Jessica Woods spent time with our graduate students a few weeks ago in Portland, OR. She talked at length about the practices that she and Ryan and others have put in place to see what kind of community might emerge in downtown Vancouver, WA. The whole presentation was brilliant (which makes Ryan’s death in November something even more grievous to me), but the one thing that stood out to me was their first movement of discerning what God was up to. They met regularly with a diverse group of people to share a meal and ask two questions from their experiences in the community: to whom is God calling me to serve? Who has God brought into my life that is serving me? So much wisdom here. Such a generative practice.
I was reflecting this week on Acts 15 and the way it would define the church, and I thought of Ryan and Jessica’s practice. If the statement by James, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” is any indication, the church is that community that tracks the leading of the Holy Spirit. I like this as a starting place for defining the church. First, it makes the church’s identity squarely theological. That is, the church is not defined primarily by its structures or programs or marks, but by God’s leading. The church, therefore, is not a static reality, but a dynamic one, always expressing the possibility that the a living God is calling it to recognize the calling of the Spirit in the ever-changing circumstances of time and space.
In turn, this makes the church’s fundamental posture one of faith–trusting beyond what we can see that God is active and calling us into his preferred future. This is a point made powerfully by Luke Timothy Johnson in his book, Scripture and Discernment. The church is not so much an institution or social agency, but a community characterized by faith–a trusting openness to the leadership of God. Decision making, according to this understanding, is an act of faith. By deciding, the church says, “to the extent that we can know, we believe God is calling us to…” Which is another way of saying, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit” and to us.
So, I wonder what conditions are necessary to say, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” I wonder if most congregations have orchestrated their life together so that this is a possibility. And if it isn’t–if the church isn’t conceived of to express its life as a matter of faith–then what do we imagine the church is, and how do we imagine that God is related to it? Is it really a church?
Ryan and Jessica and their friends were/are relentless about discerning the call of the Holy Spirit on their lives. And by doing that in a group, they are hoping to avoid self-congratulatory interpretations of those questions. And by asking who might God be putting in their lives to serve them, they were open to the wide hospitality of God where the Spirit is present in the free exchange of giving and receiving, even with people who have not yet confessed Jesus. And I am convinced that this kind of attending to our world bears fruit and puts us knowingly in the path of the Holy Spirit. And I think this is better–more effective even–then all the energy we spend getting people to come to church.