In the last post, I suggested that congregational leadership could be thought of around two movements: discerning and joining. Specifically, leadership is responsible for maintaining the conditions whereby the congregation can discern the mission of God and join it. Leadership then is not just a list of jobs or tasks, but a way of maintaining a congregational culture or ecosystem in which its members can thrive in the missional purposes of God.
The discerning movement aims to keep a spiritually healthy environment so that the Word of God can be continually heard and spoken. The order here is important. Speaking is not the first movement in discernment. Hearing, or listening, is. This reinforces the notion that we pursue a living God who continually calls us deeper into his life and mission. Hearing must proceed speaking.
Listening is no simple task, however. It’s difficult enough in interpersonal communication when the person speaking is right in front of you. Listening for the voice of God is even tougher. There’s a lot of life-static that gets in the way of listening to God. As PT Forsyth memorably put it: “Even when we desire it there are few of us so familiar with their inner selves as to be able to distinguish with any certainty the shepherd’s voice, amid the gusts and sighings of their own fitful selves.” This inability to distinguish the voice of the shepherd is even tougher to do as a community where conflict and other relational barriers create interference.
Jesus’ parable of the soils suggests itself at this point. There are spiritual challenges that keep us, and our congregations, from being good soil, including sin and the distractions of the world. Pastoral work is not simply care of the soul for the sake of the individual, but also care of the soil for the sake of the Word of God.
A big part of keeping soil fertile, in my estimation, relates to “speech ethics.” The ways we talk to each other go a long way toward determining whether or not the word of God can continue to be heard and spoken. I’ve written about this before on more than one occasion, but I’m struck by the numerous places where Paul follows a description of his experience with the death and resurrection of Christ with a description of how this influences the way he speaks. Paul’s speech is frank and sincere, not manipulative or full of cunning or deceit. He is no peddler of God’s word. And so many of the biblical exhortations to Christian conduct talk about speech. Gossip and unwholesome talk are to give way to truth-telling and blessing.
I’m pretty sure that if Paul were schooled in our current vernacular he would name passive aggressiveness or “bless their little hearts” as works of the flesh. Learning to speak directly and kindly with one another is surely a big part of becoming Christian which allows the Spirit of God to move freely between lives in community. Leaders have to care about this and teach the church how to live within healthy patterns of speech.
Related to this, is the need to make room for the voices of dissenters or strangers. Often times in Scripture it’s the outsider or the dissenter who best knows the will of God. This is certainly not always true, but leaving room for these voices keeps the congregation honest and wards against idolatry.
One last point about an ecology of the Word. While teaching and preaching surely are a part of a healthy ecology, so are other uses of Scripture. Practices with Scripture like lectio divina and dwelling on the word have to be a part of a congregation’s repertoire. There have to be deep listening practices where we claim that the word masters us, not the other way around.
Like creation, the church is spoken into existence by the Word that became flesh. Leading as discerning allows this Word to continually be heard and spoken.