Mission and the Wind

We’ve just spent a week in a Central Asian city famously known as “the windy city” (let the reader understand!) – and it really has been very blustery. Shutter-bangingly, tree-bendingly, dust-raisingly properly windy.

So we’ve spent a week thinking about wind, and thinking about mission. They key verse we’ve been reflecting on together is John 3:8.

Joh 3:8  The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. 

In this verse, Jesus analogises wind and the Holy Spirit. He emphasises its unpredictability and invisibility. Wind, like the Holy Spirit, moves. It is powerful. It creates an effect – things move, things shake, things are blown completely away. It can’t be seen, but it can be perceived, felt, discerned. There can be prevailing winds; trends, but also unpredictable shifts in direction. Wind interacts with context; the landscape redirects the wind and the wind erodes the landscape. Wind is outside of human control and beyond human bidding. The Sage expressed the human search for meaning as being “like trying to shepherd the wind” (Eccl 1:14) – futile!

Mission can be by the Spirit or by the flesh. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). It is possible to emphasise the human factors involved in mission at the expense of the divine factors. This activity of the flesh produces fruit of the flesh. The activity of the Spirit gives birth to spirit. Here are some thoughts:

  1. It is possible to do mission by the flesh

When church planters think more about methodology, technique and resources than the sovereign prerogative of the Holy Spirit, this is mission by the flesh. When you plan more than pray. When you decide more than discern. When it’s more about principle-ising than perceiving. When you depend on money more than the Messiah. It’s possible to do mission by the flesh.

  1. Mission in the flesh produces outcomes of the flesh

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Mission by the flesh produces flesh-sons. Those whose paradigm is “leadership technique” raise leaders who are enslaved to said technique. Those who use money as a resource to build with end up building financially-dependent disciples. Those who only think in terms of statistics and measurability will produce flavourless, factory-processed fruit. Those who commit their lives and ministries to the service of any given model will only produce results commensurate with that model’s promise. Just as Abraham spawned Ishmael through human effort, so those who entrust themselves to mission in the flesh will produce flesh-sons.

  1. You do not know

Joh 3:8  The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes

In this dialogue, Nicodemus started the conversation by saying, “Rabbi, we know…” (verse 2). Jesus corrects him – “You do not know.” In wealthy, educated, elite Nicodemus, Jesus upends the idol of knowledge. How much more in the West-sponsored, education-fuelled mission space! It is not possible to know how God will work. It is impossible to say what God will do. The wind blows where it pleases – you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.

It was impossible for Spirit-led Philip in Acts 8, Ananias in Acts 9, Peter in Acts 10 to predict or anticipate what God would do through their obedience. Through the Ethiopian the gospel entered Africa, through Paul it entered Asia, and through the Centurion it entered Europe. No strategy, plan, leadership, programme, system or method could have engineered this. It was a sovereign move of God.

You do not know what God will do. You do not know how He will choose to work. You cannot know what will happen next. But that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. If the DNA of the gospel agent is obedience to the leading of the Holy Spirit, this DNA will carry to the next generation.

  1. Don’t make an idol out of a method

People look at what God has done in the past and try to extrapolate from there what might happen in the future. People are so prone to make an idol out of a method. As a classic example, David Garrison’s book on Church Planting Movements makes observations about the key ingredients of movements, and then draws this conclusion: if we do these things, we are likely to see a move of God! But there is a difference between deduction and induction. You can’t reverse engineer a work of the Spirit!

In the passage, Jesus refers to the snake in the wilderness (v14); a one-time deal whereby Moses was instructed to make a bronze snake on a pole, that those who have been bitten by venomous serpents might look to it and be saved. But the people of Israel preserved this statue, offering sacrifices to it, and even gave it a name – Nehushtan. Hezekiah was forced to destroy it several hundred years later because it had become an idolatrous mis-placed confidence (II Kings 18:4). Just because something worked in one place at one time, does not mean it will always work. The people had made an idol out of a method. They had set it up as some universal principle. They were trusting to what God had done in the past in stead of expecting new things from a dynamic current relationship with him.

John Wesley comments; “He said, this serpent, howsoever formerly honoured, and used by God as a sign of his grace, yet now it is nothing but a piece of brass which can do you neither good nor hurt.”

Eddie Leo from Jakarta in interview by Bob Roberts about church planting movements said this; “In the West you try to get from concepts to movements. This is how God has worked in other places… let’s do those same things and we will have a movement here. In the east it’s the other way round; we do it first and then work out what happened!”

  1. Don’t try and shepherd the wind

The writer of Ecclesiastes is emphatic; trying to shepherd the wind is futile, impossible, exhausting. Jesus makes it clear that the wind is completely unpredictable. The great Initiative in mission belongs to the Spirit, and our job is to perceive, discern, align, obey, respond. In this way, the fruit produced will be that of the Spirit, with its own life and energy and relationship with God.

  1. A deft responsiveness to the Spirit is part of the decolonisation of mission

Colonial mission was resource-heavy, inflexible, laden with modernist assumptions, the “white man’s burden.” Its outputs were buildings and institutions and organisations, some of which have lasted for a hundred years. There was nothing deft, nothing nimble, nothing responsive or reactive. Mission today can be similarly money-dependent, and is often training-heavy, driven by an Americanized worldview of models and principles, and oftentimes enslaved to methodologies. The responsiveness to the invisible, unpredictable, uncontrollable Spirit of which Christ speaks is very, very different. Mission in the Spirit is charismatically-informed; prayer, prophecy, supernatural guidance is the norm not the exception. It defers to proximity, with local practitioners not distant headquarters empowered to make reactive decisions. It is sensitive to context as wind is sensitive to landscape. It is lightweight, divesting itself of power and privilege as a matter of course. It is entrepreneurial, exciting, dynamic, flexible, ready to be bent and blown by the Spirit in whatever direction He so chooses. Planning, control, measurability, method-reliance, these Western idols must be sought out and destroyed by modern-day Hezekiahs because they lead people astray from naked dependence on the Holy Spirit.