A Very Different Question

by Drew Humphrey

You’ve probably been in a situation before where you’ve been asked by a friend or coworker about your church. And more likely than not, one of the questions that might have accompanied such a conversation would have been one like this: “What sorts of things are you doing in the church?”

Unless you’re brand new, that’s a fairly easy question to answer. You can recall the unspoken catalogue of events and activities that every church seems to have, and you can start listing them off:

  • We sing and hear sermons every Sunday during our gathering.
  • We teach our kids in Sunday school classes and midweek ministry.
  • We meet in small groups for accountability and deeper relationships.
  • We go to classes that challenge us and instruct us from the Bible.
  • We send and support many missionaries and global workers.
  • We have ladies’ retreats, men’s retreats, and college retreats.
  • We reach out to international students and offer hospitality.
  • We gather on the first Sunday evening of the month for important updates.
  • We help out and serve with other organizations in our community. 
  • We eat donuts and drink coffee in the lobby every Sunday.

We could keep going, but I think you get the point. It’s not difficult to rattle off an impressive collection of things that we do as a church. And let’s be honest: all of them are great things (especially the donuts!).

But I wonder if we’d be as fluent in answering a very different question: “What sorts of things is God doing in the church?”

I was recently reading a book by the missiologist Alan Roxburgh who proposed that church leaders need to engage their neighbors by asking the question: “How do we discern what God is doing ahead of us in our neighborhoods and communities and join with God there?”

This struck me as an odd question. Not because it’s a bad question. But because I have no idea how I would answer it. How, in fact, does one discern what God is doing in a neighborhood? Do you have to go out at night and hide in the bushes, looking for some mystical divine activity taking place in the streets? Do you have to crack some secret Bible code to discover the street address where God will show up next? Or do you just pray really hard until you hear a voice from heaven? I’m frankly not sure.

And yet as hard as it is to discern what God is doing in the neighborhood, it’s not much easier to discern what he’s doing in the church. It’s not like his activities are more visible just because it’s a “religious” institution. Where is he at work? What is he up to? How is he moving? I suspect he’s doing something. But what?

Although I don’t have any definitive answers, the more I think about how we discern what God is doing, the more I suspect there are a few key places we should start our search for evidence of God’s activity:

  • The places where people are hurting and suffering. Because the Lord is near to the brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18), it makes sense that his fingerprints will be all over the lives of those walking through seasons of grief.
  • The places where steps of obedience are taking place. When imperfect people strive to do acts of justice, love, and mercy, they reveal that God is at work within them to empower their own good works. (Phil 2:13).
  • The places where brokenness is being restored. If Jesus is indeed making all things new (Rev. 21:5; Isa. 43:19), then we are likely to see his handiwork wherever the curse is being rolled back and redemption is breaking through.

To be sure, there are certainly other places where we may see God on the move. But if we’re not sure what it is he’s doing, these would be a few promising places to start.

To discern what God is doing and then join him there the exact opposite of what we’re used to. We’re naturals at coming up with things for us to do, and then inviting God to join us in those activities. But allowing God to take the lead and then joining him in those activities is one way to ensure that our own work will be well spent and our lives will be well invested.