Collective Discernment and Individual Freedom
We are still growing into a new practice of community which is different from what many of us have experienced in the past. I think that it can be described as Collective Discernment and Individual Freedom. In many churches, the reality is that a few people make decisions which everyone in the larger group is expected to adopt. These are usually program-driven organizations which tend to want everyone doing the same things at the same time and in the same way. People are told to support the programs. Regimented activity is seen as helpful. It might be for some, but probably not for everyone.
The way we are trying to live as a community is with the recognition that the Spirit works in different ways in each Christian. There is no “everyone-must-be-doing-this” type of program structure. In a general way we talk about everyone growing up into the image of Christ, but we realize that there are many paths to that goal. Therefore, we have the freedom for anyone to do whatever God is calling that individual to do. If someone wants to have a Bible study with people in their neighborhood on Wednesday nights, there is no program that says “no, you must do what the others are doing on Wednesday nights.” Talking about not having “membership” does not mean that we are uncommitted to Christ or His Church, or sharing our lives together, but rather that a person does not “join” Disciples’ Fellowship as if joining an institution. A person does not join and then have to participate in required programs or duties to the organization. We share a common life in Christ in which we encourage and help one another without quenching the Spirit’s work in each believer.
For the really large directional matters, we do act collectively – and we do that through collective discernment of the God’s leading. We discuss and listen, and in our group discussion try to hear what God is saying to His people. We acknowledge the direction God is leading, but we allow individual freedom for each to be a slave to Christ - rather than being slaves to the programs of a church.
Some times it is easier to allow a church to do our spiritual thinking for us - don’t make me discern what God’s Spirit wants me to do, just give me a system of programs to follow. Organizing some ministry is not a bad thing, but making participation in that program the definitive mark of faithfulness is mistakenly thinking that God’s Spirit does the same work in each one of us, in the same way and at the same time. If I have an idea of what “we should be doing”, maybe it is actually an idea of what I should be doing. If others join with me that will be great, but maybe God is telling me what I need to be doing.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of wanting to control others. I might say I have an idea about what everyone needs to do to serve the poor. The reality is that I can do that and invite others to join me. I can’t say that everyone must serve the poor according to my plan. I can’t even say that everyone has to serve these poor. What I can say is that we all need to serve others and bring glory to God. Some may do that by serving the poor, others might serve unwed mothers, others the people in their apartment building, others mothers of pre-school children, others college students away from home, and on and on. I can say we all need to be involved in Christian relationships, but I cannot say everyone must be involved in our program of small groups. Even as we organize small groups, we should not say that believers must participate, but that these groups provide one way to grow up into Christ. We may recommend, but can never require.
Every Christian who is part of the Disciples’ Fellowship community is free to do anything to serve God. We simply recognize that God may be working in other ways in the lives of our brothers and sisters. We will not impose anything except the rule to love another. Our practice of Collective Discernment and Individual Freedom is based on a recognition of how God’s Spirit works collectively and individually.