In my 20’s and early 30’s I attended far too many Christian conferences and events. I couldn’t bear the thought that hundreds of my friends and colleagues would be in sunny Orlando, Atlanta, Miami, or Dallas (insert large southern city here) soaking in the rays, enjoying time together, and learning from the best and brightest without me.
During that season I attended anywhere from 3-4 national conferences a year.
Catalyst. Exponential. CCDA. Passion. Orange. The Leadership Summit. Mosaix. Creative Church Conference. Grow. The list goes on.
Throw in a full slate of district and denominational gatherings and my travel schedule was quite full.
Over the years, I wisely began to limit the number of conferences I attended, but one that almost always makes the list is Exponential.
This year was no exception.
Self-described as, “The largest gathering of church planters on the planet”, this conference serves as both a learning lab and also a family reunion for “multiplication activists” in my tribe and around the country.
The theme of Exponential 2022 was Empowered and the emphasis on the Holy Spirit confirmed a phrase I’ve been hearing from God over and over again— “Spirit over strategy”.
Spirit Over Strategy
A few days ago I paid $19.99 and took the online Strengths Finder assessment to see if any of my scores had changed over the last ten years. This assessment tool is designed to reveal a person’s signature strengths and sure enough, I found that most of my top ten strengths remained in the area of strategic thinking and influencing others. My top three strengths were Futuristic, Strategic, and Competition.
The combination of these strengths is both a blessing and a curse.
The blessing comes with an optimistic bent toward the future and an excitement for “what could be”. I love envisioning possible opportunities, mapping out the best plan to get there, and then competitively achieving whatever goals have been established.
The curse rears its ugly head when I unknowingly prioritize strategy over the Holy Spirit and rely on my own strengths rather than God.
“God is teaching me that human strategy can be overrated.”
The stories of Joseph, Moses, Elijah, David, and others point to a God who often instructs his people to employ counter-intuitive strategies only to arrive at supernatural and miraculous conclusions. The idea of God narrowing down Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 10,000 to 300 is a case in point.
This is not to throw strategy out the window. Planning is essential. God has called us to have wisdom and to steward our minds. But the order is important. It should always be Spirit over strategy.
We ought to be Spirit-led people.
I recently attended an event for pastors and leaders in our region and the main speaker summed up the sentiments of many others in the room. He finished describing a new initiative of their church and then admitted,
“If I’m being honest, I have no idea what I’m doing, and I have no guarantee that this plan is going to work”.
The fact that he was a significant megachurch pastor made his humility and candor even more refreshing.
We are living in a strange moment in the history of North America.
Strategic planning is becoming increasingly difficult to rely on because the formulas and maps of the last few decades are no longer moving us to our desired destination. Even the greatest leaders of our generation are offering up admissions of ignorance when it comes to next steps.
We are living in a new frontier. The pioneers of tomorrow will need to rely on the Spirit and learning to discern his voice. We must be Spirit led.
“I’ve contended for some time now that hearing from the Spirit and walking in obedience to his voice is perhaps the most important skill of a disciple.”
There is a moral dimension to being led by the Spirit.
We are told in Scripture to resist being led by the flesh. Instead, Galatians 5:18 and Romans 8:14 instruct us to stay in step with the Spirit and live out of the fruit of the Spirit, namely love.
But being Spirit led also means learning how to hear the voice of God and His marching orders for the specific tasks at hand. In John 5:19 Jesus said he could “only do what he saw the Father doing”.
This is a liberating verse.
Jesus could have cleared out every hospital, healed every sick person, preached from morning until night, and discipled hundreds, but instead he did only what he saw the Father doing. No more. No less. To quote a pastor friend of mine,
“If Satan can’t slow you down. He’ll speed you up”.
Instead of trying to do it all, or focusing exclusively on earthly strategies, Jesus prioritized the voice of God and the leading of the Spirit whether it meant heading into the wilderness or a place of rest.
Practically speaking, our response to “Spirit over strategy” often takes the form of four different outcomes. I’m not sure where I first heard this concept but found a similar graphic from our friends at Gravity Leadership. The chart is found below…
In the bottom left quadrant are people that are not hearing a clear word from God and not stepping out to take possession of all God has planned for them. These individuals are focused on their own desires and ambitions, not listening to the Spirit, and not attempting anything for God. This is an example of walking in FUTILITY.
In the top left quadrant are those who hear from God but lag behind the leading of the Spirit. They are living in FEAR and have decided to walk in their former ways, never fully stepping out in faith. There are times the Spirit prods us to move and we get stuck waiting. This is an example of walking in FEAR.
“Delayed obedience is disobedience.”
In the bottom right quadrant are those who move forward without hearing from the Spirit. They have allowed their own will and strategy to overshadow the Spirit’s leading. This is often a move marked by impatience. A biblical example is King Saul taking matters into his own hand by offering sacrifices before their appointed time. This is an example of walking in the FLESH.
A Final Word
This leaves us with the top right quadrant and people walking by faith. Walking by faith means listening to the leading of the Spirit and then obediently stepping out to do whatever he asks. There are times this will contradict good strategic planning. There are other times it will be in line with your own intuitions.
Either way, the Spirit-led life is to hear from God, respond in obedience, and then rest in his calling.
Where do you find yourself during this season? Are you living in fear, lagging behind when God is leading you forward? Are you living in the flesh and attempting to move forward without seeking the Lord and receiving His confirmation?
Or do you find yourself in a season of faith, allowing the Spirit to lead and having the willingness to follow.
“Spirit over strategy. This was my biggest takeaway from Exponential 2022.”
May you listen for the leading of the Spirit and then rather than falling behind in fear, or running ahead in the flesh, may you walk in step with the Spirit by faith.