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Experiencing the Holy Spirit

We can expect to experience the power of God if we start taking risks.


My name is Francis, and I was a pastor in Southern California for about sixteen years at a church that I planted. About a year ago, I moved to the Bay Area. I left because there were a lot of good churches and pastors in our city. Even in my specific church, there were a lot of great elders. I decided there were plenty of pastors and churches there, and I wanted to be in a place that would scare me. I wanted to move to a place where there weren't a lot of believers, a place not really known for Christianity.

So I moved to San Francisco. I didn't want to go somewhere in the Bible belt where people would just show up to my service. I wanted to go where it would take a miracle to save people. Of course it's going to take an act of the Holy Spirit to open anyone's eyes. Otherwise the gospel's just going to be foolishness. But I wanted to be in a place where I couldn't fake it.

You can almost fake the fruit. Sometimes people look nice and clean; their sins aren't too apparent to the rest of the world. They can show up to church and go through the motions. But I said, "God, I want to be in a difficult place to minister—a place where it's obvious that only your Spirit could have changed someone." I believe the Lord led me to San Francisco, and I believe that God's moving in that area.

I've been working in the Tenderloin area in San Francisco, because Scripture shows that God would choose those who have been discarded by the world. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1 that God chooses those who aren't rich, who aren't beautiful, who aren't powerful, and who aren't strong so that he can shame those who are rich, beautiful, and strong. In that way, no one can boast before God.

God chooses us. We were a wreck. We were a mess. We weren't the greatest of anything. And yet God took us out of that, and he's using us so we won't brag about ourselves. Remember who you were and what God did to rescue and save you.

So I moved up here, and it's been amazing. This has been one of the greatest seasons of my life. When I look in your faces or I'm listening to worship I want everyone to get it. I don't want people to just show up to church and hear another sermon. I want them to really experience this Book. I've been teaching this Book for the last twenty years. But only in the last few years have I really experienced it. Now I understand why Paul says, "I don't want your faith to rest on human wisdom but on a demonstration of the Spirit's power."

Don't just sit in church.

Before I get up to speak, I pray, God, please do something today. The last thing I want to do is just preach another sermon. I don't want to go through the motions and say things like, "Turn to this passage and here's what it means in the Greek and here's what it means in English. All right, see you next year." I pray, God, I want your Word to come alive today. I'll get on my face and beg, God, do something.

A few weeks ago, I was with my oldest daughter. She just released her first CD, and she was doing a little tour, so I followed her around and would speak afterward. We were in Detroit, and I was getting ready to speak as she was singing and leading worship. I was backstage on my knees, and I prayed this prayer, God, would you have something happen as I speak. I think of 1 Kings 18 which describes Elijah on Mount Carmel. And the prophets of Baal are dancing and trying to get their god to listen to them, and nothing happens. Then Elijah calls out to God: "Show them who you are." And fire comes down from heaven. Everyone walks away saying, "The Lord, he is God." They recognize that the God Elijah just prayed to is real. Everyone left talking about God, not about Elijah.

Acts 4 talks about how believers prayed and everything started shaking. So I was backstage on my knees praying, I want that to happen. I want that fire to come down so that everyone leaves here asking, "What just happened? Jesus must be the real God. I wanted the whole place to shake. I prayed, God, I've asked for this so many times because I want people to talk about you and your power. I don't want them to talk about me or a band or my daughter. I want them to talk about you, but only you can make that happen. Why don't you answer this prayer? Why doesn't fire come down from heaven?

And I felt like the Lord made something very clear in my mind. He may as well have been speaking to me. It was like he said, "Francis, Elijah was on Mount Carmel with hundreds of prophets ready to cut his head off. You're at a Christian concert. These are two completely different situations." He reminded me of Acts 4. Peter and John are released from prison, they go back to the body of believers, and they pray for courage. The Bible says, "And the place shook, and then they went and they preached with boldness." It really opened my eyes. I thought, We so often want to experience God in a place like this. We want to experience the Holy Spirit. We say, "Wait, two more songs; I almost felt it." That describes our Christian culture. Believers get together in a room hoping to experience the Spirit in there. Yet where did those in the Scriptures experience the Holy Spirit? They experienced the presence of God when they put themselves on the line. It happens when Elijah is standing on Mount Carmel and says, "I know my God's the real God." There was risk and faith involved.

Do something that scares you.

I get excited when believers go do something that scares them. I've realized the times I really experienced the Holy Spirit were when I was living by faith, doing things that were uncomfortable to me. I've often spoken about Jesus saying, "I'm going to send you the Comforter." But why do we need a comforter if we're comfortable? You may be thinking, I don't really sense the presence of God. Jesus says, "I'll be with you always," but I don't always feel him here. But he said this in Matthew 28:18-20. As we go out and making disciples, as we go out and baptize people, as we teach people to obey everything that God commanded, Jesus will be with you, even to the end of the age.

We all want to experience the Holy Spirit. But we have to remember why the Holy Spirit was given. Acts 1:8 says, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in all Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth." If you've never really experienced the Holy Spirit, ask yourself, Am I out there making disciples? Am I out there being his witness? Or am I just trying to get myself in a room to feel him? I'm not saying you can't experience him in a room. But I see in Scripture that when people are obeying his commands and living the great commission, they experience the Holy Spirit of God.

Luke 12 says in verse 11, "And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say." You aren't going to experience the Spirit two hours before you do something. No, he says, "in that very hour." Just go out, and start making disciples. Start vocalizing your faith. You're going to get in situations where you won't know what to say. Don't worry about it. God may put you up in front of the President, and at that moment the Holy Spirit will tell you exactly what to say.

Has there been a struggle in your life when you read this Book and pray, God, what I'm experiencing isn't matching up with what I'm reading? You go to services. You go to Bible studies. But you just don't feel it. It's because we get in these comfortable Christian environments, and we expect to experience him there. But in Scripture this only happens when people are out serving.

In Acts 4 Peter and John heal a guy and the authorities say, "Oh no, now they're healing people. We'd better stop them. We don't want this message spreading." And they tell Peter and John, "Stop preaching in Jesus' name." But Peter and John aren't going to stop. Why would they obey these authorities rather than God? Eventually, Peter and John are released from prison. Verse 13 says, "When they saw the boldness of Peter and John and perceived that they were uneducated, common men they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus."

The church started with uneducated, common men that had courage and boldness. I know the biggest reason many of you do not tell anyone about Jesus. You say, "I don't know enough." But how much do you need to know? In places where revival has taken place, like China and the underground church, you'd be amazed how little they know. But they are courageous. In America I've seen the opposite of this verse. People are very educated, but I'm amazed by their lack of boldness. Many of you probably know the Bible much better than I do. I'm amazed at your education and knowledge. But are you bold?

When I first became a pastor I was twenty-six years old. I started learning ministry in my living room with a few people around on a couple of couches. I had no idea that I was going to plant a church. I'd only been married for two weeks when I told my wife, "I think I'm supposed to start a church. We never talked about this beforehand. But I didn't know before we were married." I was teaching the Bible the best way I knew. I'd been through seminary. I knew the Word, and I wanted to teach it exactly as it's written and not hold back on anything. But pastors were telling me, "Don't ever mention hell." "Don't talk about this or that." But I wanted to talk about everything in this Book. I didn't want to pretend something wasn't there because people don't like it.

I went to a seminar where a pastor was speaking, and he was talking about his amazing Christmas program. His program was very well attended. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for this event. People would practice in the church building for fifteen hours a week for months, because we wanted it to be excellent. As a new pastor, I wanted to do that someday. Afterwards I went up to the pastor and I said, "I have a question. What if all those people rehearsing at church spent ten to fifteen hours a week building relationships with their neighbors to tell them about Jesus? Wouldn't that accomplish more? And it would be free." He said, "It would, but no one's willing to do that." As a young pastor, I agreed.

But I wouldn't agree for long. These bold believers in the Bible were scared, too. That's why they got together and prayed for boldness. But we don't do that. We say, "You won't go talk to your neighbors? Fine, just show up to the church and dress like a reindeer. Come to us, and we'll make it easy so that no one has to live by faith here. We wouldn't want you to do something you're scared of. So let's make it comfortable for you." They might as well ask, "Pastor, will you come to work with me and tell the person I work with about Jesus?" But we're supposed to equip you. You're supposed to go and make disciples. You're supposed to do something dangerous.

This Thursday, I did something that scared me to death. My aunt went into the hospital at Stanford. In an Asian culture, you don't talk to your elders about anything. You don't even have a conversation. But I drove there thinking, God, I don't know how much longer she has. I haven't told her about Jesus. I didn't know how to even begin talking to my elders about Jesus. I was going to confront her, and we've never had a conversation about anything. But I prayed, "God, please do this for me. I don't know how to even get started. Show me a miracle, and speak your gospel to her."

After two hours sitting at her hospital bed, we were still talking about eggrolls. I thought, It isn't going to happen. Suddenly, just like I prayed, the door opened. So many things happened that I didn't expect. I drove away thinking, God, I can't believe you just did that. Now I pray that the Holy Spirit continues to work in her mind.

I would rather do anything than tell a stranger about Jesus. It's uncomfortable especially out here where people are so anti-Christian. They'll accept you as long as you don't force anything. But you'll be ostracized the moment you say, "Jesus said there's one way to heaven: you must be willing to follow him, deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow him. The God of the Bible says that certain things we do and enjoy are sin in his sight, and we need to repent of them. Drug abuse is a sin; a sexual relationship outside of marriage is a sin; even homosexuality is a sin in God's eyes; God only allows divorce for certain reasons, otherwise it is a sin." I've always wanted people to like me. I hate being rejected. I want to be the popular kid. It's hard to start addressing these issues because I know most people won't like it.

But it's in those times that you're going to experience life. That's when you'll be blown away by God's power. I've been knocking on doors, and that's so uncomfortable for me. I say, "Is there anything I can do to serve you? Is there anything you need: food, groceries, a toothbrush, or some sheets for your bed? I want to serve you. I don't want anything from you. I just want to show you grace." As we keep serving them, they'll be amazed. I say, "Is there anything I can pray for you about?" When I pray crazy things happen. I want it to be a demonstration of the Spirit's power. Week after week we're building these relationships, these friendships. We've had eight or nine people baptized recently. It's so cool because God is rescuing them from their addictions.

Share the gospel with people around you.

We had a birthday party for one of these guys, James, at my house two weeks ago. He turned fifty-nine years old. And he said, "I haven't had a birthday present in thirty-two years. I remember my last present was when I was twenty-seven." He was baptized. He said, "Pray for me. On the first of the month, my friends and I use drugs. I haven't been clean on the first of the month in at least twenty-five years." It's a cycle: they get their check and immediately blow it all. It's impossible to have a service on the first week of the month. No one will show up, because they're all just gone. I decided to visit him on March first, go straight to his apartment first thing in the morning, and handcuff him to me. I wouldn't let my brother fall. But I got the flu. I couldn't even get out of bed. But a kid named Aaron, one of our volunteers, decided to go check up on James.

Aaron went over to James' place. He took him to put his check in an account. He didn't give James the cash. This was the first time James had not been high on something on the first of the month in twenty-five years. So Aaron said, "Let's celebrate. This is a big day. I want to take you to dinner." So he got on his little iPhone to find a place for dinner. They decided to get some fried chicken at Popeye's. Then Aaron started walking James through Romans 8. I was worried that I wasn't there. I thought, He needs Francis Chan. He doesn't need Aaron. Aaron hasn't written anything.

Aaron called me to tell me this whole story. He said, "I'm teaching through Romans 8." Aaron asked where James' troubles started. James said, "I was nineteen years old, working at a restaurant. My boss brought in some cocaine and said, 'Would you like to try some?' I had smoked pot. I drank a lot. But I fell in love with cocaine, and I got hooked. I could never get enough. But I'll never forget that day." And he said, "This is the restaurant where I worked! It was in this room." He had been in the desert for forty years, and God took him back to the very restaurant where it all started! He said, "If I ever doubted God I will never doubt him again."

I was amazed! Aaron told me, "We were both just laughing, celebrating. We both had goose bumps, because we knew that God was present. We just laughed for half an hour." He was just beside himself; he couldn't even believe it. When I saw James a few days later he said, "Francis, did you hear the story? I can't stop thinking about it. I can't stop telling people about it." I was so excited to hear the voice of this kid, Aaron, telling me, "Francis, it was so amazing."

That's what the gospel's about. I didn't need to be there. It was a demonstration of the Holy Spirit's power. An average guy can show love to someone three times his age and this happens. Don't wait until you're a seasoned believer. James just gave his life to the Lord last Sunday, and we have already challenged him. We said, "You need to pray. You need to start caring for the people in your building now. Otherwise you'll end up sitting in a Sunday service your whole life saying, 'Pastor, you didn't feed me enough.' 'It wasn't deep enough.' Go and do these things and experience God."

My buddy Christian brought James some dinner last Sunday and said, "I want you to pray for somebody in your building." James said, "All right. I'll pray for Tom." Two hours after Christian left, James called and said, "I can't believe it. Tom knocked on my door. He's never knocked on my door. He asked me if I would pray for him."

I just saw James yesterday. He said, "Francis, I remember when you first knocked on my door and told me that God does things when you pray. Tom's never knocked on my door. Why would he knock on my door and ask for prayer?" Now, his whole apartment building is going to him for prayer. He was saved a month ago, and now he's a light to that apartment building.

Yesterday he brought over all of his crack pipes. We grabbed a hammer and started to smash this stuff. He said, "Can we bury this in your backyard?" As we buried his smashed crack pipes, we buried the old James. He's gone now. He has a new life. It feels amazing to start experiencing these supernatural things. It doesn't happen in here. It happens when you walk out that door.

Looking at Acts 4:31, I wanted this place to be shaken so many times. But if you read the verse it says, "When they prayed the place in which they were gathered was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness." So often we only want that first part of the verse. We gather believers together and pray and have a worship service and hope that God will do an earthquake at the end of it.

Now I can almost say that I don't really care if there's an earthquake when I'm done praying. I would rather have something substantial come out of this, that you would see how the Scripture tells us to go out and be uncomfortable. Ordinary, common, uneducated people should go out in faith and do something that scares them. I'd much rather you understand that and leave here with boldness. Because we're all scared. Who wants to go to work tomorrow and start talking to people about Jesus? Sometimes someone's sitting right next to me on an airplane, and I don't want to talk to them. I almost hope they put on their headset. But when I act in boldness I'm at peace because I know this is what I'm here on the earth to do. So many of us do not have peace because we haven't even approached the person that works in the cubicle next to us or the family that lives in the house next to us. We make up excuses. Maybe they'll come to our Christmas musical. But we know we should say something. We know the way to heaven, we believe they're destined to be apart from God forever, but we don't say anything. We're just scared.


I really don't care whether this room shakes or not. That would be cool, but I really don't want this to be a waste of time. I hope that some of you decide to go for it. Just try. I want to push you to do something scary, because that's when we experience the Holy Spirit of God.

Francis Chan is an American Protestant author, teacher, and preacher.

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Sermon Outline:


Don't just sit in church.

Do something that scares you.

Share the gospel with people around you.