Is Your Life and Ministry an Institution or a Movement? Passing the Torch at Convocation 2010

This is the Convocation Sermon, Fall 2010 for Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., President, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC; James M. Baird Jr. Professor Of Pastoral Theology

Acts 13:1-3, 44-52

The theological lens through which we observe and interpret life has powerful implications for our lives. For example, when we see the stories of the Bible standing alone, disjointed, and unrelated to each other, the Bible can seem like a confusing collection of historical accounts, ancient stories with imaginative characters, and perhaps even as a book that provides inspiration.

If on the other hand, we view Scripture the way that Jesus did, (according to Luke 24:27[1]) as being connected through what has sometimes, I think correctly, been called the “scarlet thread” of the redemptive plan of God in Christ that brings about the restoration of His Creation, then we view the Bible, our faith, the Church, our seminaries, our personal and corporate missions, and, of course, our families and our lives in a new and exciting way. We see the Bible as a cohesive framework that brings a dynamism to living by which we understand life and the purposes of God.

I have been thinking about these things lately as I have been praying about the open door the Lord has given to me in this ministry called RTS. I believe that my thinking about this larger, cohesive picture of the covenant of grace, this plan of God has been shaped in large part because of the following Scriptures. These Scriptures have spoken to my heart and I pray they will to yours as well.

This is the inerrant and infallible Word of the Living God:

Acts 1:8

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).

ACTS 5:34-39

“But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. And he said to them, ‘Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!’ So they took his advice” (Acts 5:34-39).

Acts 13:1-3

“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:1-3).

Acts 13:44-52

“The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him.  And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,

‘”I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.  But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.  But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13.44-52).

Power to Get You Through

There are times when forces conspire to bring you down unless there is a power to get you through.

I fly a lot. I have experienced times when in take off, particularly in a “puddle-hopper,” I could almost feel the cross winds against my cheek, and through my prayers, I was also talking, under my breath, to the pilot, “Giver her some power, son, give her some power!”

In the ministry—in life—there are forces that conspire to bring us down—and would—except for a power that is greater than the force, greater than ourselves.

I saw this in church planting as we were taking off and suddenly, almost imperceptibly at first, then building to an obvious threat to our work, we experienced the crosswinds of opposition. The opposition we felt was apathy in the congregation, a lack of commitment in the culture around us, and a general lackadaisical attitude among others. Like any good pilot I wrote up my encounter and it made its way to the desk of a denominational overseer for church planters. He flew to Kansas City to pay me a visit. He took Mae and me out to dinner near the airport. He told me that he had read about the problems. But he said, the problem, was not in the culture, or in others. The problem was with me. I was lacking power to get through the headwinds because pride, like a flock of Canadian geese, had been sucked into the life of the work.

“Mike (he seemed to be telling me) you are clogging up the work of the Lord in this place with your pride, your sense of entitlement from God and others. You have to get out of the way. You are taking the safe route, but not the prayerful, trusting route. You are turning into an intuition. What you need to have is a true movement of the Lord in this place. Then others will also be set free. Then you will know the blessing of God.”

Well, I responded by asking him if he was ready to go to the airport! And I took him, dropped him off and was delighted to say “Good-bye!” On the ride home, I told my wife how wrong he was. But over the next few weeks I committed myself to prayer and learned how wrong I was. I asked God to forgive me. I sought to get out of the way of His work and to rely on the ordinary means of grace—Word, Sacrament and Prayer—to advance His Kingdom work.

I gave the church, rightfully, to the Lord of the church. It was at that point that I believe our church left the physical dynamics of this world and entered into another World, another Kingdom. At that moment our congregation stopped being an institution and became a movement.

I have been thinking and praying about “movements” and “institutions” of late as I have been praying about our seminary. I was happy when my friend, Tim Keller, revealed that he, too, has been thinking on such things. He recently wrote:

“A movement is marked by an attractive, clear, unifying vision for the future together with a strong set of values or beliefs. The content of the vision must be compelling and clear so that others can grasp it readily. It must not be so esoteric or difficult that only a handful of people can articulate it. Instead, it must be something that all members of the movement can understand and pass along to others. By contrast, “institutionalized” organizations are held together by rules, regulations, and procedures, not by a shared vision.”[2]

I would add that institutions are often held together by the power of the personality and gifts of the founder or leader. These often look like movements, until the leader moves on. Then, if there is no power from on high, the pseudo-movement is revealed to be nothing more than a human institution. It is at this point that one thinks of the words of Gamaliel when the religious leaders were considering what to do with Peter and the courageous band of believers who would not stop preaching:

And now I say unto you, refrain from these men, and let them alone, for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to naught: but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it, lest haply ye be found even to fight against God (Acts 5:34).

Gamaliel, even in his unbelief, recognized a truth of God at work in the world: movements are bigger than one man. The Pharisee was half right: you cannot stop what is of God. But he wrong in sitting still. He should have repented rather than let the movement pass him by. But in his own life, he was bound by an institution. And that institution of first century rabbinical Judaism was powerless before the movement of God displayed even in poor apostles and preachers.

Jesus Christ did not found an institution, but was the crucified Mediator of God’s plan—God’s movement—to save mankind. And those whose lives were miraculously transformed by Him were not just following a man, they were following God, or better put, were being led by God, inspired and sustained by God.

Today, sometimes we think if only we can have a vision statement then we will have a future. There is nothing the matter with them and much right if they are reflective of the Bible’s vision and mission. But the early Church went forth in a vision and mission that came down to them from on high. They had been swept up into the glorious cloud of witnesses stretching back to Genesis and stretching forward to an Eden-restored under the sovereign Lordship of Jesus Christ. They were part of the movement of the Holy Spirit in the world.

Thus, the Church of Jesus Christ is an organic movement of the Lord. The true Church is not and can never be an institution. Those local churches and ministries that have been swept into the glorious forward moving Pentecostal thrust of the Holy Spirit in history are part of this Movement. Indeed, like little whirlpools within the larger great river of God, these local churches and ministries are movements within this Movement. The Movement and the subsidiary movements born out of it are true eschatological movements in that they are bringing about transformation in human souls, one at a time, as well as in nations and cultures where revival is burning with fire from the very altar of God. These movements are also eschatological because they are moving all of the smaller movements together into one, so that the great river of God’s Covenant Promises are moving, like the mighty Mississippi River, to finally spill out into the glorious gulf of a New Heaven and a New Earth.

Such was the case in the Book of Acts as Jesus promised a power from on high that would propel the Church of God to the ends of the earth. And so looking in Chapter 13, I would draw forward three marks of a true movement of God that provides the power we need to move through the challenges of our lives and the challenges of ministry.

1.  The first mark of a true movement of God is seeking God in prayer (13:2)

Paul had gone to minister at Antioch. He joined a college of preachers there, even as we have here today at this convocation. And what marked the power of their teaching and ministry? It was prayer. And from that life of prayer came the voice of the Holy Spirit saying, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul…”  The movement of God that would “turn the world upside down” started as it did in the Upper Room, as it always does in the Kingdom of God, with prayer. In fact, that is why the founders of this institution called for us to seek God each semester that we may know His blessing and His power and presence on this place, in a Convocation that seeks Almighty God in prayer.

Before Israel took Jericho there was prayer when the successor to Moses, Joshua,  “fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to Him, ‘What does my lord say to his servant?’”[3] Before the conversion of Lydia, often referred to as the first European to be baptized[4], there was prayer by Paul as the Holy Spirit forbid the apostle from going to Asia and redirected him to Europe[5] and gave him a prayer-soaked vision of a Macedonian man calling him to come and “help us.”[6] Such visions, such callings, such conversions come to us in prayer. Before I went to preach each Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga—from the first day—the officers of that church met me and led me to a place, a small room, and we sought God in prayer, for the Spirit to come down, for sinners to be saved and souls to be transformed. Before the performance of duties there was prayer. Before Jesus went to the Cross there was  John 17—there was prayer: “Father, I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.”[7]

I thank God for the opportunities of prayer that are before us here: in chapels, in prayer meetings, in the offices of our professors. But I implore you: if your life at seminary is to be swept into the grand narrative of what God is doing in the world, then you will need to become a man or woman of prayer while you are here to study. To study without prayer, that “intimate conversation of the pious with God”[8] as Calvin called it, is to miss the dynamic center of the movement of God in your life and will be to institutionalize your calling. If our professors ever fall into teaching without asking first for a power from on high, then we too will institutionalize.

I read the stories of our seminarians that do their internship here at Presbyterian Hospital. Every M.Div. student will. One paper was brutally honest. He was in the presence of a lady who was dying. He didn’t know what to say. But she led him, knowing he was nervous, and even though she lay dying, she sought to instruct the seminarian. “Son, why don’t you just pray?”

A true movement of God is marked by seeking God in prayer.  Will you commit on this Convocation day to seek him in prayer? Then will you and I both be swept up in the forward movement of God’s glorious design for the world. Then will we know His favor and His blessing on our lives, if we will seek Him with all of our heart.

The first mark of a true movement of God is seeking God in prayer (13.2).

2. The second mark of a true movement of God is being sent in power (13:3).

You will notice that after the voice speaks, they begin to pray again! At the conclusion of their prayers they laid their hands on them—to signify the apostolic setting apart for sacred service to God—and then they were sent. I would say that they were thus sent in a transfer—symbolic and yet very real—of power, a power from on high.

This is a perfect picture of what happened to you! You were in prayer, and the Lord called you to ministry. And what did you do? You came to seminary, you came to a life of prayer and study and focus on the Word of God, and entered into a community of spiritual and vocational formation with these pastor-scholars. Prayer—calling—Prayer—Power. Then you will be sent forth. Thus the movement begins in prayer and then returns to prayer to know the power to be sent forth. This is the power that will overcome all crosswinds, all Bar-Jesus figures in your ministry and your life. You will know many. But the movement is greater and the movement is inside of you. The movement is the Kingdom of God empowered by the Holy Spirit. And nothing, not even “the gates of hell” can prevail against it, said Jesus in Matthew 16:18.

I grew up on a chicken farm. One of the things I remember so well on our humble little farm was putting the eggs about to hatch under a lamp. There they lamp would provide the warmth that the hen would provide if it were possible for her to do so. But there were often too many eggs for one hen to set on! And so the iridescent light and all-encompassing warmth of the single light bulb, dangling on an old gray electric cord, suspended from the top of the rough-hewn “bittie-coop” would bring forth glorious new life. Is there anything as exciting as watching a little chick tapping its way out of the protective shell and coming into the world? What a memory.

And my beloved there is nothing more beautiful to me than seeing a new minister or missionary coming to the conclusion of his or her study, tapping their way out of the protective covering seminary, excitedly taking their place in this movement called the ministry of the Gospel. What a joy.

What are your dreams and visions of ministry? What has God called you to do? The seminary, which simply means “seed-bed” is a  place to bring the light of heaven down on you and your family, to soak you in the iridescent light of Jesus Christ as He is hidden in the hearts of our pastor-scholars. This means that seminary is a place of prayer, and thus a place of power, from which you shall be sent forth to do God’s work. It may be another body that lays their hands on you—though when invited we get to do that too as some of us did just two Sundays ago—but we will lay our hands and our hearts on you in prayer, that you may be sent. If you are sent in such power, you can be sure that you will be a part of the very movement of God at work in the world today.

3. The third mark of a true movement of God is being sustained in the Spirit (13:3).

No sooner than Barnabas and Saul enter upon their missionary work, they are opposed by a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was a magician. But Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit (9) and spoke out of the center of Spiritual activity in his life and said that Bar-Jesus was not a “son” of Jesus, but he called him “You son of the devil…” and identified him as an agent of the devil to be used to stop the work of Lord.  And God sent a blindness upon this demonic opponent of Christ’s kingdom work.

At the end of this section we read in verses 49-52 that the “word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and drove them out of the district” (49-50). Yet the close of this portion of Scripture tells us that it could not stop the movement of God. Indeed, we read that despite the persecution, the disciples, those who believed in the Gospel preaching of Paul, were “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (52).

To enter into the service of Jesus Christ is to enter into a field of conflict. The Evil One and his demons and the unwitting persons doing his bidding will seek to stop the work of God. You can be sure of that. If you do nothing, hide, turn away and go home, quit and give up, then you have nothing to worry about! He goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour and at that point he will have you. There will be no more opposition for you for you will be vaporized on the field of spiritual battle. But should you in your heart say “God has called me here” and “God has called me to be prepared to preach” or “I am not sure why I am here or where I am going but I want to be a part of the movement of God” then there will be attack! My beloved brothers on faculty, as you do God’s work, you must remember that you too will be attacked. To open up God’s Word to these students, year after year, decade after decade, and to multiply the Gospel a million times over as you reach people you will never see cannot be ignored by the arch enemy of our Savior. But you will be sustained as you are filled with the Spirit of God.

Thus, all the more, my beloved in Christ, must we be a people of consecration here. Thus must we seek God that He would send down His Spirit for this great work, but also to stir us up to revival.

My prayer is that people do not walk onto this campus, but they perceive somehow that they are walking into a community of prayer and worship and that our seminarians and our faculty are united in this: We are seeking His Spirit to do his work.

If a revival broke out here—a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit bringing about repentance and forgiveness and evangelism in this city—what a glory that would be! Stranger things have happened. Let us leave that with God. But let us seek to do His work filled with His Spirit. And He promises that if we draw near to Him He will draw near to us.


Gamaliel was right: you can’t stop the movement of God. He should have joined it though rather than sitting and doing nothing!

Recently I had a conversation with our Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Reformed Theological Seminary, Mr. Jim Moore. Mr. Moore told me to remember that I have been given a torch. But it is not my torch. It is God’s. It was given to others before me who sought it in prayer. It was handed to leaders and faculty and students before us. It is like an Olympic torch, he said. He generation is running the race of faith, seeking to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. And each generation, each man and each woman of God who will reach out, who will join the race by faith, receives the torch until we hand it off to another in evangelism and missions.

“Mike,” he told me, “it is your time to carry this torch. Just be sure to pass it on!”

Jim was saying to me that our seminary is a movement of God in our generation. It started in prayer, it has sent out others in power, and will be sustained by His Spirit.

This kind of encouragement to carry the torch in faithfulness was given in this note, which a friend from the Chief of Chaplains office gave me last night:

“…it is our business to pray. We preach its importance. We urge its practice. But the time is now to intensify our faith in prayer…Urge all of your men to pray, not alone in church, but everywhere. Pray when driving. Pray when fighting. Pray alone. Pray with others. Pray by night and pray by day…Now is not the time to follow God from ‘afar off.’ The Army needs the assurance and faith that God is with us. With prayer, we cannot fail.” —from a Training Letter on Prayer written by Chaplain (COL) James O’Neill to the 486 Chaplains of the Third United States Army under the command of George S. Patton during the Battle of the Bulge.[9]

I love that instruction for prayer on the battlefield. I thanked my friend for the note and told him just how timely it was for me, for us. For this is our battle. This is our day. This is our Antioch. For it is a new semester in giving Biblical light and pastoral warmth to pastors and missionaries and teachers and counselors in training. We are called to carry the torch as students in the Lord and as teachers of the Word. We are called to pray at all times and in all places that Christ may secure His victory.

Thus, let the movement of God go forward in power in this place. May God by His Spirit capture our hearts in prayer and sweep us all into it; and may there be much joy in the souls of millions upon millions who will hear of Jesus Christ and His grace as a result of our prayers, his Sustainment and His power at work here at RTS Charlotte.

Never an institution. Always a movement. May it always be so!

Students and faculty and friends: The lines of the faithful are putting on the full armor of God. They are marching forward in our generation. Let’s join them again. Let’s get going in God’s work. Let’s move out.

[1] “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24.27).


[2] Timothy Keller, “Ministry Movements,” redeemer city to city (2010).

[3] Joshua 5.14

[4] Acts 16.14

[5] Acts 16.6

[6] Acts 16.9

[7] John 17.20

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) 3.20.16.

[9] As related by Chaplain (BG) James H. O’Neil on 06 October 1971 in The Review of the News ( I received this prayer for my own spiritual encouragement on 29 August 2010 from my friend, CH (LTC) Pete Sniffin in the Chief of Chaplains office, Washington DC.

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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