Lola was a successful executive living in New York when she made a decision to follow Jesus. Her life had been full of lavish parties, promising business opportunities, five-star dining and international travel. Then, in her early thirties, she was captured by God’s gift of grace. Overnight her heart was changed, and her one desire became to know God and live for him.

Lola was in church one morning when God spoke to her about her spiritual life: Would you like to do this the slow way or the fast way?’ 

Lola responded immediately: The fast way!’

God’s fast way’ was to ask Lola to give away her belongings. Lola didn’t hesitate. She ordered a charity truck and packed it full of her designer gowns, handbags, artwork, furniture, and jewelry. Then she gave away her job. Soon she found herself dressed in ripped jeans and t‑shirt as a first-year student at Bible college. In the space of nine short months, her life had been completely dismantled.

Lola describes the next fourteen years as a wilderness of humiliation and obscurity. Rejection, unfair treatment and not being seen or heard was the order of the day. But through it all, she learned to listen to the Spirit and follow. She began to apply grace in the face of injustice and find her identity in Christ apart from human recognition or material reward. By the end of the season, the foundations of Lola’s life were completely reset, and she was grounded in a deep contentment that came entirely from her relationship with God. Everything else had fallen to dust.

These days, Lola’s life has shifted into a new stage. She has unexpectedly found herself back in the world she knew before becoming a Christian. Parties, travel, and fast-paced living fill her calendar. Ironically, every loss from the past has been restored exponentially. But Lola experiences them differently now. With a heart to serve others, she is committed to bringing God’s kingdom of love and justice to the wealthiest and most powerful spheres of society. Her heart beats for the lost, lonely and downtrodden, wherever they are.

Lola’s story illustrates something of the journey the Spirit takes us on to form us into disciples. As pastors and leaders, we know that making disciples” is core business. But what does disciple-making look like? 

Typically, our strategising falls to the human side – what we do to help people follow Jesus. So, we encourage new Christians to become part of a church community, receive Gospel teaching, read their Bibles, pray regularly, and reach out to others. These are all important in the discipleship process. But there’s one crucial component missing – one that is evident in Lola’s testimony.

That component is the Spirit. 

The Jesus-Shaped Spirit 

While on earth, Jesus summed up discipleship in the call to hear his voice and follow (John 10:27). But then he announced his departure. You can only imagine the disciples’ angst! How were they to hear his voice and follow if Jesus wasn’t there? 

In response, Jesus reassured the disciples that he would send his Spirit to continue the process he had begun (John 14:18, 16:7). That is, the Spirit would be Jesus-shaped,” functioning as Jesus’ continuing voice. The Spirit would both remind God’s people of the truths Jesus had established (John 14:26) and since there was much more to say, the Spirit would speak about things to come” (John 16:13). It would be like having the voice of Jesus always with them, applying the Gospel to every new situation they faced.

Jesus’ words to the disciples were powerfully fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost with the outpouring of the Spirit. Many miraculous phenomena occurred that day, but notice what Peter highlights in his sermon: Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17)

What was Peter saying? Back under the Old Covenant, the prophets would hear God’s voice — mostly in dreams and visions (Num. 12:6; Hos. 12:10; Acts 2:16) — and then pass on or prophesy” the message to God’s people. So, God’s message was heard, but only via select few. Even the prophets knew this wasn’t ideal. They looked forward to a better arrangement – a new” covenant where the Spirit was experienced by all (Num. 11:29, Jer. 31:33 – 34, Isa. 59:21, Joel 2:28).

That moment came with the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost. Now everyone could hear God’s voice in dreams and visions and speak it out as prophecy! In other words, every demographic of God people – sons and daughters,” young and old” – could hear from the Spirit in the same way as the Old Covenant prophets.

The remainder of the New Testament shows how this New Covenant reality unfolded in the life of the church. Acts records at least twenty instances of God-speech, mostly in dreams and visions. As promised, the Spirit spoke to remind people of the Gospel and apply it to their lives. So, the Spirit spoke to bring salvation and healing (Acts 9; 1 Cor. 14:25) and give instructions about how to build the church (Acts 10). The Spirit spoke to lead mission into new areas (Acts 13:2; 16:9) and new people-groups (Acts 8:26 – 40). The Spirit spoke into personal situations to bring people into closer relationship with God (2 Cor. 12:1 – 10) and to show them how to respond to the world around them (Revelation).

Each time, the message of Jesus was applied by the Spirit to new places and situations. Each time, it was consistent with what Jesus had already said and done. As the church followed, people were saved, disciples were formed, and Jesus’ mission continued.

Jesus Continuing Voice Today

Of course, the Spirit hasn’t stopped fulfilling Jesus’ mission since the time of the New Testament. In my recent PhD research on the theology and practice of hearing God’s voice, I saw the same work of the Jesus-shaped Spirit from the early church echoed in the lives of Australian Christians. Interview after interview told of how after hearing God’s voice, people were healed and transformed, released in their giftings and called to participate in the mission of Jesus. 

One woman saw a vision of God’s hand reaching into her heart and woke up healed from the wounds of a painful divorce. Another man dreamed of an unknown building that later became the location for a new church. A new Christian dreamed of a group of veiled women with a sign saying, prepare to go.” Ten years of fruitful missionary work in Far East Asia was the outcome. 

Whenever the Spirit spoke, people grew in faith, transformation came, and the world was reached. One genuine Spirit-inspired experience provided the motivation, resource, and grace to fulfil God’s purposes. The Jesus-shaped Spirit was doing the work! 

A Custom Designed Pathway

The beauty of this Spirit-led process is that it is tailormade to the individual. In Lola’s case, it was the fast track” rather than the slow. Not everyone can handle the radical dismantling seen in Lola’s life, but they don’t necessarily have to. The Spirit knows what to say and when to say it. All we need to do is to be faithful to what the Spirit is saying to us.

In my research, the Spirit was speaking to people about vastly different issues. One person was being challenged to forgive their father. Another was receiving revelation of God’s love. Yet another was being called to be generous to their grumpy neighbour. In clever and strategic ways, the Spirit tailored the discipleship process to each individual. In every case, Holy Spirit led the process. Jesus was still calling his disciples to hear his voice and follow. 

Though the process varies, the goal remains the same. Lives that reflect the nature of God in Christ. Mission that echoes the ways of Jesus. And communities where the kingdom of God is seen in the lives of others. 

Facilitators over Directors

This understanding of Spirit-led discipleship clarifies our role as pastors and leaders. Given that the Spirit speaks as the continuing voice of Jesus, our job becomes to facilitate the Spirit’s work in the lives of those around us. The question becomes, what is the Spirit saying to you? how do you know it’s God? And, how can I help you follow?

On a practical level, this calls us to build churches that facilitate the Spirit’s work. While we can neither make God speak nor make people listen, we can create cultures where people are equipped to hear, recognise, and respond to God’s voice. We can provide the context for people to come in faith and expectation to hear the Spirit directly and equip them with the tools for active discernment. Then we encourage them to actively follow, whatever that looks like.

This puts our human efforts into context. All the service organization, follow-up and program development in our churches become opportunities to create a community where the Spirit can speak and act freely. Our posture reorientates leadership away from us towards God. We become facilitators rather than directors. We are leading people to follow Jesus, not ourselves. 

Let us not relegate the Holy Spirit to a backseat. In the early church, the Spirit was at the center, leading all church activity and growth. Today, the Holy Spirit is here to continue Jesus’ ministry and mission. So, in our thinking about discipleship, let’s talk about following Jesus” while also recognizing the Spirit as Jesus’ continuing voice. We may not have Jesus physically with us, we do have a Jesus-shaped Spirit’ to listen to and follow.

Adapted from The Church who Hears God’s Voice: Equipping Everyone to Everyone to Recognise and Respond to the Spirit by Rev Dr Tania Harris.

Tania Harris

Tania Harris (Sydney, Australia) is a pastor, speaker, author, practical theologian and the founding director of God Conversations (god​con​ver​sa​tions​.com), a global ministry that equips people to recognise and respond to God’s voice. Tania consults with and trains ministers in Spirit-led discipleship and the development of church cultures that facilitate hearing God experiences. Her PhD research, academic publications and books God Conversations and The Church who Hears God’s Voice all aim to equip everyone to recognize the Spirit in the context of their local church.