Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Leading the Presence-Driven Church

-     -  John Piippo


I pastor a Presence-Driven church, not a Program-Driven or Purpose-Driven church.[i] I am taken by the possibility that “church” (the people of God) can actually be guided, be led, by the Spirit of God. If this is true, then the primary thing a pastor is to do is connect with God, as a lifestyle. A pastor must resolutely abide in Christ. (John 14-15) This means that a presence-driven pastor has time, even much time, to pray.

Then, a pastor must shepherd his people into the presence of God, into the abiding relationship with Christ. It is precisely in this mutual-indwelling intimacy that the Spirit leads, loves, and heals.

I view my church community as an experiment in being-led by God. As this happens one result is that the people will recognize that the One doing the leading and producing the fruitfulness is not some great human genius, but the brilliance of God himself. This corporate realization will ignite worship.
If something like this isn’t true, then I fear we’re just leading our own selves. I’ve personally been there, done that, and don’t want to go there again.

Here are some things about how I think about Leading the Presence-Driven Church.

1.  The “Presence Motif” in Scripture

In the First Testament the greatest thing for a person to know,  experientially, is God’s presence. To experience God. Hebrew “knowing” (yadah) is essentially experiential.

Moses, In Exodus 33:15-16, appeals to God this way:  And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” 
Here we have what some have called “the presence motif.” The presence motif is, for example, the hermeneutical key to the book of Exodus.

The presence motif prevails throughout Scripture. The reason “better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” is precisely because of God’s desired, radiant, earth-shattering presence. Isaiah woefully wilts when he is encountered by the presence of God in the temple (Isaiah 6). In the gospels the reason the Temple will no longer stand, said Jesus, is because the religious leaders “shut the door to the kingdom of heaven.” God’s reigning presence is no longer there!

New Testament scholar Gordon Fee writes: “For Paul the Spirit, as an experienced and living reality, was the absolutely crucial matter for Christian life, from beginning to end.” (Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit In the Letters of Paul, 1.) This is about the presence of God’s Spirit, not some theoretical understanding of God.

I assume that God’s Spirit both desires to and is capable of leading the Church. God wants to “go before us”; we, then, are to follow after God.
God is the Chief Architect of all he is doing. God desires to be The Builder. We read in Psalm 127:1 that “unless the Lord build the house, those who build it labor in vain.” God wants to “build his house.” Our role is to co-labor with the building that God is constructing. In addition to this, God is building Church using people. We are, individually and corporately, living stones being mortared into God’s temple.

God is capable of leading “Church.” As all-knowing, God knows more about building than we do. As all-powerful, God is not limited as we are. God is supremely able; we are shackled with inability.

Since we have a God who desires to lead Church and have his way with us, and who has an impressive resume that indicates vast job experience and great causal and intellectual capabilities, it makes logical sense that we allow God to lead us.

2.  The One Thing God’s Subordinate Leaders Must Do

The primary thing a pastor, a leader for Christ, must do is: dwell in God’s presence, and must resolutely abide in Christ. We see these concepts in both the First Testament and the Second Testament.

In the First Testament we have the idea of “the presence of God,” especially in the Temple. In the Second Testament we have the idea of “abiding in Christ” as given by Jesus, and the “in Christ” status of Paul’s letters.
I have an acronym I use to describe a Jesus-follower’s job description: 




·                     I will follow Jesus' final instructions to his disciples, given in John chapters 14-16. The results will be that...
·                     I am a branch, connected to Jesus the True Vine
·                     My life will be fruit-bearing
·                     I will experience his love
·                     I will experience his peace (not "peace" like our world gives)
·                     I will experience his joy
·                     With Christ in me I do the things that Jesus did
·                     I will not go up and down according to the circumstances of life
·                     I will not be a conference-dependent or book-dependent follower of Jesus
·                     I will live in expectation. Today, and this week, could contain a watershed moment. Anything good and amazing can happen to the Jesus-follower who lives attached to Jesus, who lives "in Christ."

·                     I will take the Book and read
·                     I will meditate on the biblical text
·                     I will slow-cook in the teriyaki sauce of God's thoughts and God's ways and God's promises
·                     I will shut my ears to our hyper-wordy world and attend to the deep words of Scripture
·                     I will fix my eyes, not on things seen, but on things unseen
·                     I will be illuminated by God's Spirit
·                     God's Spirit will escort my heart to its true home

·                     God has much to say to me this week
·                     Today, I have "ears to hear"
·                     I will be alert
·                     I will live with ears wide open
·                     When God speaks to me, I will write it down in my journal
·                     I will remember the words of the Lord, to me
·                     God will tell me that he loves me
·                     God will shepherd me
·                     God will lead me in paths of righteousness, not for my glory, but for his sake

·                     God will direct my paths
·                     God will make my paths straight
·                     The inner "GPS" ("God Positioning System") is turned on
·                     Where he leads me, I will follow
·                     I will experience life as an adventure
·                     In obedience to God, my life finds meaning and purpose


This is the primary “job responsibility” of pastors and Christian leaders. Without this a pastor will be irrelevant and inauthentic.

3.  Teach A.S.L.O to Your People

The number 1 thing individual Jesus-followers need, and the corporate body of Christ needs, is God. Therefore, out of their own intimate, relational familiarity with God and God’s Spirit, pastors will introduce their people into the presence of God and the abiding life in Christ.

Pastors “shepherd” their people into God’s presence (First Testament); pastors “shepherd” their people into the Jesus-connection. People are taught how to be “branches” connected to Jesus, the True Vine. (John 14-15) As this happens, much “fruit” will come forth.

A pastor must cultivate this in his/her people by introducing them to The Connected Life. This will include teaching them how to hear the voice of God. I teach our people how to hear God’s voice like this:

1.   Spend much time in God’s presence.
2.   Saturate yourself in Scripture
3.   Hang around (be in community with) people who do 1 and 2.

NOTE: Eugene Peterson wrote, in The Contemplative Pastor, that there was two things I could do as a pastor: 1) I can be a pastor who prays; and 2) I can be a pastor who preaches the Word of God.  (K172)

4. The Presence-Driven Church Nurtures Its Distinctiveness, Not Being “Relevant”

My observation is that the students in my MCCC philosophy classes are neither impressed nor lastingly interested in "relevant" churches; viz., churches that spend their money on being, e.g., an Entertainment Church in the middle of our entertainment culture. This, I observe, is not working. There may be Entertainment Churches that are large in size, but what they have gathered is an audience, not a movement. 

For the Jesus Movement to move we must not make it our goal to "blend in." "Blending in" signifies the loss of any movement. What we must do is lock into our distinctives and go with them. Our great distinctive is this: We  have God and God's presence. We have answers to the ultimate questions. We have Christ in us, the hope of glory. That's not bad. And, BTW, the core distinctives cost no money to maintain.

Check out Yale theologian Miroslav Volf's observations about this. Volf writes:

"Christian communities will be able to survive and thrive in contemporary societies only if they attend to their “difference” from surrounding cultures and subcultures. The following principle stands: whoever wants the Christian communities to exist must want their difference from the surrounding culture, not their blending into it. As a consequence, Christian communities must “manage” their identity by actively engaging in “boundary maintenance.” Without boundaries, communities dissolve." (Volf, Miroslav. 
A Public Faith, p. 81)

The Jesus-community is different from the surrounding culture. Shore up that which is distinctive to Christian culture and strengthen that which is central.

5.  What a Presence-Driven Church will look like.

The focus will be more on worship and praying and Jesus.
There will less human striving and inventing.
There will be intensity of a different kind than the pressure to staff programs and keep people pleased.
Structural changes will happen as God leads, for God cannot and will not be confined within human governmental systems. The Holy Spirit is nonprogrammable and unpredictable. Change will be the norm.
The basic questions of the Presence-Driven Church are variations on the basic question, which is: What is God saying to us?

The variations include:
·                     Where is God leading us?
·                     What is God telling us to do?
·                     What does God think of this?
·                     What does this look like from God's perspective?
·                     Is God building this house, or are we?
·                     Are we hearing God correctly?
·                     God, what are you saying to us?
·                     What is God now doing within us?

These are the questions to ask, primordially. Agree not to do anything or build anything or move in some direction just for movement's sake, but only as God has told us to do so.

The basic requirement of anyone who is a leader should be: one who abides in Christ, and hears the voice of God. This is one of the reasons why, as leaders and as a people, we don't vote on things. If the voters don't hear from God the voting will be in vain. If God isn't allowed into the house-building, then we are striving in vain.

In some contexts simply to raise the question "What is God saying to us?" creates tension. The person who asks this might be viewed as arrogant, or naive, or uneducated as to the correct protocol at "church meetings." If this question cannot be raised, then the church will be self-guided at best, demonically inspired at worst. (
Church leaders raised on rationalism lead ministries where the supernatural, the Vertical, is suppressed and where God Himself is at best an observer and certainly seldom, if ever, an obvious participant in church.” [MacDonald, Vertical Church: What Every Heart Longs for. What Every Church Can Be., Kindle Locations 533-535])

If these questions are unfamiliar one might ask: "But how can we know what God is saying to us?" That's a good question. Optimally, as a leader you want your co-leaders to know the answer to this. Begin to instruct your people on: 

If some are skeptical that God speaks to people today (or ever), then you've got deism. At this point the church is on their own, sans the leading of God. It makes me weary to even think of this, as a pastor.

Presence-driven leaders know what questions to ask.

Presence-driven leaders expect God to lead, and anticipate acting on God’s leading. For example, if God speaks out of his presence, saying “Begin Program X,” then do it. And if God says “It’s time to stop doing Program X,” then stop it. Here’s where program-driven people often falter, since they can get more invested in “their” programs than in the commanding presence of God.

The core value of "Presence" is seen as prior to "Program" and "Purpose." If, out of abiding in God's presence, God says "Build a program," then obey and build, empowered and led by God. In the Presence-Driven Church “being” comes before “doing.”

As for "purpose," the only purpose needed is: for the sake of God and the advancing of God’s kingdom. That is, if God says "Do this" or "Go here" or "Speak this," we do not need to know the answer to the question "Why?" Obeying God is reason enough. I have found that often I do not understand the purpose behind God's leading. We might like to know, but we are not going to wait around until I get an answer.

The Presence-Driven Church is different than the Purpose-Driven Church. Presence always comes before purpose.

Action and reason (telos) emerge out of dwelling in the presence of God.

The Presence-Driven Church risks all on the following:
·                     God exists
·                     God loves us
·                     God wants to be the Leader
·                     Human vessels must follow after God
·                     It is possible to hear God, and be led by God
·                     If God does not speak, we will not act but wait (no activity for activity's sake; no panic-room, knee-jerk "doing"
·                     When God leads, we will obey

We can't program, control, or predict how the Holy Spirit will lead. The Holy Spirit will not be tamed by us. On Sunday mornings, for example, we have some of the same things in place: an opening worship song, we pray for our children, announcements (if any), praise & worship, preaching, then a time of ministry. But all this can change. Recently, during the opening song, I was drawn to a person in our sanctuary. I did not know them, but sensed God's presence doing a very good thing in them. I felt led to share this with them. For me, the worship meeting was changing before my eyes.

We begin with a simple, basic structure. That's OK and, I think, good. God often leads me to prepare this way for his manifesting presence. But within this structure there is room for the Spirit to do his thing. And He does, always, in our context. Presence-driven leaders need to become familiar with this.

In that sense we do not have an "order of service" or "program" to be followed. The reason is, while God can and does pre-order what happens in our corporate gatherings, it is God, not myself or a committee, doing the pre-ordering. We can't order or program God.

Church leaders who suppress God are in the worst place to be, pastorally. Remember that Jesus shut down the Temple because the religious templeleaders "shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." (Matthew 23:13)

A.W. Tozer looked at the "Program-Driven Church" in dismay. Tozer wrote in 1948:

"Thanks to our splendid Bible societies and to other effective agencies for the dissemination of the Word, there are today many millions of people who hold ‘right opinions,’ probably more than ever before in the history of the Church. Yet I wonder if there was ever a time when true spiritual worship was ever a time when true spiritual worship was at a lower ebb. To great sections of the Church the art of worship has been lost entirely, and in its place has come that strange and foreign thing called the ‘program.’ This word has been borrowed from the stage and applied with sad wisdom to the type of public service which now passes for worship among us." (A.W. Tozer, 
The Pursuit of God, Kindle Locations 46-51)

6.  What Leaders in the Presence-Driven Church Look Like

The qualifications and expectations for leaders in our church context include:
·        spends much time praying (listening and speaking) with God
·        lives life in and out of the presence of God
·        saturates in Scripture
·        hears God/listens to God
·        obeys when God directs

Our church's leaders are non-task oriented. I've cringed at church boards that are run by non-spiritual, non-praying people who rely on their own mental abilities and lead the church, instead of being led by the Spirit. This is disaster since, as Ps. 127:1 tells us, unless God builds the house we're wasting our time.

The Core Value of the Presence-Driven Church is: Abide in Christ, like a branch connected to the true Vine. Presence-Driven leaders do this, and show their people how to do this.
Presence-Driven Jesus-followers trust that, as they dwell closely to Christ, their lives, individually and corporately, will bear much fruit.

The Presence-Driven Leader (PDL) is not essentially after more "tools" for ministry. Instead, the PDL views themself as a "tool," or "instrument," or even "weapon," formed and shaped and then wielded by God.

We read in Genesis 12:4 - So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. We see here that "God calls, and we go forth in faith without a map, not quite sure where we are going, but with trust in God's promised presence." (Life With God Bible, 32)

Presence-Driven Leaders trust in God’s promised presence.

7. The Language of the Presence-Driven Church

The vocabulary of the Presence-Driven Church is different from the Program-Driven Church.

Instead of the word “success” words like “connectedness” and “obedience” are used. If “success” is used at all it is redefined in terms of connectedness and obedience, and not in terms of numbers, size, and finances.

“Success” in the Presence-Driven Church, if it is measured at all, is measured in a different way. Presence-Driven “success” is more qualitative than quantitative. “Disciple” replaces “decider,”[ii] “influence” replaces “numbers” (of attendees) and “size” (of the church budget and building), “abiding” ontologically trumps “doing,” “being instruments of righteousness” replaces “getting tools for ministry,” “discernment” replaces “decision-making” (“What is God saying to us?” rather than “What do we think we should do?” and “Let’s vote on this”); “God-storming” rather than “brainstorming”), “listening” comes before “speaking,” and “relationship” (with God) replaces “rules of order.” 

When a way of speaking has changed a culture has changed. A church’s culture will change from Program-Driven to Presence-Driven as Presence-Driven Leaders (PDLs): 1) live the Christ-abiding life themselves, foundationally and continuously; 2) lead their people into God’s empowering presence; and 3) nurture and champion the God-produced fruit-bearing. As this happens, over time, the “language-game” of the church will change. When the language has changed the reality has happened.

8. “Discernment” Is a Fruit of a Presence-Driven Church

Ruth Haley Barton writes that some pastors have the "vague sense that our approach to decision making should be different from secular models—particularly when we are leading a church or an organization with a spiritual purpose. The problem is that we’re not quite sure what that difference is. In the absence of a clear consensus, that difference often gets reduced to an obligatory devotional (often viewed as irrelevant to the business portion of the meeting) or the perfunctory prayers that bookend the meeting. Sometimes even these well-meaning attempts at a spiritual focus get lost in the shuffle!" (Barton, Pursuing God's Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups, Kindle Locations 180-185)

This difference is: God. God's presence. God, doing the leading. God, doing the building. Because unless God builds the house, we are laboring in vain.

What's needed is: discernment. 

"Discernment," writes Barton, "in a most general sense, is the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and the activity of God—both in the ordinary moments and in the larger decisions of our lives. The apostle Paul says that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can discern what the will of God is, that which is good, acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2). This includes not only the mind of each individual but also the corporate mind." (Ib., Kindle Locations 186-189)

What's fundamentally needed is mind-renewing transformation. Pastors and church leaders must therefore themselves be living in the rivers of constant spiritual formation and transformation, in order to discern what the will of God is. This is what the whole "church" thing is about. Barton writes:

"It is hard to imagine that spiritual leadership could be about anything but seeking to know and do the will of God, and yet many leadership groups do not have this as their clear mandate and reason for existence. This raises a serious question: If we are not pursuing the will of God together in fairly intentional ways, what are we doing? Our own will? What seems best according to our own thinking and planning? That which is merely strategic or expedient or good for the ego?" (Ib., Kindle Locations 201-205)

9. Evangelism in the Presence-Driven Church

Many years ago Jesus-rocker Larry Norman wrote a song called “Sweet Song of Salvation.” The lyrics said: “When you know a pretty story, you don’t let it go unsaid. You tell it to your children, before you tuck them into bed. And when you know a wonderful secret you tell it to your friends.”

When the fire is lit, it doesn’t have to advertised or programmed. It does, however, need to be tended.
The P-DC doesn't need an evangelism program because an abiding people encounter God. Therefore, no program is needed to stir up a heart for telling others. As we focus on abiding in Christ, Christ becomes the one who does the stirring. When the people's hearts are stirred by God, then the purpose of an evangelism program will only be to nurture and cultivate this. Teach what is already aflame. But we cannot produce the flame. Only God can do that.

We teach our people to abide in Christ. If we have any evangelism program, that's it.

10. The Cost of a Presence-Driven Church

Real Church is a People Movement led by God's Spirit.

Three signs of Real Church are:

·         The people are growing in biblical literacy (BibleLife)
·         The people are growing in Jesus literacy (JesusLife)
·         The people actually engage in praying (PrayerLife)

This will produce an organic, fruit-bearing environment.

I think it is possible to do these things for no money. The more real Jesus-following disciples a church has, the more their program expenses decrease. (I think the paid staff of a Presence-Driven Church will be smaller than a Program-Driven Church.)

So: The line item in the Presence-Driven Church’s budget for "programs" is: $0.

[i] I did love Rick Warren’s “purpose-driven” books. I learned much from them. I have no quarrel here. I’m making a logical and experiential point, which I feel Warren would affirm. It is: out of the experiential presence of God “purpose” is given, by God and from God.

Warren taught that God has given 
5 purposes for the Church. The community of Jesus-followers is to grow…
·    Warmer through fellowship

·    Deeper through discipleship

·    Stronger through worship

·    Broader through ministry

·    And larger through evangelism

OK. That’s good. But I think that this way of looking at things relativizes the One Thing, which is: to love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. To know God, in the sense of knowing-as-intimate-relationship. To abide in Christ, and to lead others into the abiding relationship, from which all God-things come (fellowship, discipleship, etc.).
I also think that it is only within God’s presence, only as we dwell in relationship with him, that any of the above 5 purposes gain experiential credibility. Unless God shows us such things, they can remain mere theory. I have found, for example, that as I focus on John 14-type abiding, my fellowship with other Jesus-followers grows warmer. From my current pastoral POV, I believe that as I live the abiding life, and lead my people into these beautiful relational and experiential fields of the Lord, that God will bear fruit of the Spirit in and through them.

[ii] See Scot McKnight, OneLife.

My new book is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

I'm working on a second book, tentatively called: Deep Waters of the Heart: How God Forms the Human Spirit.

And then, God willing, I'll begin book #3: Leading the Presence-Driven Church.