Discerning Togetherdiscussion, discernment and decisions in the United Reformed Church
In the United Reformed Church we believe the way to explore what God may be calling us to do is by a process of discernment, that is, listening for and recognising the voice of the Spirit to guide us in our decision making.
Whenever we gather together, either in worship, or in councils and committees, we meet to hear what God has to say to us.
Let’s start with the Bible
Throughout the Book of Acts there are many examples of how the early church made decisions, each sharing common characteristics – Worship, Prayer, Scripture, The Holy Spirit, Listening, Discussing (sometimes heatedly), and a willingness to be challenged and changed. Here are four examples.
Worship, Prayer, and Exploring the Bible
In Acts chapter 1, the eleven disciples gathered together to discern who should succeed Judas and restore the number of disciples to twelve.
From the story we know that …
.. they prayed
.. they heard scripture
.. they shared, discussed, listened
.. they asked the Spirit to guide them
.. they then drew straws, to decide!
The experience of the Holy Spirit
The first Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They saw themselves as a close family, rooted in their shared discipleship of Jesus and a distinctive communal life.
From the story we know there was ..
… breaking bread
… and a controversial decision to admit Gentiles in the early church.
Listening and Discussing in Council
The Council at Jerusalem met to resolve the first controversy in the church; do Gentiles need to be circumcised to be saved?
From the story we know that …
… the decision is made collectively
… there is mutual accountability
… the decision is binding to all, regardless of size, culture, or influence
Ready to be Challenged and Changed
On his missionary journeys, Paul often found that where he had planned to go was not where God wanted him. Paul’s plans, however well made, would frequently have to change, often at short notice.
From this story we are reminded that throughout our history the church has often been convinced that a certain course of action was holy and correct, but have then discovered what they were doing was not, in fact, the will of God:
The Theology of Discernment
Click on the headings below for a brief explanation of how we make decisions in the United Reformed Church.
What We Believe
In the United Reformed Church we believe that we hear the Spirit speak to the church through members gathered together.
Times of worship, prayer, teaching, and fellowship are not religious add-ons to the main business, but are essential if our meetings are to create an atmosphere more likely to hear the Spirit speaking to us, and taking seriously the theological image of the church as the Body of Christ, in which every member has different gifts and understanding to share.
Listening Before Speaking
Each of us has only a partial grasp on the truth. That is to say, the truth is much bigger than our own particular context, experience, and journey of discipleship. We need to hear from others whose experiences have revealed very different truths than ours.
Paul reminds the Ephesians, and us, that discernment and growing together only happens as we “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16).
We are all to “speak the truth as we see it”, but with an eagerness to hear how others see it too, we can often be challenged and changed.
How We Do 'Business'
So when we meet in Councils and committees, we are gathering for worship, prayer, and Bible study, in order to best create an atmosphere in which deep listening and discernment is possible. Only then are we ready to make decisions!
How We Make Decisions
The United Reformed Church is not a democratic institution, our theology is significantly different from that.
We do not meet in together to determine the will of the majority, but, as we have heard, to discern where God is leading us together.
The word we use for this is ‘Theocracy’.
What does this look like?
Below are three different examples of how discernment can be sought in both formal and informal settings, and meetings of different styles and sizes.
In a small group, such as an elders meeting, consensus can be achieved quite naturally in conversation. As an issue is discussed and people listen to each other, a small group can easily come to agreement. The role of the chair is to gauge the mood of the meeting, ensure everyone has been heard, and all are happy with the decision.
If your Church Meeting is too large to work in this less formal way, the chair may need a visual way to gauge opinion. This is most commonly by a simple show of hands. However, the meeting is still trying to discern a shared decision and is seeking the guidance of the Spirit. Showing hands should not be interpreted as being a simple majority ‘vote’. If the show of hands does not show a clear result, or if considerable objection is still present, it is perfectly in order, indeed it is desirable, for the chair to decide that clear discernment has not yet been achieved and further prayer and discussion are required before a decision is made.
Synods and Assemblies
In even larger gatherings, such as Synod meetings or General Assembly, ‘voting’ cards are used so the chair is clear who is entitled to vote, but again, though the system appears more formal, we are still not seeking a simple majority, but a shared discernment.
In large meetings in particular however, formal ‘voting’ with cards and speaking for or against a resolution can very easily create an atmosphere of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. For this reason, General Assembly now uses a system called ‘Consensus Decision Making’ which still uses cards as a visual indication to the chair, but these orange or blue cards are used at various points during a debate to indicate if the meeting is ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ to an idea.
For items which are legal formalities, or simply accepting a report, Assembly may still use a simple show of one voting card, as this is often much quicker for issues unlikely to require much discussion.
However, when seeking to discern God’s will for significant issues, a format which seeks consensus has proved far more effective in achieving decisions where everyone has been heard and far more content to accept.
What have we discovered together?
We have explored together, both in the Biblical stories of the early church, and in the theology and workings of our Reformed Tradition. From here, two things should be clear:
We meet together as the Body of Christ
Therefore our meetings are always in the context of Worship, Prayer, Bible Study, and fellowship. And food should be a regular feature too!
Worship is essential to our meetings
Our gatherings are not ‘business meetings’, nor are we there to simply discover the will of the majority: but instead to listen for God through the Holy Spirit, and discern the Mind of Christ.
So whenever we meet we should ...
… expect to:
- Worship, Pray, and explore the scriptures
- Eat, and break bread together
- Share with honesty, and listen deeply to each other
The General Assembly and Mission Council
For further information about how the denomination discerns together, you can visit the …