More on Distributed Church Leadership

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How are churches led? The answer matters greatly—to you, to me, and to God’s Kingdom agenda.

One of the narrators in the Sheep Among Wolves movie (see previous blog) described leadership in the Iranian church as “decentralized” and “distributed.” Since viewing that film, I’ve been mulling over that word distributed. In a church with distributed leadership, what would keep it from sinking into everyone doing what is right in their own eyes?

The Distributor

Growing up with a Dad who fixed every engine on the farm, I soon learned the role of the distributor. It was that strange-looking little contraption with all the wires sprouting from its topside. Its main function? To send a high-voltage current to all the spark plugs—and to make certain each plug gets its jolt of electricity in the proper sequence and at just the right instant.

While young I also learned that God is a Distributor. He parceled out the Promised Land to his people, the Israelites. Jesus took the fish-and-bread lunch of a boy, multiplied it, and distributed the servings to the crowd. Reflecting this characteristic of the distributing God, Christians in the early church brought the proceeds from property sales and divvied them up among those who needed financial aid.

It’s easy to picture how electrical current, real estate, food, and money can be distributed. But leadership? How can it be shared around without inviting chaos? Conditioned by the way the world works, we expect top-down, concentrated leadership—with slang terms to match: head honcho, big cheese, top dog, and so on. Those in such power positions maintain control. They work to keep people—and the things we humans do—from getting out of line.

John Holmes:  The flock of starlings acting as a swarm.

John Holmes: The flock of starlings acting as a swarm.

But the church in Iran operates with decentralized and distributed leadership. Who keeps the train on the rails?

Watch the Birds

While I was pondering all this, an article came to my attention—on swarming. Many of God’s creatures swarm. Birds do (see photo of starlings). Bees do (Deut. 1:44). Locusts do (Ex. 10:12). Fish do (I’ve seen them while snorkeling). But rather than displaying bedlam and confusion, such swarming creatures can form dynamic and free-as-the-wind patterns of great beauty—as in this YouTube example.

These stunning displays by starlings have, for centuries, led to speculation on how they do it. Is it extrasensory perception? Biological radio? Group soul? Groupthink?. Whatever the answer to the “How?” puzzle, an Audubon Magazine article says, “any [bird] member can initiate a movement that others will follow.” Many birds—operating as one body.

An Ephesians 4 Approach

But back to church leadership in Iran. In Sheep Among Wolves, Dalton Thomas says leadership there is “not based around a particular individual or skill set or gifting. It’s built around an Ephesians 4 framework of empowering everyone in the body.” Their experience, then, suggests that the God who made many animal creatures able to practice distributed leadership can also enable his reborn human creatures to do so.

Jesus himself invites us to learn about life in God’s Kingdom by birdwatching (Matt. 6:26). Even though not made in God’s image, such creatures can teach us vital lessons. Among us image-bearers, of course, we should expect the practice of distributed leadership to work from a completely different source of power.

Behind Distributed Church Leadership.

That word power, it seems to me, points us to the how of distributed church leadership. Jesus had promised those first disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). And the Holy Spirit, like the Father and the Son, is a Distributor. Paul, after listing a number of gifts, explains, “It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts” (I Cor. 12:11, NLT).

The Holy Spirit, the Distributor, is also a Leader. It is “those who are led by the Spirit [who] are the children of God” (Rom. 8:14). So if all in a church allow God’s Spirit to lead them, they have the power to practice distributed leadership—each one responding to the impulses of the unseen Leader within. Only this can explain how the New Testament church was able to do what it did. In Acts 4:31, 32, they were “all filled with the Holy Spirit.” As a result, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” No human leader was urging or compelling them to act this way. Distributed leadership. Shared-church leadership.

On the other hand, if those in the church fail to follow the Holy Spirit’s internal leading, distributed leadership won’t work. In that case, our only alternative is to fall back on centralized, human leadership that is forceful enough, persuasive enough, loud enough, to keep us all in line. The world counts on hierarchies to control its armies, its politics, its businesses, and so on. But Jesus taught his disciples not to settle for that kind of leadership among themselves: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you” (Matt. 20:25-26).

A Leadership Alert

The New Testament reflects Jesus’s caution about dominant leadership. In church-related contexts, the NIV mentions “leaders” only five times. Always plural, never singular. Paul does not address his letters to church leaders. Rather, each is addressed to the whole church body itself—“To the church in . . .,” “To the saints in . . .,” and so on. Today, the focus has shifted. By googling just now on “church leadership,” I got well over 6 million hits.

If we Christians are capable of practicing distributed leadership, why does the New Testament speak of human church leaders at all—elders, shepherds, overseers, etc.? Why would we have any need for recognized leaders? Because members of Christ’s body have not yet arrived. God knows we will need some seasoned folks among us who are able, as needed, to keep us—or call us back—on course.

In the New Testament, we find non-dominant leaders serving in various helpful ways. For instance, because they have matured through testing, they are able to lead by setting examples for us (I Pet. 5:3). We can see the Jesus-life reflected in their marriages. In how they raise their children. In how they relate to non-Christians. In how they handle money. God also gives leaders the gift of being able to grasp a wide-angle view of the church body. They are to oversee it, to watch it with care. They help others discern their callings, find their faith-voices, and exercise their grace-gifts in the church and in the world. They create and maintain a setting in which members of Christ’s body may serve each other with those grace-gifts. Such leaders guard the church from false teachers, encourage it to push on through rough patches, and correct it when necessary.

But—returning to the bird-swarming analogy—we dare not let leaders do our “flying” for us. If they do, we will soon be content to sit back and enjoy the show as they perform their flying acts. Then our wing-muscles will become flabby. We may even forget we have wings. And when that happens, we will become dependent on the kind of overly prominent, run-the-show kind of leadership Jesus warns us against.

How our churches are led matters greatly to God’s Kingdom agenda.


Shared Church in an Unlikely Place

One of the fastest-growing church movements in the world astonishes us Westerners. This Christian movement lacks most of what we may think a church needs to flourish. Growing at nearly 20 percent a year, its progress leaves us dumbfounded. The movement owns no buildings. Has no denominations. No Bible schools or seminaries. Lacks any centralized leadership. Is made up completely of former Muslims.

And It’s In . . . Iran

A feature-length movie about this rapidly-expanding Christian community has recently been released. Sheep Among Wolves (Vol. 2) documents the Gospel-eruption taking place in Iran. Produced by Joel Richardson and directed by Dalton Thomas for Faith Alliance International, the film says maybe a million people in that Muslim nation now follow Jesus. Sheep Among Wolves lets us hear the stories both from Iranian Christians themselves and from outsiders who work closely with them when they visit other Muslim countries.

Broadly Shared Leadership

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The film leaves no doubt: Jesus is forming a shared-church environment in Iran. As Thomas explains: “The leadership is decentralized and it is distributed [see diagrams]. It’s not based around a particular model. It’s not based around a particular individual or skill set or gifting. It’s built around an Ephesians 4 framework of empowering everyone in the body.”

Thomas continues: “The entire body of Christ should have the yoke of leadership upon them for disciple-making, for the apostolic, for the prophetic, for the evangelistic, for the pastoral and for the teaching. But if we reduce the church to pastoral and teaching ministry, and we sever the rest of it . . . it’s going to undermine the church’s ability to actually be the church.”

Non-Western Approaches

These Christians in Iran are not constructing church buildings. In fact, the regime is closing and destroying such buildings within its borders. Instead of wood and concrete, the church is being built of the “living stones” of I Peter 2:5—disciples willing to follow Jesus even if it costs them their lives. An anonymous believer explains, “Everything is foundational on prayer. We start with prayer, we find people of peace through prayer. We even find locations through prayer. When we have prayed and found a person of peace, we start speaking to that person.” Another says, “We don’t convert to disciple; we disciple to convert.” Thomas says, “When we talk about church planting in the West, generally what we’re talking about is a pastor or a teacher starting a community . . . who listen to him give speeches for half an hour to an hour once a week. This is foreign to the Iranians.”

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The typical church model so familiar to Westerners, which depends on stage performances and sundry programs, does not work in Iran. Using a computer analogy, Thomas says, “The ‘software’ of the gospel will not run on the ‘hardware’ of Western church in the Middle East. . . . In fact, I don’t even think it can run in the US, and I don’t think it can run in Europe, but we’re still perpetuating this model, and we’re still selling the hardware even though we haven’t quite realized in the West that our software doesn’t run on it.”

A Majority are Women

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Women play a major part in this distributed leadership. They make up about 55 percent of the Iranian-church movement and leadership. Most have endured unspeakable suffering. As one woman puts it: “Every day I ask the Lord, ‘What part of my testimony will help the person in front of me?’ The Holy Spirit shows me what part of my testimony I need to share with women. I tell that part of my testimony, and I wait on what the Holy Spirit wants me to do next. I will talk about when I was raped, or how I was beaten, or how my father didn’t love me, or my suicide attempts.”

One story comes from the experience of a girl who cannot recall a time when her father was not raping her. She says, “If God can forgive Adam and Eve after he’s given them everything, and just loved on them, then I can forgive my father that has raped me all my life.” The inserts from the movie—Fatma, Ali, and Shirin—show vignettes of other women and men now bearing Gospel fruit in the Iranian church.

Are We Being Rocked to Sleep?

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The film sounds a wake-up to the West. It includes the story of a Christian couple who moved from Iran to the U.S. After living in America for a while, the wife begged her husband to return to their home country. He thought she was out of her mind. “Who wants to go back to Iran under all sorts of oppression where the sharing of your faith could bring the end of your life or brutal incarceration or rape or all sorts of horrible things?” But she insisted, explaining, “There’s a satanic lullaby here. All the Christians are sleepy—and I’m feeling sleepy.”

Iranians Who Love Israelis

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Sheep Among Wolves recognizes the great gulf between Iran’s government and the church growing within its borders. The film quotes an Iranian official as saying, ““We were not created for this world. We were chosen to wage jihad. We shall fight them on a global level, not just in one spot. Our war is not a local war. We have plans to defeat the world powers. We are planning to break America, Israel, and their partners and allies. Our ground forces should cleanse the planet from the filth of their existence.”

Commenting on this official perspective, an Iranian disciple of Jesus says, “This is the message that we receive inside of Iran—that Israel loves to kill the Palestinians and watch their blood run in the streets. This is why many Iranians hate the Jews. But God transforms our perspective on the Jews when we come to Christ, and we fall in love with the Jews.”

A Biblical Parallel

After watching Sheep Among Wolves, I recalled the scene when David showed up in King Saul’s army and offered to fight Goliath. Saul, meaning well, thinks he can best protect this naïve young son of Jesse by outfitting him with his own armor. A deadly serious situation? Yes. But the episode turns comical. Watch the king, who towers over almost everyone else. He lifts his impressive bronze helmet from his royal head, stoops down, and installs it on this boy. The heavy armor sags as Saul drapes it over the much younger body. Then, over the baggy armor, the king straps his own sword on David. In The Message paraphrase, David tells Saul, “‘I can't even move with all this stuff on me. I'm not used to this.’ And he took it all off” (I Sam. 17:39).

Thinking like Saul, we Western Christians seem to believe doing church takes a lot of weighty gear. But more like David, this church in the Middle East has no need for all our heavy equipment. Apparently Jesus, who is building his church there, affirms that. One in the film says, “The Lord is using the Iranian church to speak to the church in the West.”

From our Iranian brothers and sisters, what might we learn about doing church?

Click here to watch the film on YouTube.

Sermons: Core of Church Meetings?

Over nearly eight decades—as infant, child, adult—I’ve been part of at least a dozen churches. Large and small, urban and rural. As I visualize the arrangement of the meeting room in each church building, one thing stands out: the pulpit. Usually of wood, it was ornate or plain. Sometimes just a simple stand. Almost always on an elevated platform, it served as the focal point of the layout. Rows of pews or chairs faced it. And from it came the main event of the gathering, the sermon.

Throughout my upbringing in the church culture, it seemed only natural that the sermon serve as the centerpiece of our Sunday meetings. Why? Because of its length and placement in the agenda. And because that was all I had ever known. Today, it’s easy to assume that the sermon and the way we “do church” is the way first-century believers must have done it. Pulpits and sermons—both appear so essential to church as we practice it now.

Encouraging Signs

But more and more church leaders are questioning our customary Sunday ways. They are seeing that church-as-silent-audience cannot measure up to church-as-one-anothering seen in the New Testament. The most recent example of movement in this direction just came to my attention—an October 2019, Premier Christianity article by Sky Jethani: “The Case Against Sermon-Centric Sundays.”

In his article, Jethani, a pastor and former Managing and Executive Editor of Leadership Journal, “explains why digital technology is disrupting our 500-year-old emphasis on lengthy Sunday sermons.” He traces some of the dramatic leaps in humankind’s ability to communicate. We’ve gone from scrolls to hand-written codexes to printing presses to electronic devices. Each step in this evolution of information-sharing affected the shape of Christian meeting practices.

Technology has Transformed Us

But, says Jethani, “With the advent of digital technology and smartphones, we are witnessing the most significant shift in communication since the printing press. . . .Anyone with a smartphone may access thousands of sermons from anywhere, anytime. . . . This low demand and high supply means the market for Bible instruction has reduced the cost to virtually zero. . . . There is a lot of excellent, orthodox content available online – but few churches are helping their people find and engage with it. What if church leaders reallocated some of the time that had been devoted to sermon preparation, and instead used it to curate the best online biblical resources and content for their people to engage with, Monday through Saturday?”

I can personally confirm this easy access to great teaching. Three times a week I spend nearly an hour in a fitness center. There, rather than watching the TV monitors on the exercise machines, I listen to some of finest biblical scholars and teachers on the planet. How? By tuning into YouTube on my iPhone, which delivers the messages right into my ears.

Assessing the Sermon

The sermon, though, continues as the focal point of most congregational meetings. This in spite of the absence in first-century gatherings of sermons of about the same length by the same person week after week. David Norrington, in the conclusion to his book, To Preach or Not to Preach: The Church’s Urgent Question, writes: “In the New Testament churches the growth into spiritual maturity of both individuals and communities was achieved by a variety of means, which did not include the regular sermon.” He says sermons may only have become “standard practice . . . as late as the 4th century.” Martin Luther and other reformers made sermons the centerpiece of church meetings. John Calvin called the preacher “the mouth of God.”

Today, Jethani, says, “Most churches have inherited a 16th Century model that is increasingly unsustainable with 21st Century realities. . . . Pastors carry a Reformation mindset that sees Bible teaching as a scarcity, which makes their sermons valuable, while millennials with a digital mindset recognize the abundance of Bible teaching available, making most pastors’ sermons, and therefore Sunday attendance, unnecessary.”

Widespread Isolation

It may seem to millennials that getting together with other believers is not needed. Yet at the same time, these younger people typically long for the kind of relationships and one-anothering called for in Jesus’ New Command (John 13:34-35). Could it be that at least part of their reason for considering church meetings “unnecessary” may be that passive-audience church meetings are all they have ever known?

Jethani cautions, “both biblical instruction and gathering with believers remains essential to our faith and mission. There is” he says, an epidemic of loneliness in both the US and UK. We are more connected than ever digitally, but more isolated than ever relationally. Attending a church with hundreds of others, all facing a stage and listening to a preacher, does little to overcome this sense of disconnection.”

That’s a point I make in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis: From Passivity to Participation in Church: “Audience mode, while providing some sense of being together, allows us to assemble with our individuality unchallenged. Audience mode allows me to come and go with little or no perception of responsibility for the other spectators. Audience mode provides slight if any opportunity to lay down my life for others or to risk using my Spirit-given gifts. Audience mode means that, in spite of some surface socializing, I am free to leave just as isolated and self-absorbed as I arrived.”

The Alternatives?

What can we do in lieu of the 16th Century model of preaching? Jethani is not asking us to abandon messages from qualified teachers. Neither is he “advocating one new model.” Instead, Jethani points to two promising directions being practiced by some churches.

The first approach restores the Lord’s Table, rather than the pulpit, as the main focus of the church meeting,. That Table, Jethani points out, “can’t be digitized. Communion is an incarnate experience. The bread is held, blessed, broken, given, and eaten. Believers gather to pray, confess, absolve and affirm. The entire enterprise requires engagement and activity. It cannot be passively listened to via headphones. The body and blood cannot be downloaded or streamed.” Of course, history teaches that even the Table can be co-opted as an opportunity for clerical domination.

Jethani’s second suggestion notes what Francis Chan did after leaving his California megachurch. He began a system of interconnected house churches, “which allows the church gatherings to focus on prayer, fellowship, practical application, relationship-building, and encouragement.” Such an arrangement lets church leaders spend more time developing disciples and less time on sermon preparation.

Earlier blogs in this website have identified other ways to make meetings less sermon-centric. Click on these links:

The Sticking Point?

What does Jethani see as the most formidable barrier to leaving the sermon-centric model and moving in new directions? He writes: “I suspect the most significant obstacle is within preachers’ hearts. Are we willing to give up the spotlight? Are we willing to step aside from the pulpit and welcome other gifted Bible teachers into our ministries? Are we willing to lay down our lives our microphones and our egos for our sheep? The future shape of the Church depends on how we answer these questions.”

Is continuing on the only path we have ever known the best way? The biblical way?

Unearthing Shared Church

“See that mound over there?” the Israeli guide asked our tour group. “It’s covering some 20 civilizations.” As our minibus continued around Israel, we saw many sites where archaeologists were unearthing evidence of long-forgotten ways of life.

The Mound of Traditions

In a somewhat similar way, the participatory meeting patterns of the first-century church lie buried under layer upon layer of church traditions. As the centuries came and went, the church lived through the spiritual equivalent of hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Each left its coating of sand, silt, or debris. Leaders, faced with disunity, twisted teachings, and selfish ambition, put into place practices they thought would meet the crisis of the moment. Many remedies, perhaps justified as temporary measures, stayed put as succeeding generations made them sacred.

As a result, church meetings today deprive us of the one-anothering called for in Jesus’ new command and practiced by first-century believers. So twenty-first-century century Christians find it difficult even to imagine what went on in those original church gatherings. How can we get to the buried treasure? We need scriptural “shovels” to dig our way through the traditional strata to unearth the shared-church ways followed by those early believers.

I recently came across such a useful “shovel”—an article by Michael Konomos. “Participatory Church” appeared in the website of the International Teaching Ministry of Douglas Jacoby. In it Konomos looks at the clues that point to what first-century Christians did when they met. Below are excerpts from his article (in italics), followed by some concluding comments of my own.

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I am taking a closer look at the case for participatory church meetings outside 1 Corinthians 14. I will concede that 1 Corinthians 14 is the closest that we have to a model/command to do so, and that in general there is a dearth of scriptures describing church meetings. One might argue that means it is up to us to do as we wish, or one might argue that the structure of the meeting was assumed. Whatever the conclusion one draws in light of these unanswered questions, it would be foolish to simply ignore the evidence that we do have. With that in mind, I posit the following...

In general, we are not left with very many instructions in the NT regarding meetings of the church, but what little that we do have seems to point to a more participatory meeting than what we are used to seeing in modern churches.

The clearest case for this type of meeting is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church.

1 Cor 14:26-38
v26- “Everyone has”... All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.

A good exercise is to consider the “one another” passages throughout the NT. After reading each of them, follow it with a “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader” and see if it sounds like it is in keeping with the plain meaning of the passage.

Romans 15:14
I am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”

Ephesians 5:19
Speak to each other in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”

Colossians 3:16
Teach and admonish one another with all wisdom...sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”

Colossians 4:2
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”

1 Timothy 2:8
I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”

There are other fragments of evidence scattered throughout the NT pointing to a more participatory meeting.

Acts 15:4-5
The believers that belonged to the party of the Pharisees were apparently able to stand up during a meeting express their convictions. These were notably not the elders or apostles (v.4).

Acts 15:22
The apostles and elders, together with the whole church, make a decision.

Acts 20:7
Paul may have been “dialoguing”

Perhaps the most powerful argument of all is to think of all the teaching sessions/‘church meetings’ that Jesus held. Were they participatory or rigidly structured? Did people ask questions or sit silently in their chairs? Look through countless scriptures in the gospels—Jesus taught through dialogues much more often than monologues! Jesus “taught” by asking questions—and often not rhetorical ones!

What is the likely format in a church in which all of the members were ‘priests’ that was born in the synagogues and met in each other’s homes? Would it look like the old Priest-officiating-over-the-wretched-people-model?

This is clearly not an air-tight case for participatory meetings. The truth is that, as with many questions we have, we are not left with 100% certainty about the answers. Surely Ockham’s Razor [the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the right one] would seem to be an appropriate philosophy when posed with these questions. The simplest explanation is that the early church had clear, dynamic leadership and participatory meetings in which the various members of the church were able to exercise their gifts. The reasons that modern churches are not conducted in this manner have much more to do with centuries of tradition than they do with a careful study of scripture.

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Tradition versus Scripture

The conflict between those two stretches back a long way. Jesus fought in that battle: “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt. 15:3-4). Paul warned that human traditions can actually gain control over us (Col. 2:8).

Check your own church’s constitution or statement of faith. It may say something like, “the Bible is our only rule for faith and practice,” or “Scripture is the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct.”

Put differently, God’s Word in the Bible—not human tradition—is to have the say-so in both what we believe and what we do. In many cases, although the Bible gives no explicit believe/do command, we discover God’s will by seeing what several passages—taken together—point to. Here’s a “believe” example. Nowhere does Scripture say, “Believe in the Trinity.” Yet we believe in the threeness of the one God because of what Scripture says about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And here’s a “do” example. No commandment says, “Meet on Sunday.” But most Christians do so because we see that pattern in Acts 20:7 and I Cor. 16:2 and because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week.

As the Konomos article points out, the New Testament does not command us in so many words to make our meetings participatory. But the bulk of the evidence says first-century church meetings were highly interactive and relational—shared church. And that makes total sense. Would the all-wise God have given a spiritual gift “to each one of us” (I Cor. 4:7) only to have us bury it unused during Sunday meetings? How does the many-membered, multi-gifted Body of Christ mature? It “grows and builds itself in love as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).

Search for yourself. Can you find any evidence that New Testament church meetings looked anything like the passive-audience format most churches now follow on Sundays?

Focus on the Frontline

Suppose on Sunday you were to ask ten people, “Who serves at the frontline in our church?”

Chances are that several would say the frontline people are the pastor and those in on the elder board or leadership group. If you heard that response, would you catch the hidden assumption behind it—that the frontline lies within the gathered church? No, says Neil Hudson, in Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples. He sees the church’s frontlines in those locations into which it scatters.

Your Frontline: Where You Live

He explains, “By the term ‘frontline’, we mean the place where we realize God’s calling to engage with non-Christians in mission. Of course, we are called to be missional in all of life, and called to grow in godliness wherever we are, but usually there’s a particular place or group of people that we sense God is guiding us to bless and reach out to. They are often in the place where we spend most of our time—school, work, neighbourhood, a gym, a club.”

While “frontline” shows up repeatedly in his book, Hudson uses the term “whole-life” even more. Most often whole-life modifies disciples or discipleship. Hudson says, “Whole-life discipleship intends to mean what it says: there is no area of a Christian’s life that Jesus does not have ownership of, and there is no part of their life that he does not want to use for his glory.”

The Imagine Project

Hudson serves on the Imagine Project with The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC). In that role, he led a three-year project involving 17 churches in a study of “how church communities might learn to engage in the central task of whole-life disciple-making.” The project involved hundreds of Christians and church leaders. In his book, Hudson aims to show how a church can be transformed into one that produces whole-life disciples—people equipped to carry out Jesus’s mission in whatever setting they scatter into on weekdays.

But he notes, “whole-life disciple-making churches are in fact rather rare.”

Shifting Paradigms

In Chapter One, Hudson admits how difficult he himself had found the challenge to move toward whole-life discipling. As a pastor, he heard LICC’s Mark Greene argue for abolishing the sacred-secular dualism that has thwarted the church’s mission for so long. Greene’s urging to make whole-life disciples left Hudson feeling “indignant. I wanted to defend my past sixteen years in church leadership” But deeper down, he knew Greene had spoken truth.

Hudson went home and tested what he had heard in a church-wide prayer meeting. He asked three Christians to tell what they were going through regarding work. One was unemployed, one enjoyed his work, and one had just begun a job. Hudson asked them to explain what God was teaching each of them about him and themselves. He had posted four signs in the meeting room: “I love my job,” “I’d like a new job,” I wish I still worked,” and “I need to know what to do next.” Each one present in the meeting gathered around the sign that best fit their situation. Then those in the four groups discussed their circumstances and prayed for each other.

That prayer meeting, Hudson says, “triggered something in me.” Fast-forward to the three-year project. In his book, Hudson includes reports from pastors whose churches had taken part in it. For example, this pastor described the transformation that took place in his own church culture:

“What’s changed? Everything has changed, and the biggest change has been in me. I’ve had to change the most. For many years we have been an ‘attractional’ church. The central focus was on getting people into the church building. And over the years we’d done this well, filling the church building and putting on great services. But gradually we began to realize there was a disconnect between what was happening in the building on a Sunday and what was happening in people’s lives during the week. It was as though once we left the building, the really important business was over. I needed to be reminded that for the church members, it was just beginning.”

Five Challenges

Hudson knows transforming a church’s culture to one of whole-life disciple-making is not easy. He names five challenges:

1. “The challenge of people recognizing that this is what being a Christian means. . . . Many have little imagination to embrace the possibility that God would be able to use them in their everyday life for his purposes, or that God would engage in shaping their lives through mundane activities.”

2. “The challenge of the inward pull of the gathered church. . . . People easily begin to feel that the important spiritual activities take place in the midst of the gathered congregation, and that to be caught up in activities away from this community is to be dominated by ‘secular’ concerns which are, by definition, things that are outside the orbit of God’s dynamic interest.”

3. “The challenge to the role of leaders. . . . A primary component of the role of leaders is to help equip the people of God for their ministry. . . . Success will be marked by the number of people who have embraced their own frontlines as their arenas for ministry and are living fruitfully there.”

4. “The challenge of sustaining change. . . . It’s one thing to begin to address an issue; it’s another to keep going until whole-life thinking becomes a natural and self-sustaining response. . . . You must ensure that the vision of the Lordship of Christ over the universe and the church is presented continuously, so that people never unwittingly retreat to a personalized therapeutic form of Christianity.”

5. “The challenge of spiritual resistance. . . . A desire to release the people of God to serve him well will attract the attention of the enemy. . . . Os Guinness’s warning about our activities being privately engaging but publicly irrelevant would seem to be the perfect solution to the enemy of God’s people.”

Asking Some Bold Questions

In light of these challenges, Hudson recommends making “one-degree shifts.” As the well-worn proverb has it, “Rome was not built in a day.” But making long-term changes in the culture of a church to one of whole-life disciple-making should include asking some uncomfortable “why” questions. For example:

“Why do we sing so much?”
“Why does one person get to speak uninterruptedly for twenty to thirty minutes?”
“Why do we hear so little about everyday life in church?”
“Why do the songs we sing seem so disconnected from our time and place?”
“Why do people who are under stress in their everyday lives feel as though there’s nowhere they can talk about it in church circles?”

Jesus sends his followers into the world as light, salt, and seed. Every metaphor points to something that must be scattered to carry out its purpose. Only as we prepare whole-life disciples for their dispersed roles as 24-7 agents King Jesus will they glow in the dark, retard decay, and produce fruit that lets the world taste samples of the Kingdom yet to come.

Would Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples make a first-rate Christmas gift for the leaders in your church?

Worldview, Workplace, and Faith Formation

It’s no secret that many young Christians are leaving the church. Can a pint-sized worldview help explain why? And does the absence of reports from the scattered church contribute to a stunted worldview?

“A Failure of Faith Formation”

Worldview.jpg

The Colson Center’s Breakpoint Daily recently carried an article by John Stonestreet: “A Failure of Faith Formation: What We Learn from Public Disavowals of Christianity.” Stonestreet opened that piece by noting what Marty Sampson—Hillsong singer and songwriter—had posted about giving up on his Christian faith.

Stonestreet writes: “Sampson’s claims, I’m sad to say, are not uncommon among young evangelicals. And let me just say this as directly and bluntly as I can: they reveal a failure on the part of the church to take the difficult but essential task of faith formation seriously enough. . . . In his book, The Fabric of Faithfulness, Steve Garber wrote that the reason so many young Christians lose their faith is that their worldview isn’t ‘big enough’ for the world.”

Sound Worldview: Essential to Mature Faith

The word “worldview” defines itself; it’s how we view the world. Is the cosmos merely a product of time and chance, or did God create it? Who are we? Why are we on planet earth? Do our years here have any purpose? If so, what is it? And so on. Each of us sees and interprets everything through the lens of our worldview.

So if, as Stonestreet says, young Christ-followers hold an undersized worldview, it can lead them to abandon the faith they grew up with. A faulty worldview, Stonestreet says, comes about when churches don’t “take the difficult but essential task of faith formation seriously enough.”

His reference to faith formation reminded me of a sentence from Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: “I’m prepared to contend that the primary location for spiritual formation is the workplace.”

The workplace? Seriously? Can a job in the nitty-gritty work world function not only as “a” but as “the” main place where Christ-followers mature spiritually? Doesn’t the formation of faith and spiritual growth occur in more favorable settings—church gatherings, prayer meetings, Bible studies, and the like? What makes the workplace such an effective “location for spiritual formation”? Ever since the thorns and thistles of Genesis 3, the joy of working has been mixed with pain. And, as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, “Pain . . . plants the flag of truth within the fortress of the rebel soul.”

A Firsthand Example

A pivotal story from my own workplace experience may help to clarify. In mid-1964, as a 24-year-old, I took a job in the information office of the Washington State Department of Highways. Before long, my role included serving as the editor of the official state highways magazine.  Young and bursting with ideas, I saw story possibilities everywhere. But whenever I went enthusiastically into my boss’s office to propose that I write up this or that in an article, he shot it down. Time after time after time.

I began to feel useless. And restless. After a whole year of this, I began working on a plan to bail out of my state job and to find one more to my liking. But deep inside, I sensed God’s Spirit directing me to stay put. Finally, my internal conflict built to the point that I went into my little office at home, shut the door, and went face down onto the floor before the Lord. In that acute moment, I gave everything over to him: wife, children, house, car, job—and the reins of my own life.

Looking back, I still see that stress-filled workplace as one of the main tools God used to carry out his work of spiritual formation in me. Yes, I knew key Bible passages, had heard countless sermons, and could sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” galore. All vital. But through that workplace trouble, my faith was put to the acid test. And just as a diamond forms under intense heat and pressure, my faith solidified through those soul-crushing circumstances on the job. (I continued working for the state another 10 years.)

Workplace Faith-Formation in the Bible

Bible people, too, experienced spiritual formation through painful workplace trials. Take David, for example. One of his first work assignments took him into the fields to care for and protect the family’s flock of sheep. Later, his father sent him to check on his brothers who were fighting in an Israelite-Philistine war. When he arrived, David found the Israelite army and king Saul completely flummoxed by the Philistine giant, Goliath, who stood nine-plus feet tall.

After hearing Goliath bellow out his usual threat, David stood before Saul and offered to go himself against the giant. Saul looked at this young son of Jesse and said, “You are only a boy.” To which David replied: "Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine" (I Sam. 17:34-37).

Where had David’s faith formed to the point where he trusted in God’s ability to deliver him? In his workplace. But he is not the only Bible character whose work shaped his faith. Think of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—those Jews with government jobs in pagan Babylon whose boss ordered them to bow down to his own golden image. Talk about pressure! But imagine the spiritual formation that surely took place in them after God delivered them from the flames of a superheated furnace.

Or think of Nehemiah, whose job involved sampling the king’s wine to make certain no one had poisoned it. How his faith must have grown after he, standing before his boss and praying silently, saw God provide—far more than he could have imagined—for rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. Again, think of Joseph and the pain he endured in his work as a household manager and as prison trustee.  But much later he named his second son Ephraim, because, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Gen. 41:52). An expanded worldview. A faith more fully formed. In the workplace.

The Blindfold of the Sacred-Secular Divide

Sadly, though, our church traditions have short-changed the worldviews of far too many Christians. So much so that we find it nearly impossible to see any spiritual-formation value in those places most people work. The completely unbiblical division between what we consider “sacred” and what we call “secular” has obscured the faith-forming power of daily work. Does such myopic vision prevent us from hearing in our Sunday meetings what God has been doing weekdays in the workplace?

Shared Church Includes:

  1. Recognizing that those from the scattered church, as well as the pastor, have significant things to share—words God can use in forming us spiritually.

  2. Making space in gathered church meetings for spiritual-formation stories from the scattered church, including its workplaces.

  3. Helping our young people expand their worldview by hearing reports from the whole church, gathered and scattered.  

 

 

Making the Most of Every (Sunday) Opportunity

In the last blog, I asked you to envision your church. Most of us, I suspect, can easily picture the gathered church as a meeting-room full of people. But how might we visualize the church scattered? Does this picture come close?

Wheat Seed.jpg

Not so fast, some might say. In Jesus’s parable, “seed” means the word of God. You know the story. Wanting a harvest, a farmer goes out to plant. The seed lands on soil of varying quality. When his disciples ask him to explain, Jesus says, “The seed is the word of God.” Definition given. Conversation over . . .

. . . Until We Read On

In Matthew’s gospel, right after explaining this parable, Jesus goes on to tell a second. In this next one, seed means something else. As before, the farmer goes out and scatters seed in his field. But then an enemy of the farmer sneaks in after dark and blankets the same ground with weed seed. Jesus’s disciples ask him to explain. The good seed in this case, he says, “stands for the people of the Kingdom” (Matt. 13:38, NLT).

In this parable, seeds are . . . people. And the people-seeds are all spread out. So maybe seed does give us a good visual of the church scattered.

Jesus told his seed parables to explain the Kingdom. The seed image, then, helps us see God’s strategy for Kingdom fruit. He plants seed—not only word-as-seed but also people-as-seed. So those gathered on a Sunday morning are not simply the people of the church. They are the seed-people of God’s much larger kingdom.

Two quick points about the second parable:

One: Jesus scatters his seed-people. His sowing hand has sent them flying into the field of his world—into homes, into workplaces, and into neighborhoods to take root there. To thrive. To produce Kingdom fruit. And, as one writer has put it, to provide “foretastes” of the fully-revealed Kingdom yet to come. They spend vastly more time out there than cloistered in a church building.

Seed Mixture2.jpg

Two: Seed-people face stiff resistance. The enemy, the devil, has broadcast weed-seed-people right in among Jesus’s good-seed-people. Growing and producing fruit for God in the scattered church is no picnic. It’s a constant struggle for root-space, branching-out-space, water, and sunlight. So maybe we need to change slightly our picture of the scattered church:

Preparing Seed-People to Scatter

This revised picture of the scattered church raises a most-important question about how to structure our time together in the gathered church. As we saw in the last blog, a 75-minute church meeting gets less than one percent the 100,080 minutes in a week. A tiny fund of time. How can we best use it to get the scattered seed-people ready for the challenges and opportunities they meet out there?

Or ask the same question in different words: How can time in the gathered church equip, build, and encourage Christians for serving God and others in their weekdays? Three words in that question point us to what we see happening in the New Testament church:

  1. Equipping. This is the special task of church leaders (Eph. 4:11, 12). God’s people will spend most of their week in families, neighborhoods, and workplaces. They will be scattered among unbelievers who are walking radically different paths. What truths and tools will the good-seed-people need for serving God and others Monday through Saturday. How will they practice using those tools?

  2. Building. The ministry of body-building—strengthening Christ’s body—belongs to all the Christians: “The body builds itself in love as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Serving God and others in the scattered church takes spiritual muscle. God calls each member of Christ’s body to build others and be built up by them (I Thess. 5:11). This can happen only in the gathered church. You and I can’t use our gifts to build each other up while miles apart all week.

  3. Encouraging. Encouragement too is the responsibility of all the believers, not just church leaders. Serving God and people in dark and difficult places can wear us down and out. (A Christian I know who leads seminars sometimes gets marked down in evaluations for using the gendered pronouns—he, she, etc..) Our counter strategy? We are to “encourage one another” (Heb. 3:13, 10:25). And again, our way of gathering together needs to make room for this mutual ministry. God’s scattered seed-people need to encourage each other by telling how God is at work out there.

For Example . . .

Let me illustrate. In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller relates exactly that kind of God-at-work story experienced by a man and woman in Redeemer Church, NYC. A non-Christian woman was working in Manhattan as a fairly new employee. One day she messed up in a major way. She thought she’d get fired for sure. But, to her sheer amazement, her supervisor took the blame on himself. He was penalized for doing so by losing some of his own standing in the company.

The grateful woman, stunned by his self-sacrifice for her, told him she was used to having other bosses claim the kudos for work she had done. But this was the first time she had ever known a boss to take the hit for her error. She pressed him repeatedly to explain.

So he told her: “I am a Christian. That means among other things that God accepts me because Jesus Christ took the blame for things that I have done wrong. He did that on the cross. That is why I have the desire and sometimes the ability to take the blame for others.”

“She stared at him,” Keller reports. Then she asked, “Where do you go to church?” He told her the name of the church, and she began attending Redeemer.

Making Sunday Space for Preparing Seed-People

Stories like this renew spiritual vitality in people who serve as Kingdom seeds. From each other, they need to hear such reports in the gathered church. To make this possible, church leaders need to think, pray, and ask hard questions about how best to budget those few gathered-church minutes.

  • How can we help those in the scattered church to see themselves as the seed of God’s Kingdom?

  • What nice but non-essential activity can be cut from our usual Sunday morning agenda?

  • What do seed-people need to hear and do on Sundays to prepare them as Kingdom fruit-producers in the scattered church?

Making Whole-Life Disciples

Whole-Life Discipling: What Is It?

Last month I spent a week in Manila taking part in the Lausanne Global Workplace Forum. As mentioned in the previous blog, we heard from a variety of speakers and—around tables of six—discussed what they had said. One of the presenters, Mark Greene, unable to join us in person, addressed us in a video. Greene serves as Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity established by John Stott.

As he spoke, Greene called for churches that are “gripped by the whole-life vision of the missio Dei [mission of God].” Again and again, he spoke of our need to “make whole-life disciples.” What did he mean by those words, “whole life”?

Visualize Your Church as If in a Video

What did you just see in your imagined video? A building with crosses? A group of people sitting in chairs or pews looking toward an elevated stage where a band performs and a pastor speaks?

Slide1.JPG

If you saw the first, you weren’t looking at the church at all. If you saw the second, you were seeing the church in its gathered form. Let’s say the meeting in your mental video went on for an hour and a quarter. For each one in the gathering, that represents how big a slice of his or her week? I’ll spare you the math. Those 75 minutes make up less than one percent of the 10,080 minutes in a week. Picture it like this:

Slide2.JPG

So if your mental video showed you God’s people in gathered mode, you were seeing only a tiny fraction of the church’s life. Goid’s people spend far more time scattered. Members of the body of Christ allocate that dispersed time in various ways. But the percentages may typically look like this:

Whole Life Leaves Nothing Out

“Whole life,” then, includes everything people do in the 168 hours of their week. “Making whole-life disciples” means helping prepare them for all they engage in during those scattered-church hours—working, playing, resting, parenting, neighboring, and so on. Here comes the hard question: On what do churches typically focus most equipping efforts? On getting believers ready to serve Christ and his Kingdom in their scattered-church roles—with families, co-workers, neighbors and others? Or on training them to carry out gathered-church duties—serving in or leading programs, ushering, maintaining the building and grounds, pledging, running the sound system, decorating, practicing for praise bands, and other in-house chores?

Work—paid and unpaid—is one of main things Christians do in the scattered church. Many will devote 36 percent or more of their waking hours to their work (red blocks). You might think we would spend a significant portion of our gathered-church time gearing them up to serve Jesus in that world into which he has sent them. But how often does the work we do on weekdays come up in the gathered church on Sundays?

The Church’s Silence on Work

Greene quoted Dorothy Sayers, a British Christian writing in the mid-20th century. In her essay, “Why Work?” she said: “In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious or at least uninterested in religion…. But is it astonishing? How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of their life?”

Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf open Chapter One in Every Good Endeavor by saying, “The Bible begins talking about work as soon as it begins talking about anything—that’s how important and basic it is.” The Bible does more than just begin that way. The word “work” appears hundreds of times. And Scripture shows us all kinds of working believers who lived out their faith in the whole-life context. Here are some samples:

Bible Occupations.jpg

Whole Life in Shared Church

A shared-church meeting offers those from the scattered church opportunities to encourage the gathered church with whole-life reports on what God is doing out there. Does a shared-church meeting include hearing from those gifted and qualified to teach? Absolutely. The gathered church needs to hear from shepherds and teachers who can correctly explain what the Bible is saying.

But most pastors spend little if any time “out there” in the world’s workplaces. As one speaker in Manila put it, pastors literally “have no business there.” Their “business” mainly involves working with the gathered church.

So pastors need to make room in congregational meetings for those whose business is in the work world to tell what God is doing in and through them there. If such contemporary stories are not heard, it may appear that God has little if any concern for everyday work. The responsibility for making whole-life disciples, then, belongs not only to pastors but also to the entire church body. “The whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).

Think of the typical Sunday-morning agenda of your church. Then ask:

  • Would a Daniel have any opportunity to tell what his toxic coworkers did and how God rescued him from their scheme?

  • Would a Joseph be able to share how God was at work for good, even through the sexual harassment he suffered in his first job in Egypt?

  • Would an Esther find an opening to encourage fellow believers by describing how God protected her and her people?

Shared Church in Manila

  • How can we open church worship services to congregational participation?

  • When did the church buy into the idea that one-anothering, which forms the very core of Jesus’s new command, must be mostly barred from larger congregational settings?

I raise those two questions in the Introduction to my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis. Not only there but also in this website I have called for making our Sunday meetings a participatory, shared-church experience. But conventional wisdom frowns and says no. That kind of involvement can happen in small groups on weekdays. But it’s a nonstarter in a large congregational meeting.

Is that true? Does a medium-to-large congregation require the one-way, monological meeting format? Are we locked into audience mode? Must any significant speaking always come from the platform?

Dialogue in Manila

If any doubt still lingered in my mind about participation in groups of hundreds, such uncertainty got knocked flat during the Lausanne Global Workplace Forum in Manila. Each morning, 720 of us met in the main meeting room of a multi-story church building—home of the Greenhills Christian Fellowship. A camera captured part of the room in this photo:

Table Groups.jpg

Our morning sessions included both speakers and panels. Messages from the platform took anywhere from 3 to 25 minutes. How could we have meaningful dialogue in such a crowd?

The secret lay in the seating arrangement. We sat in groups of six around small, rectangular tables—120 of them. Each table had a host. I served in that role for Table 18. The organizers had arranged it so people from similar occupations sat together. Engineers around this table. Artists at that one. Software designers over there. And so on. After each major presentation, a couple of questions flashed onto the screens. We then spent the several minutes discussing those questions and processing what the speakers or panelists had covered.

Echoes of Corinth

With 720 in the room, we clearly outnumbered any house church in first-century Corinth. Yet we were able to encourage, build up, instruct, and strengthen one another, much like they did in those meetings that followed the participatory pattern Paul describes:

“When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight. If prayers are offered in tongues, two or three's the limit, and then only if someone is present who can interpret what you're saying. Otherwise, keep it between God and yourself. And no more than two or three speakers at a meeting, with the rest of you listening and taking it to heart. Take your turn, no one person taking over. Then each speaker gets a chance to say something special from God, and you all learn from each other. If you choose to speak, you're also responsible for how and when you speak” (I Cor. 14:26-33).

Table Groups Well Received

The presenters in Manila spoke the truth powerfully. But in our table discussions, what they said became up close and personal as each of us told how the teaching meshed with our own experiences. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who benefited from those discussions. Others said:

  • “The bonding with my table members was excellent. We have kept the communication since we left.”

  • “The table groups were very well planned (six was the ideal number) and were a highlight of the Forum.”

  • “The speakers and my table group discussions were encouraging. Now I understand why I have been encountering delays in finalizing my retirement plans.”

  • “Connecting with others was the most significant part of the overall week.”

In that table-group setting, the body of Christ was set free to grow and build itself up in love as each part did its work (Eph. 4:16). Changes that would never have come about through just listening to speakers—good as they were—began to emerge as members of the body opened up to each other.

Table Groups in Sunday Meetings?

Once I returned from Manila (and after recovering from jet lag), no doubt remained in my mind: churches of any size can include table-group discussions in their Sunday meetings. “Why,” I asked myself, “would any local church not adopt this table-group arrangement?” Here’s what came to mind:

  • Our tables aren’t the right size and shape. And, anyway, we don’t have enough of them.

  • Doing it that way would take a lot more work.

  • We prefer to remain in audience mode. It’s more comfortable just to sit in rows and listen.

  • Visitors might not want to speak up among strangers.

  • Table groups? We’ve never done it that way before.

Taking issue with these objections would likely make no headway. But suppose, instead, you were to ask any doubters to visualize this “what if” scene?

What If . . . ?

What if, on a given Sunday morning, the pastor speaks from Col. 4:5-6—"Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone” (NLT). After the message, the pastor posts these questions on the screen: (1) In the context of your life, how can you live out the gospel as Paul urges in this passage? (2) Among your unbelieving peers, what have you found to be difficult in making the most of every opportunity?

What if, on that same morning, table groups discussed these questions. What if one table group included: (1) a college student majoring in elementary education, (2) a junior-high-school principal, (3) the mother of a third-grader, (4) a retired school superintendent, (5) a high-schooler considering a teaching career, and (6) a school counselor. What do you imagine might take place in the conversation around that table?

  • What can you hear those young people asking?

  • How do you think the older ones with school experience might respond?

  • What kinds of ongoing relationships—on beyond the table and that Sunday meeting—might be forged?

And finally, if the message had simply concluded with no table discussion, what might never have happened?

On the Absence of Sunday Work-Talk

VIDEO SUMMARY of The Global Workplace Forum held from 25-29 June 2019 in Manila, Philippines brought together participants from around the world to consider how best Lausanne's vision for kingdom impact in every sphere of society could be fulfilled.

I just spent a week in Manila, Philippines, with 850 Christians from 109 countries. If you’d been there, you might have thought you were in a church meeting. A praise band played. We sang from words projected on a screen. Speakers delivered messages. Prayers were offered. Yet those Manila gatherings included something church meetings typically avoid. We zeroed in on what most Christians do on Mondays. We talked about . . . work.

Each of us went to Manila to take part in the 2019 Lausanne Global Workplace Forum. Back in the 1970s, Billy Graham and John Stott launched the Lausanne Committee for Global Evangelization. Graham said: “"I believe one of the next great moves of God is going to be through believers in the workplace."

From those roots has grown the Global Workplace Forum. All week long there in Manila we explored our daily work and its role in God’s Kingdom agenda—the subject we seldom hear about in church.

A Question Full of Questions

Most people in the typical church congregation scatter on Monday into those places where they work: shops, homes, offices, fields, factories. Over a lifetime, each will spend around 90,000 hours working. Why, then, on Sunday, do we rarely hear God’s heart on what they invest their lives in during those other six days?

For years, I’ve puzzled over the answer to that. My search has left me asking even more questions:

  • Do we keep work and worship in separate boxes because of the Fourth Commandment—the one about working six days but avoiding work on the seventh? Does it seem to us that work-talk would somehow soil our rest-day, Sunday?

  • Do we keep work and worship apart because we know “works-righteousness” can never put us right with God? Has our right understanding of faith-not-works given the word “work” a black eye? Do we mistakenly leap to a worship-versus-work conclusion?

  • In short, have our perceptions of Old and New Testament truths led us to suspect God has little regard for our work/works? And, if so, have such misgivings largely kept work off the Sunday radar?

Are Work and Worship at Odds?

But wait, someone might object, “Weekdays are for work, Sundays are for worship. After all, in their meetings New Testament Christians heard teaching about Jesus, the Gospel, sin, salvation, and so on—not about work.”

Really?

Let’s fact-check that one. Letters to first-century churches were read to the whole congregation. Did those letters contain teaching on the daily work of those present? Well—truth be told—they did. Let’s comb through some examples of what New Testament Christians heard in their church meetings about their regular employment;

Demonstrate the Gospel in the way you treat your employers:

  • Respect their authority (Eph. 6:5).

  • Don’t goof around or slack off when they aren’t watching (Col. 3:22).

  • Don’t bad-mouth them. Put up with it if they treat you unfairly (Tit. 2:9).

Go to work with motives worthy of the Gospel:

  • Earn what you need through honest work (Eph. 4:28).

  • Avoid being a leech; work to support yourself (I Thess. 4:12).

  • Work to earn not just to meet your own needs but also to have enough to share with others (Eph. 4:28).

Let the light of Christ shine through the way you work:

  • Be fully engaged—bring not just your body to work but mind and heart as well (Col. 3:23).

  • Do your work so well others will find the gospel attractive (Titus 2:10).

  • Trust God to reward you for what you accomplish on the job (Eph. 6:8).

If you’re the boss:

  • Never manipulate employees with threats or intimidation (Eph. 6:9).

  • Don’t play favorites by being lenient with some and tough on others (Eph. 6:9).

  • Do right by your employees, treating them fairly (Col. 4:1).

Clearly, the New Testament supports bringing issues from workdays into Sunday gatherings. Imagine yourself sitting in one of those early-church meetings. Someone who is able reads the letter out loud to everyone. As you hear this or that point made by the letter-writer, something strikes you about the situation in your own workplace. This is, after all, a participatory, shared-church meeting (see I Cor. 14). So you chime in with your own comment before the reader moves on to the next sentence. Or if what you have heard raises a question, you ask it, and a discussion follows in which several others join in.

When Work-Talk Goes Missing

What has the absence of work-talk in today’s church meetings cost God’s Kingdom agenda? I’ll mention just three unfortunate results:

Disabling Traditions Grow Unchecked. First, this Sunday silence about work has let false traditions about our daily work multiply like weeds. Because I teach what the Bible says about work, I hear students give voice to many of these hurtful ideas. For example, some struggle under the idea that work came from God’s curse (Gen. 3). No way! God gave work to humanity in Gen. 2 as one of his good gifts. God is a Worker. That’s why we, made in his image, are workers. By working, we mirror our Maker!

Another example: many Christians have grown up thinking some work is “sacred” (that of pastors and missionaries) and other work is “secular” (what engineers, accountants, pilots, hairdressers, and plumbers do). This life-zapping notion has zero biblical support, but it still persists among believers. A companion idea holds that God calls people into those “sacred” roles but not into “secular” pursuits like law, government work, software development, or farming.

The Discipleship Deficit Continues. Second, not talking about work in church meetings has left the world with a shortage of Christ-reflecting disciples. Many Christians get up and go to work simply to pay the bills, give to the church, support missions—and save for retirement. Some have been led to believe they are there just to evangelize coworkers. That often leads to forced, ready-or-not “witnessing” among fellow employees—or to a guilt-ridden silence when sensitive Christians recoil from such tactics as pushy.

A blogger from Down Under says, “. . . the evangelical church in Australia at least, has an extremely thin theology of work. It is ill-prepared to counsel its own people on the meaning of work, the ways to navigate the space of work, and how to do anything other than use their work as a means of evangelism and earning money for ministry.” Not just in Australia.

Far too many believers have no clear idea of God’s many other reasons for sending them into the world’s workplaces:

  • Offering him their work as an act of worship.

  • Responsibly caring for his good creation—planet, plants, animals, and people.

  • Finding, encouraging, and praying for fellow Christ-followers among coworkers, customers, clients, vendors, students, patients, and so on.

  • Experiencing workplace stresses as gifts of God that produce spiritual maturity. (In Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson wrote, “I’m prepared to contend that the primary location for spiritual formation is the workplace.”)

  • And, yes, to represent King Jesus there and to pay the bills as well.

Jesus’ Sending Gets Short-Circuited. Jesus sends his followers into the world. Employment places them by the millions in that very world—the world of work. Employers and governments—rather than churches or mission boards—actually pick up the tab for workers being in the very places to which Jesus sends them. And yet, far too many Christians in so-called “secular” jobs see their work as a burden to escape rather than as a gift to transform into a vehicle for carrying out the purposes of Christ and his Kingdom. If Christians are to have the biblical vision of their daily work, where else—other than in their local churches—will they be nurtured and sustained in such vision?

In Manila, one of the women speakers challenged us with this question: “When was the last time you and your home group or your church prayer group really wrestled with challenges of the workplace?”

How would you answer her?

Church, Blood, Bees, and Fighter-Jets

What should your home church have in common with a beehive, your circulatory system, and an aircraft carrier?

  • Watch the honeybees. They gather in their hive, each playing a role. There are worker bees, nurse bees, and house bees. From there, forager bees scatter on their mission—to collect the nectar that becomes honey.

  • In the circulatory system, your heart scatters blood all through your body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to keep you alive. The blood then returns, carrying carbon dioxide. While regathered in the lungs, the blood releases carbon dioxide and reloads with oxygen for your cells.

  • The planes land and gather on an aircraft carrier for refueling and repair. Mechanics, technicians, dentists, doctors, and cooks get pilots and planes ready to scatter again on their missions away from the warship.

So what should your church have in common with bees, blood, and fighter jets? Gathering and scattering. To carry out their work, they must all engage in this coming-and-going rhythm.

Shared Church: Two Modes

In the past, these shared-church blogs have focused on the need for participation when we gather as congregations. But the term, shared church, reaches even further than our Sunday assembling. Shared church also calls for the fruitful partnership between both modes of the church: church gathered and church scattered. Each must play its part. Each must support, strengthen, and depend on the other.

Hold on. . . doesn’t the Greek word usually translated as “church” refer to an assembly—a gathering? Yes. But the New Testament Christians did not spend 24/7 in their assemblies. In one of its modes, the church bunched up. In its other mode, the church spread out. For example, in Acts 8:1, when persecution struck the Jerusalem church, all its Christians (except the apostles) “were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Did that church, when scattered, cease to exist as the church? Of course not.

Gathering-Scattering Rhythm

The God who made blood and bees to alternate between gathering and scattering also built that cadence into his church. God does not endorse “lone-ranger” faith. Unless we meet with other believers, we won’t last long. In a blog on beekeeping, the author says, “A single bee cannot survive on its own. It is helpful to view the hive as the organism and the individual bees as the cells, tissues, and organs that carry out the tasks needed to sustain the life of the colony as a whole.” Does your church operate as an organism and conduct itself as an earth-based colony of heaven?

On the other hand, no church can carry out God’s purposes in the world without scattering. Nor can any hive of bees. The nectar collected by the roaming foragers gets turned into honey and sealed into the honeycomb. This stored-up honey becomes the food supply for the winter months, when blossoms—the nectar wells—dry up. Beyond the hive, the honey blesses the world. Does your church give at least as much priority to its health and effectiveness in scattered mode as it does to its weekly gatherings?

Where is the Church on Monday?

Which brings up an important question: After the benediction on Sunday, your church scatters into what locations? Homes? Yes. Neighborhoods? Yes. But almost certainly the bulk of its non-gathered, prime-time hours will be spent in workplaces. The U. S. labor force includes virtually half the population. Come Monday, if those in your church reflect a similar cross-section of ages, every other person may well scatter into a business, a government agency, or some other workplace. Many will head off to do unpaid work.

Over the course of a year, each of those Christians may spend between 75 and 200 hours in church gatherings—ten percent or far less of the 2,000 or so hours invested in working. Put graphically, that difference looks something like this:

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Which Mode Gets Most Attention?

As I look back over decades of church involvement, it’s clear that we spend a great deal of time and effort on what happens when we gather. Planning the sequence of Sunday meetings. Writing and printing bulletins. Creating PowerPoint song and announcement slides. Practicing with praise bands or choirs. Preparing and preaching sermons. Organizing greeters and ushers. Arranging for small groups. And so on.

But it’s also obvious that we put little if any time into equipping Christians for their scattered-church roles—especially their working roles. Ask yourself these questions about your own church:

  • How are you equipping young people with biblical understanding about choosing their life’s work, in which they may invest 80- to 100,000 hours?

  • How are you helping those in non-church workplaces to identify and encourage fellow believers on the job?

  • How are you enabling employers and employees to recognize what is and is not appropriate in witnessing at work?

  • When was the last time, on a Sunday morning, you heard someone tell how God is moving in their workplace?

If your church experience is anything like mine, the answers to those questions are—well—embarrassing. “In the church,” writes John Mark Comer, in Garden City, “we often spend the majority of our time teaching people how to live the minority of their lives.” Could this help explain why the church has had so little influence on our outside-the-gathered-church culture?

Why Gather? Getting Set to Scatter

What do all the activities on board an aircraft carrier aim to accomplish? They prepare the pilots and planes for what they will do in the air, away from the gathering on the ship. In a similar way, what we do in our church gatherings should prepare us for what we will do outside the huddle. In another way, though, the aircraft carrier analogy doesn’t fit. Only a few on the ship serve as pilots who scatter. But in the church, everyone who gathers also scatters.

So in our one-anothering on Sundays, all of us should be helping to prepare each other for what we will be doing on weekdays. Shared church—at work in both its modes—is vital if we are to carry out God’s Kingdom purposes in his world.

Body Parts Participate

The movie, Toy Story, takes us on an imaginative journey into “the secret life of toys,” in which Andy’s playthings huddle while he is out of the room. Imagine, for a moment, a meeting that includes the members and systems of our bodies . . . .

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The head had made it clear: the various parts of the body should meet—often. They had begun doing so eagerly.

Each part came to the gatherings with something to benefit all the others. Muscles supplied arms and legs with the power to move and lift. The seemingly weak skin could not do that, but it did stand guard against deadly germ invaders. All kinds of signals—pleasure, pain, tactile perception, timing, and so on—pulsed to and from the body’s various parts through the network of nerves. Lymph nodes, working quietly in the background, defended the whole body against infections. Each of the body’s many other parts—from tongue to toe, from head to heel—did its bit to make sure the whole organism could work well, stay healthy, and remain strong.

Taking part in those meetings was like playing in a symphony—each instrument contributing to the whole at just the right moment.

Then Something Changed

Over time, the music shifted. None of the parts recalls exactly how or why it happened. Did fatigue overtake some of them, making it easier just to receive than to give? Or was it because certain ones wanted to play larger and larger roles in the meetings? Maybe it was both. In any case, the result was the same. Most parts gave up their roles as contributors and became consumers. A very few active parts ended up serving a great many passive ones. The symphony-like meetings had turned into soloist performances.

Originally, the body carried out the head’s work-assignments with real power. Vitality flowed into and out from every specially endowed part. But with the change, the passive body became weak and far less able. The few working parts tended to burn out. The others, lacking regular exercise, became flabby or stiff.

A couple of centuries ago, Paul saw clearly what this body needed to recover: “. . . speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:15-16).

Full-Voiced Grace

“As each part does its work.“ Paul, of course, was speaking of the Body of Christ, the ekklesia, in the first century. And despite that Body’s shortfalls, its usual meeting format allowed each part to do the work it was cut out to do. Through its Spirit-given gift(s), any part was free to contribute its unique form of God’s grace to the rest of the Body (I Pet. 4:10). So the whole Body benefited from the rich supply of grace flowing through many—not just one or two—conduits. Built up and strengthened in that way, the church in those days stood its ground against opposition and made the world take notice.

Second-century Christian scholar Tertullian reported what those in the Roman Empire said about these early Christians: “See how they love one another.” Which only confirmed what Jesus had said in his New Command—that the world would know his followers by their love for one another.

Full-Bodied Action

Emerging from that kind of one-anothering, the love erupted into blessing for the surrounding pagan culture. Rodney Start, in The Rise of Christianity, writes: “To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. . . . For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable" (p. 161).

What Those Early Christians Lacked

Christ-followers multiplied at an astonishing rate throughout that ancient world. Yet those Christians had no missionary societies. No Bible colleges or seminaries. No denominations. No email, cell phones, or Internet. No megachurches or expensive buildings. No salaried staffs. Today, we have all those and more. But we have trouble even hanging onto our own young people once they leave home and church.

What did those early Christians have that we need to reclaim? They counted on the Holy Spirit dispensing God’s many-sided grace through members of Christ’s Body in participatory assemblies. We have forgotten how to gather in ways that permit Christians to exercise their grace-gifts in our week-in-week-out church meetings. We have traded one-anothering for operating in audience mode. It’s not only that we are not expected to share from our gifts in the congregation—we are expected not to do so. As a result, the overflowing, empowering river of God’s grace is reduced to a trickle. Platform-driven performances largely limit us to what comes through the gifts of those with microphones up on the stage

Living this far from the first century, what can we do? In The Message, Eugene Peterson, who lived into the twenty-first century, paraphrases I Cor. 14:26-33 this way:

“So here's what I want you to do. When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight. If prayers are offered in tongues, two or three's the limit, and then only if someone is present who can interpret what you're saying. Otherwise, keep it between God and yourself. And no more than two or three speakers at a meeting, with the rest of you listening and taking it to heart. Take your turn, no one person taking over. Then each speaker gets a chance to say something special from God, and you all learn from each other. If you choose to speak, you're also responsible for how and when you speak. When we worship the right way, God doesn't stir us up into confusion; he brings us into harmony. This goes for all the churches . . . .”

Why not?

When is the Lord’s Supper Not?

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Our surprise came while visiting a sizable church in another city. We had gone there to witness the baptism of a young man close to us. Because it was Easter, we expected the large crowd. But we did not anticipate being handed tiny containers shaped like—but slightly smaller than—coffee creamers.

When she received hers, my wife thought it was some kind of Easter treat. I quickly pulled out my cell phone and shot a picture of my whatever-it-was (see photo at right). Since then, while showing the photo to several other long-time church people, I have asked them to tell what it is. Most guessed a pudding container. No one got it right.

Your Turn

What do you think it is? If you said the elements for Communion, you win. Amazon sells them as “Fellowship Cups” or “Pre-Filled Communion Cups.” You can get them for less than 19 cents apiece. How do they work? The pastor offered some very brief instructions. Peel back a top layer of clear plastic to get to a hyper-thin wafer roughly the diameter of a nickel. Strip off the plastic of the bottom layer to uncover a half-ounce or so of grape juice.

Those in the Easter audience heard little or no explanation of the significance of the wafer and grape juice. For my part, having taken part in thousands of Communion celebrations, I knew what those elements meant. But I couldn’t focus on the meaning that morning. Instead, I was fumbling to pry off the plastic covers. Concentrating on retrieving the wafer without breaking it. Opening the juice without spilling it in my lap.

Since our experience as visitors in that Easter gathering, I have come to see the plastic “Fellowship Cup” as a symbol of how far we have come from New Testament practice. As a result, a question hangs in my mind: When is the Lord’s Supper not the Lord’s Supper?

What Paul Called “Not the Lord’s Supper”

The Corinthian Christians wrongly thought they were eating the Lord’s Supper. But Paul said no—they were actually doing something else entirely. “When you come together,” he said, “it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat” (I Cor. 11:20). If Paul were dictating this to a scribe, I suspect he might have stressed a certain word: “When you come together, it is not the LORD’s Supper you eat.” Even though they were going through the motions, the Lord would not own what they were doing with the bread and cup.

Why did Paul declare their meal unworthy to be called the Lord’s Supper? Was it because they were not connecting it with Jesus’ dying body and shed blood? Did Paul fault them for not remembering Jesus’ death? No. Their failure had to do not with that past event but with their present practice. They were eating the bread and drinking the cup “without recognizing the body of the Lord” (I Cor. 11:3). Christ was right there in the members of his body—but their self-centered actions made it clear: they were oblivious to his body in that present, gathered-church form. Paul refused to call what they were doing “the Lord’s Supper” because of their failure to practice one-anothering—at the heart of Jesus’ New Command. They were in a hurry to get it over with: “each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else” (I Cor. 11:21). They were acting as individualists, not as interdependent members of the Lord’s body.

Morphing and Historical Drift

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Paul didn’t use the word, but had he lived in our time, he might have said the original Lord’s Supper had “morphed” into something else. Today, with the right software, we can do photo-morphing, easily changing a person’s portrait into someone completely different. With such a program, you can turn George W. Bush into Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What changed the original picture of the Lord’s Supper into what it has become 2000 years later? Such morphing is called historical drift. Little by little, our practice of the Lord’s Supper has inched further and further from its prototype. Like winds and currents carrying a piece of driftwood from the shore out to sea, various forces throughout the history of the church have moved us from a people in fellowship around a real meal to a theater full of largely isolated strangers with “Fellowship Cups.”

At least four contemporary values contribute powerfully to the “winds and currents” of this historical drift:

  • Size

We’re impressed with bigness, even in our churches. This blog headline tells it all: “6 Keys to Breaking the 200, 400 and 800 Attendance Barriers.” The author assumes, of course, that pushing past all those numerical roadblocks to get to bigger and bigger church gatherings is a good thing. But one-anothering becomes more and more difficult as the “audience” grows larger. As Dale Partridge, co-author of Unlearn Church, points out, it is extremely difficult to carry out the New Testament summons to “every-member-functioning . . . inside a church building with hundreds of people.” No wonder the large church we visited on Easter had resorted to “Fellowship Cups.”

  • Speed

I did not clock how long the Communion part of that Easter meeting took. But seemed as if it came and went within about two minutes. Yet the Lord’s Supper traces its roots to the lengthy Passover meal. Read the Gospel accounts of all that happened on the night Jesus gave the bread and cup their New Covenant meanings. That meal and the conversation that went with it must have taken hours. I understand that even today Jewish Seders take from 30 minutes to all night.

But we have compressed into minutes the Supper that once took hours. Maybe Amazon should advertise the product as “Hurry-Up Cups.” Does real one-anothering take too long these days? Have we traded fellowship for efficiency? Commenting on a Communion blog, one writer said: “Henry Ford, bless his heart, was a genius, but way too many things in American culture resemble the assembly line.”

We want to “check the box” and say we have observed Communion. But we don’t want to give it the time it once had. So we keep devising more and more ways to accelerate it. We still have a form of Communion, but we deny the shared-church power experienced by those New Testament believers.

  • Spectacle

Americans love a good show. Since the year 2000, the number of commercial TV stations in the U.S. has increased by 1000—now totaling more than 1760. We’ve become a nation of spectators. On Sundays, we expect a rock concert followed by an uplifting and entertaining monologue. In some churches, the audience sits in semi-darkness while musicians on the stage perform under colored lights in swirling fog created by haze machines. But in such a setting, can the Lord’s Supper remain the Lord’s Supper with the one-anothering of the original?

  • Selfism

Selfism works directly against one-anothering. A few years ago, I attended a Communion service that took individualism to the max. One by one, the congregation stopped before two attendants: one held a plate of bread cubes; the other a large cup of grape juice. Each of those in the line took a piece of bread and dipped it into the juice. Then, together if married or singly if alone, the participants headed for the nearest wall, turned their backs on everyone else, and ate the moist bread in seclusion.

As I struggled to open my “Fellowship Cup” on Easter, I did so all on my own. For different reasons, there was no more one-anothering taking place than in the non-Lord’s Supper of that first-century Corinthian gathering.

At what point does the Lord’s Supper become not the Lord’s Supper?

Caring for Creation Calls for Shared Church

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While hosting a webinar last week, I didn’t expect fresh insight into our need for shared church. But there it was—even though the online session focused on creation care.

What led to my role in this event? In June—because I teach the theology of work for the Bakke Graduate University—I plan to attend the Lausanne Global Workplace Forum (GWF) in Manila. Leading up to that gathering, ministry leaders have written some 30 “advance papers” on workplace-related subjects ranging from Arts in the Workplace to Women in Evangelism. To help participants prepare for the Manila conference, GWF is addressing many of these subjects in webinars called “Virtual Cafés.”

The Webinar on Creation Care

When asked to host one of these online discussions, I chose the session on creation care. Our main speaker, David Bookless, serves in the UK with A Rocha (Portuguese for “The Rock”), a group devoted to responsible stewardship of God’s earth. Ed Brown, the other speaker, serves as the Lausanne catalyst for creation care. Others joining our online session included Christians from Shanghai, West Africa, New Zealand, Brazil, and the U.S.

How did our conversation about creation care point to the need for shared church? As I listened to the speakers and guests, it hit me: I could not remember hearing anything in decades of church meetings about our tending the earth and its creatures. Nor could I recall, in my own 21 years of sermons, presenting even one message on that subject.

Why Have We Ignored Creation Care?

The church people I’ve spoken to all agree—we hear little or nothing on Sundays about our responsibility for the planet. Why? I suspect we can explain the silence from at least three angles.

  • First, we have reacted against a politicized and often God-evading environmentalism. The Lausanne advance paper, “Creation Care and the Workplace,” opens with these words: “When you hear the phrase ‘Creation Care and the Workplace,’ what comes to mind? Perhaps memos about turning off computers and office lights? Perhaps constraints on travel, resource-use, and waste? Perhaps a feeling that the ‘green police’ are the enemies of productivity and profit? It’s quite likely that there is a negative association: a sense that ‘creation care’ and ‘the workplace’ are somehow in opposition to each other.”

  • Second, countless Christians have been taught to think that God is going to toss this earth away—burn it to a crisp and start all over with a completely new earth. If true, then why spend any time or effort on a doomed planet? That would be like installing new kitchen cabinets in a house about to be bulldozed to make room for a city park.

  • Third, we still suffer from a centuries-old dualism—the unbiblical “sacred-secular divide.” In “My Pilgrimage in Theology,” N. T. Wright describes the change he underwent as he worked on his Colossians commentary: “Until then I had been basically, a dualist. The gospel belonged in one sphere, the world of creation and politics in another.” Dualism leads us to read verses like Colossians 3:2, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things,” as if God frowns on our thinking about clean air, over-fishing, or conservation . But this interpretation ignores the context, which deals with sins—sexual immorality, greed, filthy talk, lying, and the like.

The Need for Participatory Church Meetings

One of our webinar guests has served as Chief Fisheries Manager in New Zealand. He told us: “I have felt that I’m working with God. But I am not sure that many have seen it like that.” Ed Brown added, “Christians who are scientists—especially those working in environmental fields—are some of the loneliest people I know.” Brown has heard Christians working in these areas say, “No one in my church understands me. They think I’m working for the devil.”

David Bookless has heard similar concerns: “Sadly there are many Christians who have been called by God into this area of creation care but have felt almost pushed to the margins by their churches. And in some cases, they have stopped attending.”

A young Brazilian woman, a geologist in an oil company, said: “Somehow I could not connect my faith with my vocation. I had never thought about creation care. It is not common in Brazil to talk about it in church. It would be great if we could share this vision with others in our church.”

As I listened, I thought: The congregations I’ve been a part of over the years have included many whose daily work involved direct care of the earth, its animals, and its plants. Christians in forest management. Those in departments of ecology. Farmers. Gardeners. Landscapers. Cattle ranchers. Loggers and tree trimmers. Oyster growers. And so on.

Suppose Christians doing such work were given opportunities to share about it in their church meetings. They could ask questions, offer experience-based insights, and explain what God has revealed to them about creation care. In other words, the wealth of understanding already deposited in members of Christ’s body, can strengthen the church in its role of caring for God’s earth.

God’s Earth is Groaning

Both Old and New Testaments make it clear that "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it" (Ps. 24:1; I Cor. 10:26). And yet God’s earth is hurting: “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:22). Why? Because we humans, the property mangers God put in charge of his real estate, have done such a poor job of carrying out his First Commission, caring for the planet.

Isaiah saw this long ago. “The earth turns gaunt and gray, the world silent and sad, sky and land lifeless, colorless. Earth is polluted by its very own people, who have broken its laws, disrupted its order, violated the sacred and eternal covenant. Therefore a curse, like a cancer, ravages the earth. Its people pay the price of their sacrilege” (Is. 24:4-6, MSG).

As it groans, the earth is waiting and hoping for its property managers to do their job. Paul says the “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

In the Meantime, What Can We Do?

How can your church, through congregational participation, address caring for creation? Bookless said some churches hold an annual “Creation Fair Sunday.” During that time, they ask any whose work involves responsibility for the creation to come to the front for blessing and commissioning. Some churches invite local conservation, wildlife, environmental, or natural history groups to participate in the fair—even offering to pray for their work.

In the UK, Bookless told us, some churches have a slot called, “This Time Tomorrow.” In a five-or-ten-minute interview, someone tells what they will be doing this time tomorrow. This can cover the whole range of workplaces, he said, not just creation care.

Little did I know, when I agreed to host the webinar, that a subject like creation care would point to yet another reason for participatory church meetings!

To download the Lausanne Global Workplace Forum advance paper, “Creation Care,” click here.

Hearing the Hearts of Missionary Kids

Some time ago Kara Garrison told me how difficult it had been for her four “missionary kids,” upon returning from Thailand, to integrate into church as practiced in the U.S. In a Zoom interview last week, I asked her to describe their difficult transition. This blog is based on that interview. (Click here for video of interview.)

Where are you living now?

Click on arrow for video interview with Kara Garrison.

My husband and I are living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Our three daughters and one son are grown and living in various parts of this area of the country.

How many years did you spend in Thailand—and how old were your children at first?

Twelve years in Thailand itself. Our son was six. Our youngest daughter eight. Our second daughter had her tenth birthday the day we arrived in Thailand. And our oldest daughter was twelve.

How did your family experience shared church in Thailand—strengthening, building up, encouraging one another?

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In Chang Mai we first attended traditional churches led by Westerners. But in time we decided those churches were too much like the American church. While there, we wanted a different dynamic. So we started investigating house churches. Over the years, numbers ranged from 3 to 16 families. Especially positive for our kids were the opportunities to discuss Scripture. To be able to talk it over with adults other than their parents. To be able to voice concerns or disbelief and have other adults speaking to them. All that made for a way to build trust between individuals and community. A shared meal each time was especially important.

In the years we did church in the morning and started with breakfast, the young boys loved the bacon! When we asked the kids, “What is an important part of house church, in your opinion?” bacon always ended up on the list. So it wasn't all for spiritual reasons that the kids enjoyed it. It was also for social reasons, the ability to be considered a vital part of the church community. And it was also for emotional reasons. The kids just felt valued in the group.

What was one of the key values about fellowship around a meal?

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Meals provided a natural opportunity for life discussions to occur. You could be processing something that's already been discussed in the teaching. Or you might be processing things happening in life, in the kids’ school community. Because the families were so integrated, you could see your friends’ children inside or outside the church setting. You had things in common to talk to them about. If you saw them on the street, you had already developed this relationship inside the house church.

A meal around a table is very non-hierarchical, isn't it?

Absolutely! Sometimes you were sitting on the floor, sometimes you were sitting multi-generationally, sometimes the kids went off and it was divided generationally. It didn't seem to matter. It didn’t have to be this way or that. It was always different depending on whose house it was at—and it was very non-threatening.

Upon her return to the U.S., your oldest daughter, now 28, had a very difficult time. Could you describe it?

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It was hard for her to integrate into “formal” church, because she had so valued the interaction. She said, “What is this? What is this where one person gives a lecture, and the rest of us just listen? Who’s listening to the rest of us? And how do we get to discuss?” So it was extremely upsetting for her to accept that this was the new normal. She did not like the new normal.

Has the transition continued to influence her?

Yes it has. And after our return to the States, my husband and I followed up on several of our children's friends. We found that her response is not unique. Missionary kids, now young adults, living in other cities across the United States who grew up overseas are experiencing similar issues. They still want to be followers of Jesus, but they are very uncomfortable in this formal type of church community. They feel it's disingenuous.

What elements in your Thailand church gatherings are not typically present in the U.S.?

One of the things that strikes me personally is the lack of opportunity while you're at church to really fellowship with each other. I find this frustrating: you attend a Sunday school class and after class you're looking around for people you want to connect with. But there's this rush to get out, because another group is getting ready to meet in that same location—and because you need to quickly get to the service. So it doesn't really lend itself to developing community and relationships. Especially, I think, it's a problem in cities where people live so far away from the church building. That's the one time they're going to have the opportunity to be community with each other. That's the gathering place, and yet there is not a good opportunity to really fellowship with each other. You're there to listen to somebody else, not to each other. The informal interactions that are a natural part of House Church are missing.

The time crunch is also present in the larger meeting, isn’t it?

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It’s not just the formal part of the service that's timed. We we travel to many different churches, where you have two minutes to greet someone next to you. That's just an empty exercise in my opinion. It’s not very genuine to greet somebody, especially for the very first time, in two minutes or less, and really welcome them and ask questions. And then, when the service is over, people are scooting out. And so there’s not really a paradigm where people are gathering to interact with each other informally.

Your son once wrote a letter describing what he missed about church in Thailand. What did he say?

He was in about fourth grade when we came back to the United States. An English assignment let him write on anything he wanted. It came out more like a letter that explained why he missed and loved house church, how he felt valued there. He felt like he was a member of everybody's family—even used the phrase, “it feels like family.”

What about you—what do you miss?

With friends who have also returned to the U.S., we often discuss the drawbacks of integrating into the American church. We all feel the loss of community. Our friends at church are just “friends at church.” Many of those we knew before our time in Thailand are still in Tulsa. So for us, we were better able than many to re-establish those long-term relationships than other missionaries. But there is still definitely a difference. It is a lot more work to stay connected with your friends here due to schedules, physical distance, and weather. We do stay connected with certain family friends, just between us and their families, but it's hard as a group to stay connected.

What elements from church meetings in Thailand do you think should be incorporated into gatherings in the U.S.?

I think old things need to be recovered—things covered over that should be uncovered. For example, church potlucks and more fellowshipping before and after the church meeting. The very things people say they're craving—community and fellowship—are not being valued, because of concern that people won't stay for the very thing they say they want. That, to me, seems pretty conflicting.

What Are We Missing?

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When I was young, we had a crank telephone and a party line that let any neighbor listen in. We didn’t miss cell phones. Why? Because we’d never seen one.

We Christians in Western cultures have church meetings with audiences, platforms, and professionals. We don’t miss participatory, shared-church meetings. Why? Because we’ve never seen them.

Teachings and doctrines differ greatly from one church tradition to another. But whatever the “brand,” our meetings mostly take place in the same predictable setting. It doesn’t matter if the church is Baptist or Brethren, Presbyterian or Pentecostal, Anglican or Adventist, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, mega, mini--or even a cult. You can expect chairs or pews all facing forward, an elevated stage, and performers (many paid) up on that platform. If you sit in the “audience,” the unwritten meeting rules—like those in a theater—forbid speaking up (but you may clap or laugh out loud).

Designing a Meeting Format

In short, we typically do not practice shared church on Sunday mornings. But what are we missing out on? One way to find out is to read New Testament descriptions of what happened in their meetings back then. With that picture in mind, ask yourself: “How would I design the setting and agenda for a regular, week-in-week-out, church meeting in light of the following New Testament truths about the church?”

  • The Holy Spirit lives in each member of the body (Rom. 8:9b).

  • Each one has received the Spirit’s anointing and has been taught by God (I Jn. 2:20, 27; Jn. 6:45).

  • Every Christian has received a Spirit-given gift to be used for the benefit of the others (I Cor. 12:7-11).

  • Christ’s completeness is revealed through his multi-membered body, the church (Eph. 1:22-23).

  • Some Christians have received leadership gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers) to help fellow believers develop and use their ministry gifts (Eph. 4:11-12).

From the way God has given out his gifts, it seems clear that he has deposited in each Christian treasures that he wants to be shared with all the others. Such wealth should not be bottled up or corked. Releasing those gifts, of course, would require a meeting format that provides space and time to express them. In I Cor. 14:26-31, Paul calls for church meetings full of chances for that to happen:

“What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.”

So what gets lost in meetings shaped by church tradition rather than this New Testament pattern? Those verses help us see what we are missing:

  • Openings to Speak

In the church meeting Paul describes, any Christian can use God-given gifts for the benefit of all. Every contribution mentioned in those verses involves speaking. But today’s typical church-meeting agenda prevents most in the meeting from doing so. Those in the “audience” without microphones can’t get a word in edgewise. When the professionals pre-plan and program church meetings down to the minute, they can speak, but other input gets shut out.

  • Exercise of Gifts

The six verses quoted above revolve around the use of spiritual gifts, which (in 14:1) Paul has just urged the Corinthian Christians to “eagerly desire.” But if the structure of our meetings does not permit people to use them, those gifts lie undiscovered, undeveloped, unused—and may atrophy. One of the now-seemingly-dormant gifts prominent in this I Corinthians passage is prophecy.

  • Hearing Others Prophesy

The text says, “you can all prophesy.” Many believe the gift of prophecy has vanished. But John Piper thinks otherwise. Prophecy, he says, includes more than words written or spoken by Bible writers, Jesus, and the Twelve: “We need,” Piper says, a new “category for the ‘spiritual gift of prophecy’—Spirit-prompted, Spirit-sustained, revelation-rooted, but mixed with human imperfection and fallibility and therefore in need of sifting.” (For his full article, click here.)

  • Practice in Checking Things Out

Sifting involves evaluating, sorting out what lines up with God-revealed Scripture from what does not. In those six I Corinthian verses, Paul says “others should weigh carefully what is said.” The Bereans received praise because they measured what was being taught against Scripture ((Acts 17:11). In a context that deals with teaching, Hebrews 5:14 refers to Christians “who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” But the typical church meeting today provides no opportunity to vocalize any assessment of what has been publicly stated. And so those in the “audience” get no practice in exercising critical-thinking skills.

  • Mutual Building, Instructing & Encouraging

In verses 26 and 31, Paul states the three-fold purpose of the church meeting—building up, instruction, and encouragement. In 26: “All of these must be done for the strengthening [literally, building up] of the church.” In 31: “that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” By repeating the word “all,” the Greek original for verse 31 emphasizes the every-member involvement: “You may all prophesy so that all may learn and all may be encouraged” (emphasis added). In other words, the responsibility for building up, instructing, and encouraging belongs to everyone gathered, not just to a few up front.

These, then, are some of the elements present in 1st-century but largely absent in 21st-century church meetings. Most Christians in a church “audience” today do not come expecting to contribute from their giftings, because they know the meeting format will allow them no opportunity. As E. Stanley Jones puts it in The Reconstruction of the Church—on What Pattern?, “They have little to do, hence they do little.” And yet, it is only “as each part does its work” that Christ’s body “grows and builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).

Restoring Participation

Can we suddenly reinstate all these missing pieces to our congregational gatherings? Of course not. But even if you are part of the “audience,” you can tactfully suggest that your leadership begin taking small steps in a participatory direction. For example:

  • Your church can schedule those in the congregation to bring five- or seven-minute reports on how God is moving in their workplaces, neighborhoods, and families. How else will the church family know what he is doing out in your community between Sundays?

  • Your pastor can open the floor to questions and comments following the sermon. I recently watched a YouTube video in which N. T. Wright brought a message to a fairly large congregation. A Q&A time followed immediately, during which Wright responded to important observations, questions, and points that needed clarification.

  • Mature, qualified Christians from the congregation can serve on a panel that discusses issues we may wrestle with. For example, “How can we explain the biblical perspective to someone asking for advice on gender-change surgery?” Or, “What is and is not appropriate for witnessing on the job?”

  • Your church can make it a priority to discover members of the congregation with teaching gifts and to schedule them to bring Sunday messages.

The old crank telephone was far better than no telephone. It let us get messages from one person to another, whether across town or across the country. But it lacked the apps of cell phones—no cameras, no calculators, no emails, no FaceTime, no eBooks. A platform-centered church meeting is far better than no church meeting. It permits us to hear preaching from a professional. But it allows no room for the use of the diverse gifts with which God has enriched the church.

There is a way to move toward congregational participation. Do we have the will to take that way?

Out of Africa—Shared Church

What can we learn about practicing shared church from our brothers and sisters in Africa?

Click on arrow for video interview with Dotun Reju, the founding pastor of Kingdom Citizens Pavilion in Jos, Nigeria.

In The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins said the center of gravity in Christendom has shifted away from the Western church to places like Asia, South America, and Africa. Some churches there are learning to “do church” in participatory ways. I recently interviewed Dotun Reju online in a Zoom conversation. He is the founding pastor of the Kingdom Citizens Pavilion in Jos, Nigeria. This blog is based on our conversation. (Click here to see and hear a YouTube video of that interview.)

Q: Kingdom Citizens Pavilion is an unusual name for a church. Please explain.

In Matthew 5, I discovered the centrality of the Kingdom in the gospel Jesus preached. I realized it’s just like being a citizen of a country. Being African, I know what a kingdom is. We’ve lived under a monarchy. A citizen of a kingdom reflects the values, the personality, and the principles of the king who rules that kingdom. I concluded that Jesus Christ came to raise up a community of citizens for his Kingdom. Believers are to operate like citizens of the Kingdom where Jesus is King. And then I read Psalm 31:20—“In the time of trouble, he will hide me in his pavilion from the strife of tongues.” So that’s the Pavilion part of the name. This is a Pavilion for Citizens of the Kingdom.

Q: How does a church that practices the priesthood of all believers differ from so many churches?

Titles are downplayed—titles like Pastor, Reverend, Prophet. You never a see a situation where it is the pastor who prays for the people; people pray together. In most churches there is a very clear demarcation between the leader and the led. But in a church that believes in the priesthood of all believers, the key is function, not titles.

Q: You have accountability groups. What do those involve? How are they formed?

Because priests basically represent God in their society, we ask ourselves, “How do we go into our society? How do we go into the world? We need to go with something.” And we discovered that it’s our professions, our careers. We gather people of like professions and passions for mutual accountability and mutual benefit. What are you going through in your own place of work? What challenges, what opportunities exist there? How can the person who works in Organization A or B learn from one in Organization C?

We have four categories of accountability groups: health, education, the arts, and business. Each group comes up with community projects. For example, the education accountability group is close to a slum with a high level of illiteracy. So they have begun a reading clinic. Their long-term plan is to build a library there. They bring their skills as educators to teach people how to read and write, even without formal schooling. Right now the business group is trying to set up a pilot farm, where they can train small-scale farmers. The purpose is not to bring them to our church. The purpose is to take the church to them. But we’ve seen a lot of them come to the saving knowledge of Christ.

Q: You also have community pastors. How are they related to the accountability groups? And how are they chosen?

The leaders of the accountability groups are the community pastors. Each group functions like a micro-church. Leaders emerge from the groups. The groups identify those who are going to lead them.

Events like naming children and baptisms are done in those groups. If you want to get married, the first person who will know is the community pastor. Your accountability group leader/pastor provides pastoral care. This person needs to have the skill set, the emotional bent, to be able to function in that role. If that group wants to have a Bible study, their pastor will not necessarily lead it. It will be led by someone in the group with the skill to moderate a Bible study. So leadership is highly adaptive. The community pastor coordinates.

Q: So the community pastor in an education group would be an educator, right?

Yes. The way you disciple an educator should be distinctly different from the way you disciple a doctor. We disciple by taking the mission field into consideration. We’ve seen that most times other churches disciple people to function within the church—to become good ushers, good choir members, good Bible study attendees. We disciple for that, but also for where they spend most of their waking moments. We take their places of work into consideration when we disciple them.

Q. How often do these community accountability groups come together?

On the level of the leadership, they are expected to meet once a month. But on their own level, they have other meetings. They have potlucks, when they meet to just have fun, eat together, or celebrate someone’s birthday. So they have one meeting a month on the whole-church calendar. But they are also expected to have other meetings. Maybe once a quarter, the leaders of all these accountability groups also meet with me for orientation, for feedback, and for training. The first Sunday of every month is the whole-church family Sunday. We have stories from the accountability group fellowships. This week we will be hearing from the education accountability group, from the health group, and some praise reports from families. This community gathering is very life-giving. It makes the church come alive. Everyone sees that what you learn you will be held responsible and accountable for. And when you teach, you will receive feedback. Is what you are teaching actually getting across?

Q: So the whole church can see what God is doing right now in their community—not just what he did 2,000 years ago, right?

Yes, what he is doing right now. Absolutely!

Q: Tell us about how you commission people and how they take this to heart on the job.

Yes, maybe you’ve finished your education and graduated, completed vocational training, or gone through the post-university, mandatory, national service. These people go through an orientation, which is basically my teaching them the theology of work. We show them that the next phase of their life is a call to ministry. In commissioning them, we say, “This is not different from what many churches know as ordination.” There is no title, and they are not necessarily being sent to go and serve in a local church. Our philosophy: we don’t go to church; church goes to places.

So we have this special Sunday service where these people are presented to the whole congregation and prayed for. They are commissioned and deployed to where we believe God is sending them. They are meant to understand that where they are going to is not just about “getting a job,” but that they are actually going into ministry. We call them the “Invaders’ Squad,” because we believe they are going to invade their worlds with the gospel—primarily with lifestyle and work quality.

Q: Who serves on your teaching team? How many are on that team? And what are their qualifications?

We think not in terms of qualifications but in terms of skills. Everyone in the church can express themselves in all ways. But for now, the teaching team consists of myself and three others who have valuable teaching gifts. As leaders, we observe. What is this person’s strength? So the teaching team is highly flexible. We always want to raise up fresh minds who will be brought into the teaching and pastoral roles. We define the five-fold ministry offices [of Ephesians 4:11] and ask people to do a self-appraisal. We also watch to see if this or that person has a particular gifting in one of those areas. It is something people grow into.

Q: How has the congregation responded to the reports from the accountability groups?

Everyone looks forward to this Sunday, because they are not going to be bored with my long preaching! It gives everyone a sense of belonging. People might have some issues in their own lives, and to hear others talk about something they are going through is very encouraging. We have demystified Sunday. The gospel we received from the West—the way it was given to us—was very Sunday-oriented. We still value Sunday, but we see it as an opportunity to come and connect.

We have also demystified church weddings. If you get married in your living room, it’s not inferior to getting married in the church building. So we have been able to demystify the building, to demystify Sunday, and to use every opportunity to engage our culture. God doesn’t live in this building. It’s only church when we are here. And everywhere we are, that becomes the church. Take the example of the American President. Any kind of aircraft he enters becomes Air Force One. What makes the aircraft Air Force One is the presence of the American President.

Q: You have visited the U.S. many times. How would you suggest that in our U. S. culture we can adopt some of the things you’ve discovered?

What I’ve seen in the American experience is individualism taken to a very negative extent. Community is not valued. Lack of accountability to each other is not the way it should be. Because of that, the church in America is fast losing their society. And what can solve that problem is to begin to emphasize where Christians spend most of their waking moments. We need to value where we really live—which is in the workplace. We need to know how to really engage that place. It’s not a Sunday-Sunday kind of thing. That’s one thing America can learn. You can learn from Africans in terms of community, how we really come together, how we value community, and how we demystify Sundays.

Participatory Baptisms and 5-Question Strategy

Lowell Bakke

Lowell Bakke

While serving as pastor in Bethany Baptist Church in Puyallup, WA, Lowell Bakke began to see a whole new way to make baptisms an opportunity for those in the congregation to serve one another. He also introduced a “five-question strategy” to make Sunday meetings more participatory. Bakke explains both in the following excerpt from Chapter 6 of my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis.

In those days I was baptizing around eight to ten people a year. Why, I wondered, should a pastor do all the baptizing? Jesus himself had his trainees baptize others (John 4:1-2). Apparently, Paul did not consider baptizing disciples a part of his job description (1 Cor. 1:13-17).

As a Baptist pastor, I had no interest in claiming exclusive authority to baptize as a symbol of power, which is so common in Baptist churches. So I went to the church board and said, “I’d like to give away this responsibility to those who have actually done the ministry in the lives of those being baptized. Can you show me biblically that I am the only one who should do the baptizing?” They thought about it and said, “No—it’s just that we’ve always done it that way.”

The Church Hears the Stories Behind the Baptisms

Behind every baptism is a story of God’s working, but I didn’t want to be the one knowing and telling that story. So I began meeting with baptismal candidates, asking them to tell me their stories so they could tell them publicly. Some needed a bit of coaching to help them know the best way to communicate their story. “Who might you want to baptize you?” I asked each one. Usually it was the person who had had the most spiritual impact on their coming to faith. For some fathers, it was sometimes a child or wife who did the baptizing. Ballplayers baptized coaches. Students baptized teachers. In one case, an employee of a car company baptized the owner of the firm. But by far the most dynamic part of the service was the story of the relationship of those being baptized and the one who had the spiritual impact on their life.

In less than a year, the church witnessed more than 100 baptisms—and heard the story associated with each one. We actually had one Sunday morning where in three services all we did in each service was to hear the stories of people who were being baptized. Altogether 39 people were baptized that day, but it took the whole service time because each story was totally different. Twenty-plus years later, I don’t remember all the stories, but I do remember thinking almost all of those who were baptized that day and every other baptismal service came to Christ outside our church services. Had we not taken the time to learn and share the story, we would never had known how God was working the other six days of the week in Puyallup. Formerly, believers at Bethany took seriously the responsibility for bringing people to Christ, but the church did not give them the opportunity to share their story nor the authority to baptize those they reached on behalf of the church. Now they were out sharing Christ in the community and had the opportunity to tell their stories to church body as well as the joy of representing the church as the baptizing agent in the church service. Those stories were better than any sermon I ever preached.

The 5-Question Strategy

For three summers while serving as pastor in in this church, I used a five-question strategy. This not only increased participation among those who had gathered each Sunday, but it also helped vacationing church members take part. Maybe the best part of the whole process was that it put everyone on an equal footing—young believers, mature believers, and not-yet-believers—as every person’s answers were valuable to the whole. I chose a Bible book and divided it into sections. Each section became my text for that week, and everyone was notified in advance of the Scripture passage to be read. To vacationers I suggested, even if you’re camping, take out this text and read it carefully. Then ask yourself the following five questions:

  1. What did you like about this text?

  2. What did you not like about the text?

  3. What did you not understand about the text?

  4. What did you learn about God—Father, Son, Holy Spirit?

  5. What are you going to do now that you’ve read the text?

For the message in the Sunday meeting, I began by asking others to read the text aloud in two or three translations. After that I presented a short teaching commentary on the text then asked those present to interact, using the same five questions. 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.

When it came to questions 1 and 2, what some people liked about the text was sometimes identical with what others did not like about it, depending on their perspective and their circumstances in life. When people described what they did not understand about the text (question 3), I did not offer answers. Often, a week or two later, someone would say something like, “I remember last week when John was struggling to understand the text. Well, while reading this week’s Scripture the Lord helped me see something I think might help with that.” The hardest thing for preachers is to refrain from giving answers. We need to trust the Holy Spirit to teach believers as they work their way through to understanding.

Lowell Bakke now serves as Director of the International Theology of Work Grant Program: www.theologyofworkgrant.com

Putting Supper back into The Supper

Communion Contrast.jpg

How can a church make its Sunday meetings more participatory? I’ve been asking that question for decades. Why? Because according to the teaching I’ve received—and believe wholeheartedly—the Bible is to be our “only rule” not only for faith but also for practice. But over the years it seems the practices for Christian gatherings today have drifted far from those in the New Testament.

How far? The gap can’t be measured in miles or years. Maybe the best way to visualize it is to picture the difference between what takes place in a roomful of friends and in a theater. Or between the exchanges that take place in a family reunion versus those in a sports stadium. Positive things can and do happen in theaters and stadiums. But they are far from the same things that take place in a roomful of friends or a family reunion.

Our Church Plant

An opportunity to move a bit nearer to that family-reunion setting came several years ago when our pastor asked me to lead the team that would plant a church in the neighboring city. We met first on Easter in a hall rented just on Sundays. Right from the start, we observed Communion once a month, as many churches do. Tiny cubes of bread and micro-cups with, perhaps, a half-ounce of grape juice.

After our first communion celebration, a man I had met just a few weeks before came and fervently thanked me for providing empty cups in the serving trays. Seeing my puzzled look, he explained: “I’m an alcoholic. But I was able to participate by taking an unfilled cup.” Marveling at his openness, I clarified: “We use grape juice, not wine, in the cups. The reason for the empties is that, as a brand-new church, we have more cups than people.”

As the church grew and we occupied our own building, we filled more cups and even purchased additional trays. But the more I studied the practices of the early church, the less satisfied I became with our practice of Communion. We were, of course, observing it in the traditional way. Yes, we were remembering Christ’s death. In Paul’s classic passage on this (I Cor. 11:17-34), he calls it the Lord’s “Supper,” meaning the main meal of the day, usually in the evening. But no one would call what we were doing a “supper.” I couldn’t imagine inviting guests into our home for supper and serving them a crumb of bread and a sip of juice. As one writer put it, our traditions have taken supper out of the Supper.

Remembering Plus

Further, real meals include more than just food. They naturally stimulate discussions. But I saw that tradition had turned the Supper into a no-conversation ritual. It permitted none of the lively dialogue seen in the original Lord’s Supper, the Passover meal shared by Jesus and his disciples. For example, while visiting another church I saw such silence taken to an extreme: couples or singles soaked their break in grape juice, then headed off to stand against a wall, isolated from all others. There, they ate the moist bread in solitude—their backs to everyone else!

Why did Paul scold the Corinthians for the way they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper? Because they were flouting the Lord’s new command to love one another (Jn. 13:34-35). Each came to the meal thinking only of themselves. So Paul had to tell them to wait for “each other,” which translates the “one another” word Jesus used three times in his new command. Paul’s rebuke makes it clear that the Lord’s Supper is not only about remembering the Lord’s death until he comes. It is also about one-anothering in the here-and-now. But in our practice of Communion, that wasn’t happening.

Combining Communion and Meal

Combined Setup.jpg

We had constructed our building with a multipurpose room as our main meeting space. So we introduced a new way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. On the first Sunday of each month, we filled the room with rectangular folding tables. Between each string of tables and the next we placed two lines of chairs. During the first part of the meeting, which included singing and sermon, all the chairs faced forward. After that, half the chairs were spun around 180 degrees, so that people faced each other across tables during the meal (see diagram.) This made conversation both easy and natural. On each table we included a few suggested conversation-starters designed to spur mutual encouragement and spurring on.

By then the church had several cell groups, and each one took its turn at preparing the meal. We emphasized the need to keep the menu simple. Soup. Bread. Often a salad. The families making up the cell group provided the meal and did the serving. This included the children and young people—which allowed adults and youths to relate to one another across the generations.

Each month the message for Communion Sunday focused on some aspect of Jesus’s death and its significance. Then, during the meal, we paused to reflect on the meaning as we shared the bread and later the cup. By means of a brief meditation, someone qualified to do so helped us connect those symbols to the body and blood of Jesus. Conversations across the tables liberated us from any somber stiffness, yet the focus on the meaning of the bread and cup preserved the seriousness of what we were doing. We found that dining together created a sense of family and fostered one-anothering.

The Changeover

The transition included a learning curve. Since we were crossing over into what was for us uncharted territory, we had to learn from our successes and failures. Did everyone immediately buy into this non-traditional way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper? No. For example, one older couple, long-time church people, initially chose to skip those first-Sunday-of-the-month meetings. They had never experienced Communion this way before. But after a few months, hearing positive reports from others, they returned and eventually became staunch advocates of the “new” way of doing things.

Why did this couple hear positive reports? Because we had put communion and community back together. The two words, after all, share the same Latin root—which means participating in something common to all. How often have you experienced close community in a theater? Yet community happens easily across the table over food. Jesus called for one-anothering in his new command. He asked in prayer that his followers would come to complete unity.

Celebrating Communion as a real meal helped move us toward both of those outcomes.

FaithStories at Northwood Church

How can your church introduce congregational participation into Sunday mornings? This is the first blog in a series that will address that question.

Video interview with Brian Doten, who serves as pastor of Northwood Church, Maple Grove, MN.

Like all who follow Christ, Rachel Bichler’s journey in the Way is unique. Much of what she has experienced in her walk of faith has a high EQ (encouragement quotient). That is, her story might well serve as a powerful tool the Holy Spirit could use to energize and spur on other believers. But if Rachel were part of a church where the meeting format had no room for her story, the congregation would never hear or benefit from it.

Thankfully, Rachel’s church not only allows but eagerly cultivates the telling of “FaithStories.” Her church? Northwood Church in Maple Grove, MN, where Brian Doten is pastor. Previously, he had served with Leith Anderson, then pastor of Wooddale Church, in Eden Prairie, MN, and now president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Back then, Anderson had stressed the importance of FaithStories. Doten ‘s role: helping people prepare them. Wooddale Church is the “mother church” of Northwood, where Doten has served as pastor since 2006.

I first came to know Doten a few years ago when I interviewed him for my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis. For an update on FaithStories in Northwood Church, I interviewed him again last week. (Click here to watch a YouTube video of our conversation.)

What is a FaithStory?

Those in Northwood Church were moved when Emmanuela, a 13-year-old born in this Kenyan refugee camp, told her FaithStory.

Those in Northwood Church were moved when Emmanuela, a 13-year-old born in this Kenyan refugee camp, told her FaithStory.

“A FaithStory,” says Doten, “is a five-minute telling of how someone has become a believer in Jesus and the difference he’s made in their lives. Sometimes the story will also describe how they are witnessing for the Lord.”

Doten emphasizes, “These are not spontaneous presentations. They are planned in advance and timed out. People come well prepared, so it’s not some kind of off-the-cuff narrative. As much as possible, we try to connect the story with the sermon topic or worship theme for the day.” In this way, by telling their FaithStories, the congregation participates in the ministry of preaching/teaching.

In 2018, Northwood people heard 27 FaithStories from members of their own congregation. “We try to schedule them for three out of the four Sundays in a month,” Doten says. “On the first Sundays of the month, Communion Sundays, we don’t do FaithStories.” Other special elements within a given Sunday meeting may also bump such stories.

The FaithStory Coaching Process

What sets FaithStories apart from what used to be called a “testimony”? A well-thought-out and carefully conducted coaching procedure. Doten says, “Probably the best coaching process is that the people sit in the congregation week after week and listen to other people do this. So they already have a clear idea of what a FaithStory is as they start to work on their own story.”

But that’s not all. “We have a written set of guidelines. These are basic and simple, with some do’s and don’ts. For example, Don’t turn this into a life story. Don’t criticize any church or denomination. Do share how Christ has come into your life, how he’s changing your life, and ways you can talk about the Lord in a transformational, positive way.” (For a copy of Northwood’s FaithStory guidelines, click here.)

Doten sends these written guidelines to people who have agreed to do their FaithStories. “Then I ask them to write it out in advance and send me a copy a couple weeks before they are to present it. I read it over and get back to them with a face-to-face meeting, a phone conversation, or an email response.”

How Much Prep Time?

“I’m finding,” Doten says, “that in the last year or two, emails or phone conversations are working so well I no longer have to sit down with someone and go over it. When I first came to Northwood, there was a lot of that, because we were introducing something new and trying to create this culture of people doing FaithStories. Now that it’s embedded in the culture, I don’t have to give as much time to the coaching side as I once did.”

The biggest challenge right now involves scheduling. That does take time. Tracking people down, talking to them, finding a date that works for both their calendar and that of the church. “Sometimes when I first contact someone and they say, ‘Yes, I’d like to do that’, it may take a couple more contacts before we can settle on a date. I try to work about three months in advance. So this is not like next week or next month.”

Sometimes Doten interviews the one presenting the FaithStory, in which case he asks three or four questions. Tell us about yourself. Tell how you became a believer. Tell how Christ has changed your life. Doten explains: “Some people just get locked up in trying to organize their FaithStory. They want to talk about the Lord and about how he’s changed their life, but they freeze up in trying to organize it. So they say to me, ‘Will you ask me questions? Because I’ll be able to do that better.’”

The Fruit of FaithStories

Doten’s enthusiasm for FaithStories is contagious. Their power for building real community in the congregation remind him of what C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves: “Friendship ... is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . .’”

“This happens so much as people share their stories,” Doten says. “People make connections that continue afterward, between Sundays, or even after a couple of weeks. Common experience connects people together.”

“FaithStories invite people to go deeper into the life of the church. Some describe how a Christian has grown in their faith because of small groups or Alpha. When people hear the stories of others being impacted by those ministries, they get involved, they step up. We will launch the next session of Alpha tomorrow night. We anticipate close to 60 people coming.”

Would Northwood Discontinue FaithStories?

I asked if Doten would ever consider giving up FaithStories. Answer: an emphatic no. “It’s the heart of our church, the heartbeat of the Sunday worship experience.” What if you discontinued FaithStories? “I think people would say, ‘You know, the preaching is okay, the music is really good, but those FaithStories—whatever happened to those Faith Stories? Bring ‘em back!’”

“People expect a preacher to get up and speak,” Doten says. “They expect it to be biblical, interesting, and challenging. But when a regular churchgoer gets up and talks in an intelligent manner, in a personal way, and they’re open and vulnerable to the congregation . . . oooh! The credibility they have and the connection that happens, those to me are sometimes the holiest moments that we have in our gatherings. So I don’t think you could convince us not to do this.”

Rachel Bichler’s touching story illustrates why the Northwood congregation would never willingly give up on FaithStories. To hear an audio-recording of her story, click here.

For more FaithStories from Northwood Church, click here.