Learning to Pray the New Testament Way

In his John 17 prayer, Jesus says something to his Father that has long puzzled me: “I pray for them [my disciples]. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours” (Jn. 17:9). What has baffled me? Those seven words in the middle: “I am not praying for the world.”

Earth Why.jpg

Some insight into this statement—and how it relates to shared church—has come in the past few weeks. To prepare for an adult Sunday School class on prayer, I searched the New Testament for what we might call “asking” (often called “petitionary”) prayers and for instructions on what to ask in prayer.

Surprise! Out of some 70 references, 41 had to do with praying for Christians. I found only 2 examples of  prayers for non-Christians to come to faith in Christ. As I pondered this great difference, those prayer-words of Jesus came back to mind: “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me.” The New Testament prayer-pattern seems to echo the prayer-priority seen in Jesus’s words to his Father.

How does “I am not praying for the world” fit with God’s will that everyone “be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4)? We’ll explore that question shortly. But first, have a look at the results of my research into New Testament praying:

For God’s Purposes

  • That his name be held holy. Mt. 6:9; Lk. 11:2
  • That his Kingdom come. Mt. 6:10; Lk. 11:2
  • That his will be done on earth. Mt. 6:10
  • That doors open for the proclamation of the gospel. Col. 4:3; II Thess. 3:1
  • That God send workers into his harvest. Mt. 9:38; Lk. 10:2

For Christ-Followers

  • That they would experience the grace, love, and fellowship of the Trinity. II Cor. 13:14
  • That they may come to complete unity. Jn. 17:20-23; Rom. 15:5-6
  • That God make increase their love for each other and everyone. I Thess. 3:12
  • That their love continue to grow in knowledge and deep insight. Phil. 19; Col. 1:9
  • That they may be full of joy and peace. Jn. 17:13; Rom. 15:13; II Thess. 3:16
  • That God protect them from the evil one. Jn. 17:15
  • That they may be sanctified. Jn. 17:17
  • That God sanctify them in body, soul, and spirit. I Thess. 5:23
  • That they will choose leaders wisely. Acts 1:24, 25
  • That they will favorably receive God’s messages and messengers. Rom. 15:31
  • That their hearts be enlightened to know all of Christ’s fullness: Eph. 1:18—19; 3:17-18
  • That they receive God’s Spirit of wisdom and revelation. Eph. 1:17
  • That they discern what is best. Phil. 1:10
  • That the Spirit will empower them from within. Eph. 3:16; Col. 1:11; I Thess. 3:13
  • That Christ may live in them through faith. Eph. 3:17
  • That their faith not fail. Lk. 22:32
  • That God fulfill their good purposes and actions produced by faith. II Thess. 1:11
  • That they stand firm in God’s will. Col. 4:12
  • That they reach full maturity. Col. 4:12
  • That they have full understanding. Philemon 6
  • That God heal their illnesses. Jas. 5:14
  • That tongues-speakers may interpret. I Cor. 14:13
  • That God grant them good health. III Jn. 2
  • That God grant life to Christians living in sin that does not lead to death. I Jn. 5:16
  • That they speak God’s word boldly. Acts 4:29
  • That God heal and perform signs and wonders. Acts 4:30
  • That God equip them to do his will and work in them what pleases him. Heb. 13:20-21
  • That God open a way for a visit to his people. Rom. 1:10
  • That God count them worthy of his calling. II Thess. 1:11
  • That God encourage and strengthen them in deed and word. II Thess. 2:17
  • That God show mercy to a believer and his family. II Tim. 1:16
  • That they remain pure, blameless, and fruitfully righteous until Christ returns. Phil. 1:10-11; Col. 1:10
  • That they endure to stand before Christ when he comes. Lk. 21:36

For Christian Leaders

  • That God protect them against the opposition of unbelievers. Rom. 15:31; II Thess. 3:2
  • That they receive God’s words and be fearless in speaking them. Eph. 6:19-20; Col. 4:3

For Non-Christians 

  • That unbelievers come to faith in Christ. Acts 26:29; Rom. 10:1

For Personal Needs

  • For receiving God’s Holy Spirit. Lk. 11:13
  • For daily provision of food. Mt. 6:11; Lk. 11:3
  • For forgiveness. Mt. 6:12; Lk. 11:4
  • For protection against falling into temptation. Mt. 6:13; 26:41; Lk. 11:4; Lk. 22:40, 46

For Those Who Mistreat Us

  • For enemies and persecutors. Mt. 5:44; Lk. 6:28; Lk. 23:34; Acts 7:60

For Earthly Authorities

  • That they rule in ways that bring peace. I Tim. 2:2

Of the prayer-references listed, just over 58 percent are for believers, while less than 3 percent are for unbelievers. Why? Does God not care about seeing unbelievers trust Jesus and so come into right relationship with him? Of course he does. God loves the world. He does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Pet. 3:9). So why did Jesus say he was "not praying for the world"?

In the same prayer, Jesus repeatedly asks that those first disciples and later Christ-followers be one, that they might be “brought to complete unity” (Jn. 17:11, 21-22). The demonstration of this unity, Jesus says, will enable the world to believe and to know the Father had sent him. So Jesus is concerned for the unbelieving world. But he knows that the eye-opener for a spiritually blind world is the display of heaven’s unity lived out by Christians on earth.

His prayer-priority, then, is for Christ-followers, for the community he launched and left here for the world to see. Read again all those prayers for Christians—prayers that God’s colony and colonists on earth will thrive spiritually so that the world may have access to samples of the coming Kingdom. Should we, then, pray that non-Christians trust Jesus. Yes—two of the prayers listed do so. But if we are to pray the New Testament way, it seems that most of our asking should be for fellow believers. Our loving one another, Jesus said, would provide the world with evidence that we are his disciples. And one-anothering prayer turns out to be a major part of loving each other.

That’s one more reason we need to learn how to practice New Testament praying in shared church.

Shared Church and Online Classes

Online classes. They’re everywhere. They cover everything—from doing aerobics to playing the zither. For the past five years, I’ve taught an online course for the Bakke Graduate University. The class aims to help Christians connect their faith with their daily work. Unexpectedly, teaching this course has sharpened my insight into shared church.

Church and Online Class: Two Modes

Synchronous Asynchronous.jpg

Like the church, my online course operates in two modes—synchronous and asynchronous. In synchronous mode, the whole class “meets” online in a Zoom Room. Computer microphones and cameras let us see and hear each other. So we can present ideas, ask questions, clarify, explain, challenge, illustrate, or whatever. In asynchronous mode, students work separately. They complete assignments such as reading books and articles, watching videos, or posting their written responses to assignments.

In a similar way, the church acts in two modes—gathered (synchronous) and scattered (asynchronous). In gathered mode, we assemble. For most churches this happens on Sundays. When we gather, we should encourage and spur each other on (Heb. 10:24, 25). In scattered mode, we live out our faith at a distance from each other—in our homes, workplaces, and neighborhoods. When we scatter, our paths intersect with those in the world who need grace and light and salt.

How to Disable Synchronous Mode

Suppose, in a synchronous class session, I switch off all the students’ microphones (as professor, I have the power to do that). In that case, I now hold the only live microphone. If, during my presentation, I say something confusing, students have no way to ask me to restate my point. Or if a student recalls a perfect illustration from her own history, she cannot share it for the benefit of the others.

Why do we meet in synchronous sessions? Doing so allows a far richer, fuller learning experience. All of us—including me, as the professor—may profit from the gifts, understandings, and perspectives of everyone else. So if I were to shut down all the other voices except my own, I would deprive students of that fullness.

Traditional Sunday formats have brought us to a place where too many churches are platform-driven. Almost all the actions and words that matter come from the stage. As a result, in these synchronous sessions, very few have microphone privileges. This arrangement blocks the use of the God-given gifts in the congregation. As Paul puts it, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us as a means of helping the entire church” (I Cor. 12:7, NLT). Or as The Message paraphrases it, “Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits.”

The Loss in Asynchronous Mode

Losing the benefits of the synchronous mode takes its toll on what happens in asynchronous mode. Let’s say I ask a guest to facilitate a Zoom Room session on how our God-given spiritual and natural gifts relate to our daily work. A main purpose? To equip students when working by themselves in asynchronous mode. What they gain from the insights of our guest and his or her dialogue with the class should make them better able to handle their individual assignments. By turning off their microphones, I greatly reduce what they will take away.

What happens when we hush Christians in our church meetings? This leaves them unable to strengthen, build up, and encourage one another with their unique gifts. The loss will show up when they disperse into the roles God has placed them in during the other six days. In other words, the absence of mutual body-building when we gather will weaken our ability to carry out God’s mission in the world when we scatter.

Carrying Out Our Scattered-Mode Assignments

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I say: “Scattered translates a Greek word rooted in diaspora. It means to sow, as in scattering seed throughout a field. In one of his parables, Jesus speaks of sowing the ‘sons of the kingdom’ throughout the world-field like seed (Matt. 13:37, 38). In the Old Testament diaspora (dispersion), Daniel was one of those seeds God scattered into a workplace, right into the idolatrous core of the government in Babylon. In that pagan context, Daniel took root, grew, and bore fruit for God. Today . . . Christians need to see themselves as seeds—life-carrying cells flung into the world to carry out God’s agenda where they live, work, and play.”

In that world-field, the challenges to faith and fruit-bearing can overwhelm us as individual seeds. Bosses harass. Neighbors annoy. Family members let us down. Promising sprouts from the seed can wither. Our love and service can easily chill. World, flesh, and devil all conspire to bring us down. For that reason, we need to structure our times together so that the body “builds itself in love as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Yes, the Lord as our Good Shepherd restores our souls. But one of the main ways he does so is through the mutual ministry of the gathered church. We, together, serve as the Shepherd’s Body.

In a Washington Post article for children that explains how the human body works, Howard J. Bennett writes: “Your body works thanks to cells — trillions of them — doing their jobs. Some make chemicals to fight infection. Others make tears to protect your eyes. Still others make proteins to help you grow.”

All members of the body need the freedom to go about “doing their jobs,” to offer the body during synchronous sessions what God’s Spirit has gifted them with.

Trevor Withers: Network Church, UK

Trevor Withers, Team Leader, Network Church, St. Albans, UK

Trevor Withers, Team Leader, Network Church, St. Albans, UK

Trevor Withers serves as team leader at Network Church, St. Albans, UK. An account of how that church practices shared church appears in Chapter Six of my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis. In the following blog, Trevor provides additional insight into how Network Church cultivates participatory Sunday meetings.

_______________________________

I have been reflecting on some of the unseen areas that make increased participation possible in our Sunday morning meetings. There are a number of these, so I just want to take this opportunity to highlight them and share some thoughts.

Small Groups Nurture Participatory Skills

Let's start with the fact that Network Church encourages small groups which have a high level of participation. You might be asking what this has to do with Sunday mornings. Well, I think quite a lot. These small groups have environments where people are encouraged to be real, open and honest, and to look at applying their faith to everyday life. This earths our spirituality and, through facilitative leadership, enables a depth of contribution and participation.

Because this is a strong part of our church culture, it seems very natural for this same engagement to happen in our Sunday mornings. So the small groups act as a learning and developing space, which builds confidence for people to then participate in the larger setting. They are used to hearing their own voices, they are used to their ideas being accepted, they are used to speaking about spiritual things and making links with the everyday. They are used to giving and receiving prayer. So when this sort of opportunity is offered as part of our Sunday gathering, it seems like a natural place to be.

One of the things that makes this possible is good facilitative leadership in the small groups and the same is true of our Sunday morning space. I think it takes courage for a leader to open up the space, ask a question, propose an opportunity for people to speak. It is more natural perhaps to do this in a small group but equally possible on a Sunday morning and the same skills are required.  The main one being to shut up and wait!

Inviting Weekdays into Sunday Meetings

One of the key values held by the central leadership team is to provide spaces and opportunities for those that are part of Network to be encouraged in the things that God is calling them to do in their lives beyond this Christian community. We are not trying to get people to commit to church programs or ministries. Instead, we want this body to be supported in the various things that each individual or group of individuals has on their heart.

This means that when an opportunity arises for participation, there is a sense in which it is anticipated that individuals will bring things from their week, share the challenges and joys of living out their faith, and be prayed for and indeed encouraged in what they are doing. So, in essence, the church exists to support those who are part of it to live for Jesus 24/7, rather than the church existing for its members to run the various programs that it offers.

Staying with the central leadership team, one of the things I have noticed is that, true to our name, we network. In doing so, we pick up all sorts of stories from within this Christian community, taking time to listen and reflect on what God is doing amongst us. This enables us to gently prompt those who have had a recent experience of God in their lives to share that in our Sunday gathering. We would never pounce on them unannounced, but as part of our leadership might seek to create an opportunity, or ask a question that gives an opportunity, for what we have discovered to be shared in a more public space.

The Shared Pulpit

One of the often-defended areas of Sunday church life is the pulpit. My friend Laurence Singlehurst describes us as having an "open pulpit." In his experience of travelling around many churches he is aware that this is somewhat unusual, as most church pulpits are "closed," by which he means they are occupied by a relatively small, specially-chosen group of individuals.

It is interesting to reflect on the scripture that is part of the “one anothers”—“teach and admonish one another”—from Colossians. This is one of the factors that encourages us to have a more open pulpit. In practice what this means is that we have a team of individuals that speak regularly which, as a percentage of our numbers on a Sunday, is about a quarter. Over and above this, we are always on the lookout for people who have things on their heart which they can bring to us in this teaching/sermon slot. For some this might be speaking twice a year on a particular topic or area that they are passionate about or have insight in, for others is might be occasional and prompted by something they have been learning or have found helpful from a different context.

An unseen area that enables all the above to work well is someone taking responsibility for co-ordination and communication, as one of the functions of their leadership, picking up the details of who is going to speak when on what, and gently following through with people who have hinted at the possibility of having something to say and making a space available for them to deliver this.

Seeing Each Other as Saints

Another facet of the atmosphere at Network is that we think of ourselves more as saints than sinners. It is quite difficult for sinners to feel that they can make a contribution, whereas if we appreciate each other as saints then this creates a very different feeling. Now, of course, we sit in the tension of living in both of those spaces, and I am not for a moment suggesting that we have gathered a more saintly bunch of people than any other church, but the fact that we view this particular Christian community through glasses that see them as saints and encourage them to act as such I think enables a sense of well-being and encouragement and draws out contribution.

These are just a few of the unseen areas that help to encourage engagement, participation and a sense of shared ownership around our Sunday meetings. This is by no means an exclusive list, and I'm sure there are other dynamics at play. Not least of which would be the fact that we have been developing this culture for a number of years and have established rhythms and patterns which enable it to be sustained and developed.

Participatory Church Music Choice

Each Has Song.jpg

Church music—a topic sure to stir lively back-and-forth—came up just before we said our farewells at a recent men’s retreat. I suggested that those in church congregations should have a voice in choosing the songs. Others doubted that could work. But we had run out of time, leaving no opportunity for further discussion. So I returned home praying and thinking about how to make music selection participatory in a shared-church context.

Most importantly, does the New Testament support making song choice participatory? In I Cor. 14, Paul clarifies the right use of spiritual gifts in a church meeting. In v. 26 he opens the door for anyone to bring a song to the assembly: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn. . . .” (NIV). “Has” translates a Greek word that can mean having something to share with others. Paul knew God had given his Holy Spirit to each Christian for the benefit of everyone. Back then, one-anothering reached even to mutually selecting songs to sing as they gathered.

But can we realistically let people in 21st century church settings take part in music selection? No one wants to return to the so-called “worship wars” that pitted organs against guitars and hymns against contemporary choruses. Above all, we should aim for the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.

Drawing on my years of experience both on the platform and in the pew, I will propose a way to include the congregation in picking the music that should actually encourage unity. What follows are merely suggestions. I hope they will trigger further discussions and even better ideas.

Adopt Criteria for Congregational Songs

If people are going to participate in choosing music, they will need some pointers about what does and does not fit. Qualified church leaders could set forth and teach how to apply a few standards for song-selection. For example:

1. Theology. Are the lyrics of the song biblically sound? Does a song name Jesus or another member of the Trinity? Some songs lack any clear reference to the Lord. (Old song example: “Bringing in the Sheaves.”) Others might be sung to a boyfriend or girlfriend. (New song example: “In the Secret.”)

2. Vocabulary. Will the congregation easily understand what the words mean? (Old hymn: “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” does not connect, at least not without a lot of explanation.) Does the song repeat words and phrases to the point of producing mind-numbing repetition? (Contemporary chorus: I recently sat in a church meeting where much of one song consisted of “na-- na-- na na na.”)

3. Melody. Is the song singable to those in the congregation? Do intervals, syncopation, difficult rhythms, notes too high or low, or other characteristics put the piece out of reach of non-musicians?

The benchmarks should be few and easily grasped. Once leaders have adopted them, they should occasionally present and explain them to the congregation.

Provide a Way for Anyone to Suggest a Song

The church bulletin could include a simple form inviting people to nominate songs for congregational singing. The form could ask for the song title and the author (to prevent confusion over identical song titles). Space could be provided for briefly stating why the one suggesting it finds the song meaningful—perhaps God used it in calling them to Jesus or in their subsequent spiritual growth. The form should also make it clear that the suggestion will be reviewed and that filling out the form does not guarantee the song will be used.

Appoint Short-Term Task Groups to Review Song Suggestions

The completed song-suggestion forms could go to a small task group. To guard against this group becoming an entrenched power bloc, its members should serve for only a short time—perhaps two or three months, followed by another group. Each could include a younger member, an older member, and someone from the church’s music team. This group would evaluate each suggestion, asking whether it meets the church’s song-selection criteria.

Forward Approved Song Titles to the Pastor and Music Team

Songs that qualify could be passed along to the platform leaders. As the number of congregationally selected song suggestions grows, those leaders could select from the pool those that fit what they might need for any particular meeting. When appropriate, the song-selector’s reason for choosing it might be shared with the congregation.

The Pluses for Such a Plan

Something along the line of what I am proposing would offer several benefits:

1. Choice and Oversight. It would allow the congregation to participate and their leaders to oversee in the ministry of musical decision-making. Not everyone’s favorite classic hymn or contemporary chorus belongs in the Sunday-morning repertoire. Nor should musicians on the platform hold a song-selection monopoly

2. Old Songs and New. Because everyone would have opportunity to take part, the Sunday morning songs would include recent compositions (such as “There is a Redeemer” or “The Potter’s Hand.”) as well as musical treasures from the past (e.g., “It Is Well with My Soul,” or “To God Be the Glory”).

3. Across Generations. Such a plan would permit everyone, from children to seniors, to participate in the song-selection process. As a result, the music would reflect the life of the church body and not simply the tastes of one music leader or team. Older and younger generations could learn from and come to appreciate what each has to offer.

What do you think? Would a process something like this one increase participation your church? What changes might you suggest?

A Missing Word: Does It Obscure Shared-Church Prayer?

Although Webster estimates English includes a million words, our language still lacks one. Might that missing term make it more difficult for us to see the need for and to practice shared-church prayer?

A Word Gone AWOL

Roman Phalanx.jpg

That question came to mind during a study on prayer with our adult Sunday school class. Our text: Eph. 6:11-18, the well-known verses that urge us to put on the full armor of God and to pray. As I was exploring the passage on my own, I noticed a consistent pattern. In the NIV, each you (four times) and your (three times) translates the corresponding Greek plural—which disappears in today’s English. We use the same word, you or your, whether speaking to one person or a hundred. The mostly southern you-all is the closest we can come in English to a second-person-plural word. Otherwise, the plural you takes multiple words, as in all of you.

It's true, of course, that we should take this Ephesians passage to heart as individuals. The body of Christ is made up of individual members. But Paul’s repeated use of the plural you suggests that he means not only solo but also corporate action—armoring up and praying together. It seems, though, that individualism has gained the upper hand not only in our culture but also in our churches.

Individualism vs. Shared-Church Prayer

Something right may go wrong if it becomes an “-ism.” Watch out when community becomes communism. Everyone needs a mom, but not momism—unhealthy attachment to mother. You can learn much from the teachings of Calvin or Arminius, but stiff commitment to Calvin­ism or Arminianism can divide. Scripture guards our places as individuals, but it does not endorse individualism.

Individualism works against our learning to pray. How did you, as an individual, learn how to talk? Not all alone. You probably did so as one member of a family. As you listened to and interacted with others, your own spoken vocabulary developed. How do we, as individuals, learn how to pray? Again—not all by ourselves, but as members of the corporate body of Christ. Hearing other Christians pray helps us to develop our own ability to pray. But the missing English word, the plural you, can make that hard to see.

Some Christians, on the basis of what Jesus said about praying in our closets, insist that shared praying—praying together—is wrong. But there Jesus was surely speaking against praying to show off, against putting our prayers on parade. If he had forbidden them to pray with others, why did his disciples do so? “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14).

Prayer in Phalanx Formation

Eph. 6:11-18, full of the plural Greek words for you, links wearing God’s armor with prayer. A complete set of that protective gear includes the shield of faith. Jesus called for faith to accompany effective prayer: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer" (Matt. 21:22). And James speaks of the “prayer offered in faith” (5:15).

How does the plural you relate to the shield of faith and prayer? As one who spent a fair amount of time around Roman soldiers, Paul probably had the scutum in mind. This door-sized shield allowed the soldier to protect his entire body. He could wield it individually. But he could also use it when fighting alongside fellow soldiers as a group. In “phalanx” formation, he and others would align their shields side-by-side to form a virtual wall against the enemy. By lifting their shields overhead, they created a roof over themselves when flaming arrows rained down from above.

When we—together—pray with our united faith-shield, we present a more formidable spiritual “wall” or “roof” to the forces hell-bent on destroying us. Can we practice this united faith-praying during our Sunday meetings? In my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include this account from the Peniel Wesleyan Tabernacle in Greater Georgetown, Guyana.

Shared-Church Prayer on Sunday

The time set aside for praying for one another in this church . . . began when in 2011 it struck, Michael Suffrienin, the pastor, that he could not be there to pray for everyone. He knew the church body included many struggling and immature believers. But he also knew of many stronger Christians who could influence and help them. So one Sunday, during the worship service, he simply asked for a pause in which he shared a brief Bible passage relating to prayer. Then, after identifying a particular issue the church was facing at that time, he asked people to find a partner and join together in prayer for that concern.

When the church had grown accustomed to partnering in prayer during their main weekly gathering, he expanded the scope of prayer subjects by asking anyone with a need for prayer to share that with someone else and then pray for each other. These sessions of one-another prayer have included such concerns as family challenges, financial worries, loss of loved ones, and recovery after theft or flood damage. Although this prayer time is not a part of every meeting, when included it typically takes 10 to 15 minutes.

I have just returned from a three-day men’s retreat. On the final day, we noticed that one of the guys began receiving a flurry of texts on his phone. Soon we learned that his father, thousands of miles away, had only hours to live. We circled around him and formed a phalanx of faith-based prayer. His tears flowed freely as each of us, in turn, prayed for him and his family.

Shared-church prayer should take place no matter what the size of our gathering. We can pray together in twos (Matt. 18:19-20), in our small groups (Acts 13:3), and in our larger gatherings (Acts 1:14-15). Even without knowing Greek, we can practice the plural you of shared church.

School Interview Points to Need for Shared Church

In Mark Greene's "Sacred Secular Divide" video, a public school teacher describes the lack of prayer support for her work.

A few days ago—in the interest of shared church—I interviewed the principal and assistant principal of a local elementary school. The edited, five-minute video will be shown during the main congregational meetings of our church. I asked the principal and her assistant:

  • How does your administrative work in a public school carry on God’s purposes for life on earth?
  • What unique opportunities does your work provide for you as a Christian?
  • What challenges do you face in these roles?
  • What opportunities exist for retired people to serve as volunteers in your school?
  • How can our church pray for you and for your school?

Public School as a Calling

As I listened to the responses of these two school officials, the enthusiasm of both for their work poured out. They do what they do, day in and day out, because they know God has sent them to serve him and others in this context. For example:

  • “This work is the mission that I’ve been put on this planet to do.”
  • “We are on the front lines fighting for kids every single day.”
  • “Pretty much every kid in the country is funneled through public education, and that’s a huge opportunity.”

The assistant told about his earlier transition from working in a Christian school to serving in a public school. During the hiring interview, the prospective new boss wondered whether he understood what he would encounter in the public school environment: “You know,” he said, “there are kids here who do drugs and have sex. Are you really sure you want to be here?” To which the interviewee replied: “Yeah—I think that’s really why I want to be here.”

A Felt Need for Prayer

The interview also made it clear that these two want the prayer-backing of other Christ-followers. But others cannot pray if unaware of needs. This makes practicing shared church all that much more vital. When I asked how the church could pray for them, they responded with more requests than I was able to fit into a five-minute video. A few examples:

  • “Knowing that many children will return to homes with major dysfunctions, we both ‘take kids home’ every day.”
  • “Pray for the kids. Some of their stories are really normal and some of their stories are heartbreaking.”
  • “Pray for the staff. There’s a point where compassion fatigue enters. Sometimes kids show that they’re hurting and struggling by lashing out at the people who care about them the most. That happens—a lot.”
  • “It’s a challenge to balance work and family life every day.”
  • “We look at each other pretty much daily and say, ‘I don’t know what else to try.’”

UK Teacher Tells of Missing Prayer Support

Too often those called to work in public schools lack the prayer underpinning they need from fellow believers. In his YouTube video, “Sacred-Secular Divide,” UK-based Mark Greene includes a clip from a teacher who tells how she experienced this lack of prayer support:

“I teach Sunday School once a week for 45 minutes, and my church asks me to come up front so they can pray for me. For the rest of the week, I’m a full-time teacher, and yet as far as I can remember, no one has ever offered to pray for the work I do in school.   It’s as if they want to support half my profession and not the other half. It’s difficult, because no one would say that teaching Sunday School is more important than the work I do the rest of the week. But that feels like the message that I get. And if you look at it this way, I’ve got 45 minutes once a week with children who are generally open to the gospel with parents who are supportive of the faith—or 45 hours a week with kids who have very little knowledge of Christianity and parents who are either as ignorant or hostile to the faith.”

Where Christians Cross Paths with Non-Christians

In our neighborhoods and workplaces—in this case a school—the paths of Christians intersect most often and most relationally with those who do not know Christ. Only in a shared-church context can a congregation become aware of the opportunities and challenges their fellow believers face in their scattered-church roles.

The two school officials I interviewed lead a team of teachers and staff of 120 who are responsible for the safety of 765 children. They create the environment in which these children learn to read, write, do basic math, and live in community. The principal and her assistant also deal with hundreds of parents. Clearly, the opportunity to shine the light of Christ and live out his love is enormous.

Lesslie Newbigin, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, wrote: “It is in the ordinary business of the world that the sacrifices of love and obedience are to be offered to God. It is in the context of secular affairs that the mighty power released into the world through the work of Christ is to be manifested. . . . It is, of course, also true that individual Christians will be weakened in their efforts to live out the gospel in secular engagements if what they are doing does not have the support of the church as a whole.”

Regularly gathering in "audience mode" works against whole-church support. Only in shared-church mode can we get to know what others do during the other six days of the week. Only in shared church can we learn how to pray for the scattered church.

Antenna or Cable?

TV antenna versus cable connection: how can the difference illustrate an important truth about shared church? Stay tuned.

But First, Three Questions About Shared Church:

Antenna Cable.jpg
  • What is it?
  • When was it impossible?
  • How is it possible today?

What Is Shared Church?

When I got out of bed this morning, my body reminded me how shared church works. Eyes saw the numbers on the clock. Brain interpreted those numbers as time to roll out of bed. Legs and arms went into action to move me from mattress to floor. Feet carried me to the kitchen. Fingers pushed buttons to start the coffee-maker. Heart, lungs, nerves, etc., all chipped into the getting-up project as well.

Each part of my body shared in the work of getting my day underway. The New Testament says the church is a body. Its various parts—each one uniquely made to contribute—are to work together to carry out the chores that belong to the whole body. Arms and legs, if unable to move, severely curb what a physical body can do. In a church body, some ways of gathering together can immobilize members, so that only a few carry on the work. Such paralysis turns the church into an audience.

But we are “members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). In shared church, we don’t just spectate. We participate.

When Was Shared Church Impossible?

Back before Jesus came and did his work on earth, the Jews met together in various ways. But in most Old Testament assemblies, the Israelites met as audiences. Moses and Joshua “told the people” (Num. 11:24; Josh. 3:5). God spoke to his people through priests, Levites, and prophets. Ezra the scribe “stood on a high wooden platform” and read the law to the people (Neh. 8:4-13).

Although God had intended for his chosen people to serve him as “a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6), they shank back from coming near to God themselves. At the giving of the Ten Commandments, “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die’” (Ex. 20:18-19).

So at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the stage was set for a largely one-way, monovoiced, meeting format in ancient Israel. Shared church was impossible under the Old Covenant, in part because the people insisted that someone else listen to what God said and then pass it along to them.

How Is Shared Church Possible Today?

But things took a sharp turn under the New Covenant. Jesus, by his death and resurrection, won our forgiveness and gave us access to God’s throne. Upon his return to the right hand of his Father, God fulfilled a promise made hundreds of years earlier by Joel, the prophet: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29).

The presence of the Holy Spirit in all Christ-followers—and his gifts to us—make shared church possible today. He is not only “with” but “in” us. He provides gifts of knowledge, gifts of speaking, gifts of serving others. He teaches us, counsels us, guides us. Unlike God’s people in Old Covenant days, we don’t have to rely exclusively on a few religious professionals who tune in to God and tell us what he says. Being gifted by and filled with the Holy Spirit is the birthright of everyone who trusts Jesus.

Yes, in some, the Holy Spirit’s gifts make them able to help fellow Christians discover and develop their gifts. Church leaders are to serve as coaches, activators, trainers of apprentices, so that God’s people become doers—not merely hearers—of his Word. As a result, “the whole body [church] . . . grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).

In this way, under the New Covenant, shared church is possible today. But it’s still too easy to revert to Old Covenant-style meetings that rely on religious professionals doing most of the work.

From Antenna to Cable

I’m old enough to remember climbing onto the roof to install a TV antenna and fiddling with a set of “rabbit ears” on top of the television set to get the best signal. When I was young, we had access to just one channel that brought us a fuzzy, black-and-white picture. Today, we have access not only to countless TV channels but also to the Internet—no longer through clumsy antennas but through coaxial cables.

In some ways, the bygone days of rabbit ears and rooftop “antlers” are like meetings under the obsolete Old Covenant. Pretty much one-way communication. We and our television sets were mere receivers. A few professionals—news reporters, actors, musicians—prepared the programs for us, which we passively consumed. Of course, even with cable TV we can still veg out as couch potatoes.

But cable has opened opportunities that resemble the kinds of church meetings now possible through the Holy Spirit under the New Covenant. In the cable era, terms like smart TV and interactive television have entered our vocabulary. Cable allows me to teach theology-of-work classes via the Internet. The students and I can share in back-and-forth interaction not only in writing but also via Zoom. In an online “Zoom Room,” we can see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices by means of our computer cameras, microphones, and speakers.

“When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you” (I Cor. 14:26, NLT). Antennas work only as intakers. Cables permit give-and-take. Church meetings patterned on Old Covenant gatherings are largely one-way events. But meeting formats like those found in the New Testament allow both giving and receiving. The explosive growth of the early church took place in just that kind of a context.

An Asparagus Parable for Shared Church

As a farm boy, I had no inkling that watching my Dad work would one day help me understand the biblical role of pastors and church leaders.

                George Peabody Asparagus Farm (around 1956)

                George Peabody Asparagus Farm (around 1956)

Our farm had asparagus—23 acres of it. At 5 a.m., from mid-April until roughly the Fourth of July, we began cutting. (No, you do not “pick” asparagus; you pick peaches and other fruit that grows on trees.) The “we” included a crew of 12-15 teenagers Dad had hired to work each morning until time for school.

The Parable Stated

Cutting asparagus does not take a college degree. But it does require some training. New to the crew? Then Dad will help you internalize what five inches looks like. A stalk must reach that minimum height before it passes muster for market. Dad will also equip you to use the asparagus knife—a 12-inch steel rod with a wooden handle on one end and what looks like a slant-nosed putty knife on the other. To make the cut, grasp an asparagus stalk with one hand, aim the blade at an unseen point two inches beneath it under the soil, then push the knife until you can lift the stalk. Once you have handful, lay the stalks crosswise in a row flagged with stakes so the pick-up team can box them.

Dad, of course, had studied more about asparagus than any of us. And he could cut those stalks like a pro. If one of us began slacking off, chattering with a coworker, he would set an example by coming alongside the foot-dragger and cutting in the same row. But Dad spent most of his time coaching cutters and sharpening our knives. In other words, he saw his job as training us to do the work and making sure we had the right tools to do it. Years afterward, I’ve heard former crew members say, “I learned to work by cutting asparagus for George Peabody.”

The Parable Applied

But what does Dad's way with his asparagus crew say about the biblical role of church leaders? As Paul explains it, their responsibility is to “prepare God’s people to serve. If they do, the body of Christ will be built up” (Eph.  4:12, NIrV). The Holy Spirit has given a gift or gifts to each member of Christ’s body. Leaders in the church, like Dad in the asparagus field, should refrain from doing most of the work themselves. Rather, they are to fit out Christ-followers in the use of their gifts, to sharpen their tools, and to equip them for doing the bulk of the work.

Please bear with me while I paint a ludicrous word-picture. Suppose my Dad had built, off to one edge of the asparagus field, a set of wooden bleachers. As the high-schoolers show up at sunrise, he hands them files and asks each one to sharpen a knife for him. That done, he points the crew to the stands and invites them to take their seats. Then, with his supply of sharp knives, he starts down first one row then another, harvesting that day’s asparagus crop himself. Of course, he does an expert job—cutting just the right stalks, discarding the culls, and placing each handful neatly in the pick-up rows.

What makes this picture so absurd? With Dad trying to do the work himself, most of the day’s harvest will go to seed and be lost. (On a hot day, asparagus stalks can grow by many inches and become cow food.) With 23 acres of asparagus to cut, even a highly competent cutter like Dad would wear himself out and never finish the task. His best investment of time and effort: to make certain each one in the many-membered crew is ready and able to take on his and her share of the work.

Play the Game or Coach the Players?

Let E. Stanley Jones (changing the analogy from asparagus to sports) relate this to the church. “The laity, on the whole, have been in the stands as spectators, and the clergy have been on the field playing the game. . .. That setup must be changed. The laity must come out of the stands as spectators and take the field as players; and the clergymen must come off the field as players and take the sidelines as coaches of a team” (from The Reconstruction of the Church—On What Pattern?).

Jones wrote those words nearly 50 years ago. But even today, in far too many churches, the pastor and a few musicians still do most of the heavy lifting when we gather. Who “emcees” the Sunday meeting? Who reads Scripture aloud? Who offers the “pastoral prayer”? Who does almost all the preaching? Who always oversees the Lord’s Table? Who baptizes? Who dedicates babies? Who pronounces the benediction? Who chooses the songs?

Placing much of this work in the hands of the so-called “laity” does not diminish or downgrade the work of pastors. Rather, it makes their work more productive, as they multiply their influence through others they have coached and equipped. Sian and Stuart Murray Williams call for “multivoiced” (in contrast to “monovoiced”) church. They write: “In healthy multivoiced churches neither the leaders nor the community are disempowered” (from The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church).

But Are We Willing to Change?

Moving toward shared or multivoiced church, though, will require—on the part of both congregations and pastors—a Spirit-empowered willingness to change. Those long comfortable in the bleachers watching someone else perform must find the resolve to get up and stir their gifts into action. Pastors, after perhaps years of being in near-total control during Sunday meetings, will need to trust the Holy Spirit to work through others who are gifted and prepared.

With a bit of imagination and a resolve to provide the needed coaching and tools, pastors and church leaders can find ways to empower those in the congregation to: preside over Sunday gatherings, pray publicly, tell how God is working in their scattered-church lives, share in the preaching and teaching, baptize, lead during the Lord’s Supper, and more.

Paul describes all this so well: “As each part [of Christ’s body] does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Eph. 4:16, NLT). When each part is enabled to do its work for the rest of the body, we will discover how to connect our faith with our voices. If in our gathering together we do not learn how to voice a witness to each other, how can we expect in our scattering to voice a witness to the world?

Unintended Messages vs. Shared Church

Unintended messages. Are we sending them by the way we “do church”? And can such messages block shared church?

An Eight-Year-Old’s Ambition

Microphone.jpg

When I was in my mid-forties, our pastor asked me to lead a church plant. So the mother church sent us out—a group of about 40 that included young people and children. Week after week, “Brad,” the eight-year-old in one family, saw and heard me preach. One day, we invited his family into our home. During our visit, I asked, “Brad what do you want to be when you grow up?” His reply came instantly: “I want to be the talker-man, like you.”

Clearly, watching me had appealed to something in Brad. But to what had it appealed? To the desires sin overstimulates in every one of us. To be noticed. To be seen as special or important. To be looked up to. He could realize those desires, Brad reasoned, if he were to become the solo “talker man,” the only one up front with the microphone Sunday after Sunday.

Had I meant for Brad to get this idea? Of course not. Until I asked the question, I had no idea what message he was receiving. He was not experiencing “shared” church, but church that made one person seem hyper-important. 

This over-focus on one member of the body comes from the system we have all inherited from our church traditions. Like other pastors, I was arranging the church meetings Brad sat through, doing so in line with what years of church gatherings had ingrained in me.

Church-Induced Expectations

From my earliest days, gathering with other believers on Sunday took top priority. During my growing-up years, I probably sat in on 900 or more church meetings. Each time, the sermon formed the centerpiece—mostly spoken by the same pastor week after week. When I was about 12, our pastor’s wife pulled me aside and said, “Larry, we are expecting to hear great things from your life.” Those were her words. But I heard this unintended message: “Larry, we are expecting you to become a pastor or missionary.”  No wonder, then, that by the time I left home for college, I believed that I ought to serve in one of those ways, if I wanted my life’s work to count for anything.

Just the other day I spoke with a man far younger than I who also received this unintended message. He recalled that his church experience had taught him that “the greatest thing you could possibly do was to go into 'full-time service.' You were expected to go to a Christian school so you could become a pastor. The highest calling, full-time vocational service, was somehow better than going into sales or some other line of work.” He recalled two peers, a young man and young woman, who had been led to think only "full-time Christian service would please God." Having received the same “call” to serve as cross-cultural missionaries, they concluded they should marry. Sadly, they were ill-matched and soon divorced.

He told me that, as he matured, he began to understand “church politics” as “people wanting power.” He realized that if he were to enter vocational church ministry, “I would relish people looking to me. I would have secretly enjoyed the self-aggrandizement.” Knowing himself well enough to foresee this would be a perpetual struggle for him, he chose not to enter so-called “full-time Christian service.”

The Urge to Be Seen as Significant

The New Testament provides many examples of our sinful leanings toward self-inflation. The Pharisees placed themselves in positions “to be seen” by others (Mt. 6:5). Jesus’s original disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt. 18:1). When they argued over which of them outranked the others, Jesus traced their dispute back to a desire to be “first” (Mk. 9:33-35). They tangled over the same issue during the last supper (Lk. 22:24). James and John, with Mom's help, lobbied for top spots in Jesus’s kingdom (Mt. 20:20-27). Some 50 years later, in a church setting, Diotrephes wanted to be “first” (III Jn. 9).

The culture outside our churches feeds this drive to be in the catbird seat. We once took some four-to-seven-year-olds to a children’s museum. One exhibit featured an elevated platform and some play microphones. The kids pushed and shoved to be on stage and at the center of attention. Rock concerts, political rallies, and TV shows all send the message that to be seen and heard by a crowd is the mark of success. "Take a microphone out of my hands," says Willard Scott, "and I'm just plain folks."

Blogger Mike Cosper writes: “Celebrity culture turns pastors and worship leaders into icons.”  This not to say that every pastor or musician is motivated by the need to be noticed. But when we make superstars of church leaders, we may be stirring something in the flesh of others that needs not to be cultivated but to be put to death.

A Biblical Antidote

The remedy? It seems almost too simple. New Testament churches avoided focusing on just one leader by having several. Notice these plural leadership terms: The church in Antioch had “elders.” Paul and Barnabas appointed “elders in every church.” Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every town.” The church in Jerusalem had “elders.” Philippi had “overseers and deacons.” James refers to “the elders of the church.” And Peter writes of “the elders among you.” The New Testament uses overseers and elders interchangeably. According to Paul, they should be “able to teach.” This suggests not only ability but also opportunity.

This was shared church! Not only did the gathered believers share in encouraging each other, but in the New Testament churches, even leadership and teaching responsibilities were shared among those with such gifts.

Young people learn not just from sermons on Sunday mornings but also from the way we practice meeting. If they invariably see the same person on stage week after week, what unintended message may we be sending them?

Serving One Another in Shared Church

As you slip into the church meeting, you guess the gathering must number about 300. At their appointed times, seven take their places up front—the pastor and six on the music team. From your spot eleven rows back and in the center section, you scan the bulletin. The text for the morning comes from Galatians 5:13—“serve one another in love.”

For the next hour, the seven on the platform devote themselves to serving the church body, using the gifts God gave them (I Pet. 4:10). But as you watch and listen, it strikes you that these with the microphones are the only ones with the opportunity to act on what the text says. That means less than two percent of those present are able—in this meeting—to do so. In your small group of twelve, you do serve others. But that still leaves your gifts unavailable to 96 percent of the full congregation.

True, before this meeting began, a few handed out bulletins. At offering time, others will usher. But you doubt that these activities, while useful, achieve what New Testament writers meant by one-anothering. In all your years in church meetings, this pattern of miniscule participation has prevailed. So you assume that a group of this size must make it impossible for any but a tiny minority to serve each other with their gifts.

However, one-anothering can work not just in small groups but also in the larger gatherings. Recent posts in this blog series have provided evidence. To recap:

Greeting

June 15: In Mill City Church, Minneapolis, MN, Sunday meetings begin with a “community time” that lasts from five to eight minutes. Two suggested questions help people to begin greeting each other. As Stephanie Williams, one of their pastors, says, “You can’t remember someone unless they share something with you.”

Confessing

July 27: Another blog presented the FaithStory of Rachel Bichler, from Northwood—a church of about 500 in Maple Grove, MN. As she unfolded her experience to the congregation, Rachel openly shared how drifting from a godly upbringing had led her to brokenness and repentance. While staying well within tasteful boundaries, her comments let everyone know that she had strayed.

Teaching

July 20: This posting included comments from three pastors. Although saying so in different words, all recognized the richness that comes when those in the congregation participate in the teaching:

Mark Brouwer, Jacob’s Well Church, Chicago, IL: “There is a lot of wisdom in this church—far more than just what I am able to bring.”

Bob Hyatt, The Evergreen Community, Portland, OR: “I came to realize that, although I am the recognized preacher, I might not have the most important thing to say on a given Sunday morning.”

Lowell Bakke, had served as pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Puyallup, WA: “Even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, my mind as a pastor is so finite that I don’t understand many things about the Bible that the congregation was able to bring to the table each Sunday.”

Spurring On

July 12: In Westview Bible Church, Quebec, Canada, a man who suffers from chronic back pain told the congregation, “I have such a temptation to take that extra pill. I know I’ll get addicted. It is so easy for me to become an addict.” After he spoke, two people came up to him and said, “You know, I’m addicted to painkillers, and I’m in the process of weaning myself off.” Nita Kotiuga, a pastor in that church, said: “These were two people we would have never thought of in this regard. In church, you can feel like everyone else has their life together and I’m the only one who’s wrestling. This happened in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. It was a beautiful, holy moment of God.”

Encouraging

July 1: Bob Maddox, pastor in Grace Community Church, Gresham, OR, explained why their church meetings include frequent one-anothering: “One of our pastors can get up and say, ‘We’re going to have Tom come up and illustrate this point.’ Suddenly, the mood in the entire auditorium changes. Everyone stops and leans forward, wanting to hear Tom’s story. We choose to have people from the body up front on a fairly regular basis, because they can say things we staff people cannot.”

Praying For

June 22: Ollie Malone recalled how, as a seminary student, he had attended The Church on the Way shortly after Jack Hayford had retired from his role as pastor:  

“I was surprised when Pastor Jack (who, although retired, was leading the service that morning, but not preaching) asked the congregation to form in groups of four or so members, introduce ourselves, and identify any specific prayer needs we might have. I ended up in a group with three other men who were alone at the time. Quickly we shared names and prayer needs, then took to the task of prayer. “I have often thought how simple the request was at The Church on the Way, yet how powerful and transformative it was in my life and, I suspect, in the lives of others who still believe in praying for one another, as the Scripture exhorts.”

Serving

Greeting. Confessing. Teaching. Spurring On. Encouraging. Praying For. Each of these six can be practiced by members of a church body in a congregational setting. Each offers a means of carrying out a seventh one-anothering action: serving one another. And each flows directly out of Jesus’s New Commandment, “love one another as I have loved you.” He loved us by laying down his life for us. “So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (I Jn. 3:16, NLT).

In various ways, each of the seven one-anothering actions described above involves laying down our lives for each other. How? By giving up time and self-interest. By moving out of our comfort zones. At times, by risking misunderstanding or even disapproval. But as we serve one another in these self-giving ways, the body of Christ “builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).

Confessing to One Another in Shared Church

What’s worse than anticipating a root canal? Visualizing ourselves confessing sin in front of the gathered church. First, the image of dirty laundry flapping on a clothesline flashes past our minds. Second, there’s the dread of what others will think and say—and spread. And third, for many, the fear of public speaking intensifies the shudder.

Thankfully, when Scripture says, “confess your sins to each other” (Jas. 5:16), it does not say to do so in front of the whole congregation. Rather, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it in Life Together, “A confession of sin in the presence of all the members of the congregation is not required to restore one to fellowship with the whole congregation. I meet the whole congregation in the one brother to whom I confess my sins and who forgives my sins.”

Yet done properly, uncoerced, and under the right circumstances, one anothering in a Sunday meeting may include public confession. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include the following FaithStory by Rachel Bichler, who is part of Northwood Church, a congregation of about 500, in Maple Grove, MN. While containing far more than just “confession,” her story does include admission of taking a wrong turn and then returning. In a sense, she tells the story of a prodigal daughter:

Rachel’s FaithStory

Have you ever had a sneaking suspicion that you just weren’t good enough? That no matter how hard you try, you just don’t have what it takes? I know I have. It’s something that has haunted me for my entire life. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with the idea that I’m somehow lacking. As a child I felt awkward, unable to connect with my peers. I was sure I could never be as relaxed and confident as the other kids appeared to be. At home, even though I was always quite sure that my parents loved me, I never felt quite sure that I deserved it.

Those very same misgivings also applied to my relationship with Christ. I became a Christian at a very young age. I’m not even sure just how old I was; only that it was a long time ago, in a Sunday school classroom, joined in prayer by a teacher whose name I no longer remember.

I was very lucky in that way, to be raised from infancy in a Christian home. My parents were also regular church attendees. Some of my earliest memories are of time spent in Sunday school. As I got older, I became active in youth group, went to Christian summer camps, and participated in missions work. I got to know other Christian kids my own age and made some good friends.

And yet, the older I got the more I felt like a fraud. I couldn’t escape from my continuing sense of inadequacy. I was certain that I was not as good a person as those around me. If they only knew my secret thoughts and secret sins I was sure they would recoil in horror. I often wondered how Jesus could love me when I couldn’t even love myself.

Then, in my teenage years, I began to surround myself with people that didn’t make me feel so inferior. I found people who had no place for morals or judgment. My new friends drank alcohol, did drugs, partied, lied, stole, and slept around. Eager for acceptance, I joined in their lifestyle with hardly a backward glance. And although I continued to think of myself as a Christian, I avoided attending church. I couldn’t help comparing myself to the others there and thinking they would all look down on me. After all, I wasn’t living a Christian lifestyle. My season of disobedience, self-loathing, and perpetual running from God lasted for more than 10 years. At the end I found myself divorced, and living back at home with my parents, and feeling utterly lost.

It was then, at a time when I was more broken than I had ever been, that I began to turn to God for healing. You see, even though I had spent many years running from him and his judgment, he was never far away. In fact, throughout my long rebellion, he never once gave up on me. He was just waiting for me to be broken enough to realize my need for him.

My return to faith wasn’t easy. It didn’t go perfectly. I struggled and backslid more than once. The biggest hurdle of all was my shame. I knew that God offered perfect love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, but I had a very hard time accepting it. More than ever I knew that I could never be good enough. But, with a will surely strengthened by God, this time I didn’t give up. I read my Bible. I started attending church more regularly. I practiced confessing my sins and asking God’s forgiveness. Slowly but surely I began to feel the presence of Jesus in my life.

Then I met my future husband, Matt, a seeker like myself, and things began to snowball. I could feel the hand of God gently pushing us together. We began attending Northwood together and in it found a welcoming place where we could grow in our rediscovered faith. When we were married a year later, we committed ourselves to regular church attendance and raising our children to know and love Jesus.

Since that time, my faith has continued to grow. Every day I come to rely a little more on the power of God’s sustaining love. As for my feelings of inadequacy, the truth is I still struggle. The difference is that I no longer have to struggle alone. I know now that I can take my weakness to Jesus and that he will use it to make me strong. I know that even though I will never be good enough in this life, God will still love me and forgive me and continue his work in me as long as my heart remains open to him.

When we regularly include authentic stories from the scattered-church lives of God’s people, some of those accounts will include divulging wrongs. Hearing such forthright reports goes a long way toward restoring the connection with reality that can so easily get lost in our church gatherings.

True-to-life FaithStories, like this one from Rachel, can cut through the time-encrusted layers of religiosity.

(To listen to an audio recording of Rachel’s story, click here.)

Teaching One Another in Shared Church

Picture the people in your church. Now imagine Paul the apostle telling them they are “competent to instruct one another.” How would you respond to his evaluation? Perhaps you’d say, “Paul, look again! Teaching should come from our pastor, not from one another.”

Yet Paul actually did write those words to the church congregations in Rome: ““I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). So far as we know, the church in Rome was launched not by apostles but by Jews who had become Christ-followers. Were the church-planters the Rome residents who made up part of the crowd at Pentecost (see Acts 2:10)?

When he wrote to the Christians in Rome, Paul had never visited that city. His letter to them did include powerful teaching. But apparently those regular church folks—even before receiving his letter—were already qualified to engage in teaching each other.

Panel of New Testament Authors

Who should do the teaching in churches? By means of paraphrase, let’s follow an imaginary panel discussion among several of those who wrote the New Testament:

  • James: Only a few should become teachers. (Jas. 3:1)
  • Paul: True, but elders should be able to teach. (I Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9)
  • John: I agree. But the anointing of God’s Spirit equips all believers to receive teaching directly from him. Jesus himself said so. (Jn. 14:26; I Jn. 2:27).
  • Paul: Yet God has appointed gifted teachers in and for the church. (Rom. 12:7; I Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11)
  • Author of Hebrews: Think of it this way: infant-stage believers need someone to teach them, but maturity should bring an ability to teach. (Heb. 5;12)
  • Paul: Yes, the goal is that all believers should be able to teach and instruct each other. (Rom. 15:14; I Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16).

Each panelist is voicing a piece of the truth. What should we conclude after listening to all four? Might we summarize by saying that some Christians have the gift of teaching, but all should be able to participate in the teaching—with the Holy Spirit playing the key role in both groups?

In a similar way, some of us have the gift of giving, but all of us are to give. Some have the gift of mercy, but God calls all of us to show mercy. Think of the havoc it would play if only those with the gift of giving were allowed to give. Or if none but those with the gift of mercy practiced compassion.

Is Participatory Teaching Still Possible?

Was the balance between teaching by those with the gift and teaching by others possible only in New Testament-era churches? Must teaching today be either/or? Experience in contemporary churches leaves no doubt it can be both/and. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, my interviews with pastors and church leaders reveal how much the church can miss if “non-teachers” have no opportunity to teach. Four examples:

Mark Brouwer, Jacob’s Well Church, Chicago, IL: “All in all, participatory church meetings have made it clear that there is a lot of wisdom in this church—far more than just what I am able to bring.”

Bob Hyatt, The Evergreen Community, Portland, OR: “I came to realize that, although I am the recognized preacher, I might not have the most important thing to say on a given Sunday morning. I’ve noticed that when someone other than the preacher begins to speak in a congregational gathering, people sit up and lean forward.”

Lowell Bakke, had served as pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Puyallup, WA: “I presented a short teaching commentary on the text then asked those present to interact. . . .Roving microphones made it possible for everyone to hear clearly. I was amazed at some of the insights. It made me realize that even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, my mind as a pastor is so finite that I don’t understand many things about the Bible that the congregation was able to bring to the table each Sunday.”

Dan White, Axiom Church, Syracuse, NY: White has developed and fine-tuned a method of teaching with dialogue. A woman in the congregation told him, “In my previous church experience, I never felt I could offer any insights to the family of God—I was just consuming. Now I’m able to contribute.”

Practical Suggestions

Few Christians—even those with long histories in churches—have experienced the one-anothering kind of teaching during a church gathering. Few pastors have had any training in how to format a church meeting to make such teaching possible. Participatory teaching can take place in any number of ways. In his article, “Interactive Preaching,” Stuart Murray Williams suggests several options:  

“[Interactive preaching] might mean drawing the congregation into sermons by asking questions, inviting responses, welcoming insights. It might mean discussion groups during or after sermons. It might mean changing the way the chairs are arranged to make dialogue and discussion possible. It might mean having two speakers debating an issue together, with congregational participation. It might mean asking several people to reflect on a passage for a week and then construct a sermon together. It might mean inviting a congregation to do some preparatory reading during the week so that they can contribute thoughtfully to a teaching period. It might mean developing a culture where people know they are free to interrupt and interject comments.”

Paul is clear that the body of Christ “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). How much fullness would your church gain if all who have Spirit-given insights were given opportunity to do their work by sharing them?

Spurring On in Shared Church Meetings

  • Peter is hanging out and eating with non-Jews. Now he suddenly pulls back from them.
  • Esther, by speaking up, may save her people. But in doing so, she may lose her own life.
  • Philemon suffers loss when his slave runs away.

What need do all three have in common? To be spurred on.

Paul challenges Peter over his two-faced behavior when conservative Jews from Jerusalem show up in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14). Because Esther may have “come to royal position for such a time as this,” Mordecai urges her not to remain silent (Esth. 4:12-16). And Paul, having seen the runaway Onesimus become a Christ-follower, presses Philemon to welcome him back. (Philem. 17).

Encourage vs. Spur On

Spurring on, says the author of Hebrews, should happen when we meet with fellow Christians. Like encouragement, it is a major element in one-anothering—part of the mutual give-and-take of shared church. Encouragement and spurring on overlap. Yet the New Testament seems to distinguish between them. Encouragement aims to restore eroding trust (Jn. 14:1; Acts 14:22), whereas spurring on seeks to refuel love and right doing (Heb. 10:24). One shores up faith; the other renews practice.

Where the NIV uses spur on, other versions translate the Greek word as motivate, stimulate, or stir up. To many, a set of spurs may seem like an instrument of pain and cruelty. Yet to those who know and love horses, spurs—used in the right way—are simply intensive tools to move the animal into action.

In her website, Stacy Westfall (a trainer in horsemanship) says “a spur is nothing more than a motivator . . .  something that encourages your horse to make a change in its behavior. . . . When used correctly the horses don’t really mind spurs at all.  The key here is ‘used correctly.’  It is important for you to know your own limitations.  Don’t use spurs if you know you might jab when you don’t intend to.  And remember, using spurs when your horse doesn’t understand is like talking louder to someone who doesn’t speak your language; it doesn’t help.”

Like horses, we Christians often need to change our behavior. Living in bodies made of dust, working among the “thorns and thistles” of the world, we quickly drag our feet or balk. All too easily we “become weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9). Even young people, Isaiah said, “grow tired and weary” (Is. 40:30). No wonder, then, that each one of us needs prodding to keep on plodding.

Churches Need It, Too

Churches can come up short on love and good deeds. So, they—like individuals—need to be roused and redirected. According to Jesus, the church in Ephesus had left the love it had at first. He spurred them on to “Repent and do the things [deeds] you did at first” (Rev. 2:4,5). He told the church in Sardis to “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (3:2). And because the lukewarm Laodicean church was producing defective deeds, Jesus spurred them on to repent (3:15, 19).

Having served as a pastor, I know that some of the most effective spurring on comes from one’s peers in the trenches. Suppose a believer who works all week as an accountant for the government has nearly given up on shining the light of Christ because of a twisted emphasis on separation of church and state. Imagine the impact of hearing another government employee tell how God has shown her effective ways to live out her faith in a public agency without running afoul of the law.

A few days ago, I spoke with Nita Kotiuga, who serves as pastor of spiritual growth, connectedness, and prayer at the Westview Bible Church in Quebec, Canada. She told me about the Sunday-morning testimony of a man who suffers from chronic back pain. He told the congregation, “I have such a temptation to take that extra pill. I know I’ll get addicted. It is so easy for me to become an addict.”

Here was a man, whom the Westview church family holds in high esteem, confessing how easy it is to become an addict. After he spoke, two people came up to him and said, “You know, I’m addicted to painkillers, and I’m in the process of weaning myself off.” Clearly, his words had spurred them on to continue the battle.

Spurring On in the Sunday Meeting

Nita told me, “These were two people we would have never thought of in this regard. In church, you can feel like everyone else has their life together and I’m the only one who’s wrestling. This happened in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. It was a beautiful, holy moment of God.”

For many Christians, what takes place “in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning” is the only church they experience. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I quote Steve Cordle, who reports: “The stark reality is that more of America’s church members stay away from home groups than attend them. Joseph Meyers writes that in the vast majority of churches, no more than 35 percent of the congregation participates in a home-based small group.”

If it is true that 65 percent of church people do not take part in small groups, where will they receive any regular spurring on by other believers? And where will fellow Christ-followers receive spurring on from that 65 percent? Is it possible that discipleship today too often lacks horsepower because so few church meeting formats provide a place for spurs?

One-Anothering through Encouragement

A week ago, my wife and I took part in a church gathering that provided a wonderful opportunity for encouraging one another. Before anyone arrived, small rectangular blank slips had been placed on all the chairs. The pastor asked that we write our names, contact information, and prayer requests on our papers. Ushers then came by with bags to collect them. After switching stations, the ushers returned with the filled bags. Each of us now drew out a single piece of paper.

Since then, both my wife and I have exchanged a series of phone calls and emails with those whose prayer requests we received. Each of us is now in contact with someone in the congregation we had not met before. One request had to do with being an “encourager, helper, and cheerleader” for a spouse. All of us involved in this exchange have been greatly encouraged.

An Urgent and Never-Ending Need

Encouragement. Why do we Christians constantly need it? Because dead set against us is the relentless discourager. He tempts, then accuses us if we give in. He jams our paths with spiritual speed bumps, potholes, and detours. No wonder, then, that the Greek word for “encourage” shows up more than 100 times in the New Testament. Someone has called encouragement “oxygen for the soul.”

Countless people in our culture suffer from encouragement deficit. One blog title says, “Lack of Encouragement Nears Epidemic Levels.” Without encouragement, employees quit. Students drop out of school. Athletes give up. Even our biblical heroes of faith experienced extreme down times:

  • Job: “I despise my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone; my days have no meaning.” (Job 7:16)
  • Jonah: “It would be better for me to die than to live." (Jonah 4:8)
  • Elijah:  "I have had enough, Lord. . . Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." (I Kings 19:4)
  • David: “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.” (Psalm 73:2)
  • Peter: “And he went outside and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)
  • Paul: “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.” (II Corinthians 1:8)

Antidote for Spiritual Toxins

Four one another/each other passages in the New Testament specifically link one-anothering with mutual encouragement (1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11; Heb. 3:13; 10:25). Most versions translate the Greek word parakaleo as encourage. Others render it as comfort, exhort, or warn. In the verses just referenced, encouragement seems to be an antidote against:

  • The damaging effects of grief and loss.
  • The erosion of faith, hope, and love.
  • A heart grown unyielding as a result of being deceived by sin.
  • Swerving from the faith and turning away from God.

One-anothering is a major God-given channel for encouragement. Should we should encourage each other one-on-one and in small groups? Yes. But shared-church means we should also look for ways to do so when we gather with our congregations. Writing about a church-meeting context, Paul said, “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged” (I Cor. 14:31). In church meetings, pastors can and should encourage. But encouragement is a whole-body ministry. We must never hand it off to the professionals on the platform.

Stories that Capture Attention

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include an interview with Bob Maddox, one of the pastors at Grace Community Church in Gresham, OR. He explained why their church includes frequent one-anothering in their meetings:

“One of our pastors can get up and say, ‘We’re going to have Tom come up and illustrate this point.’ Suddenly, the mood in the entire auditorium changes. Everyone stops and leans forward, wanting to hear Tom’s story. In reality, the average person’s story grabs people. It is able to penetrate and cut through some of the hardness our culture has built into us. It also cuts through the ways we have conditioned ourselves not to listen when someone is preaching. We choose to have people from the body up front on a fairly regular basis, because they can say things we staff people cannot.”

Why can those in the congregation “say things we staff people cannot”? One reason: throughout the week they have slogged through faith-challenging crises as they worked and lived elbow-to-elbow with fellow employees and neighbors who are indifferent or hostile to the faith. What their stories may lack in polish they make up for in fresh-from-the-front-lines authenticity.

Encouraging All the More

Many of those present on a Sunday morning might not meaningfully cross paths with another Christian in the week to come. Pastors and church leaders would do well to stay awake at night thinking of ways to structure church meetings to make room for frequent encouragement. As forces in our culture chill relationships, the need for encouragement escalates.

Jesus warned that as the end approaches, lawlessness will cause the love of most people to “grow cold.” The Message paraphrases his words to say that, for many, “the overwhelming spread of evil will do them in—nothing left of their love but a mound of ashes” (Matthew 24:12). Paul cautioned Timothy about the “terrible times in the last days” (II Timothy 3:1).

A God-given defense? The writer of Hebrews calls for one-anothering encouragement to take place in our meetings—“and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (10:25).

One-Anothering in Shared-Church Prayer

“Pray for each other,” James 5:16,

Just recently my wife and I sat in a church meeting in which the congregation honored its high school and college graduates. Three of them told stories of their faith-journeys and described their next steps. Afterward, the youth leader called all eight or so to the front, where they introduced themselves and suggested how the church could pray for them. After this, the youth leader asked them to station themselves at various places in the aisles. Then we, the congregation, were invited to huddle around each one and pray for him or her. In our cluster, several prayed aloud. This could be called “shared-church prayer.”

Some time ago, we had also been present in the Sunday meeting of another church. A short-term mission team of three would soon leave for a South American country to serve, as I recall, in an orphanage. On the Sunday before their departure, the pastor called the trio to the front. Wonderful, I thought. They will tell us what they will be doing during their ten-day venture. That, however, did not happen. Instead, the pastor himself told about the kind of projects they would undertake. Then, instead of asking members of their small group to surround and pray for them, he offered the prayer himself. This might be called ”pastor-centric prayer.”

The Pastoral Prayer: Biblical?

Pastor-centric prayer in a church meeting means the pastor does most if not all the praying. In shared-church prayer, members of the body participate in the prayer ministry. Tradition has handed down to us what we have come to call the “pastoral prayer.” Now, of course, the New Testament says God has given pastors (as well as other equippers) to the church. And pastors—shepherds—ought to pray publicly, just as others in the church should. But nowhere does Scripture describe anything as a “pastoral prayer” or set it apart from a “non-pastoral prayer.”

Sian and Stuart Murray Williams, in The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church, write that “church leaders have too often . . . usurped responsibilities that belong to the whole community. This creates unhealthy dependency in the congregation. . . . We are still living with the consequences of the Christendom shift, which silenced and disinherited the laity and centralized power and ministry in the hands of the clergy.”

I have had decades of experience in small groups of Christians. My observation:? Very few—even among veteran church attenders—will pray with each other aloud. Might part of the reason be that almost all the praying they hear in congregational meetings is “polished,” offered by church professionals? Might another part of the reason be that they do not see/hear participatory public prayer modeled by their peers?

Churches Practicing Shared-Church Prayer

Nothing in Scripture requires us to preserve this non-participative prayer pattern. In fact, many churches are learning how to restore shared prayer to the people of God. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include an account by Ollie Malone. In it, he recalls how, as a seminary student, he had attended The Church on the Way shortly after Jack Hayford had retired from his role as pastor. In his words:

 “I was surprised when Pastor Jack (who, although retired, was leading the service that morning, but not preaching) asked the congregation to form in groups of four or so members, introduce ourselves, and identify any specific prayer needs we might have. I ended up in a group with three other men who were alone at the time. Quickly we shared names and prayer needs, then took to the task of prayer.

“To this day (more than ten years later), I recall the prayer needs shared with me: one young Indian father shared the challenges that he and his wife were having with a four-year-old daughter, another young brother asked for prayer for his mother who did not know Christ, the third asked for prayer for a mother who was ill. I needed to have my house in Houston sold, since I had moved away and it had not been sold. We prayed for each other’s needs and returned to our seats.

In each of the services that I attended, the practice was reinforced. I prayed for and got to know several individuals during the course of my days there. Throughout the days that followed, I would continue to attend services that would occur during the week. Frequently, I would see one of the three men with whom I had prayed on that first Sunday morning. We would ask for updates on the prayer needs. ‘How are things going with your daughter?’ I recall asking my Indian brother. I was blessed to hear, ‘So much better.’

“I have often thought how simple the request was at The Church on the Way, yet how powerful and transformative it was in my life and, I suspect, in the lives of others who still believe in praying for one another, as the Scripture exhorts.”

Another example in Chapter Six of Curing Sunday Spectatoritis came from Martin Schlomer, who pastors the Elim Evangelical Free Church in Puyallup, WA. He incorporates participatory prayer into church meetings by asking something like, “How many of you are dealing with cares this morning?” As people respond with raised hands, he then invites others to move beside them and to ask, “May I pray for you?” Anyone not involved in this way is encouraged to pray silently. Schlomer says he has never had any objections from people who have been prayed for. However, he admits that these prayer times are uncomfortable for some, so it is always presented as a completely voluntary ministry.

Shared Prayer Takes Self-Sacrifice

Keyword: ministry. Even when gathered, we can serve each other in prayer. The one-anothering in Jesus’s new command calls us to love each other as he has loved us—in other words, self-sacrificially. Indeed, praying for each other aloud does require laying down our lives for one another. It means forgetting about ourselves, moving out of our privatized safe zones, and putting the interests of others ahead of our own.

One-Anothering in a Shared-Church Meeting

Jesus did not offer this as a new suggestion: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn. 13:34). He called it his new command. So, one-anothering is not optional for Christians. The "must" is implied in the "command."

But wait. The command to love others had been around centuries before Jesus came. The ancient Israelites, in Lev. 19:18, were instructed to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus called this the second-most-important command of all (Mt. 22:39). Why, then, any need for another command to love? And in what way was it “new”? In at least three ways.

  1. The new command named different recipients: “Neighbor” in the old command; “one another” in the new. A neighbor might be an atheist, a cult member, or a Christ-follower. One another narrows the field to fellow believers.
  2. The new command set a higher standard for the love. “As [you love] yourself” in the old; “as I [Jesus] have loved you” in the new. His self-sacrifice for others becomes the new and higher benchmark.
  3. When acted upon, the new command would bring about a new result: “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other" (Jn. 13:35. MSG). One-anothering authenticates us as gospel representatives.

The New Command Amplified

Jesus’s new command blossomed into the dozens of one-another/each-other directives that lace the letters of Paul, James, Peter, and John. For the most part, practicing these one-anothering instructions requires that we get together. One-anothering can take place in a meeting of two or three (Matt. 18:20) or an entire church (I Cor. 14:26).

Many New Testament passages that call for one-anothering consist of inward attitudes: accepting, forgiving, honoring, and so on. But at least seven involve outward actions that can be carried out in a shared-church meeting:

  • Greeting
  • Praying For
  • Encouraging
  • Spurring On
  • Teaching/Instructing
  • Serving
  • Confessing

This and each of the next few blogs will focus on one of these seven actions and our need to practice it as part of our one-anothering in church meetings.

Greeting Each Other

Let’s begin with “greet one another.” You enter a room where a group is gathering. No one speaks to you. Deep down inside, what are you experiencing? Isolation? Loneliness? Uncertainty about what to say or do next?

To anyone long familiar with Paul’s New Testament letters, it is easy to read right across the word greet and barely notice it. For one thing, greeting seems so mundane, disconnected from the “seriously important” matters of faith. Then, too, Paul uses greet/greeting/greetings so often (44 times in the NIV translation), we can begin to tune the term out, treating it like background noise.

Yet the roots of “greet one another” (Rom. 16:16; I Cor. 16:20; II Cor. 13:12) reach all the way back to Jesus’s new command. So, greeting each other—far from being trivial—becomes a matter of following Jesus our King. The Greek word for greet carries the ideas of welcoming, accepting, embracing—all part of showing love to one another.

In preparing to write Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I interviewed Stephanie Williams, one of the pastors in Mill City Church, Minneapolis, MN. She told me that their weekly gathering begins with a “community time.” This segment is always introduced with two suggested questions to help conversations get underway. First question: “What brought you to Mill City?” The second question is intentionally worded to work even if the parties are complete strangers. Sometimes this question relates to the sermon topic. For example, if the message will cover what Scripture says about listening, the question might be: “Who is the best listener you know?” To make it meaningful, the community time lasts from five to eight minutes (in contrast to the 60 seconds or so often given to a greeting time). As Stephanie told me, “You can’t remember someone unless they share something with you.”

Our Experience in Two Churches

Two personal stories—one positive, one negative—will illustrate the importance of greeting each other. In each case, my wife and I were visiting a good-sized church well outside our own community. In the first instance, a man in the church greeted us warmly. As we talked, he realized that we had never been to his city and that we wanted to visit certain places before we left. So, taking about 30 minutes of his own time, he led us to the subway, descended the escalator with us, and showed us how to use the system.

In the other city, we drove our car into the parking lot, walked a fair distance to the church building, and entered what appeared to be the main door. After a search, we finally found the restrooms. Next, we entered what was apparently the entrance to the main meeting room. An usher there had a handful of bulletins, but he was so engrossed in conversation with someone, we did not receive one. We found a place, sat through the service, got up after the benediction, left the building, and walked to our vehicle. During the whole time, not one person spoke to us or even noticed we were there.

The man in the first church demonstrated self-sacrificing love, reflecting the love with which Jesus has loved us. This stranger took time from his own schedule—perhaps even from dinner with his family—to greet us in a way that cost him something. Not every greeting needs to be that time-consuming. But every loving greeting will require us to place others above ourselves, putting I John 3:16 into practice: “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (NLT).

Shared church means choosing self-sacrifice over self-interest—the way of the cross. Even in our greeting one another.

Finding the Church Outside the Building

Why do we need to see the Church in both its modes (see previous blog)? One major reason: if the scattered church remains out of sight, we will not recognize or serve it.

The church does not go into freeze-frame between Sundays. Instead, it simply shifts into its scattered state. The scattered church crops up just about everywhere: in homes, neighborhoods, social events, schools, and workplaces. The paths of Christians may well intersect more often in the work world than in any other arena.

A Survey of Christians in the Workplace

Henry Blackaby: Equipping the Church in the Workplace through the Local Church

I once surveyed 60 Christians from 3 different churches—urban, suburban, and rural. All lived in the northwestern corner of the State of Washington. All worked in non-church-related jobs. I asked: “How many other believers are you aware of among those you interact with at work (coworkers, clients, customers, students, etc.)?”

Only 3 knew of none. More than three-quarters (46) could identify 3 or more professing Christians in their on-the-job networks. The follow-up question asked, “If you do know of other believers where you work, do you deliberately seek for opportunities to encourage them in their faith and walk?” The responses were almost equally divided: yes (31), no (29).

The point is this: for most in the workplace, the scattered church is within easy reach. But among those I surveyed, many do not search out fellow Christians on the job for mutual strengthening. Why might this be? The New Testament repeatedly says that one of our main responsibilities is to serve other Christians in all kinds of ways.

Jesus’s New Command to love one another (Jn. 13:34-35) unleashed scores of one-another/each-other instructions. Our one-anothering is to include: serving, encouraging, spurring on, praying for, accepting, forgiving, showing hospitality, bearing burdens, not grumbling about, greeting, submitting to, and warning/counseling—to name just a dozen.

Why So Little One-Anothering at Work?

The New Testament oozes with these one-anothering instructions. Why, then, do many Christians make little effort to find and serve other believers on the job? At least four possible reasons come to mind:

1. Blind Spot. We are unaware or only dimly conscious of the scattered church. Our traditions have conditioned us to think of “church” almost exclusively in terms of buildings, church-sponsored programs, and Sunday gatherings. Yet the church spends the overwhelming bulk of its time in scattered mode.

2. Near-Sightedness. We perceive our responsibility for one-anothering in terms of the gathered church (those in our small group or the church directory). We may feel safer around such Christians, because they share our “brand” of Christianity or our positions on certain issues of faith and practice.

3. Tunnel Vision. Once outside the gathered church and in the work world, we see our ministry responsibility to be only that of evangelizing unbelievers. Countless Christians have heard rightly that that we should always be prepared to speak to “outsiders” (Col. 4:5, 6; I Pet. 3:15). The problem: for many, that is all they have heard.

4. Fear. Some might worry that finding and serving Christians among their coworkers will jeopardize their jobs. After all, our employers hired us to carry out the tasks in our job descriptions, not to act like ministers.

5. Overbusyness. We can get so wrapped up in gathered-church activities and programs that we have no time left for significant one-anothering on the job. Richard C. Halverson served as senior pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD, and later as Chaplain of the United States Senate. In his book, How I Changed My Thinking About the Church, he writes: “The minister finds himself preoccupied with the employment of people in church work—at times inventing tasks to keep them interested and busy.” But as Halverson came to realize, “The real work of the church is what is done between Sundays when the church is scattered . . . in homes, in schools, in offices, on construction jobs, in marketplaces.”

Becoming Scattered-Church Detectives

Knowing what prevents one-anothering among Christians on the job makes it far easier to find remedies. Simply recognizing the reality and importance of both church modes—gathered and scattered—can correct the problem of the blind spot.

The fix for near-sightedness may take a bit more effort. We will need to learn how to locate likely Christ-followers among our on-the-job networks. Years of focusing only on the gathered church can cause our believer-finding skills to atrophy. In the Sunday context, regular attendance, Bibles in hand, small-group participation, etc., often serve as our clues.

But in the world of work, we will need to look intentionally for other signs. For example, what can we learn from the vocabularies of coworkers? How do they spend their weekends? How do they treat the “nobodies” among clients, customers, patients, students, etc.? How do they use or respond to the name of Jesus? These and similar signs are only pointers—not ironclad evidence that they trust and follow the Lord. But such hints can pave the way for further discernment.  In all of this, we need to recognize that Christ-followers may gather in churches that differ sharply from our own. Some may have received little teaching, poor teaching, or downright wrong teaching. But if they are seeking to know and follow Jesus, we can come beside and help them along the way.

If the problem is tunnel vision—the idea that ministry outside the gathered church is just about evangelism—we need to find a wider-angle lens. Ministry outside the gathered church includes more than evangelism. The New Testament puts a priority on our serving “those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10).

Fear that one-anothering among Christians might end in job loss can be overcome by recognizing that we are to serve our employers “wholeheartedly” (Eph. 6:7). We should never steal time from employers to minister to other believers. But as relationships with Christian coworkers naturally grow in the course of our work, we can arrange to use personal time—coffee breaks, lunch hours, off-hours, weekends—to serve one another.

Which brings us to the final difficulty: over-involvement in gathered-church programs. Yes, each of us should serve the gathered church in some way. But evening and weekend hours crammed full with church-related work will leave no time for hanging out with Christian coworkers who need our friendship, encouragement, prayers, or counsel. Or for letting them serve us in those ways.

Shared church must extend far beyond gathered-church mode. The work world is spiritually dark. We Christians are also the light of that world (Matt. 5:14). One-anothering among coworkers remains one of the best ways to keep our lamps there burning brightly.

Seeing the Church in Both Its Modes

The benediction ended minutes ago. The last car has just pulled out of the parking lot. At this point, where is the church? Thirty minutes ago, most could have said exactly where the church was: they were in it. But now, this family heads home, that salesperson drives to the airport, and a twenty-something clocks in at Starbucks. Where is the church now? Does the Body of Christ go into suspended animation until next Sunday?

Where is the Church Between Sundays?

Neil Hudson, Imagine Project Director, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

Unfortunately, our vocabulary fogs the answers to these questions. Centuries of tradition have trained us to apply the word church to a building. It is to the building that we drive or walk to “go to church.” Once inside, we are “in church.” But such terms do not clarify what happens to the church when we disperse. Since we are no longer together in the church building, are we then out of the church?

The experience of the Church in Acts 8 offers a word that can help us think all this through. Persecution ignited by the stoning of Stephen slammed against the Jerusalem church. As a result, “all except the apostles were scattered. . . . Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (8:1, 4). So, the church, once gathered, had now scattered. Still the same people (minus the apostles). Still, therefore, the same church. Still doing the work of the church. But now, telescoping outward, operating in its extended form.

So, the church functions in two modes: gathered and scattered. If your weekend meeting typically runs 75 to 90 minutes, the church appears in that gathered mode less than one percent of the 10,080-minute week. Even if you add in, say, another two hours per week for participation in small groups, gathering still accounts for only two percent of the time. So, between 98 and 99 percent of the time, the church lives and works in its scattered mode.

We are Kingdom Seeds

Scattered, in Acts 8, translates a word related to the Greek diaspora. It means to sow, as in scattering seed across a field. In one of Jesus’s parables, the seed means God’s word. But in another parable, the seed stands for God’s people. Jesus reveals that he sows the “people of the kingdom,” as “good seed,” throughout the world-field (Matt. 13:37, 38, NLT).

In the Old Testament diaspora (dispersion), God scattered Daniel and his friends into a workplace right inside the idolatrous core of the Babylonian government. In that pagan context, they sprouted, took root, grew, and bore fruit for God. Today, in addition to knowing ourselves as priests, we Christians need to see ourselves as seeds—life-carrying cells flung into the soil of the world to carry out God’s agenda where we live, work, and play. God has so arranged life in his Church that it does most of its work not in its gathered but in its scattered form.

Literal seeds, like Christians, need to be both gathered and scattered. After harvest, corn or wheat grains go to a seed company. There, the gathered seeds may be fortified to make each one more productive when it is scattered. For example, some seeds get treated with a fungicide to protect them from damping off or root rot. Bathing seeds in insecticides can safeguard them from harmful pests. Others may be coated with fertilizer to spur growth once they sprout in the ground. These seeds need this together-time. But the real reason for the gathering is to prepare the seeds to produce fruit when scattered.

Seed Preparation

In a similar way, the tiny fraction of time spent in our gatherings as Christians should prepare us for the far larger amount of time we will spend as the church in its scattered mode. In gathered-church meetings, we need to hear from those gifted and qualified to preach and teach. But we must also hear from those who can tell how they are seeing God act in every phase of scattered-church life. In most cases, a pastor serving full time on a church payroll has little or no experience with what confronts people in, say, the ethical dilemmas of a contemporary workplace. This lack of work-world contact poses no problem if the meeting format of the gathered church provides opportunities for others to voice reports from the scattered church. How has God been moving in this spiritually dark workplace, that conflict-torn neighborhood, or those alienated families?

Sadly, church life in the gathered mode can become addictive. The camaraderie and closeness, fellowship and friendship we experience when together feels far safer than the abrasive, dog-eat-dog world we often face in scattered-church mode. Yes, assembling together is vital. But danger develops when we begin to act as if gathered-church is the goal, the only form of church that matters.

Why Gather?

To counter that notion, we need to keep asking ourselves: Why do we gather? According to the New Testament, we do so to encourage, spur on, build up, equip, and strengthen each other for the mission of God outside the meeting place. In boot camp, NASA astronauts spend time together in training. But everything they do in this gathered mode aims at equipping them for their mission “out there.” The hands-on experience of those who have actually lived in space becomes an important part of preparing other astronauts for what they will face in zero-gravity conditions.

The scattered church not only has a mission, it is itself a mission. During their time in the gathered church, Christians who will spend most of their week “out there” need to benefit from hearing reports from others who have “been there, done that.” In our roles as scattered seeds, the world’s soil will confront us with spiritual counterparts of pests, fungi, viruses, and weeds. Over and again, we must hear others tell fresh stories of how God came to their rescue when these forces threatened to make them unproductive.

The small fraction of time we spend in the gathered church is precious. For the sake of God’s mission in the world, let’s make the best use of that time.

Shared-Church Singing

“The lack of participatory music in daily American life is a major obstacle to our well-being.” So writes  Ethan Hein in a 2014 blog. “We in America tend to place a high value on presentational music created by professionals,” says Hein, “and a low value on participatory music made by amateurs.”

Hein’s article does not discuss church music. But can his diagnosis of this missing element in American music shine light on the state of singing in our Sunday gatherings? Would you call the music in your church mostly “presentational” or “participatory”? My own experience in churches over the past few decades points to a “lack of participatory music” in congregational singing. But why? Let me suggest two reasons—reasons relating to the people in the pews (or chairs) and to those on the platform.

The Pews

I believe that when we gather as Christians the New Testament puts a priority on one-anothering. So, yes, I confess to looking around during “worship time” to see whether that’s happening. In doing so, I watch mouths. Typically, in half or more of the people, I see lips moving. Even though I sit within earshot, I usually can’t hear what—or if—they are actually singing. In the rest of the people, I see lips remaining sealed.

To my way of thinking, neither lip-syncing nor lip-sealing counts as real singing. What, I ask myself, explains what I see? Are people today unwilling to sing? Unable? No, because when songs like “Amazing Grace” or “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” come along, sealed lips open and nearly everyone sings with audible voices. Why, then, the lack of heartfelt participation with so many other songs? Too often, stifled voices apparently result from unsingable songs. Songs written for musicians to perform can easily outdistance the musical reach of those in the typical congregation.

The Platform

Another reason for the “lack of participatory music” in church gatherings comes from up front. First, the “worship team” has probably rehearsed that Sunday’s songs several times during the scheduled practice time. Most likely no one in the congregation has had the time or opportunity to master the melodies, intervals, cadences, and pauses.

Second, someone on the platform has chosen what to include in the musical menu for the meeting. This song-selector (as each of us does) will have selected music that suits his or her musical tastes. So, week in and week out, the decision-making on the music is non-participatory. Again, the congregation has no voice in this.

Third, those on the platform hold a monopoly on the microphones. Any sound from the stage—whether voice, drums, guitar, or keyboard—can be boosted to a volume that will overwhelm even the strongest unamplified voice coming from the pews. Some musicians on the platform wear earphones to hear each other. Hearing the congregation, on the other hand, often appears to be secondary or even irrelevant.

Corporate Singing in the New Testament

The New Testament says very little about music in Christian gatherings. So, when it does address the subject, we need to pay careful attention. Two verses speak clearly to the matter of Christians singing in community.

  • Eph 5:19. “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.”
  • Col 3:16. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”

Both verses put signing in the context of of one-anothering. Through “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” we are to “speak to one another.” Those same musical genres show up in the Colossians verse that says to “teach and admonish one another.” Both verses link this kind of singing with making music “to the Lord” or “to God.” In one-anothering—even our musical one-anothering—we obey Jesus’s new command (John 13:34-35). And he himself said that by obeying him we show our love for him. In this way, our one-anothering becomes worship.

But, of course, to speak, to teach, and to admonish one another in song requires that we hear each other. Neither lip-syncing nor lip-sealing permits listening to one another. Nor can we hear each other if the amplified sound from the stage overpowers all voices from the congregation. In a blog, Jordan Richmond wrote: “I attended a church service . . . and felt almost assaulted by the sound (around 90-95 db).” And John Stackhouse, in a Christianity Today article asks: " Why does everything every Christian musician performs nowadays seem to require high amplification?"

Why Do We Gather?

By noting why we should not give up meeting with other Christians, the writer of Hebrews indirectly explains why we should gather: to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” and to “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:24, 25). Notice—again—the twice-repeated reason given for meeting together: one-anothering.

In concerts, we rightly expect presentational music. We go to enjoy hearing talented artists perform. But in our regular church meetings, the New Testament calls us to gather for another purpose--to build up and strengthen each other. This one-anothering purpose calls for participatory music. In this way, the Body of Christ "builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph. 4:16).

Practical Action Steps

What can a church do to make its music less presentational and more participatory? Let me offer three suggestions. Perhaps you can add others in the comment box:

1. Give the congregation a voice in choosing the songs. Paul’s instructions for church meetings in Corinth imply that those present could participate in song-selection (I Cor. 14:26).

2.  Have two musical leaders—one for the congregation and one for the musicians. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include an interview with a pastor whose church does just that: “The band leader focuses on the musicians (repeating a verse or adding a chorus). The congregational leader focuses on the congregation to make certain people are connecting and singing.”

3. Consider relocating the music team. In Trinity in Human Community, Peter Holmes describes what Christ Church Deal, UK, did to shift the focus back to one-anothering. “We moved the worship band to the back of the congregation, requiring each person to proactively visualize worshipping Christ in relationship rather than continue to be passively ‘led’ in worship by the singers and musicians. This change has also allowed the singers and musicians to be more part of the body of worshippers (e.g. on the same level, rather than at the altar or on stage in front of everyone).”

Pastor’s Job Description: Shared Church of 450

The previous blog suggested what a shared-church pastor’s job description might look like. In a comment, one reader wondered “if there are any churches on Planet Earth where this is happening. Do you know of any? If so, can you let us know of models to check out?”

Almost simultaneously, another reader, a pastor, offered to share the “Ministry Role Description” being followed in their church that averages 450 on Sundays. I gratefully accepted the offer. At this pastor’s request, I have changed the names of people and places.

You’ll notice an unusual element in the following job description: this pastor oversees a preaching team—but does not preach. The pastor spends a great deal of time working behind the scenes to help others discover and develop their gifts on behalf of the church body. The job description shows a concern for building relationships, small groups, and leadership development. The pastor serves as an equipper, in line with Eph. 4:11-12.

Ministry Role Description

Reporting to: John Doe

1. Spiritual Growth

  • Modules / workshops:
  • Facilitate modules - recruit leaders, plan relevant curriculum for Sunday morning and other modules.
  • Maintain that the vision for modules is communicated to those leading and organizing.
  • Develop an effective means of promotion of all modules.

Preaching Team:

  • Coordinate and oversee the preaching team - content, roster, best practices.
  • Ensure that sermon series are developed, planned, preachers booked, and necessary information on sermon content communicated to the team, staff, other essential people.

2. Group Life: Work with John Doe to:

  • Ensure growth groups are formed and developed.
  • Ensure group leaders are recruited, trained and resourced.
  • Train and develop current and new growth group leaders.
  • Oversee curriculum for groups, training/development component for group life leaders.
  • Maintain a network of communication to and among group leaders.
  • Meet with all group leaders together twice a year for vision renewal, sharing of stories, discussion & training.

3. Connectedness:

  • Ensure new people are effectively welcomed and integrated into the church community.
  • Implement and maintain a system by which people will be drawn close into the life of the church and feel connected with other people.
  • Develop events and other structured means to deepen connection and community amongst the church family (e.g., potlucks, coffee times).
  • Ensure there are formal and informal processes in place that enable people to feel drawn in, welcomed and engaged.
  • Connecting individuals with small groups, ministries, places to build relationships, and ministries in which to serve.

4. Prayer Ministry:

  • Ensure Prayer ministry is integrated into the life of church programs—including Sunday morning.
  • Invite people onto prayer teams and ensure training of prayer team members (those praying for and with people).
  • Ensure (in consideration of their gifts and inter-personal skills) that these teams represent our demographic.
  • Oversee development of people and leaders in prayer ministry—development tools, resources, training aspects.
  • Lead the process of developing many facets and initiatives of prayer ministry.

5. Spiritual Direction:

  •  Short-term spiritual direction with individuals.
  • Develop and facilitate other spiritual directors within the church body.

6. Leadership Development: Work with John Doe to:

  • Implement and oversee processes to ensure new leaders are identified.
  • Developed, train, and facilitate leaders.

7. Other:

  • Contribute to the planning of Sunday services and special services.
  • Provide pastoral care as needed.
  • Serve as a catalyst and support to the leadership team of the women’s ministry to ensure that events and connectivity happens (mini-retreats, annual retreat, social events).
  • Ensure proper record keeping of files and information related to your ministry.
  • Plan and manage all budgets related to ministry areas.
  • Engage the community through a missional outreach initiative.
  • Continue personal development (e.g., completing spiritual training courses, reading current literature, etc.).
  • Participate in bi-weekly staff meeting.
  • Have a bi-weekly individual meeting with John Doe.
  • Submit a weekly schedule template to John Doe (update as needed).

___________

My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis includes an interview with Trevor Withers, one member of the three-person leadership team in Network Church, St. Albans, UK. Withers says his team deliberately creates what they call a leadership vacuum. “Whatever we do,” Withers explains, “others cannot do, because we are taking up and occupying that space.” So, the team set about readying others to step into ministry roles. Today, their preaching team numbers around 18 and they have eight worship leaders. A number of people serve as hosts, who lead the weekly gatherings.

A church that practices the priesthood of all believers needs leaders—but those who walk the talk of servant-leadership. Rather than clinging to rank, title, position, or tradition, they unlock opportunities for others who can, in turn, empower yet others. The servant-leader takes Jesus as his model. Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). Jesus delegated baptizing to his apprentices (Jn. 4:2). Paul, after equipping Timothy to teach, did not expect him to do all the teaching. Instead, he urged him to hand the task over to others who would continue the giveaway process (II Tim. 2:2).

In The New Reformation, Greg Ogden says, “the Reformation never fully delivered on its promise” to restore the priesthood of all believers. He asks, “What kept the Reformers from returning the ministry to the people of God?” We might also ask, what keeps us today from practicing the all-believer priesthood?

Could one reason be the typical written (and unwritten) job descriptions for pastors?