At one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the early apostolic church—an inflection point recorded in the book of Acts—we read:
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 13:2-4).
This was an extraordinary development—an initiative coming not from Jerusalem but from Antioch, where the elders of that younger congregation recognized that the Spirit was doing a new thing—a new venture that would eventually transform the face of global mission given that it led to the establishment of congregations made of up Gentiles. And in Acts 15 we have the affirmation of the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles could become Christians without first becoming Jews.
What is striking, of course, is the immediacy of the Spirit. Clearly, the vision and mission of the church were being implemented with an intentional response to the presence and guidance of the Spirit. A great hymn opens with this line: “The Church of Christ, in Every Age, Beset by change, but Spirit led . . .” (lyrics, Fred Pratt Green). This captures a fascinating dynamic. The life of the church is one of change. it takes for granted that change is a given. But more, God is fully present by the Spirit to guide the church through this time of change. This catches our attention in an era or season in the life of the church when it would seem that church leadership is defaulting to two rather different approaches to decision-making around missional engagement. First, there is the assumption that the key to congregational flourishing is strategic planning—borrowing from the approaches that one might find in the business and entrepreneurship section of the local bookstore. And the second is what we might speak of as “franchising,” by which we mean that a congregation might scan the horizon and see a congregation that is seemingly flourishing and then choose to attend a seminar or workshop so that they can learn how it is done and how that approach could be replicated in their neighborhood. So, complete church boards and pastoral teams will head off to an all-day seminar in South Barrington, Illinois, to learn the “Willowcreek” model.
Now, to stress: We have so much to learn from and with one another. It makes complete sense to attend a seminar where we learn how other congregations are navigating the challenges of what to means to be the church in our day. And we must be strategic in our thinking and approach to congregational life. That is not what is at issue here. Rather, the question is rather there is a significant limitation when our default mode is to franchise—to seek to replicate an approach to congregational life that seems to be working—or, to lean into the analysis that goes with strategic planning.
Could it be that there is no substitute for the leadership of each congregation to do their due diligence—asking specifically: In this time and in this place, what does it mean to be the church, or to be this organization? And do this recognizing that no one else can do this work for you?
While this may lead to a strategic initiative, the heart of the matter is the immediacy of the Spirit in the leadership of the church. That is, might the experience of the church in Antioch provide guidance and encouragement for each congregation or Christian non-profit agency? Can we, through worship and prayer, come to clarity about the call of the ascended Lord? Could it be that two churches in the same neighborhood—perhaps even on the same street corner, kitty-corner from each other—discern differently, such that a Lutheran congregation has one particular call to this time and place and the Baptist church across the way, but in the same neighborhood, discerns a complementary, not competitive, call to ministry in that time and place?
This way of thinking assumes that local matters—this place and the work of God in this place and that our calling is always particular. It assumes, further, that we live and work and serve the ascended Lord in a fluid environment and that as our context changes, we need to be in tune with how the Spirit is calling and empowering us. Thus, we ask: What does it mean to be the church in this time and this place, and what might this mean now that, perhaps, we live and work in a pluralist and secular context or situation? What are the possibilities of grace—yes, we are strategic—and what can we learn from others, so that we are faithful in our time and place? Can we discern the prompting and initiative of the Spirit that is particular to our context?
And then, also, the church is facing a remarkable set of moral and ethical challenges. And here our default tends to be: What is “biblical”? What verses do we reference to resolve this issue? Without a doubt, the Scriptures are the definitive reference to the conversation, it is appropriate to ask: If the Spirit is constantly teaching the church (see John 16:13), could it be that, with the Bible in hand, we can ask, “Oh Spirit of the Living God, how would you call us and guide us as we read the text and respond to the issue that we are facing?” Can we do this? Can we read the Scriptures through the lens and with an active engagement with the Spirit?
Yes, of course, we can. But then, how and what will it take to cultivate this capacity? In this regard, there is no authoritative text or guide—Scripture or otherwise—that outlines what it means to discern, together, the call of God on this community or organization or church. And yet, we are learning. What is emerging is a growing and shared wisdom—a recognition that there are several key markers or indicators that we are on the right path. Four in particular:
First, discerning the particular calling of God, in this time and in this place, means that we accept the particular—this time and this place: no nostalgia for an earlier era, no wishful thinking, but rather, a full and courageous engagement with our time and place, where we unreservedly name our reality, recognizing that discernment is always specific and particular. Yes, we will be agents of change and redemption, but we begin with the situation that presents itself. And we view the changes in our world and our situation not as a threat or a problem but as an opportunity to lean into the counsel, wisdom, and guidance of the Spirit.
Second, let’s also recognize that no one person has the special insight or inside track to the Spirit. The witness of the Spirit will come through the collective. We are all in over our heads. The wisdom we need will come through the give-and-take of a deliberative process. We will learn with and from each other. We need a good moderator (witness Acts 15). And we need grace-filled conversation where we listen twice as much as we speak. We need the humility to defer to one another. The process of deliberation cannot be rushed. But we do need to come to closure, which means that we need to be alert to those who assume they have veto power on any potential outcome. Do not assume that unanimity necessarily means we have it right and know the mind of the Spirit. Do not assume the consensus means we have chosen the right course of action. Yes, there will likely be a collective leaning or a weight, but good decision-making and discernment often have a significant minority voice and perhaps even opposition.
Third, I will take openness—the disposition of those who do not need to control the situation or only tend to what seems obvious. We will receive oversimplistic solutions or old paradigms or assumptions or reminders that “we have always done it this way” as the Spirit calls the church to new models and vistas and approaches to life and mission. Thus, discernment requires an open mind and an open heart, a capacity to see the new ways in which the Spirit is calling the church to act, to engage its time and place. We will see that the Spirit’s guidance will be one of faithfulness to the historic witness of the church but ways of seeing that may well come as a surprise. But we also need to affirm the vital place of what older spiritual theologians spoke of as “holy indifference”—where, with open hands and open hearts, we accept the will of God and the will of those that we live, work, and worship with. We do not demand our own will be done. In all of this, there will be this sense in our company and conversation that the Spirit is present bringing new life, new growth, new possibilities—thinking here of the benediction of Ephesians, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine … “ (3:20).
And fourth, courage. We resolve to do what needs to be done. We are alert to the insidious power of fear. The greatest threat to discernment—to choosing well and doing the right thing? Fear. As Paul emphasizes with Timothy, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice . . .,” which, in some translations, comes through as timidity or fear. We will consistently find that the new venture to which the Spirit is calling us is one that calls for inner resolve, conviction, and fortitude. There will likely be naysayers who will feed our fears and worries, so it is imperative to name our fears and points of anxiety so that their influence and power are limited by such a naming.
But the bottom line remains: In the challenges we face in the church today, we need to learn what it means to lean into and depend on the guidance of the Spirit. This leads not to presumption but to a humble willingness to do the right thing. And wisdom demands not only humility but also accountability (see Acts 15). Wise women and men lead with an intentionality toward the Spirit but also an accountability within Christian community for what they are learning and seeing.