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The challenge of discerning God’s direction for us

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It was gratifying to see more than 200 people register for the study conference in Saskatoon. The presence of a lot of young adults added a wonderful dimension to the event. Still, I dream of a deeper commitment in our body to the value of assembling to discern God’s direction. I’d love to see 400 attend the study conference!

Five hundred years ago, the Anabaptists distinguished themselves from other Reformers in the area of discerning God’s will. Their approach still informs us today.

First, the Word of God was the authoritative voice of God. Sola scriptura (Scripture alone) was Martin Luther’s cry to differentiate from the emphasis then on church tradition. However, Anabaptists also asked: who is qualified to interpret Scripture? They believed that the best interpreters were those who had received the Holy Spirit. They taught “Scripture and Spirit, together” rather than “Scripture alone.”

But believers were not to interpret on their own: they needed the faith community. The Holy Spirit indwelling each believer empowered them to participate in discerning the direction of the church. This was a radical shift from the assumption that only those in the church hierarchy could interpret Scripture. When the body met together, the Spirit was also present, among all.

Lastly, Jesus Christ was seen as the centre of interpretation. His life and teaching, as told in the Gospels, was critical in shaping interpretation of the rest of Scripture.

This had huge implications – significantly in the area of discipleship. Believers needed to follow the way of Christ, living holy, dedicated lives. This readied them for times of communal discernment: prayerful and filled with the Spirit, ready with convictions yet open to adjustment as they read the Bible together. Conduct in the meeting was also critical: the rule of Paul was invoked – “everyone may speak” but in an orderly way (1 Corinthians 14).

Spirit-led waiting

Such an approach requires time, mutual commitment to engage, and Spirit-led waiting. Someone said recently, “We wait over the text; and we wait with each other.” What a challenge for our
hurry-up age!

I recently read Craig van Gelder’s 2007 book, The Ministry of the Missional Church. Van Gelder’s vision is to teach the missional church to discern the will of God in community. “Leading in mission from a hermeneutical perspective involves a gathered Christian community,” he writes. “The Spirit of God is present in the midst of the congregation…. [W]hile being led by the Spirit, such [communal] activity also involves the complexities of different values, biases, interpretations, and power dynamics…. Rather than engaging in strategies of win-lose, it is important that congregations learn the practice of communal discernment…. But to do so, they must be willing to sustain a committed engagement of deliberative discourse.”

I prayed earnestly ahead of the study conference event that people would come filled with the Holy Spirit. Wishful praying? Perhaps. But since we relinquish considerable control in the community environment, I felt good about praying for something I had absolutely no control over.

Did we “succeed”? I’d say yes – partially. The schedule was too packed. Interaction was limited. Our final plenary open mic opened up the Spirit/our spirit to a degree. We might have discovered more of the Spirit with increased open mic time interspersed throughout. More plenary interaction must be incorporated if we are serious about this ecclesiology.

We also discovered that people attended without Bibles, even a Blackberry version! This assuredly truncated our collective ability to hear God and discern together.

Community commitment

I originally expected – as did many – that a clear statement (outcome) would be made at the end. Our BFL leaders made a statement based on our Confession of Faith. I would also contend that in our assembly and worship itself we affirmed our commitment as a community to Christ as our Wisdom, Peace, and Lord, as centre of our ministry and mission, and much more. Such a commitment may seem more diffused than a clear statement, but I believe it still counts.

We also found a beginning “deliberative discourse” around atonement. In the end the tone of our collective comments showed our commitment as a community to Christ and his atoning work, even if not in a new specific statement. Nevertheless, this particular dialogue is not finished and we will build on it going forward.

There’s room for improvement but the reason to assemble is solid as we seek God’s direction for Mennonite Brethren in Canada. As an African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

David Wiebe is executive director of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches.

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