We were desperate to know what to do. We were entering the seventh year of church renewal. There had been lots of change, lots of conversations with members, lots of work, and lots of energy expended. The leaders of the church were tired and discouraged that all of our efforts hadn’t resulted in the renewal we were envisioning. We had followed God the best we could and yet it felt like we were still at the beginning of the journey, asking the question, “God, what would you have us to do?”
It was time to try a new discernment practice that would help us listen to what God was doing and align our vision with his activity.
At one council meeting, immediately after council members settled into their seats, I described what we were going to do for devotions. Each person was to find a quiet place in the church, read John 15:16, and listen for the Holy Spirit to speak. We would sit in silence and solitude for twenty minutes and write down whatever we felt God was saying. I sent the group out of the room with a brief prayer, “Lord Jesus, we want to hear from you and we believe you want to speak to us about your church. Help us to recognize the leading of your Holy Spirit. Amen.”
I remained in the council room praying for God to speak to each person. It was a very long twenty minutes.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” John 15:16
When the council members returned we went around the circle, each person sharing their experience. Every person shared something about fruit:
This church has produced a lot of good fruit.
The fruit of this ministry will last even if the church doesn’t.
There’s more fruit for the church to bear.
The church’s fruit bearing days are over.
On and on it went. God was telling us something about the eternal fruit of this church’s ministry. It wasn’t as direct as we would have liked, but it did lead to hardy reflection on the good ministry that had taken place and an honest assessment of the fruit bearing capacity of the church in the future.
The fruit metaphor stayed with us as our discernment work continued over the next several months. In one of those later meetings, one of the elders shared about her experience while eating a peach. Holding the peach pit between her sticky fingers, she thought about how the fruit she had just enjoyed was the result of a pit that grew into a peach tree with branches heavy with fruit. At that moment the Holy Spirit brought this verse to mind, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
God was inviting us to die.
After this, we began to pray differently. Our prayers sounded more like the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but yours be done.”
Within weeks, God led us to merge with a church that embodied everything we had envisioned when we set out on our church renewal journey. All the work God had led us to do had prepared us for this. To die to ourselves, to relinquish control, and to welcome the new life God was going to bring through our sacrifice.
Yes, the church had produced a lot of lasting fruit, and yes, its fruit bearing days were over, and yes, there was more fruit for the church to bear. Every word the council members had received was true, even though they appeared at the time to contradict each other. The messages the council received when each person spent twenty minutes alone in the church was God’s way of encouraging us to persist in pursuing him and his will for his church.
What’s a new discernment practice God’s inviting you and your team to experience together?
Written by Rev. Elaine May, CRCNA Congregational Ministries Ministry Consultant and principal creator of Thriving Essentials, a leadership development course for all the leaders in the church. This set of four devotionals will follow the four themes of the course: mission, discipleship, discernment and leadership. You can register for the course and find more information about the Thriving Congregations Initiative at crcna.org/thrive.
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Thanks for this Elaine. Powerful and moving. There is life on the other side of dying.