, and now for the mission agency I serve. I started to track these numbers because are the clearest measures for the growth and health of the Church. Much later I realized that these measures not only track the growth of the Church, but also point to God’s modern day work. Every conversion, every new church has divine fingerprints upon it.
So in order to “see” where and how God is at work today, there are two items to keep our eyes open for: conversions and new churches. With that in mind, where do you see God at work today?
Granted other “unspiritual” factors can be involved in conversions or church growth, but that may be a topic for another day. But I do have in mind several other indicators that point to God’s modern day work. And if the Lord grants me opportunity, I intend to write about these in the future.