Today’s post is by Lynne Baab who has encouraged me to focus on spiritual direction over the next few months. Talking about communal listening is a great place to start this. As Lynne says, individualism has too great an influence on our faith.
Lynne M. Baab is the author of numerous books on spiritual practices. This post is adapted from her latest book, The Power of Listening: Building Skills for Mission and Ministry. Visit Lynne’s website and blog for information about her books and articles she’s written.
Imagine you’re in a committee or church board meeting, and you’re discussing a possible new direction for mission. You long to experience God’s guidance in the decision. What can you do as a group to hear God speak to you?
In my last post on Godspace, I addressed the question of how Christians hear God speak. In this post I want to narrow down to consider how we hear God speak to us communally. A few years ago I interviewed 63 ministers and congregational leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom about listening, and one of my interview questions related to communal listening to God’s guidance. I’ll summarize two of the issues the interviews raised in my mind.
- I heard a lot of stories about listening to God communally through the Bible. Many congregations have small group Bible studies where participants wrestle with God’s voice to them in scripture. I heard about congregations where people gather during the week to talk about the sermon scripture for the next Sunday. Some congregations have feedback times during or after the Sunday service for reflection on how God spoke through the sermon. Some congregations are experimenting with reflective ways of engaging with the Bible, such as lectio divina.
The stories powerfully illustrated numerous communal settings focused on the Bible in congregations. The outcome of all this reflection and discussion of the Bible seemed to be guidance for individuals. What seemed missing was communal engagement with the Bible for the sake of hearing God’s guidance for a community. I’ve participated in many Bible studies and lectio divina sessions at church board meetings and elder retreats, and we’ve had great conversations about God’s voice to us individually through a Bible passage. What would it look like to begin there, but to continue on to consider how God might be speaking to us communally through the passage about directions for our congregation’s mission? No one in my interviews talked about doing that.
- In my interviews, I heard a lot of confusion between consensus and discernment. Consensus decision making is becoming more prominent in many business and church settings, because decisions made by consensus generally have strong buy-in by the parties involved, and often more needs are met by consensus decisions than by other kinds of decisions. Consensus decisions play a role in discernment, but they are not the same. Consensus tries to address as many of the needs and concerns of the people present as is possible, while discernment attempts to figure out how God is guiding. Surely God wants needs to be met, but meeting needs and hearing God’s voice are often not the same thing.
Discernment relies on prayer in many forms, communal wrestling with the Bible, and engagement together in spiritual practices such as fasting, retreat and silence. The people involved in trying to discern God’s direction need to know consensus skills, because they need to listen to what each person is hearing from God and build consensus around it. But discernment begins and ends with trying to hear God’s voice and direction, not trying to meet the maximum number of needs. (I wrote more about the role of spiritual practices in consensus and discernment here .)
These two patterns I observed in the interviews worry me. Both patterns indicate the way that individualism, so rampant in the wider culture, has affected Christians. And I myself am not immune to those forces. Engaging in consensus, a good thing to do, nudges me toward considering how I can negotiate to meet the needs I’m concerned about. Looking to the Bible for guidance for my life and doing it communally with others, another good thing to do, can keep me in an individualistic place where I’m listening to God for my sake rather than the sake of my community of faith. O Lord God, give us love for each other and a commitment to your body, so we can listen to you for the sake of our communities as well as for our own sakes.