Understanding the Times – Part I

13 Mar 2018

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This article is the first in a series of four, designed to prompt and motivate church leaders to practice reflective discernment. I would assert that a failure to do so, catapults the church into eventual demise, primarily due to our inability to adjust our mission and understand our context. This orientation is not for the faint-hearted. It is hard work and presumes reflective discernment (as a sacred rhythm) is a critical priority. If I could ring a clarion or blow a trumpet, my plea would be to call you to become communities of discernment to clearly understand the times and subsequently engage in purposeful action in response!   

I have deliberately tried to frame your thoughts, raise your awareness, and pique your interest in the practice of discernment, prior to raising one of four themes for conversation and insight.

There is a wonderful philosophical script in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 that was made famous as lyrics in the 60’s by the rock band ‘The Byrds’. The opening line reads: ‘For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.’ The earlier translations rendered ‘seasons’ as ‘an appointed time.’ The coupling of season with activity forms the basis of this conversation – a way of exploring what’s happening now and what activity is necessary as a response.

The idea of an ‘appointed time’ carries gravitas for church leaders to understand what’s happening and thereby consider strategic responses. When considering a season or appointed time, there is a presumption that God is still active in the uncertainty and complexity of the age. It reminds me of the prophet Habakkuk (2:3) who asserted: ‘For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry….’

Scholars remind us that the ancient Greek word Kairos means season or the right, opportune or appointed time. A Kairos is a time when things are revealed, when illumination occurs and decisive choice and action subsequently follows.

Some would argue the role of a genuine Christian prophet reveals the mind and will of God at an appointed time. I don’t doubt this. This doesn’t exempt disciples from being discerning or exercising wisdom. Diakrisis is Greek for ‘the act of judgment’ or discernment. The word describes being able to distinguish, discern, judge or appraise a person, spirit, statement, situation, or environment. Apart from discerning spirits, it is used to distinguish both good and evil. (Heb 5:14)

Similarly, we read in Scripture: ‘My child, don’t lose sight of common sense and discernment. Hang on to them,’ (Prov. 3:21) 

This raises a number of interesting questions for church leaders, namely:

  • How do we collectively practice discernment?
  • How do we cultivate mature disciples who learn to be discerning (compared with ‘chasing after the wind’)?
  • How do we identify a Kairos moment – what is God saying for this appointed time?
  • How do we purposefully action strategic mission in response to the season? and
  • How does our church community’s calendar prioritise reflective discernment for leaders and disciples?

The supposition of this article, is clear. It is not possible to ‘understand the times’ without discernment and common sense. There is much to distract us in our pilgrimage and divert us from the practice of discernment. 

The late Henri Nouwen defined discernment as follows: ‘Discernment is a spiritual understanding and an experiential knowledge of how God is active in daily life that is acquired through disciplined spiritual practice. Discernment is faithful living and listening to God’s love and direction so that we can fulfill our individual calling and shared mission.’

Scripture sharpens our understanding: ‘We ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord.’ —Colossians 1:9–10

In this series, I raise four big themes (not an exhaustive list) that require discernment for all churches.

Theme One:  Increased secularisation and cultural deconstruction

Recommended reading: Charles Taylor. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, © 2007. 874 pp

There are many symptoms or ‘touch points’ of dramatic change currently impacting Australian society. They include our rampant disrespect for our politicians and governing leaders, our obsession with sexuality and gender, our criticisms of education and learning paradigms, our definitions of the family unit, our future reliance on robotics and subsequent employment impact, our inability to live harmoniously in a global melting pot of terror, our distrust of institutions including church, banks and anything that reflects big business, our real threats from cyber criminals and our belief that religion is an antiquated blight on our world moving futuristically into the secular digital age.

If these symptoms are reflective of seismic change, the secularisation of our world and the deconstruction of most forms of governing, what does this mean for the church and for church leaders?

It’s dangerous to simply jump to trite solutions. It’s wise to listen, watch, learn, seek to understand and respond. Please allow me to ask a rhetorical question: Why bother reflecting on this big theme? The answer is profoundly important. Without understanding and discernment the church can never strategically ‘be’ or ‘become’ relevant and vital in this current age.

In discussing deconstruction and increased secularisation, I am not advocating we jettison our core theological and evangelical orientations. Rather these inform and shape our capacities to respond to the ever increasing dilemmas confronting the church on the frontiers.

‘Courage is the ability to cultivate a relationship with the unknown;
to create a form of friendship with what lies around the corner over the horizon –
with those things that have not yet fully come into being….’ – David Whyte.

Dr Andrew Ball
Executive Ministry Director
With you on the Frontiers