“In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”      – Judges 21:25

Editorial comments like this are peppered throughout the book of Judges.  Its editor wanted to make sure we didn’t miss his main point: during the period of the judges, there wasn’t any real unity among the Israelites. Any cohesion the people had under Moses’ and Joshua’s leadership had devolved into tribalism.  Every tribe did their own thing and went their own way.  Things were a mess.

Of course, if you weren’t familiar with the Old Testament, you might have thought I was talking about the current experience of the American church. 

Americans have been at each other’s throats for quite a while now.  Tribalism has become our new national norm.  Politics as “the art of the possible” has become politics as “the art of digging in your heels and playing political ‘chicken.’”  It is the time of the judges.  Everyone does what’s right in their own eyes.

Within the church, most of us have only known a continuing pattern of decline. Our membership numbers have fallen, and our congregations are aging in place.  Fewer Americans (especially younger one) care about what we Christians believe or the issues we think important.  The “nones” and “dones” dominate our religious publications’ headlines.

We don’t know how to explain this decline, much less how to change its trajectory.  We try things that turned trajectories of decline around in the past, but they don’t have the same impact as they once did.  We want someone to come along and sell us a magic elixir to fix it all.  But, over time, we begin to doubt such an elixir even exists.  It is the time of the judges.  Everyone does what’s right in their own eyes.

If you leaf on through the Bible to the end of the story of the judges in 1 Samuel, you’ll learn of the one thing the Israelites could have done to make the story turn out differently but failed to do.  It is the one thing we often fail to do, as well.

As the last judge Samuel aged, he tried to pass the office along to his sons.  But they proved themselves unworthy. Like too many of our contemporary leaders, they fell prey to the temptation to use their office for self-enrichment.

Finally the people had had enough.  All the tribal elders came to Samuel and demanded a king to lead them. When a reluctant Samuel took their request to God, he got a surprising answer.  “Give them what they want,” God replied.  “It’s not your leadership they’re rejecting, after all; they’re rejecting me as their king.”

The people failed to turn to God.  Instead of discerning where God was leading them, they turned from one human leader to another, expecting them to be able to show the way on the basis of their own insights.

We are tempted to do the same.  When we look toward the future, we turn in every direction except toward God.  We read every new book, try out every new approach for mission outreach, and mimic the programs of that “successful” church nearby.  But we fail to pray.  We fail to turn to God and ask the only truly needful question, “What is your will for us?”

There was a moment when my then co-pastor and I realized a lot of our congregation’s ministry felt broken.  Our programs were running dry.  And – quite frankly – we didn’t know what to do.  So, along with the rest of the staff, we began to pray.  

We didn’t even know what to pray for, except to say, “God, we don’t know the way forward.  We aren’t sure what to do.  All we know is that we need you to give us the grace to open our hearts to listen for your voice.  Visit our dreams.  Send your Spirit to nudge us.  Give us just enough light to see where to take the next step and encourage us to keep praying.”

I don’t mean to tell you that everything magically turned around in that congregation.  But emptying ourselves of our own priorities and opening ourselves to listen for nothing more, nothing less, nothing else than the will of God opened a new chapter in its life.  

I still pray for nudges of the Spirit, for intuition and dreams. I still ask for just enough light to see where to put my foot next rather than demanding to know where the journey ends.

This is, in large part, why I’m so thankful to work with the Center for Healthy Churches.  Its consultants and coaches know that if we don’t root our work with churches in prayer, any plans we develop with them will likely fail.

If you want to ground your dreams for your church’s future by discerning God’s will for you, give one of us a call.  We’d love to join you in prayer.

Jim Kitchens
A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-West.