Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Collaborating in the Mystery

Written by: on February 15, 2019


Christians all over the world pray to God. At my church we have at least five different prayer ministries. Seeking God is a normative part of the Christian experience. But what about hearing a response from God? T.M. Luhrmann asks about the Divine response to humans in her multi-year anthropological study of the Vineyard Church in When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann’s text could be a modern counter study to Erdozain’s The Soul of Doubt, as it focuses on the factors causing belief for the believer in the midst of a doubting world.

Luhrmann writes as one who has experienced believers of many different faiths and degrees alongside nonbelievers throughout her life. As a psychological anthropologist she intends to explain to those nonbelievers “how people come to experience God as real.”[1] Luhrmann’s book is an academic work, not aiming to convert nonbelievers but rather to display the reasonableness of those who choose the Christian faith, particularly those who claim to hear from God.

I appreciated Luhrmann’s work as I live in a post-Christian part of the US that has been challenging at times. This is true not simply because it is lonely and people look at you funny when mentioning going to church, but because the gap between belief and unbelief seems wide enough that comprehension of the other side seems impossible. To hear Luhrmann speak from the inside of faith is almost like a missionary in reverse. Missionaries move into a location, learn the language and culture and adapt themselves while sharing their beliefs in culturally appropriate ways. Luhrmann has gone into the church as a student of the language and culture, and while not fully sharing in those beliefs, is able to communicate to outsiders, as well as insiders, what is happening in a technical way that can be scientifically understood.

In particular, I never conceived of Christianity in the psychological way that Luhrmann notes around belief: “to become a committed Christian one must learn to override three basic features of human psychology: that minds are private, that persons are visible, and that love is conditional and contingent upon right behavior.”[2] She recognizes the real practice and skills required to know God in intimate ways and hear from the Divine that are completely foreign to those who do not practice Christian faith.

One aspect of Luhrmann’s work that seems a bit sterile is the reality of mystery in faith. While Christians do hope to be very certain in belief, and perhaps those Vineyard groups were, there is also a real tension in holding mystery as well. A theology that does not allow God to be beyond human comprehension, is a small faith and one that ceases to be transcendent of oneself. Luhrmann acknowledges at the end of the end of the book that “what is, is cloaked in mystery.”[3] Mysteries such as the trinity and the eucharist are ways believers recognize God as both transcendent and immanent. These mysteries are foundational practices for many Christians, providing means for connection to God, while not extending beyond the truth of the Scripture.   

Another aspect of the research on evangelicals that was glaring is the consumer nature of both believers and doubters. As much as Christianity has personal reception, the idea of loving one’s neighbor seems less important than gaining the red corvette or even being able to hear from God. The overarching reality of Scripture seems to focus much more on staying in alignment with the command to love God with all of oneself and loving neighbor before hearing God on specific requests. While the Bible clearly invites humans to ask, seek and knock, abiding in the character and practice of God is more expected than audible voices. This is not to say that Christians ought not to hear from God. Unfortinately, the emphasis on personal knowing and getting seem to undermine caring for God and others much of the time. As Taylor admits in A Secular Age, this is at least in part why the world does not understand the belief of believers. The historical and supernatural figure in Christ is less emulated and more used as a token for feel good religion than obedience and service in the world.

As Dallas Willard wrote in his excellent text, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, “it is very important to remember and to always keep before your mind this fact: You are an unceasing spiritual being, created for an intimate and transforming friendship with the creative Community that is the Trinity. Learning to hear God is much more about becoming comfortable in a continuing conversation, and learning to constantly lean on the goodness and love of God, than it is about turning God into an ATM for advice, or treating the Bible as a crystal ball.”[4] Seeking God for our own well-being or future is not seeking for God or abiding in Him as co-laborers. The fruit of an ongoing relationship with God is to see the kingdom of God flourish. This includes healing and salvation, and maybe a car. But maybe not.

Reading When God Talks Back in the wake of being at a gathering of pastors, priests, nuns and university faculty and staff this week, primarily from Catholic and mainline denominations, I see the need of the church to come together to glean from one another. The Pentecostals have beautiful ways in which they hear God while the Catholic church and mainline groups hold the embodiment of Christ in mystical ways that are needed for evangelicals. The collaboration around the consumption of Christ could be a much richer form for nonbelievers to accept than they are currently receiving. That is, if they are willing to jump through the psychological hoops that may cause one to go mad if not grounded in the practices of spirituality.

[1] Luhrmann, T.M.. When God Talks Back . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, Location 131.

[2] Luhrmann, location 266.

[3] Luhrmann, 325.

[4] Willard, Dallas (2012-05-23T23:58:59). Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God . InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

About the Author

Trisha Welstad

Trisha is passionate about investing in leaders to see them become all God has created them to be. As an ordained Free Methodist elder, Trisha has served with churches in LA and Oregon, leading as a pastor of youth and spiritual formation, a church planter, and as a co-pastor of a church restart. Trisha currently serves as leadership development pastor at Northside Community Church in Newberg, OR. Over the last five years Trisha has directed the Leadership Center, partnering with George Fox and the Free Methodist and Wesleyan Holiness churches. The Leadership Center is a network facilitating the development of new and current Wesleyan leaders, churches and disciples through internships, equipping, mentoring and scholarship. In collaboration with the Leadership Center, Trisha serves as the director of the Institute for Pastoral Thriving at Portland Seminary and with Theologia: George Fox Summer Theology Institute. She is also adjunct faculty at George Fox University. Trisha enjoys throwing parties, growing food, listening to the latest musical creations by Troy Welstad and laughing with her two children.

8 responses to “Collaborating in the Mystery”

  1. Good post, Trisha!

    Did you find Luhrmann’s perspective generalized since it only focused on Pentecostal Evangelicalism?

    You mention, “Luhrmann’s book is an academic work, not aiming to convert nonbelievers but rather to display the reasonableness of those who choose the Christian faith, particularly those who claim to hear from God.” The author definitely conveys an academic dissection of the way some Evangelicals express their dialogue with God; however, I found her preference towards charismatic leanings color her definition of reasonable faith. She delves into the many stories of experiential events, healing-focused ministries, and communal emotional therapy; however, she persists to explain the voice of God as a mind trick that Christians can somehow attain. I don’t see God’s voice as personal deception, but personal communion. She expressed one variant of preference that many people use to communicate with God; i.e. romanticism, experientialism, and mindfulness, but she never touched on denominations that are much more stoic in their expression and personality. Did you find Luhrmann’s generalization paint Christianity as one-dimensional in function and presentation? How was this book damaging to unbelievers?

  2. Trisha,

    You bring up an excellent point regarding mystery. Its presence is a critical part of Christian faith. I found it fascinating that by the end of the book the author recognizes that it is at the core of faith, even though it is unexplainable.

  3. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks, Trisha,
    Yes, there was a big focus on the mind in her writing. It is an interesting angle to think about, but for her, it seems to have become the overarching lynchpin to understanding “all evangelicals”. Your mention of mystery is right– this is hard to put into a sterile research report, and yet it is a key component to a mature faith. Holding the mystery and not finally having to unravel it all. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for citing Willard! I was going to cite CS Lewis, but I never got ot a place where I could insert quotes. Lewis says something like “you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” Great thinkers have wrestled with these issues, Luhrmann has not said anything “shocking.” And yes–mystery! Its actually one of the things I love about God. God is Other.

    Great post!

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