When the Church Seems Powerless—What If It’s Our Doing?

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Mandy Smith is a member of the Missio Alliance writing team, lead pastor of University Christian Church, and co-emcee with Sean Palmer of our Awakenings national gathering. Register now to learn from diverse leaders like her.

When I read the Gospels, I long to see the Spirit at work like that.

When I read stories of the Church over the centuries, I wonder where the fervor went.

When I hear stories of Christians in the developing world, I wonder what they have that we don’t have.

When I watch people on the margins following their Lord, I see a powerful, joyful faith at work.

I’m not looking for a cheap thrill. I’m longing to see the transformative, healing power of Jesus at work in my own time and place, making hearts and families and neighborhoods new. There are things the Bible claims and which have been true of the Church in other times and places which I simply don’t often see in the contemporary, first world church. Instead, I more often see doubt and despair, anxiety and reaction. I see a generation walking away. I see leaders burning out, congregations closing.

I’m longing to see the transformative, healing power of Jesus at work in my own time and place, making hearts and families and neighborhoods new. Click To Tweet


The reasons are complex—but I’m starting to wonder if we have a part in the ways the first world church seems powerless.

In Matthew 11, Jesus says:

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

He may, in part, be referring to the ruler who has used physical and political force to imprison John. But he’s also talking to insiders, those who claim to know God and yet don’t recognise his Kingdom right in front of them.

We think the biggest threat to the Kingdom is outside forces which come against it—economic, political, cultural forces which are in obvious opposition.

But I think we’re the biggest threat to the kingdom. We’re the violent ones who take it by force.

For every meeting we begin with management instead of prayer,

For every question we answer from our own understanding,

For every problem we fix in our own strength,

For every person we try to manage,

For every way we do evangelism as domination,

For every way we speak proclamation as manipulation,

For every way we try to solve our own sin,

For every messy process we tie up too quickly with a tidy bow,

For every mystery we force to conform to our limited imagination,

For every way we avoid our own brokenness to retain control,

For every way we value polish and performance over presence,

For every way we protect our institutions at the expense of our movement,

For every way we tell the Spirit how to behave,

For every way we make the Church a device,

For every way we make the Bible a weapon,

For every way we make Jesus a sentimental sop,

For every way we make the Creator of All Things a ventriloquist’s dummy.

We’ve honed this mysterious, messy kingdom into something more comfortable.

We’ve tamed it for a pet. No wonder it has little power.

It’s time to repent.

We think the biggest threat to the Kingdom is outside forces which come against it—economic, political, cultural forces which are in obvious opposition. But I think we’re the biggest threat to the kingdom. Click To Tweet


Jesus goes on in Matthew 11 to thank the Father that he has hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and has revealed them to infants. Wisdom and intelligence is valuable—but when does our desire for understanding keep us from receiving the Kingdom with open arms? How do our first world habits of control get in the way of the powerful things God wants to do in us personally and corporately?

Jesus’ next words give us a way forward:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

It’s time to repent of the yoke we’ve taken upon ourselves.

The world’s yoke tells us it’s all up to us.

It tells us “Fix! Control! Understand!”

It tells us “Take the Kingdom by force!”

Jesus’ yoke is better. His yoke begins with rest—setting aside our habits of control, our belief that it’s all up to us.

That rest humbles us, reminds us we’re not God. At first, the powerlessness is excruciating. And then comes freedom and insight. As we see how small we are, we learn to be those infants Jesus talks about. And being that small allows us to value the way of the Kingdom.

When we’re bearing the world’s yoke, the Kingdom seems small and insignificant. But when we bear Jesus’ kind yoke, we begin to value our mustard seed Kingdom. We begin to notice the yeast in the dough. And we begin to know a different kind of power.

God’s Power Revealed Again

For every way we’re despairing, shaking our fists at the institutional church, watching our power slip, join me in repenting. Join me in setting aside our power, our comfort, our control, so we may open ourselves to the Kingdom advancing in us. So we may be available to how the Kingdom wants to transform us.

If this Kingdom is a place where a mysterious God engages messy humans, shouldn’t we of all people be comfortable with mess and mystery?

In a world that values a certain kind of power, it will be uncomfortable (at first).

But as we give ourselves over to the mess and mystery of this Kingdom, we’ll know God’s power again.

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2 responses to “The Discipline of Discerning the Holy Spirit

  1. It’s interesting to see others perspective.Our purpose here is to be faithful as a means of glorifying God(1Corinthians 4:1-2). We know it’s the Holy Spirit through us when it exhibits His fruit(Galatians 5:22), and when A decision is to be made the guidelines have been given to us by God as to how we should make them (James 3:17-Heavenly wisdom). For the things within our stewardship, we are to be faithful to act in a manner that glorifies Him. For the things out of our control, we are to be faithful in our trust in what He is doing. In the same way Abraham trusted the Lord with Isaac as a means of honoring the Lord(Romans 3 synopsis).In all of it, abiding in Him.Karina’s second to last paragraph, very sadly, is not true -Sola Scriptura-Truth is not based on personal experience, the same way it is not based on emotion, which she emphasizes in paragraph 6, sentence 6. You’ll notice her adjectives for the leading of the Holy Spirit in the third to last chapter, last two sentences, are words relating to emotion…not biblical truths to identify the Holy Spirit working, and then what our response should be. All truth is umpired by the word of God(John 1:1), and this is NEVER with exception. “The DISCIPLINE OF DISCERNING GOD”…The word of God is what allows us to know God(Ephesians 1:17). I pray that we would all be graced with the wisdom and revelation of our perfect Lord through the knowledge of Him, and the truth of His word.

  2. Jeff2525 Jeff, something to contemplate. if we can’t experience God’s love, acceptance, truth how can we recieve it and accept it. I think there needs to be a middle ground which Karina defines well in this paragraph: Learning the discipline of discerning the guidance of the Spirit is not obvious however we can better do this by sharing our personal experiences of how we discern God’s Spirit then biblically and theologically interpreting those experiences so that we can help one another to know what it looks like in practice to follow the Spirit as he shapes the church into the image of Jesus. This to my mind is allowing God to umpire the truth.

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