by Harry Banks, June 1, 2015:     My sailing club is doing shoreline reclamation this spring and I haven’t been able to get my sailboat in the water yet, but I’ve been thinking about cat’s paws anyway.

Cat’s Paws? Yeah, that’s when the surface of the water is smooth, but there is a ruffle of waves coming your direction across the water, which sometimes looks almost like a giant cat silently padding across the water. It’s the wind. You can see the water tell you where the wind is coming from and where it is going. And when you know how to read a cat’s paw you can set your sail to head to your destination.

Tell Tails

Sailors also have little threads or ribbons on the rigging of the boat called tell tails. They also give evidence of the direction and the strength of the wind.

Cat’s Paws of the Spirit

Years ago I had an opportunity to attend a Church Growth Seminar at Ben Lippen campus near Asheville, North Carolina. Ben Lippen is a Scottish phrase which means Mountain of Trust. The campus was on a mountain overlooking Asheville in the distance. The president, Robert McQuilkin, had invited Donald McGavran, founding Dean and Professor of Mission, Church Growth and South Asian Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, to present a brief one-week Church Growth Seminar.

He was asking, “1. What are the causes of church growth? 2. What are the barriers to church growth? 3. What are the factors that can make the Christian faith a movement among populations? 4. What principles of church growth are reproducible?” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_McGavran)

At the beginning of the seminar he talked about learning to see where the Spirit is moving in a community, a region, or a country. For me that meant watching for spiritual cat’s paws. Where is the Holy Spirit moving? What people, what agencies is the Spirit using or able to use?

While parts of church growth theory may be dated now and not as helpful as some had hoped, I for one feel that the observation about watching for where and how the Spirit is moving in one’s area is a most valid lens for what he called “church growth eyes.”

Which got me to thinking about some of the signs of Spirit moving in my area, and maybe it will get more of us watching for those Cat’s Paws of the Spirit.

Observing the Surroundings

My students who are military veterans sit in the back of my classroom, back to the wall and corner, so they can observe the whole room. They have been taught to always be aware of their surroundings.

Sometimes in the “safety” of a local congregation, stories of faith seem inward focused. One of my wag friends calls this the “navel inspection station” (as in gazing at one’s own belly button). In my local congregation, my attracting rowdy kids to help with the sound and video booth attracted some disapproval from a less tolerant board and pastor. The year that followed ended with my receiving a letter calling me to a church business meeting to be disciplined for “strife making,” in spite of my willingly stepping down and telling the upset kids not to tear the system apart but to act like Christians and do their job.

As the business meeting unfolded it was evident the leadership of the church wanted to use church discipline as a form of personal retaliation. Parents of the youngsters who objected were also disciplined en masse. As Larry Downing (the AT columnist, not the Larry mentioned below) has so eloquently articulated, our church is ultimately congregational. At which point I decided that although I may see myself as an Adventist, I could not fellowship in good conscience with a congregation whose pastor and leaders resorted to misrepresentation and vindictiveness as a demonstration of their commitment to “the truth.”

(Some will offer a different view of these events. Some may think I’m being harsh, but let me assure you, I’m leaving out a lot of details. The only reason I offer this note is to explain how I began to start observing what was going on around me in my community. And, please don’t use this as an excuse to whine and carp about local congregations that struggle with actualizing grace and redemption.)

I have no idea what God has in mind for this congregation, I leave that in His hands. I just knew that I needed to take responsibility for my own journey and step away for a while. At least that way I could be assured I would not be “strife making.” In the transcript you can find a quote where the head elder said they had to look “really hard” to find strife making in the manual as a valid reason for church discipline but they “finally found it.” I thought that to be a most telling admission on his part.

But as they say in the movie Airplane, “That’s not important now.”

Starting to Look Toward the Community

The “disciplined” families began meeting in one of the meeting rooms at the city sports arena on Sabbath mornings. They needed a place to hunker down, lick their wounds and have a safety zone to heal. The conference president was notified, so that he would not hear about it through the grapevine but also to offer a direct line of communication if he chose to ask questions.

It Gets Interesting

Here is where it starts to get interesting. The little group called itself “Community Fellowship.” They met each Sabbath for a couple of months and then …

One day one of my adjunct instructors, Cathy, plopped herself in the guest chair in my office and said, “Have you heard what Larry is doing?”

In my mind I wondered, Who is Larry? And what was he doing?

Not only was Cathy teaching for me; she was working part time in my old Information Technology (IT) department for our local government. Here in Alaska we call it a borough, although in the lower 48 they are generally called counties. Our borough/county is nearly the size of West Virginia.

Back to Cathy. Not only was Cathy teaching for me, working in my old shop; she was renewing her personal walk of faith. I had worked at the borough for 17 years. From time to time two or three of my instructors were from the borough. I kept in touch and that IT department was like family to me. Cathy was part of that family. Larry was new, but he was still part of that family.

Larry, come to find out, was also working at the borough IT department. He was a former atheist, had found faith on his own, was a diligent Bible student, and was starting a Saturday morning Bible study group meeting at the local phone company’s education center. The group was called In His Steps Community Fellowship.

It all seemed too be orchestrated by an agency far above any organization we were part of. The Community Fellowship decided to meet with the In His Steps Community Fellowship.

Where Is the Spirit Moving? Where Is He Leading?

So between Donald and his “Where is the Spirit working?” and Larry and In His Steps … Could it have been His will to have us step away from the local congregation? Did He need to work in a more individual way with the leadership of the congregation and with us? Were we being placed here?

Larry had envisioned an interdenominational place for finding and building personal faith as a bridge to a more formal affiliation with congregations that the individuals choose. What he got was a bunch of Seventh-day Adventists. He said he was meeting on Saturday so he wouldn’t compete with regular hours of worship, only to find a whole group of people for whom this was their hour of worship. It was even at 11 o’clock.

So like I was saying … between Donald and Larry … Lately I’ve been watching much more carefully for the Spirit’s moving.

So This Is Really What I Wanted to Share

I don’t know if you needed all that background but I thought it might help. So here in what appears to be a Divinely coordinated encounter, I have begun to see more and more evidence of the Spirit moving …

One day I passed the phone company later than usual on Sabbath and saw Larry’s car in the parking lot. I went in and found a group of eight or nine church planters discussing their various projects.

Two were working in prison ministries. They talked about the raw redemptive power of Christ in the animal pit we call prison, where there is absolutely no room for phoniness or halfway trust in God’s power.

Some were working with messianic ministries. They were observing Jewish feast days and practices. They participated in the Passover Seder service. But what got my attention was how they emphasized the essential need to love, totally love, their friends to Christ. They were planning on a minimum of eight years before they expected the first signs of their friends fully embracing Christ in their lives. They emphasized how when their beloved friends accept Christ it will bring separation from their heritage, disavowal from their families. They stressed how they must stand by their friends as they learn to fully trust Christ, and again how essential that love must be.

(By the way, did you ever notice that 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter,” is not included in our statement of 28 fundamental beliefs?)

Subsequently, Larry has stepped away from his borough position. He became Chief Information Officer, yet he quit his job to follow what he felt Christ was calling him to do … with no means of visible support.

Then he was hired as pastor for a small Baptist congregation, which he serves on Sundays while he continues to commit to the Sabbath community outreach at the phone company.

I’ve also had an opportunity to work with community people who are addressing issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault, child care, food for mothers and infants, alcohol and mental health issues.

No, none of this fits in my little orthodox box. But, is the Spirit moving in ways beyond my small understanding? Most definitely!

Messianic outreach, prison ministry, verse by verse in-depth personal Bible study, domestic violence, God directly converting an atheist with no denominational intervention. Compared to all that, arguments about ordination, headship, and age of the earth have seemed, at least from this context, almost irrelevant.

Until today … Today I was commenting at the group at the phone company on some of the age of the earth discussion. Three of us were talking. Larry said, “I really find that discussion interesting.” He mentioned a book entitled I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist and how evolution is treated as a law not a theory.

Where will this adventure go next? I don’t know. But I feel the challenge of J. B. Phillips’ book Your God is Too Small.

So just for fun: If you were to look for the Spirit moving in your community, where would you look? What are you seeing? Where is the Spirit touching lives in down- to-earth practical ways? Where are Christians committing to love their friends to Christ over years, through thick and thin? Where is the Spirit using the humanity of the church to open to manifestations of God’s superior redemption and grace?

No, I didn’t tell you about all the cat’s paws of the Spirit I am seeing. But, looking at the tell tails around here, it sure looks like the wind is picking up. Hoist that sail! Set that jib! Keep your church growth eyes open … maybe even in San Antonio.

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8, NIV).