This coming Sunday is an important day on the Christian calendar: it’s the day when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

You can read about it in Acts 2, but let me give you the gist. In the greatest reversal of all time, Jesus, after being put to an ignominious death by lynch mob, is raised to life on the third day. He spends forty days appearing to his disciples and various others, before finally ascending to the right hand of the Father. But before his ascension, he instructs his disciples to wait in Jerusalem, where he promises to send the Holy Spirit to them.

Ten days later, the disciples are all gathered in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit is poured out on them as promised. It’s an amazing and thoroughly supernatural phenomenon, attested by tongues of fire and the disciples’ sudden ability to speak in other languages. Peter is emboldened to address the many curious onlookers who have converged to witness this strange event, and around three thousand people are added to the church that day. (I’d say that’s some pretty impressive church growth!)

Now that I’ve set the scene of what the Day of Pentecost is all about, I can get to the main thrust of what I want to say.

Earlier today, one UK Christian leader (it really doesn’t matter who) tweeted the following:

Pentecost remains the power for the church. We need strategy, leadership training, excellence and creativity, but more than anything his power.

Before I go on, let me make it completely clear that my purpose in this post is not to criticise or decry this leader or his tweet. Having said that, however, his words did give me food for thought.

I believe this leader was absolutely right to point out that the Holy Spirit is the church’s essential power source. In this age of sophisticated technique and self-reliance, we need regular reminders that it’s only through the power of the Spirit that we can hope to live the life of Jesus.

So what’s bugging me?

The reason this tweet gave me pause is that it raises the vital question of just what we mean when we talk about the power of the Spirit (or even the power of God). My fear is that, especially given the context, which is clearly about church growth, these words will be widely understood to mean that the Holy Spirit gives us the power to succeed.

Let me explain. We tend to think of power in terms of strength and might, which we automatically conceive of as the ability to be stronger, bigger and better than others. It’s no surprise, then, that when we think of the power of God, we tend to think of it in similar terms: God is invincible, able to defeat and crush every enemy, a bit like some kind of celestial superhero.

And here’s the key: if the power of God is the ability to go bigger, better and further than anyone else, then it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that the power of the Holy Spirit is designed to enable us to do likewise.

We live in a tough and competitive world – a world in which it often seems that the weak and the powerless are left behind and only the strong survive. We need every bit of help we can get to succeed and advance. I suppose it’s only natural, then, that we should look to God help us in just that way.

The same kind of thinking prevails when it comes to church growth: it’s more or less a given that bigger is better. And so we call upon God and the power of his Spirit to give us ideas, strategies, people and favour to increase our influence, grow our giving base and make us into a shining example of a successful church.

Please tell me you see the problem here.

Let me spell it out for you: by any human measure, Jesus was a failure (that is, until God raised him from the dead). He was poor, he was rejected by his own community, he was frowned on and vilified by the religious authorities; and ultimately, he was condemned and put to a shameful criminal’s death outside the city. He was a failed messiah by any definition.

The person we’re talking about here is the Son of God – the one who eternally coexisted with the Father, the one whose hands flung stars into space, the one to whom all creation is subject and must bow down. As the second person of the Trinity, Jesus had at his disposal unprecedented power. Surely if anyone could ever have succeeded their way to victory, it was Jesus. Yet he chose the way of humiliation, self-denial and self-sacrifice. And precisely because he chose that way, God gave him the unpronounceable name and handed him all authority in heaven and on earth.

How was Jesus able to do this, to set aside his divine omnipotence and take on the form of a servant? The answer is simple: it was the power of the Holy Spirit that gave him the strength, the courage and the ability to lay down his life for the world.

Hopefully you can see my point by now. My worry is this: whether it’s as individuals or as church leaders, when we call on the power of the Spirit but have in mind as our goals influence, growth and success, we are really asking the Spirit to help us beat the world at its own game. We are asking the Spirit to help us outgrow, outnumber and outperform the world.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t need the power of the Spirit to seek after influence, growth, status and acclaim. I just need to get on the world’s train and apply some spiritual-sounding words to the journey to make it sound divinely blessed. But when it comes to trying not to be a selfish pig, putting others before myself, surrendering my rights, and letting others get ahead of me and take the applause… I desperately need the power of the Holy Spirit for that.

The disciples received the power of the Spirit at Pentecost. Some of them would go on to do amazing supernatural exploits. All of them would follow Jesus in laying down their lives in loving obedience and self-sacrifice. That’s what the Spirit empowered them to do.

One final time, then: whether we’re talking about our individual lives or our church strategy, please let’s not make the mistake of thinking the Spirit enables us to be like the world but on steroids. If you’re out for peak fame, influence and success, go for it, but don’t try to claim it’s the Spirit of Jesus that propels you. Show me humiliation, servanthood and self-sacrifice, and I’ll show you the Holy Spirit at work.

[ Image: Waiting for the Word ]