Whenever I read Jesus’ last recorded prayer—“that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity” (John 17:22-23) I add my “amen,” but usually with a certain poignancy. The corporate unity He prayed for has always seemed so elusive to me. How can we get our ministry teams, churches, Christian organizations, families—any group of two or three believers gathered in His name—to operate in one accord?
Yet, somehow the early church seemed to find unity, even when they had to make important decisions and handle conflicts. I’ve been thinking about that lately, asking God what we can learn from them so we, also, can fulfill Jesus’ desire and prayer.
Two examples stand out to me from Acts. In chapter 13, while the church worships and fasts together corporately, they hear the Holy Spirit say that they are to send out Paul and Barnabas as missionaries (v. 2, emphasis added). They agree with God and one another, lay hands on them and send them off. Then, two chapters later, Luke reports a huge conflict about what is to be required of the Gentile believers who have recently come to faith. After much discussion and debate, the apostles and elders with the whole church wrote a letter with their decision. In the letter they state, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) and they move forward with what they heard from God and each other.
In neither of these cases do we learn the exact process by which the believers got onto the same page with each other and God. But we do know that they had a habit of meeting together to worship, pray, and listen to one another and God. I think we can learn something from that.
In the past few months, three significantly different ministries that I’m a part of have been trying to practice listening-together-to-get-on-the-same-page. Some attempts seem more successful than others, but overall, I’m hopeful. In one group we needed to make a decision about our participation in a specific event that we each held different opinions about. In another we wanted to know God’s heart for the people we serve so that we could get onboard with Him. In the third, we wanted to hear Him about specific strategies for doing His work.
Although the exact methods differed, there were some definite commonalities in the ways the three different groups approached listening to God corporately. In each case:
1. Someone started the time by asking God a specific question out loud
2. We took time alone in silence (depending on the group, this ranged from 10 minutes to the better part of a day)
3. During the silence each of us individually jotted down our impressions of what we thought God might be saying
4. We came back together and compared notes on what we were hearing, and noted where several of us were hearing similar things.
5. Based on where we found agreement, we took that as confirmation and talked about next steps for moving ahead.
I’m still new at this, but in each of these recent experiences, I’ve been encouraged. I’m not sure it’s the actual method that matters so much as the group’s acknowledgement that apart from Him we can do nothing, that we need His Spirit in order to come together as His body, and that we’re going to take time to be quiet and listen for what He has to say—together. It seems like God honors our desire to honor Him in this way. And I get excited because I’m starting to see that maybe Jesus’ prayer for unity could actually be answered! I want that, don’t you?