Kingdom Leadership After Lakeland Part 1-Discernment and the Costly Descent into Darkness

This is the first in a series of posts related to:

  1. Making sense of the recent lapses in leadership concerning the Lakeland “outpouring.”
  2. Interpreting the implications of these failings for constructive movement forward.
  3. Profiling what healthy/sustainable leadership should look like in emerging cultures.


It has taken over three weeks to sift through what I sensed I could write about, and determine what I should write about. It will take me the next few days to complete the work and post the results. I will plan to complete the series on Monday, September 22 – a date of particular significance to me as a Lord of the Rings geek. It is the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and, in honor of their epic journeys with fellowships of friends, I take these few steps of posts on this present journey into and through the darkness, to re-emerge into the light.

In fact, this series is in response to my friend Brother Maynard, who issued an invitation in his post of August 27, 2008, Reinterpreting the Lakeland Fallout, to consider these kinds of issues. You may want to read that post and related links and comments before launching into my series. It seems to me that the “post-charismatic” bloggers carry the burden of the ring in this instance, and I am here to serve their calling with whatever contributions I can offer.

You may also want to watch for other “post-charismatic and missional bloggers” who have been addressing similar concerns suggested by Brother Maynard, on “the forms of leadership (apostolic or otherwise) which we need to see in the church today. What characterizes this form of leadership? How do we recognize leaders, and how is their authority derived and exercised?”

These present difficulties of leadership and Lakeland, which have played out in the public stage of the internet, give us an opportunity for evaluating ourselves, our understandings of leadership, and our approaches to discernment. And it is the topic of discernment with which I begin. In this post, I will attempt as best I can for the first time ever to “externalize” what I understand to be the factors and processes involved, as one who attempts to practice the spiritual discipline of discernment.


When I expect to write something that involves significant critiquing of others, I have learned that responsible preparation requires putting my own life before the mirror of those same questions and issues I am probing in others – and patching any integrity leaks I discover. All parts of this examination equation take work.

Maybe such efforts are not so difficult for others – perhaps they have a spiritual gift of discernment, which I lack – but they are draining for me. I have found that the spiritual discipline of discernment (a practice required of all disciples) requires actively engaging in at least these five important processes:

  • Fact-finding – listening, researching, probing, questioning,
  • Meta-cognition – seeking to understand why I’m thinking about what I’m thinking, while I’m thinking it. This becomes critical to moving from analysis of facts to their interpretations, and also in comparing the emerging picture of the actual situation with biblical principles about what would be ideal, in order to understand where people have fallen short, given in to excesses, etc.
  • Nonjudgmental empathy – listening to the stories of people with an ear of acceptance without naivety, and a heart of compassion without compromise.
  • Recipathy – seeking to identify my emotional reactions and responses to events, whether immediately during the experience, shortly thereafter, or anytime later it comes to mind.
  • Perseverance – following up to get sufficient details about the situations, and then staying with them long enough to let Spirit-led conclusions ripen and emerge.

If I am engaged in a process of “strategic foresight” (figuring out plausible future influences and options), whether for myself as an individual or for a team, group, church, or movement, that involves at least two additional processes to “understand the times, and know what we should do,” to paraphrase the sons of Issachar passage in 1 Chronicles 12:32:

  • Extrapolation – listening to culture and the Spirit’s moving within it for how trends, events, and movements in both the Kingdom and the world affect current function and future options.
  • Prioritization – considering what current directions and future options “best fit” the combination of my/our “redemptive purpose” (the unique characteristics of my/our situation that have strategic importance for the expansion of the Kingdom) and “the decisive moment” (the God-implanted opportunities that exist in this place, this time, this season).

If you’ve read other posts I’ve written on learning styles, and the Holistic Paradigm, and the meaning of being human. These seven processes may sound familiar. Some relate more to the mind, others to the imagination, or the emotions, the soul, the will. The overall process of discernment engages all of who we are, seeking to be Spirit-led and Word-guided so we see rightly according to biblical principles and procedures. Each of these factors and processes offers opportunities for active engagement in listening to the Holy Spirit as He highlight this or that piece of evidence that emerges from a particular stream, or helps us see how a fact or a conclusion relates to the providential big picture of a situation.

I suspect those with a spiritual gift of discernment (and I do know a few such people) have these aspects of their humanity amplified by the Holy Spirit in ways that make the overall process far more intuitive. By that, I mean it tends to occur more quickly, more deeply, more frequently. For the rest of us who practice discernment as a spiritual discipline, it requires us to be far more intentional. In both cases, we need to ensure we are humbly listening to God, striving to hear His voice through all we think-imagine-feel-reflect upon-decide.

Anytime we allow ourselves to be used of God as a “human MRI” to figure out important situations in the Kingdom, we pay a price. There are costs to the multiple, complex choices involved to engage in discernment. It requires us to sustain prolonged exposure to difficult and complex circumstances that involve real people who hurt and/or have been hurt. That has a cost attached.

It calls forth our willingness to sit with an excruciating conglomeration of facts, wishes, interpretations, denials, opinions, and other reactions. That has a cost attached.

It necessitates concentrated, Spirit-led effort to distill as best we can a holistic picture of what actually happened, and consider its significance for the Kingdom. That has a cost attached.

It challenges us to resolve any self-doubts and self-confidences about our conclusions. That has a cost attached.

It moves us toward compassionate yet challenging responses, toward both those who have been damaged and those who need correcting. That has a cost attached.

The conclusion of discernment is not a “spiritual” product; it is meant to be a spiritual process from beginning to end.

Likewise, there are costs in failure to exercise spiritual discernment. We let presumed leadings that contradict Scripture capture us. We do not develop maturity. We allow the shortcomings and excesses of others (and ourselves) to persist unchallenged. Thus, our own underdeveloped maturation process enables the perpetuation of those who perpetrate damage – such as the continued wounding of people and the public defamation of the name of Christ in the community. And if we, like watchers on the walls, fail to sound the alarm when we should know better, don’t we hold at least some responsibility for complicity in allowing the advance of darkness?

High costs indeed – the former being good investments, the latter losing stock.

Which costs would we rather pay?


In Scripture, I see there are times when the Spirit implants a specific concern among Christ’s people. He places a heightened awareness of a situation in someone’s heart, so he or she is moved and thinks, “Someone needs to do something about this!” Eventually, in effect, He taps that person on the shoulder and says, “You’re one of the someones I am calling to do something about this.” The resulting process may be relatively brief, or may take the rest of our lives.

I have experienced these sorts of callings myself. The Spirit’s leading may require me to do a one-time, short-term action. For instance, such as when I sensed I needed to call someone who had dropped out of the church scene, just to see if they were okay and needed anyone to process things with. Or, it may become a very long-term thing. I seem to have this happen a lot, such as the calling to my blog series on recovery from spiritual abuse, which will finish about a year after I began the preparations for writing. Or one resource ministry I was called to which took two years of preparation and then 10 years of writing and editing during my free time. Or the ongoing curriculum project on culture and contextualization, which is nearing the 15-year mark for research, development, and writing in dribs and drabs.

Here I am reminded of the sentiments of King David in 2 Samuel 24, which gives the account of David’s sin by taking a census when the LORD had said not to. This led to dire consequences in which 70,000 people died from plague because of David’s disobedience. God sent the prophet Gad to tell David to build an altar on a particular piece of land owned by Araunah and offer burnt sacrifices there. Araunah wanted to give David both the animals and the wood needed for his sacrifices. But David said, “No. I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 2:24, NIV).

The expressions of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12 are similar:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (NIV)

In all such matters, while the costs may seem great, obedience yields crucial payoffs for the Kingdom. Likewise, in issues of discernment, we may be challenged to pay a considerable cost by descending into darkness, but this investment is required in order to bring things into the light.

In this regard, there is a quote from author Robert Jay Lifton that I have pondered many times over the past few decades. Mr. Lifton shows great moral courage through choosing a path of investigative reporting on some of the most difficult topics of recent times: the bombing of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the Nazi medical experiments, mind control techniques in Maoist China, the Vietnam War, contemporary doomsday cults, terrorism, and war crimes. This provocative quote comes from the Foreword in The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide:

One cannot expect to emerge from a study of this kind spiritually unscathed, all the more so when one’s own self is the instrument for taking in forms of experience one would have preferred not to have known about. But the other side of the enterprise for me has been the nourishing human network, extending throughout much of the world, within which I worked. Survivors were at the heart of it, and they provided a kind of anchoring … [We are] capable of learning from carefully examined past evil. I undertook this study, and now offer it, in that spirit of hope. (Basic Books, 1986 edition, page xiii.)

I do not know Mr. Lifton’s views on Jesus, but he clearly comprehends the concept of redemptive investment. Somewhere, sometime, it really costs someone in order to provide a meaningful blessing to others – even if those so blessed remain completely unaware of those who served to their benefit. Mr. Lifton’s research work cost him personally and spiritually, calling forth sacrifice and transformation through engagement with suffering. Can we expect our efforts at discernment to involve any less?


If the personal costs of appropriate discernment are high, the potential outcomes are worth it. In fact, I wonder if hope can ever be realized without the investment of suffering …

This is, in part, why I try to reserve my limited energies for Kingdom-related issues of discernment. For instance, I find that listening to national and international news quickly takes me into “compassion fatigue,” where the only impact I typically can hope for is through prayer. There is nothing wrong with praying, and, thankfully, some people are called to absorb the heart-wrenching details of those situations and to pray. It is their gift, their calling – they experience the Spirit-empowerment to live it out. I am called to prayer as a spiritual discipline, but it is neither my gifting nor my major calling. And, if I ignore my calling to learn and discern about the Kingdom and cultures, if I try to become someone I was not designed to be, then the constant barrage of difficult events, evils, and woes in the world would siphon off all my energy for the times I am called upon to immerse myself in the taxing process of spiritual discernment.

And the situation with Lakeland has been one of the times I have been called upon to expend myself for the sake of the Kingdom. I’ve found the fallout events of the professed Lakeland outpouring to be emotionally charged for me, and I had to figure out why. (One way I know I need to focus on discernment is that I sense a drive that makes it almost impossible to do otherwise; I assume that comes from the Holy Spirit, but even in that, I have to discern whether this is so!)

In my next post, I will share what I’ve learned and discerned in the past few weeks of consideration. Although that post may appear negative, I trust that its critiques are a necessary part of the journey. Movement toward eventual hope often requires us first to step into depths of darkness …

ADDENDUM: The term discernment has been used a lot related to Lakeland, but I think we could all benefit from some more input in … well … discerning(!) a more biblical definition and practical description of various how-to’s involved. So, I’ve asked a friend with a spiritual gift of discernment to consider having a dialog with me to compare and contrast what it’s like to have discernment as a gift versus practice discernment as a discipline, as I attempt to do. If that happens, I’ll see if I can invite at least one other person with this gift and one who practices the discipline, have a roundtable discussion about it, and then post the transcript.

Series Links ~ Kingdom Leadership After Lakeland

  1. Part 1: Discernment and the Costly Descent into Darkness
  2. Part 2: Considering Various Sources …
  3. Part 3: Seven Critical Lapses in Leadership and an Appeal to Own Our Responsibilities
  4. Part 3 – Addendum #1: Notes, Quotes, and Questions on Reconstructing Authority
  5. Part 3 – Addendum #2: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-Six Trends Toward Systems Solutions
  6. Part 3 – Addendum #3: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-When Churches are Like Leaky Ships, How Do We Fix the Boat?
  7. Part 3 – Addendum #4: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-How Do We Fix a Leaky Boat, and Who Can Best Lead in Doing So?

6 thoughts on “Kingdom Leadership After Lakeland Part 1-Discernment and the Costly Descent into Darkness

  1. Really helpful stuff Brad. Thanks.

    I have been chewing on this leadership thing for a while. The ’emerging church’ in my context meant small groups of people accreting and setting off into new stuff with no clear leadership structure, and no clear direction- we just knew that we no longer wanted to be part of what we had come from…

    And many of us bore the scars of past hierarchical structures of leadership, and wanted something that no used power and control to forward a narrow agenda, but rather to facilitate and enable- to set people free, not bind them close.

    And the stuff that happens in places like Lakeland- it confirms these simplistic judgments about strong leadership gone bad.

    But the reality is that we need leadership in our new forms of church more than ever. But not THAT kind (the powerful, dominant, male oppressive kind…)

    The issue is- what does it look like?

    And for those of us who find themselves providing it- how do we avoid the pitfalls of other movements-gone-solid, as ours too surely will.

    I will read the rest of your thoughts with interest (and hopefully a little discernment!)



  2. Hi Chris, and thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    As it turns out, looks like a friend with the spiritual gift of discernment and I will be able to put together a “summit” to discuss the gift versus the discipline. I’m hoping that at least two more friends will join us to give an even broader perspective. I think discernment is critical both to deconstructing and reconstructing, so that discussion ought to be most interesting.

    Do you have any suggestions for questions on discernment you’d like to have addressed?

    Meanwhile, it’s clear you’ve been considering your situation, noting gaps and excesses, asking questions, so there is, shall we say, more than a little discernment going on already!

    And yeah, thinking that anti-leadership or non-leadership is the answer, well … what comes to mind is “Lord of the Flies” instead of “Flying with the Lord.” Been there, done that, or should I clarify: WE done been there, WE done did that. I’ve been involved in church planting and new ministry development for almost 15 years, and been in the middle of all kinds of situations, trying to figure out The Leadership Question. It’s so easy to get bounced from one extreme to the opposite. Some form of “leadership” inevitably surfaces. How do we try to ensure it facilitates spiritual freedom and growth instead of decimates it?

    I’m working right now on Part 4 of this series, and hopefully that will lead to some helpful discussion on WHY the established kinds of abstract, “visionary leadership” approaches don’t work in a cultural edge of concrete, facilitated participation. Also, on WHO acceptable leaders are to us as paradoxical/holistic paradigm people – yet still within biblical bounds.

    Also been taking notes on Part 5 on what we can learn from the meltdowns in various movements within the post-Christendom world. Because these branches of Christianity are approaching the goal of Christlikeness from different theological/cultural angles, if we can discern and learn from the weaknesses in each, maybe that will give us a circle of fenceposts to hedge us in.

    It’s all kind of like the “Marin Headlands,” near where I live. These are a set of high hills directly across the bay from San Francisco, right by the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a great sightseeing vantage point, so it gets a lot of foot traffic. There is a fence installed NEAR the edge, NOT RIGHT AT the edge. The fence keeps people from going just that one extra step too far which would put them right onto the steep slope that quickly turns into an almost irreversible slide off a cliff. How do we figure out where that one step too far is, and back up our spiritual community’s fences so we can experience the wonders and avoid the traumas?

    Anyway, like my friend Peggy Brown (yo! shout out to The Virtual Abbess!) has helped me see, we cannot deconstruct forever. At some point we’ve got to reconstruct … and that takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it. It’s about protection and boundaries that give us room to roam, not restrictions. Hope this series of posts will spark helpful dialogue in your context, Chris. And thanks again for dropping in …


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  4. HI Brad

    Questions about discernment….

    I realised that I do not know very much about it!

    I think for most of us, it is one of those super-spiritual terms that becomes a power-word in the wrong hands. How does someone know that they have ‘the spiritual gift of discernment’ (sorry- not meaning to have a go at your friend, it’s just that I have heard others claim such a thing, and I have not been able to concur- perhaps this is because I do NOT have this particular gift!)

    Does this mean that you are always right- or just higher-percentage? Does it require the application of this as as a discipline, or does it fall like mind-manna from heaven?

    And does this mean that the rest of us have to defer to these folk?

    I have been around Charismatic stuff for many years- as a worship leader in the UK, with forays into Europe and the US. I am afraid that ‘spiritual discernment’ is often an excuse to switch off common sense. That is not to say that everything should be rational and predictable in a worldly sort of way- but neither should it be just plain mad!

    On the other hand- to spend time with someone who has humility, deep compassion and a heart for broken people, and looks and hopes for the good in everyone, whilst listening to the gentle promptings of the Spirit- this is a blessing that has the whiff of heaven.

    The big scale wham bam stuff of the Florida Outpouring was about showmanship, and a desperation on the part of the Charismatic world for another revival that could be boxed up and posted off around the world. Mix in the power of TV, and discernment easily becomes wish fulfillment I reckon.

    I wish you well as you plough on with what seems to me to be a real tour de force of research! Yours is the most organised and detailed blogging I have ever come across!

    And I very much agree with your point about constructing now- not just knocking down.



  5. Hi again Chris, and thanks for your great questions and comments. I’ll hope to deal more in-depth with these later, as I’m just taking a quick break from my pay-the-rent work (which happens to be writing about processes and procedures and evaluation tools to help groups of disciples develop “ministry mobilization systems” to help people find their best niches in ministry, and work toward sustainability). (Which probably helps explain the organization on this blog – in the aftermath of my analyzing ministry processes and procedures and step-by-step stuff for, oh, the last 10 years or so!) (And thanks for the compliment about the organization of my blog – if I cannot always tone down some of the density and intensity, at least I can try to pump up the accessibility.)

    Anyway, one intriguing thought to chew on related to the “gift” of discernment. Two people whom I believe demonstrate this gift actually do a lot of mentoring and counseling. They seem to have what you described as highly in-tune listening to people and to the Holy Spirit and Scripture and to their own thoughts/responses simultaneously. Sort of like Double Portion Spiritual Stereo sound, eh? (“Ecclesiastical Quadrophonic” seems a boring term by comparison …) One of these two is more from a mildly charismatic background, the other more from a baptist background. I would say both are clearly Spirit-led, Word-oriented, and submitted to the Lordship of Christ. So discernment as a gift isn’t exactly about theological perspective …

    I think both of them would agree that when they experience a “manna-mind-drop from heaven,” as in “A Discernment” about a specific person’s state of being or what may be disturbing that person, nearly always, their response is supposed to be “Say nothing. Pray lots. Store for future reference.” For these two gifted individuals, it seems that they are rarely called to say something to the person directly, or to say anything publicly. It’d be interesting to hear directly from them the kinds of things they are directed to say on those rare other occasions. (These are the two people I’m hoping both will agree to do a panel discussion on the gift and discipline of discernment, so perhaps we’ll find out!)

    And, as to what typically goes on in platform meetings, revivals, etc., I’m not sure what kinds of things those are that pass as discernment. Maybe it’s right-on discernment, maybe it’s something else like legitimate words of wisdom or knowledge, may wishful thinking. I just don’t know … but perhaps we can all help each other learn and discern, for the ultimate health of the Body.

    My sense of when we shut off our minds, the vacuum often fills with vain imaginations …

    Well, back to work. Thanks again, Chris. If I come up with anything else soon, I’ll post it in a comment, otherwise just add it to the mix as I continue working on this series. Meanwhile, glad you have persevered through to this point. The sacrifice of your processing of experiences will not return void.

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