You don’t need to be in church to hear God’s voice. The beauty of the new Covenant is that the Spirit of God can speak to us wherever we go!
That’s one of the reasons Jesus said having the Spirit would be better than being with him (John 16:7) – the Spirit is not limited to a person’s physical body as Jesus was. Some of the best times I’ve heard God’s voice have been when nobody else is around – in the car, on a jog, in the bathroom. The Spirit speaks to us individually on the stage of our minds. No-one else needs to be around when we receive a dream or hear a voice.
What’s more, we know that plenty of people hear from God completely independently of the church. In the Middle East, story after story tells of how Muslims have met Jesus in a dream, yet they have never stepped foot in a church (Read Dreams and Visions: Is Jesus Awakening the Muslim World?). God spoke to those who didn’t know him in biblical times, and he still does today. You don’t even need to be a Christian to hear from God.
So if all that is true, why do we need the church to hear God speak?
God’s voice is best heard within the safety and accountability of the church community. This is the pattern we see in the early church and there are some excellent reasons for it:
A Fuzzy Filter
First of all, the church helps us to recognise God’s voice. When it comes to hearing from God, we all know that we can get it wrong. We interpret life within the framework of our own minds and hearts. Our mindsets, our desires and our experiences all act together to create a “fuzzy” filter through which we hear from God. That means we often mix his messages with our own. Typically, we hear what we want to hear and we see what we want to see. That’s where we need community. We need other people to help us sort through all those mixed messages and identify the divine one in them. But it’s not just the “community” as a whole. “Community” means those who know and love us. These are the people who are familiar with our character and our history, our foibles and our blind spots. Because they know us, they are often in a far better position to make an objective assessment of our experiences.
I heard of a man who thought he’d heard God telling him to quit his job and to trust him for his livelihood. Time went on and nothing happened. Eventually, the man lost his business, his home and nearly his marriage. Months later, he went to his pastor for counsel. “What happened?” he asked. “Why didn’t God come through?” As he shared the situation with the pastor, it became clear that this man had not heard from God at all; he had actually been suffering from a severe case of burnout. He had interpreted his experience through the filter of his weary and exhausted mind. Upon reflection, the man realised that his greatest failing was not so much that he’d got it wrong, but that he hadn’t talked it through afterward with someone who knew his situation.
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This is one of the main reasons why we don’t do dream interpretations at the God Conversations website (Read Why We Don’t do Online Dream Interpretations). When a stranger approaches us for advice, we have no context for their lives. We do not know them or their story. It is pastorally unsafe to judge the situation of someone we don’t know and whose trust we haven’t earned. God’s pattern is that we discern our experiences in the context of healthy and familiar relationships.
God Speaks Twice
The second reason why we need our community is that God often uses other people to confirm his message. Again this is the advantage of the new Covenant. Under the old schema it was much more difficult to address the problem of subjectivity since only the prophets themselves could hear from God. Now that all can hear (Acts 2:16,17), God can speak the same message to another person.
This is the dynamic we see in the early church. On one occasion the Apostle Peter was sitting on his rooftop waiting for lunch when he had a visionary experience of non-kosher food (Acts 10). It was a message about God’s heart for the Gentiles. The question was, how did Peter know it was God? He was hungry after all! As you read on, you’ll see that while Peter is hearing from the Spirit in Joppa, there was another person hearing from God too. Over in Caesarea, Cornelius is receiving a vision from an angel. God speaks twice! The story tells how the Spirit brings them together – they share their stories and realise that God had been speaking complementary messages to both of them.
Don’t be surprised when you see this pattern occurring in your own life. God will speak to you individually, then he will repeat it to another person. Sometimes, the sermon in church will echo the same conversation you just had with God in your bedroom. Or someone in your household will have the same dream you just had. This is a work of the Holy Spirit confirming his message through the community. There’s safety in more than one witness.
Party with the Spirit
There’s one final reason why we need the church to hear God’s voice. No one person experiences the fullness of the Holy Spirit. We need others in the church to show us what God is like. It’s not that different to human relationships. Say you have a friend who you’ve come to know fairly well. One day you attend their birthday party. You meet their family, their work colleagues, their next door neighbour and the friend they went to school with. As you listen to the stories of your friend from the perspective of others, you begin to know them in ways you’ve never experienced before. You see the fullness of who they are.
It’s the same dynamic with God. When you meet others who know him, you get to know him better. You hear stories of how he’s spoken to them. You witness how he works with others in different situations. Then you start to recognise his voice more easily than you could ever do on your own.
It’s true that you don’t need anyone else to hear God’s voice. The Spirit is not confined to a church building, to one person or a specific time in the week. However at the same time, God has given us the gift of community to help us to experience his voice together. Hearing from God in the accountability of the church provides us with a way to test our experiences and deepen our understanding. It’s the way that God has always designed it to be.
Article supplied with thanks to God Conversations. Tania Harris is a pastor, speaker, author and the founder of God Conversations.