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Discernment Processes and Methods

Christian Spirituality How To Discern

The Spirit helps you discern, using methods.

Ways To Discern

Prayerful Group Decision-Making

When praying in a group, let everything move out of prayer and into prayer. Real prayer, not prayer done because it's expected of you. The group that prays together may not always stay together, but they will as a whole be more likely to stay open to the Spirit's leadings. This will make the inevitable feuds rarer. If possible, meet with each other and other prayer partners before any meeting, and pray for the Spirit's leadings. (It's best to do that at a personal level, but it may prove necessary to officially set aside a time just for praying together.) Start meetings with some time -- about 5 minutes, more if needed -- for prayer. Then take additional time to pray together before making any key decisions. Please don't rush, and don't feel like someone has to be speaking. Church committees can then start to take on more of the character of prayer groups, and less of the character of a political back room.

One of the bad things about church committees (as usually run) is that they tend to become an 'in group'. This tendency can become even stronger in the prayerful approach, because of the close ties that tend to develop between members who pray together. Becoming an 'in group' defeats the purpose of the prayerful committee, because it becomes unable to develop a true consensus for the rest of the church.

A very promising development is that some church leaders are starting to use the new online formats, such as blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and Wiki as tools to create more communication. So far, it's proven very useful. Yes, sometimes the system works to spread gossip (these are forms of social networking, after all). But if designed and strategized right, these tools can get you in touch with people who wouldn't (or couldn't) be at meetings, or who are afraid to speak in person. These online tools can remove the hurdles, and remove the gatekeepers so there's no censoring the feedback. The immediate speed of Net communication is also a big help when using methods of discernment.

"There are, then, two ways to confront or criticize another human being : with instinctive and spontaneous certainty that one is right, or with a belief that one is probably right arrived at through scrupulous self-doubting and self-examination. The first is the way of arrogance; it is the most common way of parents, spouses, teachers, and people generally in their day-to-day affairs; it is usually unsuccessful, producing more resentment than growth, and other effects that were not intended. The second is the way of humility; it is not common, requiring as it does a genuine extension of oneself; it is more likely to be successful, and it is never, in my experience, destructive."
M. Scott Peck, *The Road Less Traveled* (Touchstone, 1978), p.152

The Feedback Loop

For all the talk about charismatics' accent on actual conversion and infilling experiences, most of their time is taken up with a dialogue of sorts. It's a method of discovery, an education with a strong feedback loop. The dialogue is about learning how to live in the Spirit and grow in the faith. And, while there are definitely teachers, there is often the sense that, whether through the front door, back door, side doors, floor, walls or roof, the 'students' are teaching each other just as much, and the teachers are usually just picking up on it. This creates a refreshing sense of equality, even if there's an authoritarian in the mix, for that loop is what the leader is reacting to and trying to control. Critics of pentecostalism quickly point out the flip side: it's a movement of those who have no theological training, so sometimes what swirls around in it is poorly thought-out. That's not just because their leaders reject theological education (some do, some don't). It's because they're a part of a feedback loop in which the Spirit that speaks through the ex-prostitute or the housewife or the blue-collar worker is understood to be the same Spirit that speaks through the great preachers, teachers, and leaders. Or as the Dan Smith song goes, "I ain't never been to Seminary, but I've been to Calvary". It comes out in unpolished ways with lots of loose ends, but it comes out so that we can pay attention to it. The attitude is that when the Spirit talks, we are to listen. Yes, use all the discernment tools the Spirit has given us, but first listen well. It's a good lesson for the rest of us to learn.
go to the head of the class...


It's a good idea to set up your church events so that there's a way of getting timely feedback about the event and what was said or done during the event. If something was out of the flow of the spirit, if subtle manipulations were setting in, if the leaders were drawing too much attention to themselves, if misbeliefs were floating around in the ether, it is highly important to find out about it and deal with it.

One problem is that circles are small. Those who communicate such concerns may well suffer due to formal and informal punishments and unspoken disownings. How does the parish or the event committee prevent that?? That's something you might have to work out before trying a debriefing. But then, if so, maybe you have more important problems to discuss than the event.

For a debriefing :

  1. any event attendee can be part of it; it must be open.
  2. set it up to eliminate pressures against speaking ill of something that happened or was said.
  3. it covers good and bad, 'iffy' and 'we'll see'.

In a debriefing, ask questions like these:

From the responses to such questions, seek perspective and contexts for what happened. Make no immediate decisions, but let the feedback stew for a short while.

If something was out of the flow of the spirit, if subtle manipulations were setting in, if the leaders were drawing too much attention to themselves, if misbeliefs were floating around in the ether, it is highly important to find out about it and deal with it.

Debriefing does not prevent errors before they happen. It helps stop us from doing them again. It can cause things to be done better next time, and it can help spot heresies before they take hold and warp the church. But this must be made clear: debriefing methods work best when they are part of an on-going process of learning, in an atmosphere where there are no penalties for taking an honest and vigorous part in that process. It works best when it becomes a part of the normal way of knowing what you're doing.

That said, each actual debriefing meeting needs an actual hub or event or happening. It works best when people know what they are there to discuss. Broader issues, future plans, and ministry evaluation are much harder to reduce to a pattern of questions. They're evaluated by way of questions that can't be answered without going back and checking. Questions like, "Are people really better off because of this ministry/program?", or "Is this the most effective way to use the church's money?". Those questions are not for debriefings, but for ongoing discussion and discernment.

Church Traditions

Many church traditions have documents which state how they believe the Spirit works to help us discern. For instance, in my own Lutheran tradition, the Book of Concord (references are to the Tappert edition) says :

The 1979 (US Episcopal/Anglican) also addresses how to know when the Spirit is at work (Catechism, pp. 852-3):

  Q. How do we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

  A. We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.

  Q. How do we recognize the truths taught by the Holy Spirit?  

  A. We recognize truths to be taught by the Holy Spirit when they are in accord with the Scriptures."

"When a successful figure becomes especially prominent and conspicuous, the majority give way to the idolization of success. They become blind to right and wrong, truth and untruth, fair play and foul play."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, *Ethics*


Most Evangelical, Baptist, and historic Black churches lean heavily on the pastor's authority to do the discerning. Their pastors have almost the entire responsibility for leading the parish, and thus are responsible for seeing to it that the congregation stays on course with God. Churches of these traditions rarely suffer from a collapse into chaos. However, they may face an even more wicked situation. What happens when the one whose task it is to use discernment is the one who most needs to be held accountable? The result can be an authoritarian minister who wields enslaving power over parishioners' lives. Something less sinister happens more often: the parish and its pastor are so busy using power that they lose sight of Christ. Either way, it is bad news. The good news comes from the few congregations and humble ministers who have the guts to identify warps in teaching or practice as they show themselves, and then deal with them by working together to change course, as led by the Spirit. It can be done. It is far too rare.

Discerning Within Yourself

As you grow in your dealings with the Holy Spirit in prayer and disciplines, you'll come to see more clearly how the Spirit at work in day-to-day life. Since the reborn New You has a supernatural nature, the supernatural begins to feel quite natural. As we allow ourselves to live in tune with God's gifts, it becomes easier to see where the supernatural is making things happen in our natural lives. In doing that, our faith deepens. The more we (appropriately) use the gifts we're given, the better we get at what we use the gifts for. The Spirit not only gives, the Spirit also teaches and trains. A skill develops to go with the gift.

The spiritualists of Luther's day, like Muntzer and Karlstadt, drew hard lines between good and evil, and They treated salvation as if it were a process of making ourselves ever more like God. That is synergism, a form of 'works righteousness' that conveys what a person senses is happening, but does not convey what is actually happening. They also relied strongly on the inner voice and on experiences on precisely the kind of matters where those guides have no actual role.

Luther knew that there is only one Lord, and he rules over all of life. The Spirit doesn't give a dispassionate 'power' so we can fully imitate Christ. The Spirit works to give us Christ Himself, so that, as Paul put it, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20). It is the work of God. and our task is one of response.

Conscience can sometimes be a useful guide, at least according to Paul. But then, maybe we listen more to Jiminy Cricket and trust our conscience too much and too often. A conscience needs to be formed and shaped, otherwise it just oozes around like a glob of goo, confused or going in conflicting directions. Or maybe, not going anywhere at all. (It would still be of much use, but not any part of what it can be.) The modern world inflicts great damage on the conscience, so it gets twisted up and can't do its job rightly, or worse, can't do it at all.

The Spirit uses earthly tools (Christian education, Scripture, learning while doing, and so on) to reshape us and our conscience. This re-formed conscience gets set into a context of prayer, fellowship and the spiritual disciplines. It is only this re-formed conscience that becomes a (fairly) trustworthy guide. This re-shaped conscience senses when we are or aren't living in harmony with the truths that God has written into our new selves, and it aims us upward.

Uncovering Bogus Gifts and Deeds

The letter to Timothy warns that . Those spirits can be from beyond the Christian faith, such as the seeking of wealth or fame or magical power. But most of it will be where it can do the most damage : within the Christian community.

There are some markers by which we can tell the spiritual counterfeits:

No one, on their own authority, can 'send' the Spirit into others, and certainly not by:

(No kidding -- such stuff is really being done in some circles.)

Doing such things is like a satire on God's gift-giving, a joke at God's expense. The Spirit follows no human's cue as to where or when to act. The Holy Spirit acts to draw attention to Christ, not to lift up an evangelist or preacher or ministry or movement.

Who makes counterfeit gifts? Mostly the human mind of the faker, through learning how to trick people or to draw them into dependent relationships. Sometimes there is power which comes from the Chief Deceiver himself. Whatever the source, there's a lot of it going around. Where the frauds show up, they must be called for what they are.

Scripture provides us with some rules on discernment of spiritual gifts. Paul's rules on gifts is that they are there to be used to build up the gathered believers and further the Gospel witness, in any specific situation. He also says they are to be used with a sense of good order.

When the pastor and leaders teach, preach, and model good discernment, it creates a good atmosphere for others to do it. The members wouldn't look at someone who raises hard questions as if they're weird. Fewer folks would say "that's not how we do things around here". Their leaders could show them that if they are to follow Christ, then seeking the Spirit's leading is the way things are done in the Church.

The spiritual fruit are to be found not in the moment of a miracle, but in life after the miracle.
Rise up O saints of God

Trust God

"The basic decision, after all, is to let God be God, to say "yes" to the work of the Lord, which goes before the church's ability to understand or even perceive it."
Luke Timothy Johnson, *Scripture and Discernment*

The fact that I can write a long piece on discernment and just scratch the surface tells us how foggy our human vision is. We can use all the methods of discernment at hand, act on what it leads us to believe is direction from the Spirit, and still do a belly-flop and look like a jerk. We all need to keep in mind that it's okay to be mistaken. Our God is a God of grace. The Church's role is to be there with a hand to help you back up and to get you moving in a steadier way. If the church doesn't do it, God will, somehow. God rewards spiritual diligence.

It may take a while to see through the fog of life. That's why we need to keep discerning. Keep at it, and the Lord's light will burn away most of the fog.

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The Spirit helps you discern, using methods.