Discernment is the capacity to recognize the presence and activity of God. Paul says that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can discern what the will of God is, that which is good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom 12:2). Corporate discernment, then, is responding to the activity of God as a leadership group and to make decisions in response to that Presence.
The heart of the discernment process is listening—to God, to each other, and to what's going on in the depths of our own souls.
When the New Testament believers clarified their question for discernment in Acts 15—do Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to be saved?—they couldn't rely on knee-jerk reaction ("Of course they need to be circumcised! That's what has always been required!") or their ability to think strategically ("Well, if we make membership requirements less strenuous, maybe more people will join the church!"). No, they wanted to understand what God was up to.
So they listened: to the conversion experience of the Gentiles themselves; to respected believers witnessing these conversions; to the experts in Mosaic law; to Peter's perspective; to Paul and Barnabas's descriptions of signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles. The whole assembly listened to all of this in silence (a sign of respect).
In response to all he had heard, James expounded on Scripture, making the connection between the current phenomenon and the words of the Old Testament prophets. He connected the dots between Peter's testimony and the words of Amos, who described the trajectory of God's long-term plan: "And I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called" (Acts 15:17).
What James did was brilliant. He placed their situation within the larger story of God's purposes in the world. Then he dared to state what he felt God was saying in it all: that Gentiles did not need to become Jews (symbolized by the ritual of ...