A consensus-building approach to discerning God’s will

ORLANDO, Fla. – The preparation of God’s people for service to Him and throughout the world is portrayed in the fourth chapter of Ephesians.

Paul writes in verses 11-13 (NIV), “So Christ Himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we reach all unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Barnabas Sprinkle, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Medford, Ore., used that passage as he spoke about discerning God’s will as a group during a session of the National Gathering of the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) and ECO: The Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians on Feb. 1.

Bible Study and PrayerSprinkle addressed the issue of determining exactly what God would have done in a church that is trying to decide if it should remain with its current denomination or look to move elsewhere while also talking about seeking consensus in a decision-making process.

“There are many ways to discern God’s will that don’t create winners and losers,” Sprinkle said. “It’s a matter of prayer and asking, ‘What is Christ’s will?’”

Sprinkle pointed out that there often are different reasons for staying or leaving a denomination, which has been happening throughout the Presbyterian Church (USA) with a number of congregations going through a discernment process to determine whether a change is appropriate.

Rather than focusing on getting together the most votes to institute a change, Sprinkle suggested working through the discernment in a way that develops a solution that the group as whole can live with in moving forward.

“It’s not always about getting people to vote for your side,” he explained. “Sometimes you have people talking more about each other than to each other in relation to denominational affairs. I don’t believe splitting or fighting is a great witness to the world. We need to show that Christ is among us.”

That’s why he suggested a consensus-building approach to discernment.

“God has a plan for our churches; He cares for us,” Sprinkle said. “Christ is not divided. If we are (divided as a church or individuals), maybe we should spend more time getting to know Him.”

Sprinkle explained that the consensus-building model tends to take more time than a voting process, and it requires spiritual maturity and discipline to overcome stubbornness or a lack of openness that often can derail the process.

However, the advantage is that longer-lasting solutions can be developed and a stronger unity often is formed.

So, how can consensus be reached? Sprinkle offered a four-step process.

1-Identify points of unity and difference

Core values, positions, interests and rationales are presented and discussed, with individuals giving their own personal reasons regarding the matter in question.

2-Brainstorm possible solutions

A review of each side’s interests, along with those held in common, should be taken as the groups examine all possible solutions to the issue. When no other ideas arise, move to the next step.

3-Edit the best solution to add value

In this step, people should speak for themselves and not others, while being respectful of all opinions, whether in agreement or not. The goal is to seek God’s will. Starting with a single idea, allow responses in three ways: support, reservations or a major objection. Keep adding value to the proposal. Work with one idea at a time, fleshing out ways to improve each proposal.

4-Know when you are done

Consensus is reached when there are no major objections, though there could be some reservations. It may be appropriate at times to take straw polls to see how close the group is to consensus. The goal always should be to determine God’s will for the group as whole.

“We need God in this process, and we need to ask that His will be done,” Sprinkle said, again emphasizing the extreme need for prayer in discernment. “We should pray for holy indifference – not my will but God’s – and seek His wisdom.”

Sprinkle also used a church conflict from the Bible to show that it is a normal process that occurs when people have differences of opinion. He used Acts 15: 1-40 as a reference, a chapter that questioned whether Gentile Christians should obey the Law of Moses.

In the chapter, James identified the key gospel principle of God calling people together for His name, backing it with relevant Scripture and suggesting a collaborative solution.

Sprinkle pointed out that there are disagreements and Christians sometimes separate. Even when that happens, God’s mission still can advance, even if forgiveness and reconciliation come sometime later.

“We do plan to spend eternity together, so we should do our best to practice loving one another on earth,” Sprinkle wrote in his study handout.

Sprinkle also suggested the books “Discerning God’s Will Together” by Charles Olsen and “Pursuing God’s Will Together” by Ruth Haley Barton as two resource guides to assist with the discernment process.