Church is difficult for many of us in these divided times. Lisa Liou has been in the thick of it, serving on the search committee of her church. She shared her experience of how God gave her hope through prayer and the wisdom of community at a recent staff conference of InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministry staff. We are so grateful that she was willing to share a version of that story, which we hope will nurture hope for others in difficult church situations.
These days when we gather for reunions, it’s common to rehearse how hard the last two years have been. The ongoing global pandemic, racial protests, and a contentious election, have accompanied serious relational breakdowns that impact our families and places of worship. My community in Pasadena, California is no different. And, yet, during this same period, I have experienced something unique and powerful.
In 2019, I was one of fifteen people selected to serve on our church’s Senior Pastor Search Committee. Though I would have appreciated more representation from some demographics, the committee was diverse in age, race, and viewpoint. Even then, it was a contentious time for our country and church. We already had our work cut out for us to present one candidate to a divided congregation when in March 2020, we switched to weekly Zoom meetings. This slowed us down and disrupted trust building for the next 18 months.
Yet, miraculously, amid all this, in early 2022, the committee came to a unanimous decision to put forward a Senior Pastor candidate who was eventually confirmed by over 90% of our congregation. Thanks be to God.
It was an arduous process to work with a large group of very different people on this task. The experience could easily become a book or docuseries, but for now I am going to reduce the experience to two salient personal lessons: prayer and wisdom.
Prayer was a simple thing we initiated to guide us as a diverse group, but it became a key component of how God worked. We followed Pursuing God’s Will Together, by Ruth Haley Barton, from which we adapted a weekly routine of five prayers:
- Humility and transformation
- Indifference to anything other than the will of God
- Protection and quiet trust in God
- Unity and trust with one another
I witnessed how prayer can be like diet and exercise. Transformation takes time, but it happens with consistency. The reshaping was taking place like a before-and-after picture, even if things looked much the same one day after the other. I am changed because of the prayer experiences I had on and around this committee, where each of these five prayers were answered in time. Twenty years into vocational ministry, the answered prayers in the last quarter of this committee were unparalleled. In a time when I felt despair about many things in our society and our church, this was a renewing experience. It renewed my hope, my joy, and my spirit. I have not stopped praying for God’s ongoing and wider renewal at our church.
Wisdom in Community
In addition to learning about prayer in powerful new ways, the committee reflected to me what it means to seek wisdom in community. I remember the weeks that I would be assigned to pray for wisdom. Does this prayer sound like I’m waiting for some special knowledge or miraculous download into our brains? Is this just about doing what is just and true and obvious? I did not really know how it would all work out, even though I’ve been told by some that I have the gift of wisdom. Expecting wisdom to be present in a decision from a sizable group felt different.
The profound takeaway for me is that wisdom comes through community—a diverse community of believers. If you surround yourself with people who are like you, they may be very wise, but you are less likely to really demonstrate God’s wisdom in the world. His wisdom is more than just a viewpoint, it’s characterized by the embodiment of Christ and his aroma in the world. It’s no wonder homogeneous groups of any kind cannot express his infinite wisdom as beautifully as diverse groups can. But it is a hard-won battle against the flesh to truly submit to the process of seeing how Christ’s wisdom manifests in a diverse group.
When you work with a team of people shaped by affections and appreciations very different than yours (apart from Christ), with whom you must seek out an outcome, wisdom is the mysterious weaving together of each person’s experiences and perspectives into an outcome that everyone can accept and appreciate through the work of the Holy Spirit. Like the scripture says in Acts 15:28, “It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit…”. I scarcely have words to describe it, but it is beautiful to watch because there is a sense that it could not come from any one person or any one subset of people, it comes from Christ in all of us.
Before I close, I would be remiss not to mention that there are segments of our church who are not happy. This is not a utopia. We are still struggling through an unfolding process that calls for reconciliation and restoration on a wider level. But this experience has given me confidence that consistent corporate prayer and seeking wisdom in a diverse community of believers (even those you might initially consider adversaries) are two important ingredients to weathering the current divisions in the Church. Whatever your church may be going through, I commend to you these: consistent prayer over and above so-called “strategic responses” and diverse community invited to give meaningful input rather than sectioning off camps to decide for everyone else. Neither of these are easy paths. They are time-consuming. But, in my recent experience, they can also be transformative and the outcome profoundly hopeful.
About the author:
Lisa Haller Liou is the Regional Ministry Director for InterVarsity's Graduate and Faculty Ministry's Western Region. She holds an MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. She and her husband Jeff and two children live in Monrovia, California.