A Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthThe Power of ListeningDeath in Dunedin: A NovelJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeA Renewed SpiritualityFriendingDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

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Hearing God speak communally

Thursday October 2 2014

Imagine you’re in a committee or church board meeting, and you’re discussing a possible new direction for mission. You long to experience God’s guidance in the decision. What can you do as a group to hear God speak to you?

In my most recentt blog post, I addressed the question of how Christians hear God speak. In this post I want to narrow down to consider how we hear God speak to us communally. A few years ago I interviewed 63 ministers and congregational leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom about listening, and one of my interview questions related to communal listening to God’s guidance. I’ll summarize two of the issues the interviews raised in my mind.

1. I heard a lot of stories about listening to God communally through the Bible. Many congregations have small group Bible studies where participants wrestle with God’s voice to them in scripture. I heard about congregations where people gather during the week to talk about the sermon scripture for the next Sunday. Some congregations have feedback times during or after the Sunday service for reflection on how God spoke through the sermon. Some congregations are experimenting with reflective ways of engaging with the Bible, such as lectio divina.

The stories powerfully illustrated numerous communal settings focused on the Bible in congregations. The outcome of all this reflection and discussion of the Bible seemed to be guidance for individuals. What seemed missing was communal engagement with the Bible for the sake of hearing God’s guidance for a community. I’ve participated in many Bible studies and lectio divina sessions at church board meetings and elder retreats, and we’ve had great conversations about God’s voice to us individually through a Bible passage. What would it look like to begin there, but to continue on to consider how God might be speaking to us communally through the passage about directions for our congregation’s mission? No one in my interviews talked about doing that.

2. In my interviews, I heard a lot of confusion between consensus and discernment. Consensus decision making is becoming more prominent in many business and church settings, because decisions made by consensus generally have strong buy-in by the parties involved, and often more needs are met by consensus decisions than by other kinds of decisions. Consensus decisions play a role in discernment, but they are not the same. Consensus tries to address as many of the needs and concerns of the people present as is possible, while discernment attempts to figure out how God is guiding. Surely God wants needs to be met, but meeting needs and hearing God’s voice are often not the same thing.

Discernment relies on prayer in many forms, communal wrestling with the Bible, and engagement together in spiritual practices such as fasting, retreat and silence. The people involved in trying to discern God’s direction need to know consensus skills, because they need to listen to what each person is hearing from God and build consensus around it. But discernment begins and ends with trying to hear God’s voice and direction, not trying to meet the maximum number of needs. (I wrote more about the role of spiritual practices in consensus and discernment in an earlier post.)

These two patterns I observed in the interviews worry me. Both patterns indicate the way that individualism, so rampant in the wider culture, has affected Christians. And I myself am not immune to those forces. Engaging in consensus, a good thing to do, nudges me toward considering how I can negotiate to meet the needs I’m concerned about. Looking to the Bible for guidance for my life and doing it communally with others, another good thing to do, can keep me in an individualistic place where I’m listening to God for my sake rather than the sake of my community of faith. O Lord God, give us love for each other and a commitment to your body, so we can listen to you for the sake of our communities as well as for our own sakes.

(If you'd like to get an email every time I post something on this blog, go over to the right column under "subscribe" and sign up. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Consensus Versus Discernment

Friday September 5 2014

Consensus Versus Discernment

Spiritual practices—various forms of prayer and Bible study, and other practices as well—can play a significant role in congregational discernment. In a time when congregations are dealing with unprecedented challenges—ethnic shifts in neighborhoods, dwindling financial resources, changes in family patterns, less time available for volunteering, and an increasingly secular society—discernment has become a central issue. What is God calling us to do? What unique contribution can we, in this specific congregation, make in our community? In the wider world?

If we want to be missional congregations, engaging with God’s mission in the world, modeling ourselves after the incarnational ministry of Jesus, these questions are vital. We need to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance about exactly what we are called to do in our community and in the wider world. We need to grow in our ability to discern the difference between a good idea and the right idea, the direction where God is calling us to walk.

The question of discernment has come into view because of another issue as well. Many congregational leaders are tired of church organization being conducted by Robert’s Rules of Order. They quite rightly rebel against a kind of dualism that views worship and small groups as spiritual, while leadership of the church is treated like business. Either God is present in everything we do, and we expect God’s guidance in all our activities, or we are engaging in hypocrisy.

Some leadership boards in congregations have moved beyond Robert’s Rules of Order to embrace a process of consensus building, and consensus has many advantages over voting. Consensus involves discussion leading to general agreement about a conclusion or decision. This process is often slower than voting on a decision after only brief discussion, but it usually results in a greater degree of ownership by participants, and it provides the opportunity to deal with resistance earlier than when decisions are made by voting.

Often consensus building among congregational leaders centers on meeting the greatest number of needs or desires. The focus is on what we need and want. In contrast, discernment is radically different because it focuses on listening for God’s voice and guidance through the Holy Spirit. Discernment is grounded in the presupposition that our lives and our ministry belong to God, and that God’s Spirit will guide us into decisions that reflect God’s will and values. Our needs and desires need to be considered, but they are neither the starting point nor the primary motivator.

Both consensus and discernment require carefully listening to everyone involved, so the process is similar. In fact, consensus plays a role in the discernment process, as a group tries to come to a conclusion about what they are together hearing from God. The kind of consensus that plays a role in discernment involves the following:

  • Being willing to speak what we think we might be hearing from God
  • Listening carefully to others
  • Paraphrasing or summarizing what we think we hear others saying
  • Making sure quiet people have the opportunity to speak, and
  • Pausing from time to time to pray or reflect.

How do we arrive at consensus through discernment? Spiritual practices help us remember who God is and who we are, an essential first step. They give a foundation for peace and resting in God. They help us keep our roots in Christ. Engaging in centering prayer or the prayer of examen together, practicing lectio divina as a leadership group, or spending a long time in thankfulness prayers can get a process of discernment off to a good start because they remind us who we are and Whose we are. They remove the dualism of viewing worship as spiritual while dismissing planning as business as usual. They set the stage for a listening process.

In addition, spiritual practices can play a role in the middle or later stages of a process of discernment. In different ways, spiritual practices help groups of Christians discern what God is up to, the key component of all stages of discernment. One church member remarked that spiritual practices are “like cleaning my glasses,” restoring fresh and clear vision. Having clean glasses makes a valuable contribution to discernment at any stage.

(This post originally appeared on the Gathering Voices blog.)