Twelve years ago, I was an energetic campus minister leading outreach to college students at Fresno State. I longed to see their lives transformed by Jesus the way that he’d transformed mine. But in my eagerness, I pushed one particular student to explore her faith in connection with her ethnic identity as a Mexican American. When she said she wasn’t interested in growing in that area, I misinterpreted it as a lack of teachability rather than as a “not now” from the Holy Spirit. Eventually, trust was broken and she left the fellowship to join another ministry. I was heartbroken. Where had I gone wrong?
Years later, I became the Latino student outreach coordinator for central California and Las Vegas. In that season, wise Latino mentors coached me to grow in listening to the Lord. They encouraged me to take time to pray with students and listen to the Lord’s yearning for their lives. This time, I began to approach ministry differently. I listened and waited on the Holy Spirit for strategy and vision. By the end of three years, we had reached over 100 Latino students in our ministry.
How often do we minister out of our own insights or impulses rather than relying on the Holy Spirit’s guidance, however long it takes to discern? Waiting is countercultural; it’s antithetical to the pace of our daily lives. The technological age we live in values efficiency and urgency. As a culture, we abhor waiting. Our world is not designed to help us stop and reflect on the presence of God at any given moment. Listening and waiting, thus, are disciplines we must exercise regularly—especially when it comes to partnering with the Holy Spirit.
I’ve learned—and I’m still learning—that listening to the Holy Spirit is the first step in ministry. It is our first act of love.
Listening to Our Guide
The Holy Spirit is not an “it” or a distant force. The Holy Spirit is a person, the third member of the Holy Trinity. “Spirit” is the name of the divine person Jesus promised would come to believers after he ascended (John 14:15–17). “Spirit” is the name of the divine person who hovered over the waters during Creation (Gen. 1:2). The Holy Spirit was present from the very beginning and even to the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20). The Holy Spirit has many other names in Scripture, including advocate, counselor, breath, wind, life, and Spirit of Truth.
While various Christian traditions understand the embodied gifts of the Spirit in different ways, Paul is clear that in the different gifts and Spirit-led ministries of God’s people, “in everyone it is the same God at work” (1 Cor. 12:6). The Holy Spirit gives every Christian believer the gift of partnership with God. Just as Jesus is described as a friend to believers, the Holy Spirit can be described as a helpful guide. We can rest assured that when we listen, this person of the Trinity is present with us—whispering, speaking, sharing, guiding, and loving.
Waiting with Hope
When I moved to minister in San Antonio, where I now serve, my new staff team and I spent our first seven months listening to the Lord and waiting on his vision for our area. At first, this waiting felt restless and heavy. Worry tried to creep in and internal pressure to come up with a captivating vision statement was mounting. But eventually my posture shifted toward waiting with hope instead of fear. In Spanish, the word for “wait” is espera and the word for “hope” is esperanza. Hope is embedded with waiting in faith. Waiting in hope cultivated a peace, trust, and dependence on the Lord that slowly emerged into a clear vision centered in love for God and his people.
When we seek to partner with the Holy Spirit in mission, waiting in hope for the Spirit’s leading is essential. Two biblical examples of people who waited with hope to receive instruction from the Holy Spirit stand out to me: Anna and Elijah.
Anna, in Luke 2:36–38, was an 84-year-old prophet of God waiting for the redemption of Israel. For many of those years she lived as a widow, worshiping and fasting day and night. When Anna saw Mary and Joseph in the Temple holding baby Jesus, she walked up to them and started praising God. She was able to recognize who Jesus was because she lived in the presence of God, her spirit connecting with his Spirit every single day as she prayed.
She waited for years in hope. She waited with a focused vision of the redemption of Israel, birthed out of years of prayer and worship. While others misunderstood, Anna knew that redemption would not come from the false messiahs who attempted to overthrow their oppressors. Anna’s years of waiting, listening, and partnering with the Holy Spirit prepared her to recognize the Savior! The longer we partner with the Holy Spirit in mission, the easier it becomes to distinguish his truth from false narratives.
Elijah pressed into hope amid hardship. Consider the desperation Elijah felt after all the other prophets of Israel were slaughtered (1 Kings 19). Jezebel promised to kill Elijah, too, so he ran to save his life only to later ask the Lord to take his life. Twice during this time an angel ministered to Elijah and provided him with food and drink. Instead of continuing to run, Elijah chose to go to Mount Horeb, the same place where Moses had heard from the Lord. Perhaps in his desperation, Elijah remembered that Mount Horeb was a place of hope, a place where the Lord speaks.
It took Elijah 40 days and 40 nights to get there. During the journey, I imagine he did a lot of thinking, arguing, listening, realizing, and speaking to God. By the time he arrived, Elijah had cultivated enough hope to hear the voice of Yahweh once again. The Lord asked Elijah what he was doing there, then led Elijah through a series of events designed to teach him to listen intently (vv. 10–13). First, the wind came, then an earthquake and a fire, but the Lord was not in them. Elijah then experienced the presence of God through a gentle whisper, a voice asking again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Notice that the Lord asked Elijah the same question twice (vv. 9 and 13), but it was only the second time, after the experience of listening, that the Lord gave further instruction to Elijah about his mission. Perhaps transformation happened in Elijah’s waiting on the presence of the Lord. Perhaps the Spirit of God was teaching Elijah discernment.
God can manifest himself in powerful ways, as Elijah had seen in his own ministry, but perhaps it was time for Elijah to hear the voice of the Lord as a gentle whisper. Like Elijah, we may experience ministry failure, doubt our calling, or feel tempted to give up. But the Holy Spirit will never let us run so far that we are no longer in his presence. The gentle whisper of the Spirit is there—we can learn to listen and wait for it in hope.
Leading with Love
Partnering with the Holy Spirit in ministry involves cultivating deep love for God and his people. Those of us who hope to present the gospel in our current cultural zeitgeist do well by noting the concerns that others have about missions and evangelism. While we have learned helpful ways of sharing our faith, some of our hearers may still be pained and even turned away from the gospel by the way Christianity has been presented in the past. The history of colonization is one to remember and learn from, lest we repeat some of the same mistakes. We must acknowledge and remember where evangelistic efforts begin to go wrong. Our Christian witness falls short when we abandon love as the center of our Great Commission.
Love does not conquer others and does not lord power over others. Love does not consider oneself better than the other but rather sees the other as beloved by the Creator. The Holy Spirit helps us cultivate deep, godly love. This divine love is the natural fruit of the Spirit’s life within us. But if we aren’t partnering with the Spirit, we may be inadvertently ministering out of other motivations, such as a desire to be spiritually “successful” or a guilt-driven compulsion to work. Frustration, impatience, blaming others, or a lack of teachability and humility can all be indicators that God’s love is not at the center of our mission.
Those who are on the receiving end of our ministry efforts immediately know when a person is authentically serving out of love or another type of motivation. People don’t want to be evangelism projects or the next target goal for outreach! People want to be known. People want to be loved. People want to be seen. People want to partner. Ministries that empower those they serve embody the ministry that Jesus modeled.
Consider how Christ empowered the woman at the well to go and tell her testimony to her village (John 4). In partnership with the power of God, she shared her story and many people came to believe as a result. Partnership centered in love for God and his beloved is the most powerful, life-transforming, and lasting ministry model we have to offer.
We are all called to the beautiful invitation of Matthew 28—to “go and make disciples of all nations”—and we are equipped with the powerful promise of Emmanuel, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” I said yes to Jesus because I wanted to be with him—I literally want to walk with him every day. I didn’t say yes so that I could lead a ministry. That is a residual blessing after the greatest gift: to be in the presence of the One who fully knows me and seeks after me.
Jesus said to remain in his love (John 15:9). Out of this remaining—this abiding—we can follow his command to love one another because we have known and have experienced his love for us. Out of this love, people will know we are his followers (John 13:34–35). Spirit-fostered love is the key to our evangelism.
Jesus promises us the Holy Spirit. We do not have to fight for the Holy Spirit to see us; we do not have to compete for the Spirit’s love. Like Anna, we can cultivate daily prayer rhythms to step away from the culture of urgency and efficiency and to step into relating with God’s Spirit in the present. Like Elijah learned, partnership with the Holy Spirit is cultivating a posture ready to listen to the Creator’s gentle whispers. Partnering with the Holy Spirit is an act of love. It is the first step of ministry.
Noemi Vega Quiñones is the South Texas area ministry director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. She is a coauthor of Hermanas: Deepening our Identity and Growing Our Influence (InterVarsity Press).
This article is part of CT’s special issue on how women are rethinking global gospel proclamation. Download a free pdf of the issue at moreCT.com/YourMissionField.