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The Discipline of Discerning the Holy Spirit

Recently I was teaching a workshop on the topic of ‘spiritual warfare’ at Morling Theological College in Sydney Australia. You never know what you are going to get at a workshop like this as the participants can range from one extreme to the other, that is from those who are a bit ‘nutty’ to those who are completely cynical about the topic. However I was glad that the workshop was comprised of participants who were enthusiastic, intelligent, curious and basically wanting to know more about the subject since it is not discussed very frequently in theological colleges.  The students asked some great questions but one stood out to me. After we shared some experiences that we had had with the ‘spiritual’ and as we were pondering on the things that were and were not good, right and true about those experiences, one student put up his hand and basically asked the question ‘How do you know if that was God or if that was just something that you came up with?’ I smiled. I smiled because he had hit on my favourite topic, the process of discerning the Spirit. Indeed what a crucial and fundamental question; how do we work out what God is up to among us so that we can obey him and glorify Jesus through his church?

One of the things that I love about what comes through in missional theology is the emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. In the foundational book Missional Church: A Vision for the sending of the Church in North America by Darrell Guder et al, it states ‘The church is constantly being reevangelised, and by virtue of that it is always being constituted and formed as the church…it is in every moment being originated by the Holy Spirit as it hears the gospel and is oriented by the “present reign of Christ” in which the coming completed reign of God is revealed and becomes effective in the present’. And Craig van Gelder says in The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit, ‘…as the creation of the Spirit, the church is always developing and changing. We need to develop a missiological ecclesiology that takes into account the continued work of the Spirit in leading and teaching the church…the church experiences this constant renewal only by developing discipline in discerning the leading of the Spirit. Through such discernment, the church becomes the primary means through which God answers its prayer that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”’. Lastly Gary Tyra in his helpful book The Holy Spirit In Mission, juxtaposes missional ecclesiology and pneumatology saying ‘..at the heart of the missional ministry impulse is a pneumatological question: what is the Holy Spirit up to in this or that ministry location, and how might/should we cooperate with him?’

Having said this, there is also a growing concern today in the expression of the missional church around the question of whether this discernment process is actually in reality taking place.  This was pointed out in a review of the missional church by Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective; Mapping Trends and Shaping the conversation.

I think here they express a crucial problem in missional theology saying that there is a good explanation of Jesus and the responsibility of the church in relation to the reign of God but inadequate explanation as to how the ministry of the Spirit mediates this work in the church.

This slightly modalistic treatment of the three persons in the godhead has the effect of separating the work of Jesus from the work of the Spirit which I think leaves us with an ambiguity in our praxis as to how we can discern the activity of the Spirit in the church. In other words the church is shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ but left confused about how that translates in practice through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus clearly told his disciples that even though he was about to leave them, that in fact in the next phase of his ministry his presence would be mediated by another, that is the Holy Spirit (John 14:25,26). That means that today, the Holy Spirit is how we practice and experience the presence of God in our daily lives as Christ followers. In reality how is missional church going in expressing this today?

We need better discernment in the contemporary expression of missional church as Scot McKnight noted drawing from John Howard Yoder in a recent post, ‘a discernment probing where God is active amidst all the activities of humans’. It is true, not everything we experience is God’s work and it takes some discipline to notice the work of God by his Spirit. I often share this thought with our worship ministry at the church where I lead as pastor. We must be assured that ‘God is always present and working’ no matter what we feel or don’t feel, no matter what we discern or don’t. Everything is spiritual. However there are times when the Spirit disrupts, disorients, guides, recalibrates us, reveals, compels and pushes us, usually into situations where we would rather not go, and we must be skilled at noticing this too so that we can obediently follow him as he shapes his church.

Learning the discipline of discerning the guidance of the Spirit is not obvious however we can better do this by sharing our personal experiences of how we discern God’s Spirit then biblically and theologically interpreting those experiences so that we can help one another to know what it looks like in practice to follow the Spirit as he shapes the church into the image of Jesus.

As we do this it’s then that I think we begin to live more fully as Christ followers sent on mission by the power of the Spirit to live a kingdom life. Evelyn Underhill sums this up well when she says that we are agents of the Creative Spirit on mission with a God who delights to reveal himself to us; ‘The real spiritual life must be..spread more and more as well as aspire more and more. It must be larger, fuller, richer , more generous in its interests that the natural life alone can ever be, must invade and transform all homely activities and practical things. For it means an offering of life to the Father of life, to whom it belongs, a willingness an eager willingness to take our small place in the vast operations of his Spirit, instead of trying to run a poky little business of our own’. May we live the ‘real spiritual life’ as we move towards the adventure that God calls us to, following his Spirit to bring his beauty to our broken world.

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