One-Anothering in Shared-Church Prayer

“Pray for each other,” James 5:16,

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

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

The Pastoral Prayer: Biblical?

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

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

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

Churches Practicing Shared-Church Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shared Prayer Takes Self-Sacrifice

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

One-Anothering in a Shared-Church Meeting

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

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

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

The New Command Amplified

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

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

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

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

Greeting Each Other

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

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

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

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

Our Experience in Two Churches

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

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

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

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

Finding the Church Outside the Building

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

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

A Survey of Christians in the Workplace

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

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

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

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

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

Why So Little One-Anothering at Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming Scattered-Church Detectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the Church in Both Its Modes

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

Where is the Church Between Sundays?

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

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

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

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

We are Kingdom Seeds

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

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

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

Seed Preparation

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

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

Why Gather?

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

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

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

Shared-Church Singing

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

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

The Pews

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

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

The Platform

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

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

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

Corporate Singing in the New Testament

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

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

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

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

Why Do We Gather?

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

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

Practical Action Steps

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

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

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

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

Pastor’s Job Description: Shared Church of 450

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

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

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

Ministry Role Description

Reporting to: John Doe

1. Spiritual Growth

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

Preaching Team:

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

2. Group Life: Work with John Doe to:

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

3. Connectedness:

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

4. Prayer Ministry:

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

5. Spiritual Direction:

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

6. Leadership Development: Work with John Doe to:

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

7. Other:

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

___________

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

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

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

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

Pastoral Job Description: Shared Church

Suppose a church begins acting as an assembly of priests (see previous two blogs). What, then, does a pastor do? Will practicing the priesthood of all believers impair pastoral work? Might the fear of a reduced role discourage pastors from sharing the priesthood? Since the Reformation, Christians have spoken of the priesthood of all believers. Spoken of? Yes. Practiced? Not so much.

Daryl McCarthy, with the Forum of Christian Leaders, says, “Tragically, the priesthood of all believers is the one Reformation doctrine that has never been fully embraced by evangelical churches.” And Dr. Art Lindsley adds, “The priesthood of all believers has been the most neglected central teaching of the Reformation.”

But why?

Might pastoral job descriptions be putting a damper on practicing a shared priesthood?

I just reviewed a few such job descriptions offered as models. They have the pastor doing nearly everything in gathered-church meetings: preaching, leading worship, administering ordinances, and officiating at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. One job description has the pastor heading all boards and committees to develop the vision for the church, supervising staff, providing pastoral care, and so on. The first sentence in one model said: “The pastor is to be the spiritual leader of the church.” Not one of the spiritual leaders, but the spiritual leader.

In most cases, pastors get paid to do what these job descriptions call for. Those in a congregation typically receive no compensation for doing church-related work. So, paychecks add pressure on pastors to carry out their extensive to-do lists. Any surprise so many burn out?

What, I wondered, might a pastoral job description look like if it were written for a church that wanted to actually live out the priesthood of all believers? My pondering prompted me to jot down a list—practices that would connect the dots between how the New Testament pictures church leadership and congregational life in the 21st century. Would the following role description fit every setting? No. But I hope it will stimulate some creative thinking:

 Job-Description: Shared-Church Pastor

Job Title: Pastor/Elder

Reports to: Board of Elders and Church Body

Job Summary: The pastor/elder, coequally with fellow-elders, is responsible for watching over and nurturing the life of the church body and for preparing those within it to serve in both the gathered and scattered church.

Primary Job Responsibilities:

Sets an example for other believers by:

  • Maintaining a vital relationship with Christ and with others in both the gathered and the scattered church.
  • Living a life—in attitudes, actions, and speech—God would approve as a model for other believers in the church body.

Together with fellow-elders, ensures that the gathered church is fed regularly with sound biblical teaching and guards the church against false teaching.

Shares with fellow-elders the work of helping those within the church body to identify and  develop their God-given spiritual and natural gifts.

Helps to recognize and train others within the church body who are gifted and motivated to serve as elders, to preach and teach, and to lead the gathered church in public prayer.

Oversees the setup and maintenance of:

  • A listing of those in the church body with ministries in these five sectors: family, school, marketplace, neighborhood, and hobbies/recreation.
  • A church-wide prayer ministry for those ministering in the five sectors.

Sets aside one day a week to spend “on location” with those in the church body who minister in one or more of the five sectors, gathering their prayer needs and hearing their stories of how they see God working.

Coaches believers in writing and presenting personal testimonies.

Structures gathered-church meetings in such a way that they provide opportunities for:

  • Those with teaching gifts to develop and exercise them.
  • Those who have been prepared to do so to lead in public prayer.
  • Christians to report on what God is doing in their ministry sectors during the week.
  • Public prayer for the issues and opportunities Christians are facing in their workplaces, families, neighborhoods, and other areas of their weekday lives.

Invites and helps to prepare others in the church body to baptize believers and to take the lead in overseeing the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Seeks to include personal testimonies in gatherings for baptisms, weddings, and memorial services.

Pastoral Role Enhanced

So, practicing the priesthood of all believers in a shared-church context does not set aside or reduce the importance of pastoral service. Rather, the pastoral role becomes even more important as catalyst and multiplier, releasing the gifts and ministries of others.

In our traditional non-practice of the all-believer priesthood, church governance language often says that elders, boards, deacons, etc., “shall assist the pastor.” Shared-church practice turns that upside down. Pastors/elders assist other priests to develop and carry out their respective ministries in the gathered and scattered church. In doing so, they fulfill Eph. 4:12.

According to Paul, pastors—along with other church leaders—are “to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”

Shared Church: An Assembly of Priests (Part Two)

In Part One: a key step toward helping Christians practice shared church includes teaching them to self-identify as priests. But what do priests—those not paid to serve as church officials—do? Part Two takes on this question.

Priests Live and Work in God’s Presence

This tops the to-do list of the New Testament priest. In English versions of the Old Testament, the word priest translates the Hebrew word kohen. One scholar linked kohen to an Arabic root word meaning to draw near. Moses wrote that non-priests “must not go near” the Tabernacle (Num. 18:22). Only those from the priestly tribe could approach the immediate presence of God—and even they could do so only by following a  complex set of rules.

But because Jesus died, rose, and returned to heaven, he has become our wide-open doorway to God. Jesus, our great high priest (Heb. 4:14), has drawn near to the Father. And because God has placed those who trust Christ “in him,” we too may draw near. The New Testament even urges us to do just that: “Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God” (Heb. 10:21-22). So, the first thing New Testament priests do is to live out our lives in the presence of God. We do so mostly in our homes, our neighborhoods, and our workplaces.

Priests Offer Sacrifices

Sacrifices? Aren’t they obsolete in the 21st century? Old Covenant priests served fellow Israelites by killing their animals and hoisting the carcasses onto burning altars. But what inward state did these outward actions reveal? A sacrifice meant giving up something valuable (an animal) for something considered even more valuable (being in right relationship with God). When Jesus said to his Father, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42), he was giving up his own valuable self-interest for something more valuable—the purposes of his Father. We Christian priests offer sacrifices when we say no to self-interest and take up our cross to follow and serve Jesus (Matt. 16:24).  

Offering sacrifices flows out of living and working in God’s presence. Peter puts it this way: “You . . . are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 2:5). What “spiritual sacrifices” can we modern priests offer? The New Testament provides some examples:

  • Praise and thanks (Heb. 13:15). Sacrificing time and attention to express our love for and gratitude to God.
  • Care for the needs of others (Phil. 4:18). Putting the well-being of others ahead of our own wants and wishes.
  • Faith (Phil. 2:17). Trusting God’s promises rather than relying on our own plans for self-rescue.
  • Physical bodies (Rom. 12:1). Using the strength and energy of our brains, limbs, and organs to carry out God’s purposes for people, animals, and plants here on earth.

Priests Pray for Others and Hear their Confessions

Our traditions can make it seem as if these roles belong only to officials in the institutional church. For example, take the ministry of confession. Limiting Christian confessions to a formal “confession box” misses the point. Or take the ministry of praying in public. In some churches, just one person—the pastor—offers all the prayers in a Sunday meeting. In The Problem of Wineskins, Howard Snyder warns, “If the pastor is a superstar, the church is an audience, not a body.” However, New Testament one-anothering includes both prayer and hearing confessions: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (Jas. 5:16).

Priests Serve Fellow Priests

The Old Testament paints a word-picture that helps us see another role of New Testament priests. The Holy Place in the Tabernacle would have been pitch-dark except for the lampstand that held seven lighted lamps. Fueled by oil, these lamps needed constant care. “Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord from evening till morning" (Ex. 27:21). Lamp-tending priests refilled the bowls with oil. They also trimmed and replaced the wicks.

Today, we are both priests and lamps. We need to tend and to be tended. When sin entered, our world went into spiritual blackout. Jesus, who came as the Light of the World, has made us the world's illuminators. He now lives in us so that we can shine his light into this pitch-dark world (Matt. 5:14). But, like those oil lamps, each of us needs constant tending and refueling: being prayed for, encouraged, built up, strengthened, comforted, refreshed, instructed, warned, and even—occasionally—rebuked. Without mutual “priesting,” our lights can flicker out.

We carry out these priestly roles in our weekday lives—but not only then. On Sundays, in churches that adopt a shared-church meeting format, we may also serve in the ways described above. As Greg Ogden puts it in The New Reformation, “We are priests to each other.”

"When you come together, everyone . . . " (I Cor. 14:26). In other words, we gather as an assembly of priests, not as an audience of spectators who simply look on while someone else carries out our priestly roles.

Shared Church: An Assembly of Priests (part one)

Think back to the Easter gathering of your church. What term would most Christians there use to identify themselves? Some may hold unbiblical self-identities. Seeing myself as “laity” can silence me in a church meeting. As one Christian put it, “I'm just a layperson. I don't think they'd listen to me.” Perceiving ourselves this way works against shared church.

Many might say, “I’m a child of God.” This offspring image calls attention to the vertical relationship with God. Others may see themselves as “saints.” Still others might say, “I’m a disciple,” an apprentice to Jesus. All three are biblical identities, but none points us toward one-anothering.

Thankfully, the New Testament also provides identities that remind us of our horizontal calling to serve each other. For example, we are “members of one body” (Eph. 4:25); body parts work for each other. We also need to dust off that long-neglected New Testament word, priest. Martin Luther said, “This word ‘priest’ should become as common as the word Christian.” Luther based this on Scripture. Peter calls the Christian community both a “holy priesthood” and a “royal priesthood” (I Pet. 2:5, 9). John says Jesus has made us “priests” (Rev. 1:6).

Seeing ourselves as priests would help blaze the trail to shared-church meetings. Not only does the word priest express our relationship with God, it also speaks of our relationship with people. Melchizedek, the first priest mentioned in the Bible, served vertically as “priest of God Most High.” But he also served horizontally by bringing Abraham bread, wine, and a blessing (Gen. 14:18-20).

I recently asked those in my Bible study group if they ever thought of themselves as priests. Most said no. Why do so few Christians see ourselves in the priestly role? At least two reasons come to mind. First, the word priest carries centuries of heavy baggage. The term is packed with Old Testament images—slaughtering animals, wearing scented clothing, burning sacrifices, and so on. In our time, we associate “priest” with clerical collars, cassocks, and silk skullcaps. Because we connect priest with images like that, most of us can’t identify.  

Second, we associate priests with church officials. For nearly all in my Bible study group, the word priest brought to mind religious leaders. The thesaurus in the Word program offers pastor and minister as synonyms for priest. By whatever name, a clergypersons' work looks like priest-work. As Greg Ogden puts it in The New Reformation, “Even in the Protestant tradition the minister has a priestly aura. . . . All pastors; have experienced a sense of being treated differently because of their priestly position.”

Coaching a congregation to self-identify as priests will help prepare them to practice shared church. But, in the New Testament sense, how are we to live out being members of the royal or holy priesthood? How do such priests spend their time? Most will not serve on a paid church staff. The great majority will work in non-ecclesiastical roles—as electricians, homemakers, software engineers, secretaries, or what have you. Few will wear unusual clothing or answer to religious titles.

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I write: “Although Martin Luther and other reformers recovered this truth of the priesthood of believers, in the centuries since then—even in Protestant churches—it has gotten far more lip-service than legwork. The doctrine shapes our church meetings about as much as an exhibit of horse-drawn buggies in a museum affects our daily drive to work. In When You Come Together, Amy S. Anderson writes, ‘Many pastors who teach about the priesthood of all believers fail to train their people to do priestly ministry.’”

But what does that “priestly ministry” look like? In Part Two, we will explore the roles of New Covenant priests.  

Resurrection Day Dialogue

The most pivotal day in earth’s history sparked an intense exchange of dialog in the circle of Jesus’s followers. He had, before his death, left them with a new command calling them to lives of one-anothering. And now, on the very day of his rising, they engage each other in a flurry of back-and-forth conversations, full of questions and answers. God had acted decisively. How could they help but hash out its meaning among themselves?

At the cross, they had seen the life leave Jesus’s body. On Friday, some had wrapped the corpse and carried it into the newly cut rock tomb. But now, on this first day of the week, others report actually seeing Jesus—in his body—alive, well, and walking around. And as people always do, they and their companions begin sifting the evidence to grasp the significance of what has just happened.

Early Sunday morning a few women head for the tomb with spices for Jesus’s body. The dialogue begins as they walk along: “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mk. 16:3). But upon arriving, they find the doorway wide open—someone has already moved the heavy stone. An angel, after explaining that Jesus had risen and left, invites them to enter and see for themselves.

Mary Magdalene, heartbroken, lingers at the tomb. Jesus, at first unrecognized, asks her two questions. She responds. He replies, telling her to take the news to the disciples. She goes and fills them in. Later in the day, without identifying himself, Jesus falls into step with two others as they trudge toward the village of Emmaus. This begins an extended dialogue in which Jesus and they exchange questions and replies. At the dinner table, as soon as they recognize him, Jesus disappears, prompting them to ask each other: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Lk. 24:32).

Although it is getting late, they can’t keep this encounter to themselves. So, they make the seven-mile trek from Emmaus back to Jerusalem where they tell the apostles and those with them what they have just witnessed. The group is “still talking” (Lk. 24:36), dialoguing, about this report when Jesus himself suddenly appears among them. He makes several statements and asks them at least two questions.

Clearly, the one-anothering on Resurrection Sunday takes the form of dialogue. In chapter 24, Luke records words and phrases such as: talking with each other; discussed these things with each other; asked each other; talking about this; told; and asked. Thus, the birthing of the Church takes place within a context of discussion, conversation, give-and-take. The understanding of the Resurrection event comes about through a process in which many take part.

On the day he rose bodily from the grave, the Master Teacher did not call his followers into a large room and explain what had just happened in a lengthy monologue. Instead, he made snippet appearances to an individual, a group of two, and then a larger group. Some saw an empty tomb and heard angels describe the absence of Jesus’s body. Their understanding of this hinge of history grew as this one and that one shared with the rest what they had seen and heard. The puzzle pieces started to fit together. Participatory body life had begun.

In Preaching as Dialogue, Jeremy Thomson writes, “Adults need to learn how to articulate their faith for themselves, and how to apply and work it out in their own lives, interacting with preachers and fellow church members. . . . In most official church life, there is hardly any space for such activity; there is little room for assumptions to be challenged, presuppositions to be punctured or true thought to begin. It is as people have the opportunity to put their own words together that they become conscious of their thoughts and realize new paths of behavior.”

Forty days after rising from the dead, Jesus returned to his Father in heaven and poured out the Holy Spirit, a gift not for just a few but for all in the Body of Christ. As on Resurrection Day, the members of his body—in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces—witness what the Risen Christ is still doing through the activity of the Holy Spirit. This one or that one may see and hear just a snippet. But when they gather together and tell one another what they are witnessing, their knowledge of the Risen Christ takes on a fullness not otherwise possible. This is shared church.

Clarifying Our Calling to Ministry

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” If only that old proverb were true. But words can harm us, especially when distorted. Our religious vocabulary can barricade us from moving toward shared church. Take the words calling and ministry. As Paul Stevens says in The Other Six Days, “almost the only people who speak of being ‘called of God’ are ‘full-time’ missionaries and pastors.” It seems God calls just a few special people to serve in official church roles. The rest don’t see themselves as having any calling. Why not, then, just sit back, watch, and enjoy listening to those God has called?

So, preparing Christians for participatory church gatherings will require teaching on God’s calling. “Calling,” writes Os Guinness in The Call, “is not what it is commonly thought to be. It has to be dug out from under the rubble of ignorance and confusion.” The word ministry, too, has gotten buried under centuries of debris. Part of the muddled thinking comes about because calling and ministry often show up as conjoined twins: “I was an engineer before God called me into ministry.” Are Christian engineers uncalled? Are they not called into ministry?

Paul and Peter repeatedly use the phrase “you were called” when writing to Christians in general. We become Christ-followers only in response to God’s summons, his invitation, his “Come to me.” God’s calling initiates our life of faith. So, every believer is called. Wrapped inside that calling is a second calling—to a life of ministry. To minister, in New Testament Greek, means to serve. Paul wrote that God gave the church its leaders “to prepare all God's people for the work of Christian service [ministry]” (Eph. 4:12, TEV). 

If, week in and week out, the ecclesiastical professional shoulders most if not all of the spiritual workload during a Sunday gathering, the New Testament concept of a shared ministry gets blurred and even blocked. The Message paraphrase paints the participatory church vividly: “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” (I Cor. 14:26). Paul wrote this letter to the whole church in Corinth. So, “each one of you” means everyone in the meeting was to come prepared to minister to—to serve—all the others.

Our church traditions, though, have conditioned us to think that only the ordained or those on a church payroll are called into ministry. Os Guinness says “there is not a single instance in the New Testament of God’s special call to anyone into a paid occupation or into the role of a religious professional.” Check his statement out for yourself. Guinness adds: “Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. . . . Our secondary calling . . . is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live and act entirely for him.”

As I say in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, “. . . getting our vocabulary right is critically important, because the terms we use become the tools we think with. Just as a hammer is the wrong tool for fixing a leaky pipe, the wrong word can never repair a damaging idea. Does this mean we should expunge the word ministry from our lexicon? Not at all. Instead we need to extend ministry (service) so that it applies to all forms of God-honoring work. In addition to the ministry of the Word, there is the ministry of education, the ministry of construction, the ministry of automotive repair, and on it goes.”

What, then, is the work—secondary calling—of pastors and teachers? It is to serve fellow believers by helping them discover and develop their own secondary callings, their own unique works of ministry. We can see this pattern in Paul’s instructions to Timothy: teach others who will teach others who will teach others (II Tim. 2:2). If we actually practiced this, think of the spiritual workforce it would unleash in and from the church!

Recently I was asked to bring the sermon in a church meeting. My text came from Romans 6 on the truth of our having been set free in Christ. To illustrate how God liberates us from sin’s rule in our lives, I invited a young woman (I’ll call her “Joan”) to share in the message by telling her story. She related how she had gone virtually blind by the age of four. Starting out from an abusive home life, she descended into a life of addiction. Along the way, Joan gave birth to five children, losing custody of them all. Although initially resisting God’s call to faith in Christ, she finally yielded. She began devouring Scripture and experienced God’s deliverance from her former prison. Joan told that she now has a job and for the first time is able to pay child support to those caring for her children.

After the benediction, many from the congregation rushed to surround and thank Joan for her testimony. For weeks afterward, I kept hearing church people talk about what she had shared. Just the other day I learned she will soon give her testimony in another church. In the traditional, distorted sense of being “called into ministry,” Joan never was. Yet there is no doubt that God has called her. And he has clearly given her a ministry.

Church congregations everywhere are filled with Christians who are experiencing God at work in their families, their neighborhoods, and workplaces. Some will need coaching to learn how to tell their stories effectively to their church families. But, like Joan, when they are given opportunities to share what God is doing, believers are built up and God is glorified.

Recovering an Unclaimed Entitlement

Moving from passive to participatory church meetings involves seeing from a new viewpoint. Preparing God’s people for shared church calls for teaching the truth that regular, non-ordained Christians can hear God speak. If I think my peers in the pew have no spiritual insights worth hearing, I will oppose the idea of shared church. So, any transition in that direction needs to overcome the barrier of what we might call an “unclaimed entitlement.”

An entitlement remains unclaimed when people do not know it rightfully belongs to them. Financially, tens of billions of dollars go unclaimed. Spiritually, many who regularly attend church miss out on an entitlement that belongs to every Christ-follower: the privilege of hearing God speak. For some, the idea of hearing from God is a sign of having gone loony tunes. An old joke says: talking to God is prayer; hearing God talk to you is schizophrenia.

Yet Scripture leaves no doubt that the children of God are entitled both to the privilege of speaking to and hearing from the triune God. The Son: “My sheep,” Jesus said, “listen to my voice” (Jn. 10:27). The Father: “Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me” (Jn. 6:45). The Holy Spirit: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26).

Why does this entitlement remain unclaimed? Why do God’s people often remain hearing-impaired? Let’s look at three possible reasons. First, some may think God stopped talking after the last book in the New Testament. I have sometimes heard long-time churchgoers say, “I just wish God would speak to people today, like he did in Bible times.” Second, some believe God speaks to them only through the clergy. One man asked God to speak to him personally through the pastor, so that whatever God wanted him to hear would come that way. Third, others think hearing God speak means hearing an audible voice from heaven.

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I quote the following from Dallas Willard: “One of the things I began to realize over time is that for many years God spoke to me and told me to do things, and I didn’t know it was him. I just thought it was me thinking” (The Allure of Gentleness).

 Willard continues: “I believe the single most important thing I have to do is to encourage people to believe that God will speak to them and that they can come to understand and recognize his voice. . . . God speaks constantly to people, but most of them don’t know what’s happening. . . . Now, sometimes God does strange things to get people’s attention, but the fundamental way God speaks to us is by causing thoughts in our mind that we come to learn to have a characteristic quality, content, and spirit about them. . . . I don’t think we should rule out any options, but we should understand that God’s preferred mode is to address willing hearers by the thoughts that are given to their minds, the ‘still small voice’ of I Kings 19:12 (KJV).

Our culture can condition us to see reality only in terms of visible, physical matter. If we believe that to be true, the idea that God speaks to us in our thoughts can seem ludicrous. Yet people around the world rely on invisible signals from cell towers to communicate with each other. Why, then, should it seem impossible for the unseen God, who is Spirit, to send signals to our spirits in a way that is neither visible nor audible?

We all swim in an atmosphere brimming over with “broadcasts” from the spirit world. Some of these messages come from the good Spirit: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children” (Rom. 8:16). But some thoughts come from evil spirits: “In later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (I Tim 4:1). Therefore, we believers need to know how to sift out the true from the false broadcasts coming at us from the spirit world. “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).

Knowing Scripture, having Jesus’s words “remain in us,” is the key to recognizing God’s voice and his “accent.” God will not contradict what he has revealed in his written Word. In a shared-church meeting, believers who have claimed their entitlement and have learned to discern God’s voice, can help each other sort out and evaluate the messages. Any church always stands in danger of misleading broadcasts from the spirit realm. As Paul warned the elders from Ephesus: “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard” (Acts 20:30-31).

Standing guard is the task, not of just one member, but of the whole body of Christ. This makes preparing God’s people to hear his voice a vital part of equipping them to do the work of ministry. Then, within a shared-church meeting format, they will be free to serve one another with mutual discernment.

Activating Unused Church-Building Tools

In church-as-usual, the majority sit, watch, and listen as onlookers, sightseers, bystanders. Traditional formats have taught most in the room to stay silent while a few others exercise their gifts from the platform. Old habits die hard. So, any movement toward a shared-church agenda must be done gradually and with care. In this and the next few blogs, I’ll explore how to help prepare God’s people to meet in more participatory ways.

What must benchwarmers have to become active players in a church meeting? They will need a new (and perhaps untapped) source of strength, energy, and wisdom—a source God supplies for Christ-followers. Because Jesus died, God has forgiven our sins. Because Jesus returned to his Father, he has given us the live-in Holy Spirit. Now and then in the Old Covenant, the Holy Spirit “came upon” people to empower them for special tasks. In the New Covenant, God has “poured out” his Spirit on his servants (Acts 2: 17, 33). The Holy Spirit is actually “in” them (Jn. 14:17). How does all this relate to shared church?

This Holy Resident moves in bearing gifts. Not gifts in the sense of Christmas presents given to please the receivers. Instead, these gifts are more like the tools contractors provide for their crews. God’s Spirit gives his gifts so that we may join Jesus in completing his construction project—the building-up of the Body of Christ. As Paul urged the believers in the church at Corinth, “try to excel in gifts that build up the church” (I Cor. 14:12). In their church meetings, they were to bring out their gift-tools and use them “for the strengthening of the church” (v. 26).

That worked in New Testament churches. But today, thanks to centuries of learned passivity in church meetings, many believers have little or no idea of what their Spirit-given gifts may be, let alone how to use them. Back in 2009, the Barna Group, specialists in conducting research in churches and among Christians, reported their findings from a survey on spiritual gifts. They found that “between those who do not know their gift (15%), those who say they don’t have one (28%) and those who claimed gifts that are not biblical (20%), nearly two-thirds of the self-identified Christian population who claim to have heard about spiritual gifts have not been able to accurately apply whatever they have heard or what the Bible teaches on the subject to their lives.”

What explains this ignorance of spiritual gifts and the inability to use them? In some cases, the lack of clear teaching may lie at the root of the problem. But another factor also plays a major part. How much opportunity does the typical church meeting offer for practicing the use of the Holy Spirit’s gifts? The saying, “Use it or lose it,” may shed some light here. Non-use of our gifts can surely cause us to lose sight of them.

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I say, “Imagine the results if construction workers were given cordless drills, pneumatic nail guns, and circular saws and told how the tools worked—but without any opportunity to practice boring holes, driving nails, or cutting two-by-fours. An apprenticeship in carpentry includes both teaching about the tools as well as hands-on experience in using them. Discipleship in following Jesus and learning to help build his church should also include carefully structured opportunities to practice using the Spirit-given gifts.”

But the traditional non-participatory church meeting encourages believers to leave their gifts in the unopened tool box. In his book, The Reconstruction of the Church—On What Pattern? E. Stanley Jones wrote: 

“The very setup of the ordinary church tends to produce the anonymous. The congregation is supposed to be silent and receptive and the pastor is supposed to be outgoing and aggressive. That produces by its very makeup the spectator and the participant. . . . It produces the recessive, the ingrown, the nonconributive, and the parasite. Men and women who during the week are molders of opinion, directors of large concerns, directors of destinies are expected to be putty on Sunday, and are supposed to like it. They have little responsibility, hence make little response, except, perhaps, ‘I enjoyed your sermon.’ They have little to do, hence they do little.”

God gave the church leaders to help Christ-followers learn how to use their gift-tools in his church-construction project. As Eph. 4:12 puts it, “Their responsibility is to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (NLT). Equipping Christians to find and use their gifts will require teaching. But it will also call for providing constant opportunity to practice using those Spirit-given tools.

Shared church happens when teachers not only instruct but also share speaking time with other members of the Body of Christ. Where else will believers learn to vocalize their commitment to Christ, to develop the connection between their voices and their faith?

Planting Shared Churches in Brazil

Suppose someone were to develop new software called “Question Detector.” If you were to use it  before, during, and after the sermon on a given Sunday in your congregation, how many questions would the program uncover in the pews or chairs? More importantly, how many of those questions would remain unasked and unaddressed as the meeting ended?

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In his blog, Dave Simpson, a pastor in Maryland, asked: “Where did we ever get the idea that Christians shouldn’t ask questions about their faith? . . . We may not be putting inquirers on the rack . . . anymore, but our spoken and unspoken attitudes toward questions are driving people away.”

Church Discussions in Sao Paulo

In doing the research for my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I interviewed Jane Hawkins. She and her husband, Pete, had planted the Sampa Community Church in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The main teaching for the congregation came by means of DVDs (with subtitles for Portuguese speakers) from Andy Stanley, pastor of the Northpoint Community Church in Atlanta, GA. After the 35-40-minute message, the congregation divided into small groups to discuss what they had heard. In time, the Sampa Church hired a teaching pastor. But the people insisted on keeping the after-sermon discussion period.

The Hawkins have planted 2 other churches using the same approach—messages by Stanley followed by the conversational interaction time immediately afterward. To prompt discussion, the Hawkins use modified questions supplied by Northpoint Ministries. To prevent the risk of any arguments over theology or having to publicly correct someone, they make certain the questions are experiential. As each meeting ends, Pete wraps up the discussion, repeats worthwhile comments, ties everything back to the message, and closes in prayer.

Questions for God

The other day, in response to my blog on the importance of questions, Jane wrote with news from their most recently planted church in Sao Jose dos Campos. At a church gathering earlier that week, she had invited the people to write out their responses to this question: “If you could ask God a question, what would it be?” The results surprised her. “These were mostly Christians,” she wrote, “and yet, look at the questions we got.”

  • Why do people feel so lonely that they have to believe in God? Does God really exist?
  • If a person doesn’t have faith or believe, will God forgive them at the end? I mean… will he show them the truth and give them a chance to save themselves?
  • What’s the difference between God’s permission and God’s plan?
  • Why did God change people’s languages at Babel?
  • Does God really love everyone independent of their religion or belief?
  • Why does God stay silent when you are living a difficult moment? You pray, pray, and nothing happens. Why? Tell me!
  • How was God created?
  • Is God one person or three? Why do Christians believe that Jesus is also God? What about the Holy Spirit?
  • If the Bible was written by humans, how can I believe it is inspired by God?
  • If there are so many religions, why do you preach that Christianity is the right one?

Jane said: “I knew during the church discussion no one would call out their question for God. So at the end of the 15-minute discussion period, I read out that list. The room went quiet, because they were questions so many of us could relate to, and they were so honest.”  Pete and Jane decided to focus in on the first question and open the meeting up to discuss it. They deliberately chose NOT to have a pastor give the "right" answer, but to let the "ordinary" people themselves make comments.

“Revolutionary. Community-Building”

“Wow,” wrote Jane, “it was powerful. A girl from Estonia talked about life under the Soviet Union where they were taught there is no God, then they became independent and missionaries of all kinds came, and 'Now, I am still trying to figure it out.'  Two guys quoted from apologist William Lane Craig. One person talked about the wonders of creation that testify to a Creator. She said this planet, space, and the animal kingdom all testify that they were designed. One person said he had had a prayer answered that week.”

Jane concluded: “All that to say—doing this sort of discussion after the message is revolutionary and community-building. It engages everyone.” Well, almost everyone. One Christian left the fellowship  because the whole-church discussion time made him uncomfortable. Jane believes he was more at ease in the traditional church of his childhood. “He is shy,” she said, “and doesn’t mix with people—not visitors, not lost people, not even other Brazilian Christians.”

In his book, Partners in Preaching, Reuel L. Howe, describes the interplay between questions and responses: “Dialogical preaching . . . is a two-way give-and-take; it is a partnership. In dialogical preaching we need the question and the answer. The question awaits the answer, and the answer needs the guidance of the question. The preacher is, so to speak, master-of-ceremonies in the dialogue between question and answer.”

I doubt that question-detecting software will be available anytime soon. No matter. We don’t need it. By simply adopting a shared-church format, leaders will find that church people are eager to ask their pressing questions. The askings will come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. As Jane Hawkins found, many will come as surprises. Some will require I-don’t-know-but-will get-back-to-you responses. But the payoff will come in the form of increased relevance, as the timeless truths of the Gospel sync with the real-life concerns of contemporary Christians.

Shared Church Takes On Monday Stress

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Where is your church on Monday?

No, I don’t mean the building at the corner of First and Main. I’m talking about the church—the people, the Body of Christ. Weekdays, much of your church scatters to work in hardware stores, classrooms, government agencies, sales offices, repair shops, and so on.

In your church, how many working people regularly show up on Sunday? You can easily make a rough estimate. For example, in the U.S., around 63 percent of those 16 and older serve in the labor force. So if your church has 100 people in that age range, nearly two-thirds may spend most prime-time hours in the work world.

What might these fellow believers be going through on the job? The American Institute of Stress (AIS) says, “Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades.” Rising  quotas. Too few workers. Coercion from demanding bosses. Toxic fellow employees. Killer overtime schedules. All these and more help explain why Gallup has found that 70 percent of American workers are either not engaged or disengaged on the job.

Created (and Re-Created) to Work

Does the church—do its people—have any responsibility here? Let’s see how the New Testament speaks to this issue. For starters, consider what it says about why God made us into new creations in Christ: “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).

No, we are not saved by good works. We are saved by faith--for good works. This Greek word translated as “works” is not a stained-glass, churchy word. It includes the everyday get-your-hands-dirty work of weekdays. Paul used the verb form of the same word when said, “We work hard with our own hands” (I Cor. 4:12). It’s the word he used to say that former thief should “work, doing something with his own hands” (Eph. 4:28). It’s the word he used to tell the Thessalonian believers, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands” (I Thess. 4:11).

Put all this together. Why did God form us in Christ? Not only to join him in heaven someday but also to do good work on earth here and now. Not only good church work but also good work that will help his creation and our fellow creatures thrive. Good work that will demonstrate the difference it makes when we work as new creations in Christ. The labor of each Christian puts God’s own artisanship on display (we are his "workmanship"). So the way we do our work matters greatly.

Mending Wounds from Workplace Stress

Now relate this to shared church. As AIS says “job stress is far and away the major source of stress.” Are Christians exempt from this kind of workplace hassle and tension? Hardly. Just as the post-sin lives of Adam and Eve involved thorns, thistles, sweat, and pain (Gen. 3), we still work in a fallen world. In such a setting, our work depletes and frays us. So Christians in the labor force regularly need three kinds of repair work the New Testament calls on all of us to do for each other. When disheartened, they need to be encouraged. When exhausted, they need to be strengthened. And when knocked down, they need to be built up.

I’ve regularly observed traditional church services for three-quarters of a century. And from what I’ve seen, platform performances typically leave little if any time or space for one-anothering. More than half the people present likely spend their weekdays working among people who will not—and cannot—encourage, strengthen, or build them up. But even on Sundays, among fellow Christ-followers, the damage they’ve sustained in the work world is rarely attended to.  

Shared Church Frees Up One-Anothering

That’s why shared church, which opens doors for New Testament one-anothering, is so important. Working Christians need to hear encouraging accounts from other working believers who are experiencing God’s sustaining presence on the job. In my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include  this quotation by Alan and Eleanor Kreider from their book, Worship and Mission after Christendom:

“If we receive no reports from the front in our congregations, we are in trouble. Without testimonies we experience a drought, a nutritional deficit for healthy Christian living. And the dominant cultural narratives take over. God seems powerless and inactive. And Christians who do see evidence of the missional activities of God in our time may only whisper about it in the church’s hallways or discuss it during the week in house groups or on the telephone—but not in worship services.”

Of course, those who spend their weekdays in the workplace are not the only ones who need to be strengthened, encouraged, and built up. So do single moms. Those battling cancer. Spouses who are struggling in their marriage relationships. And believers coping with many other situations. All of us need to hear from each other stories of how God is at work in our scattered-church lives. Those on the front lines who have seen God deliver can best refresh others who are struggling in similar arenas.

Without using the term "shared church," the author of Hebrews wrote about our need for it. The instructions are just as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds [literally, 'works']. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24-25). That Day is even nearer now than when the author penned those words. This makes moving toward shared church an urgent concern.

A Favorite Tool of Jesus

Think back. In the past year, how many times have you sat in a church service in which people were invited to ask questions? The previous blog quoted from You Lost Me, in which David Kinnaman says, “Fully one-third of young Christians (36 percent) agree that ‘I don’t feel that I can ask my most pressing life questions in church.’”

Questions Begin Early

Why do toddlers and preschoolers ask so many questions? Because, instinctively, they know they can learn by doing so. Why do people die? Where do babies come from? How do birds fly? And, as any parent knows, the answer to one question may uncork a dozen more. Imagine a family gathering where the unwritten rules allow no one to ask questions. Sadly, such rules seem to shape the agenda in a great many contemporary gatherings of God’s family.

And yet the Master disciple-maker, Jesus, relied on the give-and-take of questions and answers as a key part of his teaching technique. How large a part did questions play in Jesus’s relationships with others during his brief teaching ministry on earth? To get a better idea about that, I counted the questions in the first and fourth gospels. (I did not tally questions in Mark and Luke, because they repeat many found in Matthew.) By my quick scan through Matthew and John, Jesus asked 130 questions—and was asked about the same number by others. Questions swirled around Jesus:

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He asked them of his disciples: "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" “How many loaves do you have?” “Do you still not understand?”

Jesus asked questions of others: "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?” “Do you want to get well?” “Why is my language not clear to you?” "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

His disciples asked Jesus: "Lord, to whom shall we go?” "But Rabbi . . . a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?" "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" "What does he mean by 'a little while'?”

Others asked Jesus: "What must we do to do the works God requires?" “What is truth?” "By what authority are you doing these things?" "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"

Clearly, questions, responses, and dialogue played a prominent part as Jesus began to build his Church. It seems reasonable, then, to think he would endorse that same kind of learning context in the later stages of Church-building and disciple-making. Centuries of church tradition, though, seem to rule out  participation within our Sunday gatherings.

Can questions fit into church meetings in 2017? And, if so, how?  Good questions. Glad you asked.

In answer to the first question: Yes, questions can fit. In response to the second question: My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes interviews with 25 church leaders who tell how, in various ways, they are making their church services more participatory. Sample just a few of the techniques they are using to open their Sunday meetings to more interaction:

Panels.

One pastor, following the sermon, calls for questions and comments. Sometimes he replies to questions himself. On other occasions, he invites a knowledgeable panel to respond to the points people raise. The panel may join him up front or speak from roving microphones. Another pastor, says: “Fairly often, at the end of a sermon series, people will have questions that the teaching has raised but not answered. So we will form a panel of, say, three persons up front. Then we open things up for questions from the body. This usually makes up the entire service.”

Reports from the Front.

After hearing requests for spoken testimonies, one pastor began asking two from the congregation to tell their faith-stories during Communion services. Normally, those asked to speak are not in the limelight. Better, the pastor believes, to ask “average” believers others can identify with. As a result, some have come requesting opportunities to share their stories. Although these are not Q & A sessions, the sharing in these reports actually responds to many applicational questions people struggle with.

Community Time.

A church in Minnesota opens its Sunday meetings not with the traditional “stand-up-and-greet” moment but with “community time.” The leaders usually offer two suggested ice-breaker questions to help get conversations started. Instead of taking 60 seconds, this segment lasts from five to eight minutes. As one of the pastors says, “You can’t remember someone unless they share something with you.”

A Real Meal.

The book includes an account from my own experience while serving as pastor. During our once-per-month celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we filled the room with tables and embedded Communion into an actual meal. We emphasized the need to keep the menu simple—often soup, bread, and perhaps a salad. The families from one of our small groups—including children and young people--provided the meal and did the serving.

Each month the message for Communion Sunday focused on some aspect of Jesus’s death and its meaning for us. Then, during the meal, we paused as we shared the bread and later the cup, during which times someone briefly helped us focus on the significance of each. 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 remembering. We found that dining together restored a sense of family and one-anothering. On each table we included a few suggested conversation-starters designed to stimulate mutual encouragement and spurring on.

Sharpening a Well-Used Tool

Jesus promised, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). Dialogue made up one of the major construction tools for this Carpenter/Church-Builder. The results in that first-century Church proved he knew what he was doing. As we Christians meet together in our century, can we sharpen and use the same tool?

Shared Church and the Exodus of Young People

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Does doing church the-way-we’ve-always-done-it help to explain why so many young people are checking out? In his book, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman says research by the Barna Group found that, “Overall, there is a 43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement.” Commenting on how this looks on a line graph, he says, “The ages eighteen to twenty-nine are the black hole of church attendance; this age segment is ‘missing in action’ from most congregations.”

In light of this trend, Kinnaman asks: “Can the church rediscover the intergenerational power of the assembly of saints?” This sentence caught my attention. I take him to mean that we have lost the potent outcomes that result when Christians connect across the age ranges. As Kinnaman points out, this is something we need to “rediscover.” I agree. From what I’ve observed, in most “assemblies of the saints” (church services) the people sit and listen as spectators. The typical meeting format leaves no opening for comments or questions from the congregation.

True, church experience includes more than the main congregational gathering. Most churches offer other venues for nurturing faith. Most of these, though, usually provide less "intergenerational power" than the weekly event most call "church." The very term "youth group" narrows the age range. Many young adults have attended only age-graded Sunday-school classes. Small groups may include young and old but often do not.

"I Want to be the 'Talker-Man'"

In the main gatherings of some churches, the pastor has nearly all the speaking parts. I knew a boy of ten or so who, after watching how church meetings work, said when he grew up he wanted to be the “talker-man.” The word-ministry of those with shepherding and teaching gifts is vital to the oversight of any congregation. But the New Testament never paints the church as monovoiced.

Something Paul wrote in I Cor. 13 can help us see why the gathered church needs to hear more than one voice. “For we [plural] know in part and we prophesy in part” (9). Paul goes on to say, “Now I [singular] know in part” (12). In other words, none of us knows it all. Even Paul himself, who wrote a quarter of the New Testament, did not.

Each member of the Body of Christ has knowledge, even though it is partial. Each has received a portion of God’s grace. Experience with grace gives us some knowledge of it. Each has received at least one Spirit-given gift—equipping us with another form of knowledge. Each is "taught by God" (Jn. 6:45). So the question becomes: How can we structure our church meetings in such a way that we can all share our partial knowledge? The resulting "pool" will supply far more than any one of us could individually.

Learning from Our Bodies

As Paul makes clear, the way all the parts of the human body work together paints a clear picture of how members of Christ’s Body interact. Each part should do its work. It belongs to all the others. It brings a unique contribution to the other parts. It dare not see itself as either non-essential or more important than other parts. It occupies a God-arranged place in the body--a place that provides a distinct perspective.

How do you and I stay in touch with the realities of the physical world? Only through the parts of our physical bodies. Think of what you would miss if the following parts of your body worked poorly or not at all:

  • Eyes: Losing vision in just one eye can reduce your depth perception (close one eye and try threading a needle). It can also cut peripheral vision by about 20 percent.
  • Feet: Neuropathy can cause the nerves in the soles of your feet to lose touch with the ground or floor, throwing off your balance.
  • Ears: Your ability to communicate with others, to recognize voices, or to savor the sounds of a symphony can all suffer from impaired hearing.
  • Fingers: Failing finger nerves can dull the warning signals of pain from a too-hot surface.
  • Nose: As one person with anosmia put it, “Not being able to smell yourself makes personal hygiene incredibly stressful.”
  • Tongue: You were born with thousands of taste buds. But if you lose your sense of taste, you might unwittingly eat food that has gone bad.

In these and other ways, your body illustrates how the Body of Christ works. No single member “knows” everything your body needs. But each member in good working order can contribute its “knowledge” of surrounding physical conditions for the benefit of all the rest. Similarly, a meeting of the church should allow members of Christ's Body to share from what they know of Spirit-revealed reality. This releases, in Kinnaman’s words, “the intergenerational power of the assembly.”

Any Room for Doubts, Questions?

How does this apply to young people? In a meeting format that permits them to do so, they can contribute from their “partial knowledge” by asking questions. Struggling to relate faith to life in the 21st century equips them with first-hand knowledge of the quandaries they and their peers face—questions adults may not even realize need answers.  As Kinnaman says in You Lost Me, “Fully one-third of young Christians (36 percent) agree that ‘I don’t feel that I can ask my most pressing life questions in church.’ One out of ten (10 percent) put it more bluntly: ‘I am not allowed to talk about my doubts in church.’”

Kinnaman reminds us how young people are coming of age in an era of interaction. They have a "participatory mindset." But,  he says, “the structure of young adult development in most churches and parishes is classroom-style instruction. It is passive, one-sided communication—or at least that’s the perception most young people have of their religious education. They find little appetite within their faith communities for dialogue and interaction.”

But a willingness to venture outside the-way-we’ve-always-done-it can change that perception. Kinnaman writes of a “faith community in Oregon [that] hosts a weekly worship service that invites anyone to ask any question they have about faith. To fit with the uber-connected world of young people, the church accepts questions submitted via text and Twitter. . . .The entire community gets to witness, on a weekly basis, what it looks like to wrestle with doubt, to confess our questions without abandoning faith.” My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes more than two dozen examples of churches that are making their main weekly meeting more participatory.

Paul described shared church nearly 2,000 years ago, when he said “the whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Peter agreed: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms” (I Pet. 4:10).

So we don’t have to invent shared church. We simply need to rediscover it.

Why Do We Gather as Christians? (Part Two)

(In Part One we saw that the widespread idea that worship is the purpose of church meetings is not supported in the New Testament. Now, in Part Two, we will take a closer look at the New Testament pattern for gathering and ask why a clear idea of the purpose matters.)

The “Currents” in a Church Meeting

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In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include a diagram (see right) with arrows that show the New Testament picture of the dynamic movements that ought to take place when we meet as Christians.

I. Howard Marshall explains these movements in these words: “When a specific function or purpose is ascribed to a church meeting [in the New Testament] it is not the glorification of God but the building up of the church and the ministry to its members. Church meetings are for the benefit of the congregation and so indirectly for the glory of God [emphasis added]. Worship in the sense of giving praise to God is thus logically secondary to ministry in the sense of God’s ministry to us. At the same time, since this ministry is exercised between persons, the church meeting has the character of fellowship in which the keynote is mutual love. The symbol of the church, therefore, is not simply an upward arrow from man to God, nor simply a downward arrow from God to man, but rather a triangle representing the lines of grace coming down from God to his people, the flow of grace from person to person, and the response of thanks and petition to God [emphasis added].” (From "How Far Did the Early Christians Worship God?")

As Marshall’s last sentence points out, worship can and should take place in a church meeting. But it comes about as a by-product of our Spirit-empowered one-anothering. By his Spirit, God pours his grace into this Christian and that one in the church gathering. They share it with others in the same meeting,  who—moved by God’s action—then return thanks and praise to him.

Why Does Our Purpose for Gathering Matter?

As stated in Part One, congregations typically get the message that worship is the purpose of church meetings. Holding this idea can determine how church leaders format the Sunday agenda. If worship sums up the whole point of the meeting, then some things just don’t fit. For example, it may seem out of place to include reports on what God is doing on weekdays through those who work at Starbucks, Lowes, or Homeland Security. Why? Because those concerns seem earthly, not heavenly (not worshipful). As a result, a congregation never gets to hear fresh accounts of how God is moving through his people during the other six days.

Believing the church meets to worship can press leaders toward manipulative methods. A blog carries this title: “34 Tips for Creating Powerful Worship Experiences and Vibrant Worship Teams.” But worship is not an “experience” one person can “create” for someone else.  Another blog, “How to Set up a Worship Set,” offers a 13-step process for doing so. Nothing like those steps, though, seem to have been included in the New Testament for use by the first-century church.

Members of a congregation may hold an unbiblical definition of worship, seeing it as the music or as a feeling. If they think the whole meeting is about worship, they will try their best to get into a worshipful mood. Or they may struggle to keep their focus exclusively on God. In response to Thom S. Rainier’s blog post, “Should Your Church Stop Having a Stand and Greet Time?” one reader explained emphatically why a greeting should have no place in the congregational meeting: “You do that before and after worship — not DURING worship! Worship is for God – that is why you are there!!!” In this way of thinking, one-anothering would distract from the “real” purpose of gathering.

God is Glorified in Our One-Anothering

At times, of course, we should focus our attention exclusively on God. But God, unlike some of us, does not insist on constantly being the center of attention. Like a loving human father, God delights in seeing his children enjoying, helping, reassuring, supporting, and encouraging each other. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! . . . For there the Lord bestows his blessing. . .” (Ps. 133:1, 3).

It pleases God to have us focus on and serve one another when we meet. The plural-you wording in each of the following verses strongly suggests a church-meeting context. And in each case, Paul was calling on the believers to pay attention to each other:

  • “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). 
  • “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19).
  • “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).

As God’s grace reaches us through our fellow brothers and sisters, we will—and without any human engineering—spontaneously praise and worship God. Serving other members of Christ’s body is serving him—which he receives as worship. So, yes, worship should take place when we gather as it should when we scatter. And it will rise to God as we practice the unified one-anothering he repeatedly calls for in the New Testament.

Why Do We Gather as Christians? (Part One)

True or false: “The New Testament reason for meeting with other Christians is to worship God.”

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If you said true, your answer lines up with what most of us have been taught. One website, which suggests how to speak to children about church, begins with: “People go to church to worship God.” We call our main congregational meetings “worship services.” In those meetings we sing “worship songs,” led by “worship leaders” in charge of “worship teams.” Sometimes we call church buildings “worship centers.”

I know it is not RC (religiously correct) to question the nearly universal idea that gathering with other believers is all about worship. So please grant me a little grace as I ask you to examine the evidence for this rarely questioned conviction.

Right off, I’ll reveal my assumed starting-point. I believe Scripture is our only rule for faith and practice. Faith involves what we believe—truths such as the deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and so on. Practice involves what we do, including how we meet with other Christians. I am assuming the New Testament, not church traditions, should have the last word on why we assemble.

Check It Out

What is “worship”? In the New Testament, the Greek words for worship of God all reflect attitudes and actions directed toward him. Duties carried out toward God. Esteem and reverence directed toward him. Obedience and service oriented toward God. Bowing down toward God. In short, in worship, we aim our attention in a God-ward direction. Think of a single arrow pointing upward from us to God.

If you have a complete concordance, trace the uses of “worship/worshiped/worshiping” in the New Testament. You’ll find that, together, those English words appear about 70 times (NIV version). Yet you will not find those words used in contexts that speak about what we Christians do in our regular gatherings.

Yes, in Acts 13:2, while fasting and praying, a group of prophets and teachers were “worshiping.” Not so much a church gathering as a prayer meeting among church leaders. And in I Cor. 14:25, Paul says an unbeliever, after hearing gathered Christians prophesy, might be led to “worship” God. Here, an unbeliever—not believers—is worshiping. Neither text describes what typically goes on in church meetings. But this is about as close as the New Testament comes in connecting the word “worship” with Christian assemblies.

By contrast, a great many verses describe worship as taking place not in church gatherings but by individuals in other settings. The Magi, upon seeing baby Jesus, worshiped (Matt. 2:11-12). Anna, presumably by herself in the Temple, worshiped (Lk. 2:37). The disciples worshiped Jesus in a boat (Matt. 14:33). As they hurried away from his empty tomb, the two Marys worshiped Jesus (Matt. 28:>9). The man born blind worshiped Jesus (Jn. 9:38). And so on. These are not what we call “corporate worship” occasions.

Others Agree

After a study of all the Greek words translated as “worship” in the New Testament, the late I. Howard Marshall (well-respected as a New Testament scholar) says: “It is a mistake to regard the main or indeed the only purpose of Christian meetings as being the worship of God.” (See "How Far Did the Early Christians Worship God?")

And in Paul’s Idea of Community, Robert Banks writes, “One of the most puzzling features of Paul’s understanding of ekklesia [assembled church] for his contemporaries, whether Jews or Gentiles, must have been his failure to say that a person went to church primarily to ‘worship.’ Not once in all his writings does he suggest that this is the case.”

Then Why Should Christians Gather?

The New Testament leaves no question that we believers should meet. But why? If not to worship, what should be our main purpose for getting together? Think of it this way: you and I are to worship anywhere and everywhere—all alone, with our families, in our workplaces, and in our church gatherings. In other words, worship can rise to God even when no one else is around.  

But time after time the New Testament calls us to do something we simply cannot do by ourselves: one-anothering. In his new commandment, Jesus calls us to “love one another” in the way he has loved us (Jn. 13:34). These words became the seed from which the dozens upon dozens of New Testament one-another/each-other instructions grew.

For example, the two one-anothers in Hebrews 10:24-25 explain why we should never stop meeting together: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Getting together lets us see and hear each other. This  creates the setting in which we may spur on and encourage each other.

This focus on one-anothering when we meet, although in different words, shows up in I Cor. 14:26: “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.” Each of us has been given one or more gifts to use in building each other up. The New Testament term “fellowship” is a one-anothering word. The church is a body made up of mutually-supportive members. It is a family whose members huddle to help each other. This is shared church.

(Part Two will explore why the single-arrow model does not reflect the gathered-church picture seen in the New Testament. It will also ask, “Why Does Our Purpose for Gathering Matter?”)

Shared Church on Sunday Morning?

The other day, a woman who recently began participating in our home group made a telling comment. She has regularly attended a variety of churches for decades. “But in church,” she told us, “I could never ask my questions and hear answers about the Christian life.”

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Today shared church—the sort of one-anothering seen in the New Testament church—is more likely to take place in small groups that meet in living rooms than in main congregational meetings. Yet few Christians ever call those home gatherings “church.” Instead, like the woman in our small group, when they say “church," they mean the large assembly that usually gets together on Sunday.

Many Never Take Part in a Small Group

So although what happens in a home cluster comes closer to the practice of first-century Christians, a great many believers never experience that kind of involvement. According to Joseph R. Meyers, in The Search to Belong, “Books on small groups, tapes, seminars, and models abound, yet few of us achieve more than a 30 to 35 percent participation rate.” If accurate this translates to 65-70 percent whose experience of church is something far less participatory.  

Aaron Earls, writing in the website, “Facts & Trends,” pegs the small-group participation rate a bit higher: “In a typical month, less than 6 in 10 churchgoers attend some type of small Bible study group at least once. This means that over 40 percent of those who are in your church building at least on a monthly basis never go a small group.” 

Jesus clearly intended that his followers share in the give-and-take of one-anothering: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).

The dynamics in a congregation of 150 or 300, of course, differ greatly from those in a group of 8 to 12. But as already noted, a large proportion of believers never take part in a small group. How, then,  can they experience one-anothering in the only form of church life they know?  

One-Anothering Possible in Congregational Meetings

The interviews with church leaders in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis make it clear that some level of body life can take place even in the larger congregational setting. For example:

Panels. One pastor, after his sermon, invites questions from members of the body. Sometimes he organizes a panel of mature believers to help him respond to what people ask. Those on the panel may join him up front or speak from roving microphones.

Shared Preaching/Teaching. In another church of about 300, the pastor shares the preaching/teaching ministry with a dozen or so church members who are gifted and able to serve in this way. “My goal,” he says, “is to have someone from the congregation preach once a month, without pulling in a guest speaker from the outside.”

FaithStories. Nearly every Sunday a church in Minnesota includes “FaithStories” in their congregational meeting. Each one usually runs about five minutes. In addition to the examples included in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, these stories  cover a wide range of topics, including reports on: How Christians are living out their faith on the job; How a new mom received encouragement from the church’s meal’s ministry; How God worked in the life of another mother to heal her after she lost two of her children; How the Lord delivered a man from his involvement in a cult. Those presenting their stories are carefully coached as they develop what they will say and how they will say it. This avoids the objections raised against what, in other times, were called “testimonies.”

Sermons with Dialogue. Some pastors have carefully developed the art of preaching that draws the congregation into conversation. They prepare a significant part of the message ahead of time and present it without interruption. But with the skillful use of thought-provoking questions, these pastors invite the people to take part in a dialogue. Anyone may ask about something they do not understand, contribute an insight, express a doubt, or read a related Scripture.

By means of these and other ways to structure the main church meeting, a leader can open new opportunities for those who will never join a small group. This frees them to become contributors instead of passive consumers. They get to know the names and stories of others in the congregation. And after tasting body life, they may even choose to join a home group.

An Experiment

In The Other Six Days, R. Paul Stevens invites churches to “Consider an experiment that has been undertaken in several churches. The culture of a local church can be partially changed in fifty-two weeks by refusing for one year to give ‘air-time,’ speaking time, to visiting missionaries, denominational officials and professors from denominational colleges in the Sunday service. Instead each week an ordinary member should be brought forward and in five minutes interviewed along these lines: 'What do you do for a living? What are the issues you face in your work? What difference does your faith make to the way you address these issues? How would you like us as a church to pray for you in your ministry in the workplace?'”

Ephesians 4:11-12 calls church leaders “to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ (NLT).” God’s people include not just those in small groups but also those whose only church experience occurs in the main congregational meeting. Church meetings, even fairly large ones, can be structured to some degree as shared-church gatherings that allow that kind of body-building work to take place.