The Power of Scripture in Congregational Discernment: What We Find in the Family Album
There’s nothing quite so evocative for story telling as the act of looking at a family photo album. Pictures capture milestones in the life of a family, or memories of a treasured trip with a friend or loved one. They capture moments of pain and poignancy, moments of decision, and times of resignation, resolve and resilience.
The same is true when Christians look at their family album together, the album that starts with a woman and a man in a garden facing a big choice, and proceeds all the way to an empty tomb, an enormous rush of wind, and the picture of a future without tears of despair.
When a congregational team of 7-9 people gather to engage in TMF’s spiritual discernment process, Holy Conversations, one of the first assignments to every team member is to answer the question, “What is the biblical story your congregation is now inhabiting?” It’s actually the first part of the answer to an even bigger question, “Who are we, now?” This isn’t just to determine how many attend worship and how much money is received. This is the deeper examination of the congregation’s DNA, its values, practices, memories and quirks.
Since it is the job of great leaders, clergy or lay, to assess the current reality of a church and to listen for the story God is attempting to plant in the congregation, we at TMF feel that it’s essential to start the discernment process by looking for the links between the current life of the congregation and the greater Christian story. It’s essential to consult the Christian family album, the Bible.
Since we are now six years into our use of the Holy Conversations process, we’ve paused to ask, “What is the relation of the stories the congregations chose to the outcome of their work?” The following are some of the most notable examples.
- A team that knew what was on the church’s calendar but couldn’t name the difference any of their activities were making chose the pointed words in the letter to the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3: 14-22), “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” The question of the team from the beginning was, “How did we become so lukewarm?” The work that became centrally important was to discover the full extent of the grip of nostalgia on the congregation.
- A church in a rapidly growing, affluent, achievement-oriented suburban culture named the imagery found in Ephesians 6: 10-17, “Put on the full armor of God...”. When asked to describe the ‘battleground’ for which the armor was necessary, the team member said, “It consists of a lot of lies; lies about self worth, lies about what we are created for, lies about what our ultimate purpose is.” The team then turned to the work of training and equipping members of the congregation for the one-to-one conversational disciple-making capable of counteracting the lies.
- The church that named the story in Mark 2: 1-12 of the people who carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus, saw their work as finding the ways to carry more and more people to Jesus. In particular, they felt called to share the love of Jesus with the children of their city, using a three-fold strategy also based in scripture (Acts 1:8). They developed a Jerusalem strategy (caring for and mentoring the children of their own congregation), a Judea strategy (caring for the children of the nearby neighborhood who were similar in background and values), and a Samaria strategy (caring for children in a neighborhood in which there was generational poverty and whose background was very different from their own).
- The church that named Peter’s vision in Acts 10: 9-15 (“Do not call anything impure which God has made clean”) made the bold decision to do the necessary learning and leadership development to really understand and be in relationship with those between 20-40 who currently see the church as irrelevant, and who are often written off by older Christians for not caring about their faith.
- The team from a church that named the Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14: 15-24) tried to make sense of their failed attempts at evangelism, saying that it felt like they were issuing invitations to a party to which no one wanted to come. But they bravely named the fact that this failed evangelism rooted in the church’s clear lack of purpose in re-locating to the suburbs. They were uncovering what no one wanted to talk about: that the church’s re-location was clearly white flight.
- There were some passages and stories named by many of the teams. Those most frequently named were wandering the wilderness, having too many Marthas and not enough Marys, casting the net on the same side of the boat over and over, and the feeding of 5,000. In this latter story, it was notable that most teams did not name it as a story of the superabundant grace of God, but more as “we’re doing the best we can with the little that we’ve got.”
I encourage you to think about asking this question in your congregation. Ask it in a Leadership Council meeting, in a Sunday School class, at a retreat, in the youth group. Though I’ve named one particular story that guided each church’s work, each of those churches named multiple stories, and that’s a great thing. The purpose of this exercise is not to determine whose Bible story is the right one or the best one. It’s to determine how God can speak through those stories and into the life of your congregation.
If you’d like to talk more about how Bible stories can unlock new learning and motivate the discernment process, please contact your Area Representative. These are conversations we love to have.
Rev. John Thornburg, Leadership Ministry Facilitator
John brings 38 years of ministry experience in the diverse settings of the United States and in West Africa. He calls himself a ‘professional encourager’, and greatly enjoys working with congregations and church leaders.
Before coming to TMF, his work in the nationally renowned East Dallas Cooperative Parish brought growth, vitality, and missional focus to a church that had been in decline for years. He founded a unique extensional ministry to strengthen congregational singing and traveled to hundreds of churches for twelve years before coming to TMF. John became TMF's Senior Area Representative for the North Texas Conference in 2013, then he became Vice President of Area Staff, and now he is thrilled to join the Leadership Ministry team.