Discerning Church Learning to discern the movement of God's Spirit

Stepping Into the New

Discerning has become a key issue for me in ministry. I find myself constantly using the word in conversations, leader meetings and even interactions with other churches. I feel like those around me are thinking, “Here he goes again talking about discernment.” I often try to avoid the word because I don’t want to overuse it. But I can’t get away from it. A central aspect to the issue of discerning is change. God often calls us into new ventures, new ways of operating, new seasons of life. We must discern this calling and respond appropriately. As I was reading through the lectionary passages for this week, I stumbled across an unfamiliar story in the book of Joshua.

In Joshua 5, God’s people are coming to the close of a season. They have been wandering around in the desert for forty years as a result of faithless leaders. But in this chapter, God is paving the way for His people to be permanently established in the land. We read in verse 1,

(Joshua 5:1 NIV) Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the Lord had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites.

Finally, they were going to be able to pack up the tents and build houses. They were going to have a place to call home. But this transition would require faith. In verse 2, God gives Joshua instructions.

(Joshua 5:2 NIV) At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.”

I don’t know about you, but this seems pretty scary. In the next few verses, we are told as to why God wants Joshua to do this. When the people of God were in Egypt, the males were circumcised according to the Law on their eighth day. But in the wilderness, this practice had ceased. You have to wonder how the men responded to Joshua’s instructions. It is one thing for an eight day old baby to be circumcised; it is quite another for a grown man. Yet we read of faithful obedience in verse 8.

(Joshua 5:8 NIV) And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed.

The people then celebrate the Passover in the land. They are reminded of the story, the history. They remember all that God had done for them and are encouraged that God will continue to be faithful in the future.

(Joshua 5:10-11 NIV) On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain.

Look closely at the text. Do you see it? There is a significant change. They are now eating the produce of the land. And notice the next verse.

(Joshua 5:12 NIV) The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan.

We might just breeze past this. You could easily assume that since they are in the land, they no longer need manna. No big deal, right?

Having served in ministry for over 20 years, I have to wonder if it was that easy. Certainly, this is a different group of people than the previous generation. They were willing to be circumcised as grown men. They are faithful in making the transition to the land of Promise. But they are still human. Did they complain about the different way of functioning? Having food show up must have been easier than cultivating the land. I wonder if there were not a few comments about the “new way of doing things,” as they learned about living in this new era.

I am not suggesting mass revolt against the changes. In the end, this group willingly transitions and enjoys the benefit of living in a permanent place. But we must remember that new seasons require new ways of living. This generation could have been like their parents. They could have rebelled. They could have replied, “We will not be circumcised…That is old school…”. They could have pushed back against the new way of eating, complaining to Joshua about the discontinued manna. Yet, they seem to step into this new era with faith and trust that God would lead them every step of the way. If we keep going in the story, we walk with God’s people through the fall of Jericho and the establishment of land. How exciting!

We are on the brink of a new cultural era. Eddie Gibbs, in his book ChurchNext: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry describes our context,

These storm fronts do not simply represent a short-term threat churches must survive in order to return to the familiar and more tranquil conditions that they have previously known. Rather, these storm fronts represent boundary lines that separate two very different worlds. (page 11)

May we, like the group in Joshua 5, be willing to make the necessary changes in order to step into the new world that God is leading us toward. May we be willing to let go of old systems in order to embrace the new. We cannot do this without discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit in our churches. May learn to live and function as discerning churches, eager to embrace all that God has planned for us.