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

I Admit it. God Speaks to Me!

Written by: on February 15, 2018




It’s always been a natural thing for me to pray. I’ve done it my whole life or for at least as long as I can remember. There is a sense that God listens and responds when I pray. I listen for what I consider to be the voice of God guiding me and helping me through life, not just in trying times but at all times. Because of that, I would say, “Yes, God speaks to me.” However, I can say that I have never heard an audible voice. There is a knowing, a tacit knowledge that God is speaking and guiding.  I can understand that from a perspective of someone who either does not believe in God or who have no experience praying that  it might sound somewhat strange to say that “God talks to me.”

In this way, Luhrmann’s great question joins the song of Tylor who asked the question, at what point did humankind no longer look to a higher authority for the answers to life?  [1] Luhrmann’s part in the chorus is the question, what about those who still do? What about those who not only believe in God but talk to God and God talks to them? If God is speaking all the time, why can’t I hear him? More specifically, how it is that American evangelicals, in particular, can talk to God and He talks to them. [2]

At this point, I would say that I think it is appropriate that Luhrmann has significantly narrowed her base of research to focus on the Amercian Evangelical church. As vast and as varied the Amercian expression of Evangelicalism is and even though Evangelicalism is a global movement [3] Amercian evangelicalism is not necessarily an expression of evangelicalism around the world. Although the increase of American churches starting satellite churches in other parts of the world may influence that. Regrettably, these satellite churches are more times than not, short on missiological practices and principles as they tend to mirror images of the American church not only in theology and structure but in worldview and political leanings. This is made possible by the fact that in many instances the pastor’s weekly sermon is videoed and shown the following Sunday in the satellite church—with translation. In these cases more is transmitted than the message for the day. The culture, political dispositions, and Americanisms are often transferred as well. But I digress!

To find the answers to these and many other questions, Luhrmann embedded herself in a Christian community in both Chicago and California. Her research has drawn a lot of attention. It has been covered by all of the major news outlets, NPR and combined hundreds of articles and reviews. As is usually the case, some reviews are positive and some not so positive. I am one who found her research both respectful and encouraging. All too often researchers try to tear down belief or otherwise call attention the “uneducated” people who are “duped” into worshiping God. However, Luhrmann approaches the research—although not a believer herself but with some background of Christianity—with an open mind and heart. I don’t sense that her purpose was to tear down but to better understand, and in her understanding be better able to “explain to non-believers how people come to experience God as real.” [3]

According to Luhrmann, the results of her research indicate that the practice of prayer is developmental training that opens one up to sense the presence of God. “The more people practice, the more likely they are to say that they had one or two of these experiences, the more likely they are to say the experience is powerful.” She states: “I will argue that people learn specific ways of attending to their minds and their emotions to find evidence of God, and that both what they attend to and how they attend changes the experience of their minds, and that as a result, they begin to experience a real, external, interacting living presence.” [4] In short, hearing from God is a learned behavior. The more it is practiced, the more acute the believer becomes at sensing that what they may be feeling is God speaking to them. Luhrmann is not saying that God exists. That is not the purpose or within the boundaries of social science research. [5] She is, however, saying that something happens and that something is interpreted by the praying as the voice of God.

What am I to do with this information? Am I duping myself into believing that I hear from God? Is my faith only “imagined” based on a community of people who believe as I do? Are we really and truly all alone in the universe spinning out of control? One of the most moving parts of the book,—if one can say that “research” is moving—is Luhrmann’s closing thoughts. I would add, they are difficult to argue.

“I have said that I do not presume to know ultimate reality. But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way I have come to know God. I do not know what to make of this knowing… In the end, this is the story of the uncertainty of our senses, and the complexity of our minds and world. There is so little we know, so much we take on trust. In a way more fundamental than we dare to appreciate, we each must make our own judgments about what is truly real, and there are no guarantees, for what is, is always cloaked in mystery.” [7] These words are reminiscent of the Apostle Paul—“for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

Does God speak to me? Yes.


  1. Charles Taylor. A Secular Age. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007.
  2. T. M. Luhrmann. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. Reprint ed. New York, NY: Vintage, 2012.
  3. Donald M. Lewis and Richard V. Pierard. Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History & Culture in Regional Perspective. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2014.
  4. Luhrmann, xv.
  5. Ibid., xxi.
  6. Ibid., v.
  7. Ibid., 325.

About the Author

Jim Sabella

14 responses to “I Admit it. God Speaks to Me!”

  1. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Yes Jim, great point: “hearing from God is a learned behavior.” There have been times I have heard God’s voice very clearly in my head, interrupting my thoughts or usually waking me up in the early hours of a day. When I hear it, I find myself saying, “Oh there you are. That’s what your voice sounds like.” It is easy to miss His voice in the noise of every day. I liked the monks’ suggestion to pray 20′ 2x a day. I look forward to practicing this ritual. I’m glad to hear you hear Him too.
    Thank you for your authentic post.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks Jenn. I too found it interesting that Luhrmann considers hearing God’s voice a learned behavior. Even though she may approach the term “learned” from inside a sociological framework, I think that is something we can all agree on, and it’s even practiced in the church. Appreciate your thoughts, Jenn.

  2. Lynda Gittens says:

    The more people practice, the more likely they are to say that they had one or two of these experiences, the more likely they are to say the experience is powerful.”

    Yes Jim, when you are a new believer one has to learn his voice. What I love are the various ways he communicates based on our ability to understand.

  3. Mary says:

    “I don’t sense that her purpose was to tear down but to better understand, ”
    I agree, Jim, and that’s why I appreciate this book so much. It is an HONEST evaluation of faith practice and not cynical or debasing.
    Would that we try to better understand others also.
    And I pray that God will reward Tanya Luhrmann with real faith and let her hear His voice in some way!

  4. Stu Cocanougher says:

    You mentioned that Luhrmann focused her research on the American Evangelical church. Yet, we know that the churches she studied were Vineyard churches.

    I wonder how her research would have been different if she had studied several churches for a variety of evangelical backgrounds?

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Good point Stu! Her research is one slice of the evangelical world, but not an uncommon slice. I relate to some of what she experienced and some not at all. My church roots are in an Italian Pentecostal movement that began in Chicago circa 1920 and spread east from there. My journey with the AoG began after college. I’ve not has the Vineyard experience, though in 1977 my family and I went to California and attended a service at Calvary Chapel. I remember what a wonderful experience it was. So many different expressions of evangelicalism.

  5. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Great reflections and questions Jim! I appreciated how she recognized early on that they didn’t just learn about God but they experienced Him! Prayer is something we participate in as a means to talk with God. It is a practice that czn be done in both corporate settings or in private ones. Jim I would also affirm with you that He talks to me! ?

  6. Katy Drage Lines says:

    Jim, I whole-heartedly echo your “digression.” I, too, have seen American-style reproductions in my travels and mourn because I believe the local context has something even richer to offer their neighbors– “what is the good news for US in THIS place?” rather than transplanted American theology (especially bad theology, which we see all too often).

    Likewise, I, too, felt like Luhrmann’s closing thoughts, where she stepped out of the academic observer’s role (important though it is) and into being a relational human, afforded the best hope of the book. I’ll finish your quote because I love the poetic imagery: “On the edge of night, when you can hear the surf crash against the distant shore, and see a white horse upon a silver hill, you reach to touch it, and it is gone.” Someone, she experienced the transcendent and recognized the mystery and joy of it.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thank you, Katy. There is this idea that if something works one place it will work everywhere. I’m not exactly sure where that came from but I can tell you from experience it’s not true. Of course, the gospel message is the same everywhere, but a contextual presentation and living out of the Gospel must be unique not just within various cultures, but even from city to city in the USA. The packaging and transporting of the “church experience” is becoming more and more common. Sometimes it works, but there both must be boots on the ground and a contextualized presentation of the Gospel. Following that, a living out of that message within the culture. Eventually, the boots have to leave and what they leave must be sustainable. But you already know that… you have a lot of experience on both sides of the ocean.

      And, thanks for finishing the quote. What a beautiful image—I would almost say that God is speaking through her to a world of people who do not believe. But I won’t! 🙂

  7. Kristin Hamilton says:

    I found Luhrmann’s work to be very respectful and even-handed as well, Jim. I love her statement, “I do not know what to make of this knowing…” What a beautifully humble approach.
    Thank you for your “digression” about how foreign satellites end up mimicking American evangelicalism. I noticed this is parts of Brazil, but didn’t have the words to describe it, certainly not as well as you did!
    By the way, I sincerely doubt that there is a person who knows you and has heard your heart who wouldn’t believe God speaks to you, and you listen.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Kristin, If only there were more scholars, both Christian and secular who took on Luhrmann’s, as you say, “beautifully humble approach.”

      Thank you, Kristin, for your kind words.

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