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The fine line between waiting on the word of the Lord and the practice of apostolic vision and strategy

Well that sounds like a contentious title doesn’t it?  I have found this question to be one of vital importance over the years, and sadly one that if handled badly can lead to all kinds of conflict.

Let me give you a little personal background so you know where I am coming from.  I would be described as a visionary leader who is motivated by action, building and transformation.  I have a fairly high capacity when it comes to holding responsibility and roles.  My ministerial life has included planting fresh expressions of church, engagement with youth ministries, youth cafes, Christian nightclubs, pub ministry, bus projects, arts festivals, homeless ministry, 24-7 prayer rooms, lunch clubs for the elderly and a whole lot more.  

I have also carried regional leadership responsibly and run a number of conferences around leadership and networking in Europe.  Youth With a Mission (YWAM) is characterized by the simple slogan; ‘To Know God and to Make Him Known’.  Meaning there is great emphasis on relationship with God first, learning to hear his voice and to outwork what he says to us either through prayer or the things that have always been important that are recorded in the Bible.

There is a bit of a tension here between knowing God relationally, and the proactive dimension of going out and making him known to people that done know him.  We need to know him first but you cannot really have one without the other.

YWAM would also say that all vision comes out of the place of prayer, meaning that nothing is attempted that has not come out of contemplative practices of prayer and seeking to discern his will for our lives or the context we find ourselves living in.   There are a number of different gifts required in the outworking of knowing God and making him known.  It is not just a saying for YWAM but a general one that is applicable to the whole church.  The different gifts in church leadership and life are found in these two scriptures below;

Ephesians 4:11-16 says this;

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Christians refer to this passage as the fivefold gifts that create the building blocks of all Church and Kingdom based ministry.  It is saying (in verse 11) that God has given specific gifts to different people that have a particular emphasis.  When combined and working together smoothly these gifts enable the church to work in unity and to grow in its engagement with the social context it finds itself. 

In another passage in the, St Paul makes this remark about the fivefold gifts.

1Corin. 12:27-31, 13:1-3

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

The Way of Love

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Notice I have included the following verses to these two explanations of gifts.  The first refers to loving one another and growing together as one ‘body’ or team.  The second verse frames these gifts in the context of loving one another.  Saying, without love, none of these gifts make any sense.  Love is the glue that holds all of of it together.

In the Corinthians quote Paul says that the gift of apostleship (sometimes referred to as apostolic) comes first. This is not saying that apostleship is more important, or somehow better than the other gifts.  By saying it is first it means it is the gift that catalyses the rest.  It is key gift for not only starting but building up the church.  All of the other gifts are catalysed from this pioneering activity, but in the end they are interdependent and designed to work together in unity.

So how does that work in practice? 

Someone with my gifting does indeed hear from the Lord.  Yes I am action orientated, but God speaks to all people that try to listen.  With me, he speaks in a rather curious way and in the past, I have not always been able to articulate it in the right language so that others can recognise.  God speaks to me in pictures, almost like moving pictures as a finished piece, like at the end of a film when everything comes together.  I can see it so tangibly that I can smell and taste it as if I am really there.  With that vision comes an unexplainable injection of faith.  I prefer the Biblical definition of faith that says faith is being full persuaded, or convinced by the truthfulness of God.  I.e. when you have received a word from the Lord, your deep response is amen, may it be as you say Lord.  No hesitation.  It is interesting that once you see something so real in your minds eye, it is as if it were real already.  This makes it pretty easy to be ‘fully convinced’ by the truthfulness of God’s word(s). 

But then I have a problem.  How on earth do I/we journey into that word to make it real.  I might be able to see the finished outcome, but how do I get there? And how do I bring people with me?  This question is applicable for the how and the when.  

My practice over the years is to sit on this vision for a few months first, almost as if something is gestating within me.  It slowly takes form as I ponder it and wait on it.  Slowly I invite others into this picture and ask them to help me bring it to life.  A team forms and we pray some more into it.  Practical jobs arise out of such prayer.  We might say this is the strategic phase of how a vision takes form and becomes tangible.  

It can take anything from 3-6 months, to a few years, and sometimes even longer.  

And here is the rub, especially for someone like me.  I like to run fast.  I like movement and I prefer action.  Waiting is quite a discipline for me if I am to be honest.  But it is the very place where I desperately need team and people around me that are different.  Particularly people with an intercessory and more prophetic gifting.  Prophetically inclined people always err on the side of caution, especially in waiting.  They want to make sure we have heard correctly, they are deeply concerned with the how and the when, and I see this as a good thing.  They also keep our focus on relationship with God above all else, something that can be forgotten in the business of pursuing vision. Without a team, a vision I might have in my head is always in danger of being rushed or assuming I know the ‘how’ that it should be outworked.  

I have gotten timing wrong over the years, and have appreciated people around me that slow things down and help anchor me in praying through the details.  I see the visionary gift and the intercessory prayer gift as two aspects that must stand hand in hand together.  With mutual respect and honor being the guiding force.  

Over 28 years of ministry and leadership, however, I have rarely witnessed such hand holding to work out. It seems there is a wide chasm between the two gifts that is separated by misunderstanding and an inability to not only recognize each other’s gift, but an inability to grasp one another’s different language.  They are often totally different languages, or ways of describing a particular reality.  To view it this way might be helpful in building a bridge between these two worlds.  I myself have been misunderstood many times over the years.  My language was incorrect and not (seemingly) spiritual enough.  ‘I saw it in my imagination’ I might say.  ‘I have visualized it’. ‘I know what God wants us to do.’  

But have you ‘prayed’ about it Carl? 

Let me give you a real example from a few years back.  I was the European Chair for YWAM and it was my job (with a core team) to discern where we should hold a pan-European staff conference.

Quite often we would put it out to the leadership family to say who would like to host this, who senses their country might be a good place?  But in this context, I was also asking some more practical questions.  The main ones being, which is the most central country for all nations to be able to easily reach.  Which would be the most affordable for everyone to get to, especially from Central and Eastern Europe?   As I inquired into this, a bigger question arose which was; which country is it easier to get a visa for without adding extra expenses?  I was shocked to find that my Ukrainian brothers and sisters for example, had to pay an extra 80 Euros just for a visa, and even then, they could be turned down.  To cut a long story short we found that Albania was not only central and cheaper, but they didn’t require visas!  As the wider word of the Lord to us was about unity and inclusion, this made perfect sense to me.

YWAM in Albania were open to hosting us, and in going to visit them to talk through how we might do this; I was walking on the beach one day and I had a vision.  I saw a huge marquee tent pitched on the beach and we were all worshipping God together in total freedom.  I was aware that down the beach, just 30 years previously, a number of YWAM staff had been arrested for secretly handing out bible tracts.  The symmetry was too beautiful to comprehend.  But I saw that tent, and it was very real to me.  

I brooded on this vision for a few months wondering if it was even possible.  And then I began to tell people about it and there was much laughter.  And then I shared it with the Albanian national leaders at that time, Alma and Alket.  They hold a combination of apostleship and prophetic gifting between them.  When I shared it with them, they had an instant witness that it was right.  Somehow, they ‘saw’ it too.  And this was all that I needed to go for it.

I won’t bore you with the details but it was the most phenomenal story in how it all came together.  Overcoming obstacles such as the part where we found out nowhere in Albania had a tent that big to rent, and in fact the closest was Norway and we would have transport it by lorry all the way to Albania.  Getting permission from the government, working out how the heck it would pitch on sand, finding accommodation for 800 people……. There were many pitfalls and obstacles that just kept arising.  But I had that image in my mind of a tent on a beach and I knew deep down in my heart that it was real and that God saw it too. He saw it first.

Finally, the tent made it (after getting stuck at the border) and we erected it miraculously with a team of people from all over Europe.  When it was in place and the first night opened with beautiful worship.  I stood back and found myself speechless.  It was exactly as I had seen it, to the very last detail.  Those moments last with us forever as we witness the power of God to make the impossible possible.  When something like that happens, you cannot help but be fully convinced by the truthfulness of God.

Did God speak to me in an orthodox way?  Was it clear cut?  Once I perceived what the ‘what’ was, did I know how and when to do it?  No, no and no.  

But together with my friends, colleagues and prayer partners.  We found a way together.  We honored one another and each felt able to flow in their own gifting.  There were many moments, especially early on, when perhaps only a few of us had the faith for it.  But slowly that changed and we outworked the word of the Lord together.  I couldn’t have done it alone and through an amazing team process, we overcame.

This has happened to me many times and I have had to learn to find better language to describe how God speaks to me, it is probably more akin to an artistic painterly process. But I am an artist so that makes perfect sense!  It is interesting to me that whatever specific gift each of us might have, we take it upon ourselves to defend that gift and protect our own particular corner.  I don’t think it needs to be that way.  

If we can take the time to pause and listen to one another, miraculous things can occur.  To listen to someone’s else’s spiritual worldview is an art form that we don’t talk about much.  To listen to the person who has a pastoral gift and uses pastoral language to communicate.  To listen to the prophetic type that feels misunderstood and that their voice is not heard.  To do all of this impartially and without judgement is crucial, entirely necessary and absolute.  Without doing so we will be doomed in every generation to make the same mistakes of not listening properly.  Or rather, not perceiving the other.

I need other people to slow me down, to help me discern Gods timing and strategy and to fear the Lord in such things.  People with other gifts need me also to reimagine the future and inspire them to action and in bringing order out of chaos, birthing new things in impossible places. 

We need one another and that is what is meant by operating as one body.

Eph. 4:15-16

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

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