Discerning God’s will for your ministry is always a challenge, but what if your leadership team contains a high degree of cultural diversity? And what if things get further complicated by tension between differing spiritual gifts? What if those same leaders come from a variety of personal backgrounds? How does a group of culturally-diverse, multi-gifted, and uniquely-shaped leaders discern the Lord’s leading together?
In Acts 13:1-3, Saul (Paul) and Barnabas faced a ministry transition. They had returned to Antioch after delivering a much-needed gift to the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:29-30; 12:25). From the account of what follows, we discover four principles which can guide leaders who are seeking the Spirit’s direction for their ministry:
- Don’t settle for a Lone Ranger approach to hearing from the Spirit (vs. 1). “Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” We live in a day when leadership gets defaulted to the influence of one or two “key church leaders.” Yet, that was not the case in Antioch. These men represent a plurality of leaders. Luke lets us know some of the differences between these men too.
We note that they had a variety of spiritual gifts. The gifts of teaching and prophesy get special mention. Additionally, we know that Barnabas was endowed with the gift of encouragement, not to mention Paul’s gifts of apostleship and evangelism. Differing spiritual gifts tend to pull leaders in different directions, but here we see all of these strong gifts used in a desire to know the Spirit’s leading.
In addition to differing gifts, their varied backgrounds, could have multiplied tensions among them. Saul, a recovering Pharisee from Tarsus, had viciously persecuted the church. Barnabas, a generous Levite from Cyprus, poured his life into those he sensed with future potential. Simeon called “Niger” could have been a black man, since “Niger” means black. Some believe Lucius was also a black man since he was from Cyrene or North Africa. Manaen came from aristocratic circles and was brought up as a member of Herod’s household. Diversity on top of diversity! That does not even include Jewish and Gentile cultures, which we know characterized the Antiochan church.
Such was the diversity of gifts, ethnicities, and backgrounds that shaped the leadership team at Antioch. A.B. Simpson said of this group, “What a wonderful galaxy of strangely different types of character.” Kent Hughes refers to them as “amazingly heterogeneous . . . a racially integrated group of go-getters.” Yet their differences reveal how Jesus intends churches to discern His leading by the Spirit. He uses a plurality of leaders – a blending, as Simpson also says, of “gifts and temperaments under the fusing power of the Holy Spirit.”
- Don’t let distractions hinder you from hearing what the Spirit says (13:2). “While they were ministering to the Lord . . .” Notice that the Holy Spirit made His will clear “while they were ministering to the Lord.” The word “ministering” in Greek is the same word for “liturgy.” The Lord’s leading did not arrive after a brief word of prayer before the board meeting! It came while they were worshipping, while they were focused on the Lord and not on themselves. They had probably learned that this is when God would speak most clearly to them, so they made it a habit to focus their energies as leaders “ministering to the Lord.” When was the last time your board meetings saw that as an agenda item?
- Don’t avoid paying a price to hear what the Spirit says (vs. 2). “While they were . . . fasting” These leaders paid a price to hear from the Holy Spirit. How do we know? They fasted We all know what fasting involves, or perhaps does not involve, food! But giving up something we need to live for a time, in order to gain something we cannot live without, makes the decision to fast easier. Fasting suggests self-denial as well as focus and concentration in prayer. There are times in the life of a church or ministry when discerning the mind of God demands our full attention, and even food, TV, social media, and other activities get set aside while we seek it.
- Don’t neglect the external confirmation of the Spirit’s internal witness (vs. 2-3). While they were fasting and praying, the Holy Spirit said “Set apart Saul and Barnabas. . . Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” While these leaders were ministering to the Lord, He ministered right back to them. They received situational direction, the kind that comes through the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit. But receiving such serious, life-changing direction for these two men required confirmation. So, after “the Holy Spirit said,” the leaders fasted and prayed some more, to confirm it was His voice and to consecrate the men He appointed to this work.
Interestingly, we are not told how the Holy Spirit said what He said. It’s likely that the He communicated His will the way He does today—through the spiritual gift of one of the leaders present. Once articulated, the statement resonated with everyone present. We see evidence of this where the Bible says, “they laid their hands on Saul and Barnabus.” It resulted in unified action and commitment. Once the will of the Lord became clear, they wasted no time sending Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, and what a journey it would be! The world would not be the same as a result.
Today we need leaders once again who understand the spiritual beauty, power and benefit of the diversity of gifts, personalities, backgrounds, and ethnicities God provides, and how He makes His leadership of His people clear through it.
Rev. Mark Barnard serves as President of Blessing Point Ministries. Blessing Point works to heal churches with painful histories. For more information visit blessingpoint.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.