By Meredith Holladay
You won’t find a simple checklist. You won’t find a how-to booklet. You won’t find pre-fab goals. You won’t even be guaranteed that your church will add numbers to its rolls.
But you will find questions. Who is God calling us to be? What is God calling us to do?
Dawnings, an initiative of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, is a discernment process guiding churches to seek their identity and purpose in God’s calling and in God’s work.
The process offers a way to respond to the changing culture around us. Understanding that many congregations are facing great challenges, including declining memberships and aging facilities, Dawnings provides a way out of this perceived crisis. Dawnings invites churches to listen for the voice of God and to open up to God’s presence in life together as a congregational community. The invitation to join in the Dawnings process is an invitation to life together in God’s work and identity.
CBF launched Dawnings in 2012 with several churches participating in the pilot process. The process begins with a retreat that includes representatives from six to eight congregations. Each church brings a small leadership team of three to five and all participants discern together, pray together and dream together. This is not your standard leadership retreat!
Following the retreat, churches are invited to engage in the process as a congregation, focusing on the three central aspects of Dawnings: vision, formation and engagement. During the vision stage, conversations, prayers and scripture focus on the following questions: “How do we see as Jesus sees?” and “How do we see as God sees?”
Dawnings encourages participants to seek God’s movement and God’s plan in the midst of those questions. By looking at ways God has worked in the past through scripture and stories, participants imagine how God might work in the surrounding world. Churches move through this aspect with a shared vision and sense of identity as God’s people.
Formation is critical to Dawnings, recognizing that spiritual formation is a constant process and a constant seeking. With the understanding that we are all continuously being formed as disciples, Dawnings incorporates spiritual disciplines and practices to further the individual and congregational discernment process.
Finally, a focus on engagement helps churches discern ways to become missional communities and develop missional identity and work. Dawnings invites churches to engage the world locally and globally. Recognizing that spirituality is often defined by a strictly inward search or a personal experience alone, the engagement aspect, along with vision and formation, ensures a holistic perspective on how God works in our lives — as individuals and as churches.
For many churches, participating in Dawnings may be a dramatic change. Instead of offering individuals and churches step-by-step plans to guarantee an increase in membership, attendance or financial commitment, Dawnings asks congregations to participate in shared spirituality and to be together in what God is doing.
Dawnings looks different for each congregation that participates because it is intended to be contextual. At each step of the way, those who participate work to develop a contextual design — focused on the current resources and needs of the church and its community.
Providence Baptist Church in Hendersonville, N.C., was one of the first churches to participate. Julie Lee, who serves as Providence’s pastor, noted that during her first Dawnings retreat most of the time was spent developing spiritual practices and just listening and praying. From the outset, Lee knew this would be different than any other “strategic planning” process or plan that her congregation had used.
“The vision, formation and engagement aspects of Dawnings helped give needed structure to our congregation and helped give us a rhythm for our church life together,” Lee said.
In Memphis, Tenn., Second Baptist Church felt at a high point in 2012, as they celebrated the congregation’s 50th anniversary. The Memphis church began to ask what God was calling the congregation to do for the next 50 years. So, in May 2013, senior pastor Stephen Cook invited Bo Prosser, CBF’s ministries coordinator, to visit and give an introduction to Dawnings to a group of the congregation’s leaders.
A few months later, Prosser returned and led a retreat at Second Baptist as the congregation began the Dawnings process. In reflecting on the process, Cook remarked that together Second Baptist had become really good at doing, but participating in Dawnings helped them to become more intentional in developing spiritual conversations and focusing on formation as a piece of discipleship.
Kevin Ritter, pastor of Centerville Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va., echoed this reflection. One of the shifts that has happened for him comes in assessing resources.
“As part of the congregational design team’s work, we have taken an inventory of the resources that we have at the church already, and it has helped me to work from a position of abundance instead of scarcity,” Ritter explained. “God has already given us every resource that we need to do the work God is already doing and the work God is calling us to do. It has lessened my stress — I am not the one who has to create out of nothing. I am a co-partner with God leading the way in what needs to be done.”
Cook sees deep transformation happening in the lives of his congregation — from the way he preaches, to the way church leaders work together, to the way they talk about relating to the surrounding community.
“The experience of Dawnings has uncovered a deep level of honesty in our church,” said Karen Pope, a Second Baptist member. “In the process of being vulnerable before God, we seem to have found a new freedom to be honest with each other about faith.”
As the clergy participants in the process have attested, Dawnings is an added value to their pastoral ministry.
“Dawnings helped me realize the significance of gathering leaders, praying together, engaging in spiritual disciplines together, which aided a really organized process of where we, together, sense the church should go and what we needed,” Lee emphasized. “It takes a lot of pressure off me as pastor because we are working together in very intentional ways.”
“This isn’t a prescription for strategic planning,” Cook added. “Instead, it is an opportunity for deeper formation and meaningful engagement.”
For Prosser and CBF Missional Congregations Director Harry Rowland, Dawnings is an invitation to find newness in the shared life of a church.
“CBF’s Dawnings initiative is an invitation into a spiritual conversation about congregational renewal. This is about people with a deep passion for their church pulling apart for a while and really seeking the heart of God for their church,” Prosser said. “Every congregation that has participated has come away with a newness of spirit, of ministry and of fellowship!”
“There is a counter-cultural rhythm to Dawnings,” Rowland said. “Rather than relying on predicting, planning and inventing to determine how the church navigates, Dawnings invites the church into the spiritual rhythm of prayer, preparation and discovery. This rhythm places the church in rich dialogue with God and one another where the Spirit acts and the next step in the journey ‘dawns.’ The realized shift is from doing a church-shaped mission to being a mission of God-shaped church.”
Dawnings is an innovative and holistic approach to church visioning, which seeks to engage the whole person and community, while seeking God’s kingdom already at work in the midst of God’s people. To learn more, visit http://www.cbfdawnings.org.
This article first appeared in the June-July issue of fellowship! magazine. Read the entire issue online here.