Spiritual renewal requires followers of Jesus to be shaped (or “discipled”) into the KIND of people who become agents of God’s renewal. IF renewal happens, it normally happens first to them and then through them to and for others.
It is common for us to read the remarkable report on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2) and long for Pentecostal visitation of God’s Spirit in our day. We desire a seismic, cataclysmic in-sweeping of the Holy Spirit that no one can deny, a veritable Pentecost Spectacle that will bring change to (or “impose” change upon) our world. But that is unlikely if WE are not ourselves indwelt by the Holy One, learning to live in the love of Jesus and actively sharing that love with one another. (I’ll come back to this shortly.)
A flaming up and flaring out of Pentecostal power waits for communities to form characterized by loving warm-heartedness that gives the world light and warmth. Communities breathed alive by the Spirit of God whose members live a JESUS-LIFE in all the places and spaces they happen to be. Communities that hear from God and respond with daring trust and obedience. Communities led and guided by power not their own, to witness and win a following that will, in turn, do likewise again and again.
In other words, renewal calls for a certain kind of people—individually and corporately—who relate to one another, as well as their neighbors and friends, in redemptively powerful ways. A certain kind of people who regularly experience and express renewing grace which they then share (super)naturally as a consequence of the kind of life—the Jesus-Life—flowing to and through them. As we read the story of the earliest churches in Acts, and of the later church, I think we can see this dynamic of renewal working among and through followers of Jesus. As a rule, that is how renewal typically has come: The Jesus-Life within the community flowed to others not yet part of the community.
To be sure, “Pentecost” happened as Jesus promised. It WAS a sudden, powerful, incursion of Holy Spirit presence and power. It WAS a Holy Spectacle indeed! It was apparently just the sort of Holy Spectacle we want and pray to see. Just the sort that prompts us to think: If only we wait and pray enough or in the right way, “God may do it again!” Especially in times when the world seems to careen from bad to worse, how good if God awesomely intervened! And so, we join together in seeking, praying and waiting.
As we pray, however, we should note that the SPECTACLE was not the most important thing that happened that day. One day after the Pentecost Spectacle (in Acts 2) there was still a mission to be accomplished. The story of “Church” had only just begun. We must not skim quickly over the next scenes of Acts. In them the community of Jesus—followers of the way, as they were called—came to life and devoted their life together to certain non-negotiables: to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer (see e.g., Acts 2:42, NLT). At first their life together astounded many who saw what was going on, but then it generated conflict, sparked violent responses, and led to the murder of Stephen, the first of many martyrs to come. As a result, the followers of Jesus’ way scattered, and this SCATTERING becomes the context for the renewal of God in Judea, Samaria, and the farther reaches of the Roman Empire.
Here is one important take-away: RENEWAL is not a work-around for the primary task or mission of Jesus-followers. That task is to make disciples who have learned to live together in the way Jesus taught, and who in fact live that way according to the Kingdom values and priorities Jesus showed them. Since it was to such disciples that Pentecost first came, we should not be surprised that Pentecostal renewal also comes to such disciples in the continuing story, down to our present day.
In my experience and ministry, periodically it seems appropriate or imperative to pray for “revival,” for God to move with power over the landscape to convict sinners, convert the repentant, and transform the world. Such prayers feel more urgent when the church is in decline and struggles to hold its own, or when the culture takes a new turn for the worse. While I am eager, and pray regularly, for God to move and to do a “new thing” in our day, it strikes me that God is more likely to empower the church to do an “old thing,” to double down to reaffirm who Jesus is, what he has accomplished, what he said the Spirit would do within and among us, and then relearn and recommit to a genuinely Spirit-filled Jesus-way of life, under his authority and in his company all the days of our lives (as in Matt. 28:16-20).
Like the earliest church, I suspect that following Jesus in this way would lead to plenty of spectacles but also lasting and substantial change, first in us and then in our world. Renewal is NOT a missional work-around.