World Conference 2023

Discernment: Transformative Practice for a Prophetic People

1 September 2021

By Carolyn Brock

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is...

Romans 12:2 NIV

Every day millions of light waves bombard my eyes. Colors, shapes, designs pass through my optic nerves, and my brain sorts them to create a coherent picture of the world around me. My ears perform a similar task with sounds ranging from my cat’s low, thrumming purr to the Jack Johnson song on my daughter’s computer, or the wail of a distant siren announcing someone’s trouble or loss.

I don’t have to ask my eyes and ears (skin, nose, or taste buds) to perceive and order the world. Those capacities are scripted into the genetic code of my body.

But to experience deeper layers of the world’s complexity and meaning, I have to intentionally call upon and focus the senses that allow me to see intricate details and hear subtle tones and timbres. Revelation happens in such moments. When I discern something new, unique pieces of the whole, and the whole itself, shine with new meaning and holiness. Patterns of beauty and integrated complexity emerge when I look, listen, taste, or breathe with full, reverent, expectant attention.

We require this same reverently awake receptivity when we seek a clearer vision of the patterns and purposes of God in our lives and the world. As a prophetic people we are called to discern and co-create the pattern of God’s wholeness in the world. We are to see and hear, feel and taste the world differently than the cultures and systems around us. In this way we are lifted past conformity into the transforming reality of God’s agenda of earth-mending, creation-healing, and shalom-restoring to become followers of the redeeming patterns embodied by Jesus of Nazareth.

But to experience deeper layers of the world’s complexity and meaning, I have to intentionally call upon and focus the senses that allow me to see intricate details and hear subtle tones and timbres. 

In Christian spirituality, “discernment” is the word we use for this focused receptivity toward God’s will; this intentional seeking of God’s purposes and movements in us and creation. Discernment is “a process of prayerful reflection which leads a person or community to an understanding of God’s call at a given time or in particular circumstances of life. It involves listening to God in all the ways God communicates with us: in prayer, in the scriptures, through the Church and the world, in personal experience, and through other people” (Sisters of Providence).

Authentic discernment is a radically transformative practice. The primary discipline is to surrender the perceptions, opinions, and agendas of the self (the individual ego) to the mind and heart of God, the Source of all truth, wisdom, and beauty. Discernment includes information-gathering and discussion but must move beyond these if we are to reach “spiritual freedom” or “holy indifference.”

Spiritual freedom means we give up the answers we have (or want) and are free to receive guidance from the Spirit that may confirm or contradict what we thought we knew. This is difficult because most of us are comfortable and secure in the rightness of the familiar worlds of thought, belief, and reality we have constructed.

“Holy indifference” invites us to trust God to see, know, and be the truth and wholeness beyond our human perceptions. We offer God our limitations and biases and say, “Not my will, Creator, but yours; not my truth, God, but yours.” We stand open and empty; “indifferent” (non-attached) to the outcome of our discernment. We care deeply about receiving guidance from the Divine, but we have stopped caring about whether or not that guidance matches what we already believe or desire.

Discerning with spiritual freedom involves practices of prayer, meditation, silence, scripture reflection, journaling, and holy attention. These help us surrender the “small self” to the wisdom received in the “deep self” through the grace of the Spirit.

Authentic discernment is a radically transformative practice. 

The church is learning the art of discernment. At the 2007 World Conference the body engaged in spiritual practices in discernment groups, guided conversations in information and discussion groups, shared meditation and worship experiences—all with the intention of gaining insight into “what matters most” as we move into the future with God. Discernment-group responses were summarized and submitted to the Presidency to inform its work on church identity, mission, message, and beliefs. Recurring themes and principles named by discernment groups were:

  • Visionary Themes (Who Are We? What Is God’s Purpose in Us?): The Cause of Zion, Community, Be a Prophetic People, Embody Christ, Sacredness of Creation, Inner and Outer Transformation, WholenessThemes Related to Essential
  • Qualities and Values: The Worth of all Persons, Diversity and Inclusivity, Priority Value of Children/Youth/Young Adults, Intercultural Respectand Relations, The Call and Gifts of All, Interfaith/Ecumenical Relations
  • Themes Related to “Inner” Formation and Transformation: Discernment/Listening to God, Spiritual Formation/Spiritual Practices and Disciplines, Relationship/Unity with God, Discipleship Formation, Sriptural Literacy, Self-Care/Life Balance, Sacraments
  • Themes Related to “Outer” Formation and Transformative Action: Peace and Justice, Witnessing/Mission/Outreach, Healing, Stewardship, Reconciliation, Earth-Keeping, Priesthood Accountability, Generosity, Temple Ministries

These themes are remarkably similar to those identified by the Expanded World Church Leadership Council (church officers and mission center leaders around the world), the Temple Strategy Team, the Theology Task Force, and others attempting to listen more intently to what God is saying to us about our identity, mission, and message.

The practice of discernment blesses the church with greater clarity about identity and mission.

Over the last three years, deeply held visions and values have surfaced and converged in the We Share document and Enduring Principles. Notice the interweaving of themes from conference discernment groups with the Enduring Principles:

Enduring Principles: Grace and Generosity, Sacredness of Creation, Continuing Revelation, Worth of All Persons, All Are Called, Responsible Choices, Pursuit of Peace (Shalom), Unity in Diversity, Blessings of Community.

The practice of discernment blesses the church with greater clarity about identity and mission. The Presidency invites the church to join it in seeking God’s guidance about Conditions of Membership. The question of whether or not to continue rebaptizing all those who want to join the church is before us as the result of a 2007 World Conference resolution. We need “spiritual freedom” and “holy indifference” to seek God’s wisdom in sorting out our deeply held beliefs and passions related to this issue.

Conditions of Membership discernment resources for diverse ages are available through pastors and mission center leaders. Members and friends of the church are encouraged to participate fully in as many parts of the discernment process as possible. We hope many will engage in small-group discussion, and all will engage in discernment as a spiritual practice by using the “Individual and/or Small Group Guidelines for Prayer and Reflection.”

God continues to call us to discern, listen, hear the voice that echoes across the eons of time. Prophetic people are captured by the divine dream of wholeness unfolding in the creation. As disciples of the one who embodied God’s shalom, let us strain our eyes to see the pattern he saw and open our ears to hear the music he heard as we become the peace of Christ in God’s world.

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