The Process of Deciding, Discerning, and Doing

In light of this three-article series on discernment, it seems appropriate to finish with a final article on some practical application. This piece covers some decisions we need to make, some examples of discernment processes we can apply (including two book reviews), and then finally an encouragement towards actually doing, or putting what we have discerned into practice.

Deciding – Who Is God?

Alan Roxburgh says in Joining God, Remaking the Church, Changing the World, “So many of the assumptions about church, such as it having a central place in people’s live, no longer hold. The questions churches are asking—like “How do we attract people?”—are not connecting with the actual people in our neighborhoods. It’s clear to us that things are not going to go back to the way they were, either in the church or in our daily lives.”

I believe that we cannot solve the current crisis we face in the church in the West by tweaking our current methods. We simply cannot just try harder at our existing programs and hope that we will get better results. Instead, we need a new imagination for paying attention to what God is doing and participating with Him on mission.

We need to make decisions on what we believe about who God is and therefore who we are and how we will live. Here are some examples.

God is a missionary God in nature and action.
The Gospel is the good news that the Kingdom of God has come in and through Christ.
God is trustworthy – we need to push beyond being functional atheists (2 Kings 6:8–17).
God is triune in nature, and He invites us to participate in this community.

Our context has changed. Roxburgh says, “It is not that the ways we have been God’s people were wrong. They were developed for another time, and now they are fraying, stretched and torn in the midst of massive social change.”
We hold the conviction that place matters as God is at work in the world.
Although we know God is at work, we do not know everything about what things will look like as we move forward.

We are not called to build a church or a kingdom but to help God’s people to follow Him and to participate with Him in His work in the world.
Asking God-questions helps us to recognize God works through all of His people – not just clergy.
Solutions do not lie in our own ability completely but rather in trusting in God.
It is okay to have a paradigm shift in how we see Church. The Spirit is still at work.
Practices are crucial for the formation of God’s people on mission.

Discerning – Where Is God at Work?
After making these decisions, we need to move to discerning where God is at work. Here are three models of discernment.

Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in Our Time by Alan Roxburgh
In this book, Roxburgh lists five practices in helping the church to discern God at work.

Practice 1: Listening
We must learn to listen to one another as we share meals and as we gather to worship (through telling stories of God at work in our lives). We must also learn to listen to our neighbours. God is often at work even in people who do not yet know Him.

Practice 2: Discerning (Acts 15:28: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .”)

We are helped in the discernment process by making God central to our conversations again. We often have pushed Him to the edges. We must also live with the convictions that He is active in our neighbourhoods and that we can notice where He is at work. We can only know this when we learn to be present. We must also learn to be free from rigid structures and a belief that God only works in spiritual people. We put this into practice through listening exercises.

Practice 3: Testing

After we have listened to one another, believing that God has spoken, we test out what we have heard. It is important to check our motivation – we are not trying to fix people but rather discern where God is at work through them. It is okay to fail, as long as we then try again.

Practice 4: Reflection

After testing, we step back together and reflect on what has happened. Was God in this? What are we learning? What questions do we now have?

Practice 5: Deciding

From there we move to a decision phase where we work with the community to decide what it is indeed that God is saying to us. It is helpful to then articulate the plan.

Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry, Missional Engagement, and Congregational Change by Mark Lau Branson
In this excellent book, Branson emphasizes the need to move away from what is not working towards the very things we are celebrating. His approach falls into the process known as appreciative inquiry. Although this is typical used in social circles, Branson spends a good amount of time providing biblical support. He suggests a four-step process. 

  1. Initiate

In this first step we invite a committee together around a task for discernment. We start by asking one another, “When was it we felt most spiritually alive? When did we value being the church together the most? Was God at work in these situations? What do we wish He would do through us now?” As we listen to one another we move on to the next step in the process.

  1. Inquire

We create a list of questions to help others get at what we have been hearing. We decide who we will interview and then proceed to interview others. This begins to create momentum.

  1. Imagine

As we return with the data from our interviews, we discuss themes that arise. Together we then brainstorm on what it is that we think God might be leading us into. We come up with a proposal of what might be possible with God’s strength.

  1. Innovate

We then attempt to put this into practice. After, we evaluate and discuss before anchoring any progress in the congregation.

NAB Ethos Module 4

In light of the above and the experience that we have had in leading NAB churches through Ethos, let me also suggest several steps that may prove helpful in the discernment process.

Step 1: Prayer
We must start here. The leader must model a life of prayer, but it is also crucial to get a team of people praying for the project. It is always helpful to encourage people to prayer walk their neighbourhoods. What would it look like if Christ moved in?

Step 2: Preparation
After we begin to pray, we need to prepare. Changing the language at the church goes a long way, as does beginning to tell stories of where people think they have seen God at work. We then build a team of people who will lead the discernment process. This can include the elders but does not have to.

Step 3: Practices
We then move into selecting some practices for the church to be involved in. Practices such as morning and evening prayer to help people discern God’s presence, the daily reading of Scripture to hear His voice, and the practice of hospitality so as to gain His heart are all crucial. Each group of people must decide what practices God is calling them to.

Step 4: Putting into Practice
It is time to put what we are hearing into practice. Demographics (hard data on the social nature of our neighbourhoods) are a help, as are ethnographies (interviews with people around who they are). But this process is not complete until we begin to ask God what it is that He wants to do or is doing. One excellent way to do this is to follow the process of Mark Lau Branson from his book.

Doing – How Will We Participate?
Now, we need to put this all into practice. We need to not just do an intellectual exercise but rather to step out and trust God. But this is the subject of another time, so let us just finish with this quote from Reaching a New Generation by Alan Roxburgh that I trust will gently provoke us into action:

We need a movement of God’s people into neighborhoods, to live out and be the new future of Christ. It must be a movement that demonstrates how the people of God have a vision and the power to transform our world. This is not the same as current attempts to grow bigger and bigger churches that act like vacuum cleaners, sucking people out of their neighborhoods into a sort of Christian supermarket. Our culture . . . needs local communities empowered by the gospel vision of a transforming Christ who addresses the needs of the context and changes the polis into a place of hope and wholeness. . . . And until we build transformed communities there is no hope for a broken earth. . . .

It requires considerable commitment to the local setting. It arises out of an incarnational theology of place in which people are more than isolated individuals with no essential relationship to their setting. Becoming immersed in a place with a people does not occur instantly but over a number of years. Perseverance and commitment are essential.

NAB Vice President of Missional Initiatives