Discernment—Paying Attention to God at Work in our Neighbourhoods

One of the greatest joys of my life has been to serve for the last ten years in the NAB, encouraging pastors and helping churches to wrestle with issues of theology, missiology, and ecclesiology in this current context we find ourselves in. I would be a fool to suggest that there are answers that fit every situation, but I might be bold enough to suggest that there are principles that we can all hold onto as we navigate our current reality.

For years, I was helped by such things as the Global Leadership Summit out of Willow Creek. I bought the books (and even read most of them) and tried to put into practice some of the lessons I learned. Many of them produced results, but I knew there was something not quite right. These were not the only kind of results I was looking for.

As I continued to pastor and lead God’s people, the missional conversation began to grow. It resonated in my soul for a number of reasons. First, it emphasized God’s nature as being missional, not just His action. Second, it was all about the formation of our characters/souls in the way of Jesus; it took discipleship to a new level. Third, it had a strong discernment emphasis. Perhaps it was not stated this way, but it was there. We needed to discern where God was at work in the world in order to join Him.

That was it. It was not sufficient for me to become a better leader by strengthening my visioning capacity or my communication gifts alone. Instead, the focus was on the fact that I needed to learn to help the people of my church recognize when and where God was at work in their context and then to help them join with Him on mission.

Why was I so surprised? I began to see this pattern in scripture. Moses was a great leader indeed, but he led by helping the people follow the pillar of Fire and the Cloud. They followed where God was leading. For sure he had other gifts, but they were useless if they, God’s people, were not keeping in step with where God was leading. Jesus also displayed this same attitude. He is quite clear on several occasions that He only did what He saw the Father doing. And Paul discerned his Macedonian call. A new picture was emerging for me about what leadership really was all about.

In the early days after I planted Southside Community Church, the Natural Church Development tool was all the rage. If you are unfamiliar, this tool was designed to help assess how well you were doing in eight areas of life together as a church compared to thousands of other churches. I trained, studied, and applied myself to raising the bar on my lowest levels. I thought, like many others, that my church could be better—I would be better—if I could just raise my score. But as I reflected on this approach, I realized that there was more to the life of our church than comparing us with other churches in these categories. I realized that I could actually raise my score by working harder and smarter and getting my people to do certain things, whether they meant it or not. I was not sure I needed God to accomplish any of this.

The missional movement has been a gift to me in many ways. Near the top of the list is the issue of discernment. I realize that to be faithful to the Lord it is not about growing a bigger church (although I will always pray for growth) or coming up with a top-notch strategic plan. Instead, being faithful includes joining in with what God is already doing in my neighbourhood and helping my people to discern this as well. But the million dollar question kept coming back to me: “How do you pay attention to what God is doing in the neighbourhood?” That is what discernment is all about.

The fourth module of Ethos, a two-year journey with other leaders in your region designed to help your church organize itself around missional theology, includes a few things we have learned that might bring you encouragement:

    1. God is at work in the world and has not abandoned us.
    2. The Kingdom of God is a present reality, even though not yet fully realized.
    3. God does not need us to accomplish His mission but has chosen to work with us.
    4. Where we see evidence of Kingdom qualities, it is often there that we see God at work.
    5. There are practices that God’s people can put into place as a way to pay attention to God at work.
    6. Although the church is the primary way that God works in the world, He also works through those we would never expect.
    7. We grow in our understanding of God at work when we risk and tell stories of where we think we have seen Him.
    8. Discernment is almost always accomplished in community and may even include those who have not yet given their lives to Christ.
    9. One great question that has been of help is: “If Jesus moved into the neighbourhood, what differences do you think would begin to occur?” Where you see evidence of this is likely an indicator of God at work.
    10. Discernment must also include some level of needing God’s power in order for things to occur.

That is a start. There are more things we can learn. In the coming weeks, I will describe two approaches to discernment that get further into the process of joining God at work in your neighbourhood.

One further thing in closing: It was once said that we as Christians should find a need and meet it. Although this sounds very wonderful, I am not sure it is what Jesus did at all. He was caring. He did meet needs, but He focused on what it was that the Father was doing and then entered into that. There were needs that were left unmet, not because He didn’t care but rather because the real fruit came from discerning what the Father wanted of Him. I think that might apply to us also.

Cam Roxburgh
NAB Vice President of Missional Initiatives