When I look back on the beginning of our church plant eight years ago, the things which stand out to me in terms of significant turning points for The Evergreen Community all have to do with discernment. As we set out to start a new church community, without benefit of sending church or denomination, we knew that in many ways we were alone. And in that, our dependence on the Holy Spirit to guide and direct our conversations as a community, particularly about where we were going and what we were becoming became increasingly important.
Early questions of who would do what and what principles would lie at the core of our community stretched us all to listen not only to the Scriptures and to the Holy Spirit, but to one another. And because more often than not, those stretching moments drove us to do that kind of deep listening to God and one another, I began to see my role as pastor and elder as one, not of solving problems, but rather of pointing to them, raising the tension around them and allowing the process to work. I can say that in looking back, we have re-invented many wheels, and are better off for done so in almost every case.
Our Church Context
Our church, The Evergreen Community, sits firmly in the “missional” stream of churches which have “emerged” from the Emerging Church movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s. As the Emerging church movement matured (or some would say failed to mature), many saw the need to retain the contextualization of the Gospel that was at the core, to keep asking the same kinds of “couldn’t we do it differently than we always have?” questions, and to sustain an outward focus contra the country-club mentality that had seemed to infect so many churches, while at the same time not descending into the kind of Mainline theological liberalism that had already proven impotent earlier in the previous century. In contrast to the Universalism and generally low view of Scripture held by many Emergent churches, the Missional church movement tends to be Gospel-centered, theologically centrist and evangelistically oriented. They see themselves as existing not for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of the Gospel and the cities in which they are planted. However, they tend to share the same kinds of creative methodologies and spirit as well as a concern for justice that characterize Emergent churches.
Gailyn Van Rheenan says missional churches seek foundationally to be “theologically formed, Christ-centered, Spirit-led fellowships that seek faithfully to incarnate the purposes of Christ.”1
In that Evergreen is a missional community, that aspect of being Spirit-led has been and is important to us.
A central question for us both individually and as a community is this: What do I (we) hear God saying, and what would it look like to respond appropriately. We attempt to end every Sunday with dialoguing this question together as we ask ourselves and each other what we have heard the Spirit say thru the Word, the discussion, the prayers and songs and coming to the Table.
In times of tension, or in times when we sense the Spirit leading us to change, our practice is to call the community to a season of discernment, punctuated by communal times of prayer (which are meant to work hand-in-hand with individual prayer), discussions and consensus-building.
Our goal in these times of discernment is to get to a sense of “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”2
Much of what Scripture says about discernment has to do with individuals discerning truth from falsehood, but in terms of communal decision-making processes, we can hardly find a better description of the process or the outcome than that of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. When faced with a difficult and already divisive issue, the apostles went back to Scripture, to reasoned discussion, to prayer and the role of the Spirit in their midst as they attempted to recognize what God was already doing in their midst and join Him in it.
In the same way, our goal as a community is not to come to the most expedient decision or the one which will cause the least amount of controversy. Rather, our desire is to prayerfully walk the community through a dialogue which, leaning heavily on the Spirit and the Word, looks for what God is doing, listens for what God is saying, and does our best to formulate an appropriate response.3
As we do so, we often find ourselves being able to say, like the apostles, this course seems like not only the best idea, but where God Himself is leading us.
And, of course, as Sweet and Viola suggest, we want our community, especially in times of discernment/decision-making to be “discovering and displaying – that is, discovering and displaying Christ.”4
To Be Continued…
1. Gailyn Van Rheenan “Contrasting Missional and Church Growth Perspectives,” in Restoration Quarterly 48.1 (2006), 225-232.
2 Acts 15:28
3 “Leaders are so focused on the outcome that they neglect the process – the process of searching God’s will.” Larry Julian, God is My Coach: A Business Leader’s Guide to Finding Clarity in an Uncertain World, (New York: Center Street, 2009), xviii.
4 Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, Jesus Manifesto (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 144.