I think the single biggest assumption that should inform the practice of ministry in congregations is this: God is living and active. Now you would think that this would be a no-brainer. After all, we all would say “Amen” to such a declaration. I’m convinced, however, that this is often the one thing that fades into the background as congregations make plans and form initiatives.
Let me explain. I think the question we typically ask is “what should we do…” with the unspoken finishing phrase “…to get bigger.” Now to be fair, I think we also assume that we know the kinds of things that God is interested in, and so we find those kinds of things to do. But asking, “what should we do?” is different than asking “what is God calling us to do?”
Now, I’m aware that for some people these two questions sound exactly the same. God has called us to do what the Bible says we should do. We don’t have to discern that. That’s all been taken care of. We just have to be obedient.
I have several concerns about this way of conceiving things. First, it assumes that Scripture is flat, yielding simple, consistent formulas that simply need to be obeyed. Unfortunately, this is not the Bible we were given. In fact, the Bible we were given is notable for the fact that God’s will gets worked out in a variety of ways that are very context specific or sensitive. Hence, the Bible’s testimony about a living God contains an impressive amount of diversity and variety, ruling out cookie cutter or one-size-fits-all notions of God’s calling on a congregation’s life.
So, among the many things the Bible teaches us about God is that our concrete situations matter. That knowing what to do in any given situation depends less on a wooden obedience to Scripture, and more on our ability to discern what God is doing or calling us to do. I believe each congregation is a gift to the world. And God’s gift come in a wonderful variety.
Which brings us to the questions: how do you discern this? who does the discerning? Let’s take the second question first. In many congregations, a small group does this for everyone else. It is interesting, however, that in the two big decision making texts in Acts (chpts. 6 & 15) the whole community is gathered and the whole community is pleased by the decision made. I think this fits Luke’s understanding of the church as the people on whom the Spirit of God has fallen.
While it is clear very early in Acts, even in Luke, that the Gentiles are to be included as covenant participants, it takes the church several chapters to come to that conclusion, and even then in piecemeal fashion. I mention this to make two observations: first, God is always ahead of the church, leading the church. The church is always discovering more fully what it is that God is up to. Second, the church didn’t come to its decision in Acts 15 by studying it out in Scripture. In fact, as Luke Timothy Johnson insists, you can’t get to Acts 15 just by reading the OT (namely that Gentiles could be included in the covenant as Gentiles). The way it did come to decision was to hear the stories of how Gentiles were coming to faith in real life situations (Cornelius and the church in Antioch).
The way many churches decide is strategic and abstract. They have general understandings of what God wants and they devise programs to reach abstract audiences or populations. The belief that God is living and active recedes into the background.
Beginning with the assumption of a living God requires attending to the stories of those who are being led in the world by the Spirit of God. As Alan Roxburgh is fond of saying, “The Spirit of God is among the people of God.” And if this is true, then God’s calling will be discerned, not by a small group in a room somewhere, but in the actual lives and stories of the people of God.
So, discernment takes place as the congregation gathers to hear the stories of Scripture and their lives in prayerful attentiveness. Because these stories are diverse and rarely come with neat and tidy conclusions, some in the congregation have both the gift and confidence of the congregation to make judgements about common meanings and directions.
For my money, leadership in congregations should always be working to make sure that practices of attentiveness are ongoing. Because what is more important than pursuing a living God? Congregations in a new missional era develop both the practices and environments necessary for discernment.