Spaciousness and the Ability to Discern the Spirit

OK, here’s the deal. The Holy Spirit is always moving in the world, bringing it closer into line with God’s coming future. But we aren’t always discerning of the Spirit’s movement. The key to this kind of discernment is space. Certain kinds of spaciousness or roominess make it more likely for us to recognize what it is the Spirit is doing among us. I think its possible to think of ministry as maintaining this kind of space or roominess.

So, an important question to pursue might be, “what are space killers?” Or, “how do leaders collapse the space necessary for discerning the movement of the Spirit?”

The biggest way to collapse congregational space is to diminish the importance of otherness. To the extent that sameness is the preferred value of leadership, then the Spirit can easily be mistaken for who we are and what we think and what we desire. And the biggest way that “sameness” is pursued in ministry is through efficiency. We think of ministry too often as working a plan rather than responding to God. Honoring or recognizing otherness slows things down. The quickest way from point A to point B is through sameness, or getting and keeping everyone on the same page. We have even learned to equate this kind of efficient sameness as the movement of the Spirit. When things work, when things seem smooth or tranquil, we assume the Spirit is moving.

In my experience, however, the most potentially transformative moments occur when something unexpected happens, when our sense of well-being is disrupted, or when the “other” becomes impossible to ignore. When I worked full-time in congregations, I was a champ plan-worker. I worked hard to get every one pulling in the same direction–my direction. But somewhere in there I discovered that the most powerful moments in our congregation’s life had nothing to do with working my plan. In one congregation in particular, the big moments of spiritual transformation occurred in relation to the tragic deaths of members. None of these were in my plan for the congregation (I would have “offed” other members. I’m kidding. Relax). But these disruptions created space, here, the space between our understandings of God and the realities of life.

Efficiency also reduces the space between people. Other people become actors in my drama. I reward those who go along and punish or ignore those who don’t. I imagine the world as a series of subjects and objects where the meaningful link between them is causation. Can I cause others to do what I want them to do? There is little space between subjects and objects where leaders work directly on the follower in an authoritative manner.

Space between people is maintained when the “other” is irreducibly other. The other is not another me or a projection of my values, needs, or desires. This is why all Christian relationships must be “in Christ.” Christ mediates my interactions with the other. As a priest, Christ stands between us, allowing us to see Christ in each other, giving us the space to truly see the other for whom Christ died and ourselves.

I could go on and on with these space reducing/creating practices. And I could seat this deeply in theological terms by noticing how we know God as Father-Son-and Spirit as a God who makes room.

But here, let me simply suggest that efficiencies are only powerful in the short term. Sameness is a certain kind of power that produces certain kinds of things. And this power is often weak and ineffectual over the long haul. Sameness is ultimately wasteful because it refuses the full compliment of gifts offered by the Spirit. Sameness roots power in human achievement, and this is not a replacement for the power associated with the Kingdom of God, the movement of the Spirit. Habits that create and maintain space, on the other hand, are enduring and sustaining and create other kinds of “efficiencies” over time. And they ultimately make leaders more powerful actors in a community than what comes with “positional say-so.”

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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5 Responses to Spaciousness and the Ability to Discern the Spirit

  1. Norma Hill, Wichita Falls TX says:

    Would like to hear some concrete examples of how this kind of space is created in a congregational setting.

    • Carlos says:

      Would like to hear some concrete examples of how “The Holy Spirit is always moving in the world, bringing it closer into line with God’s coming future.”

  2. Margaret-Ann says:

    It’s funny how we have ready the word unity and defined that as sameness. If we were to be the same, God would have made that way. But He didn’t and we are not. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Thank you, Mark – a helpful way of saying things, and resonates with my experience, too. Years ago I remember hearing complaints from people in a church I helped plant: “You only pretend to listen to us. You’re really thinking about what you want us to do, and how to get us to do it.” Not entirely true … but too true for comfort. And of course, back then we didn’t really believe in the Spirit anyway … the only things that could be done were things we could do, and we had to do them, or they wouldn’t get done.

    “Honoring or recognizing otherness slows things down.” A few semi-random thoughts: I suppose you’ve long ago read Rodney Stark’s “Rise of Christianity” and noticed his take on the growth of the church in the first 2 centuries: he seems to think that back then, for a variety of reasons, things moved rather slowly. He doesn’t attribute this to the kind of spacious Spiritual and community life that you’re describing – but I wonder if that’s also part of the picture. His view is certainly a very different take on ancient church growth than the vision of our modern friends who are trying in a more programmatic way to move much more quickly.

    If Stark is anywhere close to correct, and my reading of your thoughts into his view is cogent, does it seem to you like a good idea to factor that into our sense of what the Spirit’s work would look like in our time? Should we see in the “Spirituality” of the earliest Christian communities something that might be relevant for us?

    Or is our situation now so far removed from the cultural conditions of the ancient day that any such questions are unanswerable and irrelevant?

    God bless your new year, take care – Kirk Ruch

  4. danallen says:

    Thanks, Mark! I’m going back and reading some of your blog as it relates to our discernment and recognition of the Holy Spirit. Good place to start.

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