Spiritual Discernment and the Mission of God
“The Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts – sometimes the gift will lead you to your ministry, and sometimes God will gift you for a ministry he has led you to.” That statement was shared with a small group of young, developing missionaries by veteran missionary Patrick Johnstone, the author of the comprehensive world Christian information and prayer handbook, Operation World.
Almost 30 years later this understanding of how God leads and directs is still part of the way I think about discerning ministry and calling. God has gifted us with grace-gifts (both from birth, and re-birth) – and these gifts are a good indicator of the normal exercise of our kingdom service. There are times, however, when we will find ourselves in ministry situations where we know God has led us, but our known gifts don’t seem to match – and yet the Holy Spirit gifts us for that time and place.
It is this same “both/and” perspective that we find in the Apostle Paul’s ministry guidance system. In Acts 16:6-8, Paul’s God-given internal direction system was leading him to travel to “the province of Asia” in western Turkey, but he was kept from going there by the Holy Spirit. So Paul continued north and tried to go into Bithynia, “but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” So Paul, Timothy and Silas arrived in the port city of Troas.
It is in this location that the voice of Luke picks up the story (vs11). Without this Spirit direction it is possible that the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles may not have met Paul, or the fruitful work in Macedonia and Greece may not have developed. Paul was very sensitive to the inner direction of the Holy Spirit – he changed his plans to fit God’s. But Paul’s God-given internal direction system eventually took him to his first intended location, Asia Minor, and one of its largest and most influential urban centres – the city of Ephesus (18:19, 19:1). Paul had his longest, and perhaps most significant, ministry assignment in this city (19:8-10).
Sometimes I am asked “why are we doing ministry in Sri Lanka and Niger, and not some other places?” My normal answer is: “because that is where the Holy Spirit has directed our pastors, churches and missionaries to initiate ministry.” We take a “both/and” approach. Like Paul, the FMCiC, through our General Conference process, has taken a strategic perspective – “where are the most unreached places; surely this is where God wants the Jesus-story to be taken?” With the help of good information we identified 100 such locations [the Gateway Cities], and then asked our churches to listen to the Holy Spirit’s direction in their congregations as to the specific places the Lord might lead our Connexion.
It is this process of listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, listening to our God-given reason, and listening to the giftings and passions of our congregations, that has led us to new ministries in places like Sri Lanka, India, Niger, Thailand, and Cambodia. But alongside these ministries in “unreached” locations, God continues to direct our congregations to join in “reached” locations like Kenya, Congo, Ghana, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and a variety of countries in Central and South America, to develop Christian leaders, share resources, and mend broken lives and communities.
Rice Road FMC in Welland, Ontario has been going through this process over the past several years as they have sought to discern their role in sending a ministry team (Chris & Terri Payk) to Taipei, Taiwan. Taipei is one of these unreached Gateway Cities, but the FMC already has a number of established churches there. Chris and Terri have spent several summers in Taipei, and other church leaders have visited, as they have sought to discern what resources, gifts and graces Rice Road might contribute to the ministry there.
The result of this discernment process is Chris and Terri and their two small children being sent for a 3 year assignment to work on staff with a Free Methodist church in Taipei, under the leadership of a Taiwanese pastor. This is an unusual arrangement that has emerged through a combination of strategic thinking, particular giftings and listening for the Spirit’s guidance.
I believe that God is continuing to give direction to our churches, in a variety of ways, that will lead to new possibilities, as well as the strengthening of existing opportunities.
Rev. Dan Sheffield is the Director of Global and Intercultural Ministries for The Free Methodist Church in Canada