Work, power and fruitfulness

preacher-preachingEarlier today, I read a blog post which started by mentioning ‘one of the most powerful Christian leaders in the world.’ I don’t think I read much further. What on earth could such a comment mean?

I was particularly struck by because of a conversation I had had a couple of weeks earlier. I visited some friends, a couple who are both ordained, and who have (rather unexpectedly) ended up in suburban ministry after quite a long period of working in inner city contexts. They arrived in this place through some quite remarkable experiences of guidance from God, including someone who prayed over them and had a very precise vision of the building that they would work in—even though this person knew little of their situation.

Since then, they have been encouraged by significant growth in numbers, giving and discipleship, and are looking to plant a new congregation after only a couple of years. When I asked whether this was hard work, the husband commented along the lines that ‘no, no at all, it was no effort’. God was just doing it.

At one level, part of this comment was a reflection of the difference in leading a church with a good number of confident professionals, by contrast to the demands of inner-city ministry—there was now little shortage of competent volunteers for the range of lay leadership roles in the congregation. But suburban ministry has its own challenges and pressures, and it is certainly not the case that all suburban churches are growing. And the reality is that my friend is incredibly hard-working, resourceful, creative and inspiring. He is no slouch!

So what did he mean by this?

Luke-Acts appears to have a particular interest in the question of power. The TNIV includes ‘power’ 22 times in the gospels; 2 of these occur in Matthew, 4 in Mark, 4 in John, and 12 in Luke. This translates the Greek word dunamis which occurs 15 times in Luke and a further 10 times in Acts. This word also occurs in the other gospels, especially Matthew, but where Matthew mostly uses it to refer to what we would call ‘miracles’ (so TNIV translates it thus), Luke uses it more generally to talk of power in the abstract.

There are several times where Luke adds a reference to ‘power’ where Matthew and Mark make no reference to it.

  • John the Baptist will minister in the ‘spirit and power of Elijah’ (Luke 1.17)
  • Jesus returns from testing in the wilderness ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14)
  • Jesus is acclaimed as teaching/doing miracles ‘with authority and power’ (Luke 4.36) [Mark and Matthew mention authority only]
  • Before the healing of the paralytic, Luke notes that ‘the power of the Lord was with him to heal the sick’ (Luke 5.17)
  • The crowds press around him, because ‘power was coming from him and healing all the people’ (Luke 6.19)
  • When he sends out the Twelve in pairs, he gives them ‘power and authority’ (Luke 9.1) and similarly on the return of the 70 (Luke 10.19)

This interest in power links with Luke’s interest in the Spirit—though, curiously, I don’t recall seeing any literature on this.

Slide08There are a couple of things which are quite striking about this language. For one, there is a curious parallel between Mary and her virginal conception and the Pentecost experience of the disciples. Luke uses a very similar phrase in each case, at Luke 1.35 (for Mary), Luke 24.49 (Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to wait) and Acts 1.8 (the second account of Jesus’ words). On both occasions, it is predicted that the Holy Spirit will ‘come on you’ and ‘you will be clothed with power from on high/power of the Most High’. So here, the association is between power and new birth—for Mary, the actual birth of the Messiah, and for the disciples, the birth of the new community of faith in Jesus and his resurrection.

A second thing to note is that often the power comes almost as incidental to the efforts of those involved. I have long been struck by the fact that (in Luke alone) Jesus enters the desert ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ (what more could you want?) but returns from the desert ‘in the power of the Spirit.’ In other words, the effective power of the Spirit, even though he is present, is not complete without the straightening, challenging discipline of the trials, hunger and thirst that Jesus goes through.

So it makes sense that the command to Mary and to the disciples, the ones who will receive ‘power’, is to…do nothing! They are simply to wait until God, in his sovereignty, clothes them with his power. If we want power, it seems, we must seek something else.


I used to row, and I know first hand that rowers can be fairly fetishistic about strength and power. I once stood in a queue, in Barclays, Cornmarket Street in Oxford, behind the largest man ever to row for Oxford. He was big! It was said that if you were in the seat behind him, you really could not see a thing. The secret of rowing is that the speed of the boat is determined by how hard you pull on your oar, how cleanly and how often.

But sailing is rather different. (I’ve done a bit of this too.) You don’t really come across ‘powerful sailors’ in the way you come across ‘powerful rowers’ because a different dynamic is at work. Of course there is hard work, discipline, stamina and commitment involved. But the speed of the boat is determined by the speed and direction of the wind, and whether you can catch that effectively. That is what the disciplines in sailing are about.

Despite all the pressures we feel to work harder in order to be effective in ministry, it seems to me that the work of ministry is much more like the work of sailing than the work of rowing. I think that is a little of what Luke is telling us. And I have a feeling that that is what my friend was talking about. Yes, he worked hard—but all that was happening was the indirect, ‘wind-blown’ result of what he was doing. He was working to set his sails right, not to haul the boat along.

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12 thoughts on “Work, power and fruitfulness”

  1. Hi Ian,

    The section in your post that comments on the difference between human drive and determination and the power of the Holy Spirit reminded me of something Richard Beck recently wrote about in his newest book, The Slavery of Death. Primarily drawing on the writings of William Stringfellow and Arthur McGill, and a few others, Beck argues that this need to be busy, to be in control, is rooted in our attempts to push death away from us, but this kind of activity is really a form of worship to the death we wish so much to avoid. Stringfellow argued that this need to be in control, to plan and execute one’s ministry goals is really service to the powers and principalities that St. Paul refers to in Ephesians 6:12 and that the primary spirit behind these powers and principalities is death. Beck’s contribution to the work of Stringfellow and McGill (and others) is to bring them into conversation with work that is taking place in the field of psychology perspectives in order to more fully discuss the Christus Victor theory of atonement, its relationship to the slavery of death mentioned in Hebrews 2:14-15, in order to speak about the state that Western Christianity finds itself in today.

    Anyway, I’m not writing to plug the book, but I felt the need to set the context for what I wanted to say, which is that there seems to be a lot of recent writing and sermons about what is meant by, or what constitutes Kingdom living and how it is different from a life that is informed by Empire (i.e. by service to the powers and principalities that seek our worship) and that your post is one more voice enriching this vein of thought.

    I also think that it is good tonic with regard to the ongoing “culture wars” that are playing out here in the States, and what I mean by this is both the need to be politically active that many Evangelical Christians feel to be a compelling force, and the seemingly unrelated pressure that many church leaders acquiesce to in working to create some kind of viable framework for furthering the kingdom of God in this post-modern age. Your words, to me at least, are quite hopeful because they place the weight of responsibility on God–and isn’t this what Isaiah 9:6 tells us anyway? While my post isn’t as weighty as some that I’ve read on your site, I did want to hopefully encourage you and to thank you for the continuing insight.

    • Matthew, thanks v much for those interesting reflections.

      Yes, I think anxiety about death is a deep dear within many, and this leads to anxiety about ‘legacy’. I was always impressed with the tennis player turned nun Andrea Jaeger; when she was asked ‘How would you like people to remember you?’ she replied ‘Why should anyone remember me?’

      I would also put a lot of this down to a neglect of the work of the Spirit and cessationism. If you cannot *see* God at work, you jolly well need to do the work yourself!

  2. Ian, I’d go along with your theory. The times when ministry has flourished have been when I’ve grounded activity in silent, reflective prayer and I’ve met with Jesus in that secret place. You’ve encouraged me to spend more time in prayer and meditation than ‘headless chicken’ activity.

      • Sorry I didn’t see the follow up question till now. I read it a while back but I think he’s actually a journalist by background – maybe involved with Leadership magazine? The book is keen to stress that power is a gift from God which is meant to be used to enable flourishing.

  3. Ian,

    Thank you for your post.

    I love the sailing analogy!

    Do you think there is any practical application in our lives to cultivating the spirit similarly to putting up sails to catch the wind?

    I think about Jesus’s teaching in John 3:8 about the wind/spirit; that we don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going.

    Any thoughts?



    • Thanks for commenting Billy. Yes, I think there are many practical applications. One is the discipline of waiting; it’s something I find it important in all aspects of pastoral ministry. Wait and see what God wants to do.

      More broadly, I think this whole notion lies behind our understanding of what spiritual disciplines are for in the first place. They are not about making ourselves more powerful, or earning credit with God, but form us so that we become the places where the Spirit blows and catches us. Just as sailors tighten or slacken the sails, so the spiritual disciplines allow us to catch what the Spirit is doing in us and through us.

  4. love the rowind v sailing analogy. About to go into a weekend of listening, painting and chatting at the new age fair in the north of the island.. definitely an activity which requires more sail positioning than effort. This is a really great picture for me as I head into that.. thanks

  5. Thanks for this Ian. This is a subject that I come back to again and again, in a different context. Power is a real issue in cross-cultural relationships. All too often, Western partners don’t realise that the influence and finance that they bring to the table places them in an asymmetric relationship with their partners in other parts of the world.

    The sailing analogy is a one that I’ve used too, with a slightly different focus. All too often, Westerners (missionaries and others) are driving around in motor-boats, while their colleagues from the developing world are left to struggle along in their wake. We all need to learn to sail together, driven by the wind of the Spirit.


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