By Nigel Rooms, leader of Partnership for Missional Church in the UK
The Partnership for Missional Church journey is about setting churches free to join in God’s mission. Nigel Rooms, leader of PMC in the UK, shares a bit about one of the key spiritual practices in this process:
A minister who was new in his post began regularly attending the church’s men’s breakfast on Saturday mornings. Each week, he asked the same question: “What’s God been up to this past week?”
Generally the men told stories of their comings and goings or how they had participated in a church activity. One man kept quiet every week until one Saturday morning he burst out: “I knew that you’d ask this question for the umpteenth time! It’s made me really mad until this week when I began to really think about it…” And he proceeded to tell a story that began with God, not himself or the church.
“Practical atheism” vs “spiritual discernment”
Research in churches in many places around the globe has found that when people are asked about their beliefs, they will afﬁrm the creeds and their faith in God’s care. However, when asked to describe God’s activity – what God’s up to, how God’s working – the responses tend to be about human or churchy activity. People, not God, become the subject of the sentence: “We’ve been running a children’s club”; “There’s a new cafe ministry happening.”
This is what we call “practical atheism”.
On the other hand, when churches journey through the PMC process, they stop talking about the church so much and start talking about God. This is the result of asking repeatedly and intentionally: “What is God up to here?” This question is the essence of what we call “spiritual discernment” – one of the six “holy habits” of the PMC journey.
We are inviting churches to develop a way of life that is attentive to the movement of the Spirit among them and in the world around them (as we see in the case of one Nottingham church). God is present and active, working for good at all times and in all circumstances – even on a cross. Our task is to “discover what God is up to and join in”.
Spiritual discernment: paying attention
To discover what God is up to, we must pay attention to three things.
- The ﬁrst is the Scriptures and our theological traditions. What do we know of God from the testimony of the Bible and the saints who have preceded us? We need to understand God as revealed in Jesus Christ and learn from those who have recognised the movement of the Spirit through the ages. This in turn can fuel our imaginations.
- Second, we need to pay attention to our own experience. What are the emerging passions and concerns among the church? What gives us joy and makes us feel most alive? Who is coming to be part of our congregation and ﬂourishing through our ministry? These questions go beyond evaluating our perceived effectiveness. They focus our attention on what is stirring in the hearts of our fellowship.
- Third, we need to pay attention to what is happening among the people around us in our wider community and society. Who are our neighbours? What are the passions, interests and concerns that clamour for attention among them? What shapes their lives and how are these things changing? We can gain insights in this area from the media and social commentary and from observation and conversation.
Detectives of divinity
Having these three perspectives in mind, we ask the question, “What is God up to?” How does the God revealed in Scripture respond to the cries of people around us? Are we in tune with this and responding likewise? Or have we become so preoccupied with ourselves that we are oblivious to the needs around us? Perhaps we can ﬁnd God at work among those who would never darken the doors of our church?
Again, the question is not, what is the church doing? Our aim is to discern what God is up to. Our response is to name this and to try to align ourselves with the Spirit.
Churches that have taken this practice seriously have created congregations full of detectives of divinity. We have noticed an enormous increase in encouragement, energy and enthusiasm when people create and articulate sentences with God as the subject of an active verb, for example: “God is bringing…”, “God is helping…”, “God is moving…”. They now sense that God is alive and active among them.
If you would like to find out more about spiritual discernment, one of the six “holy habits” in the Partnership for Missional Church process, contact Nigel Rooms, leader of PMC in the UK: nigel.rooms [at] churchmissionsociety.org
If you would like to read more about the six holy habits, purchase Forming the Missional Church: creating deep cultural change in congregations (P139) at grovebooks.co.uk