‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17)
It is of note that the first sermon preached in the “church era” began with a reference to the past. When Peter stood to explain to the gathered crowd what they were seeing, he quoted the words of the prophet Joel in the Old Testament.
He did this because he wanted his listeners to understand that what they were witnessing was not a new phenomenon unrelated to the past – it was a prophetic fulfilment of the past – another chapter in the story of God’s unfolding revelation.
Here we see a clue in how God works: anything He wants to do now, is a continuation of what He has been doing in the past. Even when we read verses such as Isaiah 43:19 where God says, “I am doing a new thing”, closer examination reveals that the “new thing” is not unrelated to what has gone before.
The ministry of Jesus was new in one sense, but it did not negate the past or ignore what had gone before. He was careful to point out, “I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.”
All of this is to say, that when we are looking to God to guide our churches and ministries in the way ahead, we are well-advised to begin by examining the past.
Too often our tendency, especially when we appoint a new ministry leader, is to ignore the past and start again with a blank page, filling it with great new ideas and programmes. In doing so we miss seeing what God is doing as a continuation of what He has done before. We ask Him to bless our new endeavour instead of looking to be a blessing to what He is already in the process of doing.
Therefore, as we look ahead, we start by looking back, asking ourselves, “In what direction has God been leading? What insights and practices of the past have been forgotten? Where and when was their evidence of God at work?”
The New Zealand Māori, like many other indigenous groups, have their own words for this concept that is very much a part of their culture: “Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua”, meaning “I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past”. This is the way the Jewish people think – it is the way that God works.
The future as a continuation of the past is seen further in the line “Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.”
Without one to balance and influence the other, young men tend to launch into some visionary new idea, while old men tend to live in the past. Both are needed to bring balance.
When they work together, new directions emerge through the young, but they are shaped and sharpened by the wisdom and experience of age, which sees more clearly the trajectory of what God has been doing.
There is one final point. This new direction in God’s story came through the outpouring of God’s Spirit. We can examine the past and work cross-generationally, using our combined strengths and insights to discern the future, but without the empowering of the Spirit, our efforts will fail. Without Him, we proceed in our own strength and according to our own timing – and then we become disappointed and disillusioned with God when things don’t work out as we expected.
The testimony of the New Testament and church history, show us that God’s Spirit is the author of the unfolding story of God’s redemptive plan. There are times when His power and presence are obvious and following Him is easy. Then there are other times when He seems strangely absent – times when the story seems to have stalled. Perhaps your ministry is at that point now.
Does this mean we have somehow strayed from His path? Possibly. But it is also possible that He uses these times when things have stalled, to urge us to press into Him for another outpouring.
The time between Joel’s prophecy and the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 was believed to be approximately 787 years. – that’s a long time to wait! It reminds us that God’s ongoing work is not a straight, uniform line. There is progress, but then there are also pauses and even apparent decline. Whatever phase we are in, the Holy Spirit is still writing God’s story and He is calling us to persevere in faith.
When the time is right, and our hearts are ready, He will pour out His Spirit once more, and a new phase in His story will begin.
Reflection and discussion
Which of the following best describes the stage your ministry is currently experiencing: progress, pause or decline? Give evidence.
Examine the history of what God has been doing in your ministry. Are there practices and emphases from the past that have been lost or forgotten (dreams)? Are there new initiatives or directions that God has been leading you towards (visions)?
What evidence do you see of the Holy Spirit’s work in your ministry?
Complete the following sentence “We need God to pour out His Spirit on our ministry so that…”
What is God saying to you and your team, as He prepares to lead you into the next stage of your ministry”?