Discerning Mission

Missional Lab

Learning the Language of the Holy Spirit

By D. Grace Duddy

This post emerged out of the research from Duddy's M.A. Thesis, entitled "Hand, Voice, and Heart of God: An Adaptive Shift from Process to Practice in Discerning Communities.”

Most congregations today have lost the language of the Spirit. While they proclaim the Spirit’s work through communities and individuals in the Bible, they have a difficult time imagining, let alone naming, the ways in which the Spirit of God is working in their communities today. Congregations are anemic for God’s Spirit. They have shifted from relying on the Spirit of God to relying on human leaders; from practicing discernment of God’s Spirit in their midst to grounding themselves in human strategic planning processes. How can congregations be transformed to participate in God’s mission if they do not know the Spirit who works this transformation within them? They must relearn the language of the Spirit. Congregations must undergo an adaptive shift in their discernment from a decision-centered process to a Spirit-led practice. Such a shift requires congregations to learn the language of the Spirit through dwelling in the Word and in the world.

Dwelling in the Word is a practice of attending to the Word of God in community. Patrick Keifert, in We Are Here Now, describes dwelling in the Word as “a practice of a group of people listening to the Word of God, usually in relatively short chunks of the Bible, over long periods of time.” To be more specific, I have experience dwelling done this way -- a community listens to a passage from scripture, there is a period of silence, and then the community breaks into pairs in order to listen to what the other heard or what caught their imagination in the text.  In the end, the group comes together and people share what they heard from their partner. This practice empowers every person as a reader of the text; there are no experts. It also allows communities to find new metaphors by looking at passages from entirely different perspectives simultaneously.  While congregations could limit this practice to adult forums and Bible studies, to those who would be most receptive to it, the key is to make these dwellings a core part of the congregation’s life together. Congregations should experiment with incorporating these dwellings into worship or Sunday school.  They should dwell in the Word together at the beginning of all meetings and congregational meals.  The Spirit can move anywhere and anyone can have insight into the Spirit's movement.

While a congregation could dwell in any collection of Biblical texts, I have compiled a number of texts that each illustrate an aspect of the Holy Spirit: creative Spirit, prophetic Spirit, liberative Spirit, communal Spirit, and abiding Spirit. These themes are by no means exhaustive. They are suggested with the hope that such themes might offer some guiding metaphors for congregations to use as they learn the language of the Spirit together. Similarly, the texts which are proposed in the discussion that follows are meant to serve as starting points for congregational study, not a comprehensive list.

A good place to begin is at the beginning, and the Spirit's initial activity was creation.  It was the very first way that God's Spirit interacted with creation.  The creative Spirit gave life through creation and restores life through recreation. The congregation could begin by dwelling in the creation story, Genesis 1-2, then look at creation passages in the Psalms, particularly Psalm 104 and 139.

Congregations can deepen their discerning imagination by turning their focus to the ways the Spirit challenged culture and promised the fullness of the kingdom of God through the prophets as well as the life and ministry of the early church. The prophetic Spirit spoke through the prophets to convict culture and to proclaim a new future for God’s people.  In order to understand the prophetic work of the Spirit more deeply, congregations might dwell in Isaiah, particularly chapters 11 and 61, Joel 2, and Ezekiel’s prophecy of the Valley of Dry Bones in chapter 37.

The liberative Spirit brings restoration and liberation through Jesus’ ministry as well as through God’s present and future reign. For this perspective, congregations can dwell in Jesus’ proclamation from Isaiah in Luke 4, Jesus’ depiction of the Spirit of truth in John 16, as well as Paul’s flesh vs. Spirit dichotomy in Romans 8.

The Spirit manifests herself in community by empowering believers and knitting them together through fruits and gifts. The communal Spirit is at work gifting communities of faith. A congregation interested in this theme could begin with the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 and then move into Paul’s description of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 as well as the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5.

Similarly, the abiding Spirit dwells in believers, connecting them with Jesus through a bond of love. To learn more about the abiding Spirit, congregations could dwell together in John 14 where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit as well as the letter of 1 John, particularly chapter 4, in which John describes the bond of love that connects believers to God.

Congregations can learn the language of the Spirit by dwelling in the Word together, but must also learn how to speak her language in their own context.  Through dwelling in the world, we see the ways that God’s story continues today and into the future. The practice of dwelling in the world is the practice of naming God’s work in the world. This practice emerged out of Church Innovations' (Robbinsdale, Minn.) work in South Africa. It calls the community to answer these questions: How have you seen God at work in the world this week? How have you seen the Spirit moving in the midst of your daily life? Where have you seen God’s hands, felt God’s heart, and/or heard God’s voice? Each individual is invited to share their own story of how they have seen the Spirit manifest herself in the world this week. Dwelling in these questions, listen intently to each voice, particularly to voices of strangers and those on the margins. It may be difficult at first for people to name the Spirit outside of the congregation, but it will become easier as they become more familiar with the stories and metaphors of the biblical Spirit.Dwelling in the Word will inform the way that the community dwells in the world as people begin to use biblical stories and metaphors to describe their experiences in the world. As the community dwells in the world together, they will sense the wind of the Spirit and new ventures in God’s mission.

Through dwelling in the Word and dwelling in the world together, congregations can begin to learn the language of the Spirit. These practices point us to the ways that the Spirit has manifested herself in the past as well as the ways that the Spirit is still manifesting herself today. They focus the community’s attention on the way that the Spirit is working, empowering, and drawing them into new ventures in God’s mission. These practices help the community to discern where God is leading them and how God is calling them to participate in the Spirit’s work in their community. When communities know the ways in which the Spirit has spoken and is speaking, they will begin to realize what accords with the action of the Spirit. This will then help them to discern, to decide, and to follow the Spirit into God’s mission for the world.

Grace Duddy is a Midwest native and self-proclaimed Millennial with a passion for frugality, stewardship, and young adults. She moved north to attend St. Olaf College and then Luther Seminary. She worked as the Assistant Director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary through January 2014. She is the author of the new stewardship resource Stewards of God’s Love and the blog Frugal-Community that offers tips for living a fun and frugal life on a graduate student’s budget. When she is not thinking about stewardship, you can find her reading in a comfy chair, hiking in the woods, or in the kitchen cooking with her fiancé.
Image credit: "Veni, Dator Munerum" by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. via Flickr. CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

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