Discerning God’s Call for Mission
by MARVIN RICE
Amid active personal lives and competing congregational priorities it is critical to ask some important questions: Is the congregation living out the mission of Christ in community? How do congregations discern what their congregational direction should be in response to the mission of Christ as reflected in the enduring principles and mission initiatives?
Initially the thought of leading the congregation in discerning Christ’s mission may seem like adding extra work for leaders and members who are already busy. The question for congregational leaders is not how to start another new idea but how to make discernment a part of the congregation’s ongoing experience of worship, fellowship, and service. Through discernment practices the people of the congregation seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in their growing understanding of their shared mission as followers of Jesus.
There is no one approach to discerning Christ’s mission for individual disciples and the congregation. Discernment is discovering and learning to “live into” new practices of encounter with God, others, and the world around them. New practices open the congregation’s vision to see individuals, situations, and relationships from a new perspective. Discernment practices create opportunities to see God moving in ways not discerned before. By discerning together the congregation will discover how its gifts, sense of call, and human need intersect in ways that empower it for Christ’s mission.
The practical reality is that many congregations have just begun to experiment with discernment in recent years. The pastor’s leadership team has the real challenge of inviting the congregation into a new understanding and constant practice of discernment. One approach to begin discernment consists of three specific areas:
- Sacred Story
- Connecting with Spirit
- Holy Listening
Begin with sacred story. In order to depend on the Holy Spirit’s guidance into a deeper understanding of Christ’s mission, the congregation needs to develop the ability to recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence. It is helpful to recall how the Holy Spirit has blessed in the past both individuals and the congregation. Calling to mind these past experiences will stir souls and invigorate thinking so the congregation can be more awake to receive the grace of God’s guidance toward Christ’s mission.
Below are two activities to engage the congregation in sacred story-telling and to awaken awareness of God’s presence:
Connecting with Spirit
Experiences with the Holy: Gather everyone in small groups. Provide paper, pencils, pens, and crayons. Ask participants to recall their first experience with “The Holy.” It is important in this practice to recall an event as early in their lives as possible. Then ask each person to draw a picture that reflects that event. People may hesitate to draw. To encourage others the facilitator leads by drawing, coloring, and going first to share a picture of his or her experience.
Initial sharing by the facilitator creates trust and the participants won’t be as concerned about how their drawing may look. Invite everyone to share their drawings and stories in small groups and if time allows with the larger group. Encourage people to write their experience on the back of the drawing and to keep it in a three-ring notebook. Encourage them to add other drawings and experiences to the notebook as they recall them. This will create a wonderful book of testimonies for them and their families. Telling sacred stories in this way creates deeper levels of trust and understanding in the congregation.
Our Congregational Story: Invite persons who are the longest members of the congregation to share stories of their early memories and experiences in the congregation. Invite the congregation historian to search the records to bring out added details. Form a worship service around the congregational story by asking people to share their memories. Consider a congregational dinner with cake honoring the oldest members of the congregation. Invite others to share their memories of the congregational history up to the present day.
The purpose of sharing individual and congregational stories is to bring fresh awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit throughout our lives as individuals and as a community. The congregation builds a path of trust when it remembers it has been and continues to be on a divinely led journey together.
There are many pathways to connect with the Spirit. Below are two:
Individual and Group Fasting: One of the most recognized and oldest pathways to connect with the Spirit is the discipline of fasting. This scriptural tradition focuses on reducing the intake of food as the object of the fast. However, the object of fasting can be withdrawing from any voluntary activity or object that becomes dominant and requires an unhealthy attention. The purpose of fasting is not to make people feel like they are suffering or deprived. Fasting’s purpose is to control activities or objects that may fill so much time that people don’t have time for God. One definition of a successful fast is to withdraw from something that in someway controls part of a person’s life and to replace it by inviting God and spending time with God in the new space. This spiritual practice has application for individuals and the congregation. Congregational activities and concerns can take up significant space and distract the congregation from a meaningful relationship with God and one another. Congregational leaders lead by engaging in personal fasting and inviting the congregation into special times of fasting in the place of other congregational activities or concerns.
Prayer: Prayer helps people connect with the Spirit. “Praying the Hours” is a practice of ongoing conversation with God throughout the day. In its purest form “Praying the Hours” is done in monasteries six to eight times a day. Congregations may want to select one time each day when it is practical for its members and friends to stop whatever they are doing and spend a few moments in intentional prayer. The result of the congregation praying together each day will be a growing recognition of the Holy Spirit being present in the congregation’s journey. The congregation will begin to see one another and those they encounter in our neighborhoods and places of work from a new perspective.
There are many creative ways to come together in prayer. For example, the congregation can commit to an experience of 24 hours of prayer. Invite people to sign-up for specific times of prayer for a specific purpose (i.e., discerning Christ’s mission for the congregation). These prayers are typically held at the church, by at least two people at a time, and are offered over a 24-hour period. One approach is to begin on a Saturday morning and end on Sunday morning in time for worship. The congregation can then share in a special service focused on discernment and communion with the Holy Spirit.
Following are three practices (see the practice section following this article) to engage the congregation in holy listening:
Centering Prayer: Its purpose is for people to come before God in quiet and listen for the whisper of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and minds. With practice, people can learn to put aside their thoughts and the demands of life and just sit in the presence of God. The only agenda is to turn the focus of these moments over to God and listen for God to speak in the manner of God’s choosing.
Centering prayer is also for the congregation. The Holy Spirit draws people together in community as they center their thoughts on common purposes and concerns by simply listening. People often feel the need to fill the quiet spaces when they are together. Creating space to listen is an important practice for leadership team meetings, worship experiences, or walks in the neighborhood. Congregational leaders help model the importance of centering, silence, and holy listening by intentionally creating space for silence in the routine congregational activities and ministries. It is meaningful to reflect together on new insights gained during these quiet moments.
Walking the Neighborhood: Although some think of discernment as a classical spiritual practice (for example, prayer, fasting, and meditation), discernment also occurs as the congregation encounters real human need and suffering in our neighborhoods and places of work. Often the Spirit is seeking to break through in the ordinary events of our daily lives. Whether checking out in the grocery line or reaching out to help a stranger in need, the congregation is to be fully present and awake to the Spirit’s promptings. Experiences of daily living when pressed up against the gospel of Jesus Christ can result in new understandings and insights about Christ’s mission. When the congregation gathers for fellowship or worship having encountered the world coupled with the story of scripture it can lead to inspired imagination.
Dwelling in the Word: This practice allows the stories of daily living and the story of scripture to intersect in ways that lead to new understandings of discipleship and mission. The text of scripture, the Spirit, and sharing stories can become part of an ongoing practice of listening. Reflecting on discipleship and the congregation through scripture grounds the disciples and the congregation in what God has done and desires to do on the journey with God into the future.
Real discernment requires commitment and intentionality by the pastor’s leadership team and the congregation. The result of the effort can be an immediate refreshing of spirit for the congregation and a deeper understanding of Christ’s mission for the congregation.
- How can we cultivate an expectation that in everything we do we ground ourselves in spiritual practices—our planning, worship, fellowship, and service?
- What are ways we can create space for quiet reflection and listening amid congregational activities?
- How can we model and invite others into spiritual practices as an integral part of discipleship?
- How can we encounter God’s presence in places, situations, and relationships outside the congregation?
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In centering prayer the emphasis is on creating a space of quiet openness in which we become aware of God’s presence with us. It is called centering prayer because our attention is gathered in and centered on perceiving and receiving God. Centering prayer uses two “tools” to help us pull away from distractions and move us to listening. These two tools are breath and a prayer word (sometimes called a sacred word).
- Sit with relaxed but erect posture in a comfortable chair, both feet on the floor, hands open in lap. Close your eyes.
- Offer a brief prayer to state your intention to God and to ask for help and guidance. (For example: “I’m here, God, waiting, listening, open. Empty me of fear, worry, and inner noise. Allow me to rest and rejoice in the awareness of your presence.”)
- Use your breath to create a sense of peace and letting go into God. Breathe deeply, slowly, calmly, starting with several cleansing breaths that end in an audible sigh. As you fill your lungs and exhale, feel the tension in your muscles and your entire body flow out with the air. Continue to breathe in a regular, natural rhythm from your abdomen rather than your chest.
- Focus on breathing God in, breathing all else out until you feel calm and centered.
- Continue paying attention to your breath as you focus your body, mind, and spirit on the reality that God is present and that you are here with the intention of loving and being loved by God.
- Listen beneath or within your breath for a prayer word (or phrase) that expresses the desires and needs of your heart in this time. Don’t struggle for the word. Trust that it will arise as you continue to be still and open.
- When you have been made aware of the prayer word or phrase, repeat it silently to yourself in rhythm with your breathing.
(breathing in) Fill me…
(breathing out) …O God
(breathing in) [silence]
(breathing out) …peace
- When distracting thoughts pull you away from centering in God (for example, laundry, work deadlines, a phone call you need to make), bring yourself back by returning to your prayer word and the rhythm of your breathing. Don’t fight the thoughts so much as recognizing and letting them go as you re-center on God through your prayer word and breathing.
- Continue in this quiet pattern of presence before God for approximately 20 minutes. (Beginners may want to start with 5–10 minutes.) You may want to set a timer so you will not have to keep checking the time.
- When the time for prayer has elapsed, offer a brief word of thanks to God, take several more deep breaths, become aware of the room around you, move or stretch in your chair, and open your eyes when you feel ready.
|Walking the Neighborhood|
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To learn to listen and pay attention to what is happening in the lives of people in your community in a familiar setting. Additionally, it is an opportunity to discern ways you and your congregation can respond to the needs and opportunities where God is moving in your neighborhood.
Many times people in the neighborhood watch us come and go to our church facility. Often there is very little conversation with those in the neighborhood but God is moving in their lives and we are being invited to connect with where God is moving.
The foundation for this practice is one of our enduring principles—the Worth of All Persons. We engage with people because we are called to be in relationship with others and discover the blessings of relationships and community. This is not about engaging in relationships with a motive other than connecting with other people and being open to what God is up to in the midst of these relationships.
Take a family member or go with a friend and begin walking in your home neighborhood or in the neighborhood around your church facility. As you walk, pray about each home and the blessing of God in the lives of the people who live there. Also, if people are out in their yards or on their porches, greet them and wish them a good day.
As you become a regular presence in the neighborhood, begin to have conversations with the neighbors. As you walk through your chosen neighborhood, ask God to lead you to the people with whom God wants you to share in conversation. Listen for where God is moving in their lives. Consider offering the following prayer as you walk in the neighborhood: “God, who’s out there that you want me to trade stories with? I need to listen to their stories and they need to hear mine. God, bring me together with the people you would like for me to be in a witnessing relationship with. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.”
Be creative by taking some cookies to offer to people on your walk, or some freshly picked vegetables—anything you can offer them as a way of sharing God’s love in a practical way. Listen for what God is doing in their lives or what their experiences have been in their individual walks of faith. Between walks share with your partner in prayer and conversation about the people you meet and where God may be leading you in mission.
Now…“step out” in faith!
Process Tip: Read Doctrine and Covenants 161:3, 4.
|Dwelling in the Word|
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To read and hear scripture as a spiritual practice that leads to new understandings. Dwelling in the Word is a practice based on our understanding that God continues to speak to us in the context of our day and calling. Listen for God’s voice in scripture to connect with God’s mission in Christ. Listen to the voices of others about what God is doing in their lives. This practice is not about gaining information about scripture. Rather, it is about listening to how God is speaking, calling, and sending us to join in Christ’s mission to our communities and the world.
Provide a printed copy of a scriptural text. A printed copy allows participants to hear and see the words for reflection. Read the scriptural text out loud and pause for a few minutes to allow people time to reflect on what they’ve heard.
Read the passage a second time. Ask people to make note of a word, phrase, or image they are drawn to as they hear it read again. After a short pause, form into small groups of no more than four or five people to provide opportunities for each person to share their responses to questions like ones provided below. If someone wishes to remain silent, that is acceptable. It is important to make sure the reflections are personal and do not become an exercise in biblical interpretation.
Here are some questions:
- Is there a place I feel drawn to dwell or explore?
- What words, images, or phrases are speaking to me in this text?
- What is God’s invitation to me in this scripture?
- What is God’s invitation to our congregation in this scripture?
This is a practice of discovery, be expectant that God’s mission in Christ is among you as you gain insights from listening to one another and to God.
Be patient with the practice. Encourage participants to remember it is a spiritual practice that invites scripture to transform our understanding and our way of being and doing. Do not let this become an intellectual exercise which will limit the transformative impact of this practice. Like any practice, this will take time to fully understand.