|Five Spiritual Practices for Congregations
By Larry Glover-Wetherington
The church of today is operating in a new and different era. However, many of our programs and ministries were developed in yesteryear, and we find ourselves in a continual trend of decline in attendance and finances, not to mention ineffective ministry. Unfortunately, too often we keep thinking that if we do just the right things, get just the right programs, and just the right people, and if they will just work harder, we can fix the church and return to the way things were.
There is one thing we need to get back to however: seeking and putting God’s leadership at the center of our way of functioning. To guide the Israelites through the wilderness, God gave them the cloud by day and fire by night. The cloud and the fire were the very presence of God in their midst. They had one simple instruction: When the cloud moves, you move. When the cloud stands still, you stand still. They were to be so attuned to the presence of God that they could join God when God moved. Jesus followed this same principle in his ministry, Jesus gave them this answer: "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19).
Alan Roxburgh’s book, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World, proposes Five Spiritual Practices for the church that can put us in the posture of recognizing God’s activity:
There are three areas in which we need to listen: to God, to one another, and to our neighborhoods.
Our primary resource for listening to God is through the Scripture. This is different from Bible study. It is a practice Roxburgh calls “Dwelling in the Word Together”. It means to live with a Scripture passage with receptive hearts, paying attention to how the Spirit brings it to life. As those involved share with one another, they begin to get a sense of what God is speaking to them. Every group in the church can listen to God in this manner: ministries, programs, councils, committees, teams, and boards. As each group works with their ministry situation, they can hear from God through Scripture and receive guidance for their ministries.
We can begin to learn to recognize where God is at work by sharing stories of our experiences with God and listening to one another. A committee or ministry can have a period of time after Dwelling in the Word Together to consider the question: How have you seen God at work in your ministry area? It moves the focus from task to the presence of God, and it moves the meeting from the agenda to celebration of ministry.
The third area is to listen to our neighborhood or to the constituency of our ministry. What are we learning from them that will reveal where God is at work? Is our ministry on track with that? Are we being called to a new ministry or to modify a current ministry? This can be applied to everything from the budget to outreach ministry.
The second spiritual practice is discerning. This is really the beginning point of discerning. We are not yet ready to conclude the final word on what God is doing, but we pay attention to what we are beginning to hear and experience. This can manifest itself in many forms that we hold lightly at first, such as: new insights, intuitions or hunches, a sense of compassion regarding a situation or direction, thoughts, ideas, impressions. This is when we dare to believe that with our own eyes, ears, hearts and minds, we can hear from and discern the presence and will of God. As the Apostle Paul tells us, "’For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1Corinthians 2:16).
As we discern together, perhaps a new direction or modification of something we are doing begins to surface. Our next step is to experiment. We begin testing the water. Experimenting implies we do not yet know what we are doing, but we are willing to move forward in faith and try something. It does not have to be written in stone. We are experimenting. We stay open to the Spirit’s leadership and what we learn as we go. It is like Paul’s experience on one of his missionary journeys in Acts 16,
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." (Acts 16:6-9 NIV84).
When a ministry group, committee, etc., experiments, they come together and prayerfully reflect on what they have learned. How have they experienced God in this ministry effort? What do they believe they are hearing from God? What are they hearing from those to whom they are ministering? Are we being effective? Reflecting like this in the presence of God puts a group in a continual learning experience.
In all ministries, committees, and particularly in our outreach to our neighborhoods, there comes a point where decisions need to be made. This is what we are going to do. This is the direction we need to go. Based on the previous four spiritual practices, the way forward is determined. Even after a decision is made, there is openness to the Spirit for modifications along the way.
Deciding requires conversation and collaboration with one another. Since the people involved have different spiritual gifts, it is important to acknowledge that every person has a piece of the wisdom that needs to be heard. These conversations can sometimes be difficult, but when everyone engages prayerfully and in good faith, and genuinely listens to one another and to God, the difficult moments can be transcended, and new ideas may surface until the group feels they are “of one mind and one spirit.”
The Five Spiritual Practices are more thoroughly described in Alan Roxburgh’s book, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World.
The thoughts above are from Larry Glover-Wetherington, our partner in ministry who resides in Durham, North Carolina. He has served in various capacities either as pastor, intentional interim pastor, coach, and mentor in numerous churches across the Southeast. For more information about how he can help you, contact him at 919.564.6061 or coach@TransformYourMinistry.com.