When is the Lord’s Supper Not?

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

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

Your Turn

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

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

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

What Paul Called “Not the Lord’s Supper”

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

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

Morphing and Historical Drift

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

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

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

  • Size

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

  • Speed

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

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

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

  • Spectacle

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

  • Selfism

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

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

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

Caring for Creation Calls for Shared Church

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

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

The Webinar on Creation Care

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

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

Why Have We Ignored Creation Care?

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

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

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

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

The Need for Participatory Church Meetings

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Earth is Groaning

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

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

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

In the Meantime, What Can We Do?

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

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

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

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

Hearing the Hearts of Missionary Kids

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

Where are you living now?

Click on arrow for video interview with Kara Garrison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has the transition continued to influence her?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about you—what do you miss?

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

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

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

What Are We Missing?

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

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

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

Designing a Meeting Format

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Openings to Speak

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

  • Exercise of Gifts

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

  • Hearing Others Prophesy

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

  • Practice in Checking Things Out

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

  • Mutual Building, Instructing & Encouraging

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

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

Restoring Participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of Africa—Shared Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, what he is doing right now. Absolutely!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Participatory Baptisms and 5-Question Strategy

Lowell Bakke

Lowell Bakke

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

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

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

The Church Hears the Stories Behind the Baptisms

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

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

The 5-Question Strategy

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

  1. What did you like about this text?

  2. What did you not like about the text?

  3. What did you not understand about the text?

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

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

For the message in the Sunday meeting, I began by asking others to read the text aloud in two or three translations. After that I presented a short teaching commentary on the text then asked those present to interact, using the same five questions. Roving microphones made it possible for everyone to hear clearly. I was amazed at some of the insights. It made me realize that even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, my mind as a pastor is so finite that I don’t understand many things about the Bible that the congregation was able to bring to the table each Sunday.

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

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

Putting Supper back into The Supper

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

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

Our Church Plant

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

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

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

Remembering Plus

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

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

Combining Communion and Meal

Combined Setup.jpg

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

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

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

The Changeover

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

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

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

FaithStories at Northwood Church

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

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

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

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

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

What is a FaithStory?

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

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

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

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

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

The FaithStory Coaching Process

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

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

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

How Much Prep Time?

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

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

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

The Fruit of FaithStories

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

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

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

Would Northwood Discontinue FaithStories?

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

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

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

For more FaithStories from Northwood Church, click here.

Why Participatory Preaching and Teaching?

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In what ways might you graciously suggest to those who preach how they can make their sermons participatory? Does it seem as if there’s a rule that Sunday messages must be monologues? If so, that’s likely because you’ve heard sermons only as one-person lectures, with no back-and-forth between speaker/teacher and listeners.

This begins a series that will describe ways to open the solo sermon to more than one voice. But why is that important? To lay the groundwork, this blog will explore how moving toward more congregational involvement in messages actually fits the way God made us.

What Educators Have Found

Many educators say effective learning takes interaction and participation. “The problem with lectures is that there is no opportunity to think,” according to Eric Mazur, dean of Applied Physics at Harvard University.

In The Mature Student’s Handbook, Lucinda Becker writes: “I now sometimes attend undergraduate lectures just for the pleasure of being entertained for an hour with no responsibility for having to do anything with the information I receive . . . and that is the problem with lectures.”

But should we as Christians take our cues from educational research? As people of the Book (the Bible), shouldn’t we—made in God’s likeness—pattern our way of communicating after his way? So how does our Creator communicate? And how might his record of speaking with us shed light on how to address those in church meetings?

God Consults Within Himself

The Genesis 1 account of God’s decision to create us reveals him as a God of dialogue. “Let us make human beings . . . .” traces our very existence back to a conversation. The “us” (in “let us”) only hints at what unfolds later in Scripture—that within the one God there is a threeness.

The members of the Trinity talk with each other. The Father says, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father” (Ps. 2:7). The Son says, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you” (Jn. 17:1). And when “the Spirit intercedes” (Rom. 8:27) for us, he is surely speaking to the Father on our behalf.

God Dialogues with Us

But conversations extend even beyond the Trinity. The one we worship also discusses things with the people he made in his likeness. When Adam and Eve violate a clear command, we might imagine this would be the perfect time for a stern, monological talking-to.

But does that happen? No. Instead of lecturing, God begins dialoguing with them. “Where are you?” he asks the guilty couple. By answering, Adam gives away their hiding place: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Gen. 3:10). To which God responds with two more questions: “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?" (3:11). In his comeback, Adam blames his wife. Now God asks her a question: “What is this you have done?" (3:13). In her answer, she defensively accuses the serpent. What’s going on here? A divine-human conversation.

Cain. In a similar way, God deals with the world’s first murderer not with a one-way oration but by means of a discussion. In that series of exchanges with Cain, God asks him no less than five questions. Cain asks God one. Both make statements. That had to have been a rather tense dialogue!

Abraham. God relates interactively with Abraham. Upon realizing that the Lord is about to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham intervenes. After all, Lot lives there—the nephew he had rescued from those who invaded that very community. Reading Gen. 18:22-33 is like watching the ball in a Ping-Pong match. Abraham asks; the Lord answers. Abraham requests; the Lord responds. In all, Abraham poses ten questions to the Lord. And the Lord replies. Every time. A negotiation.

Moses. As he watched a bush burn without turning to ashes, Moses, too, encounters the dialogical God. From inside that mind-boggling bush, God speaks—“I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Ex. 3:10). Moses quickly back-pedals from that assignment. “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" God assures Moses that he will go with him.

Moses asks a second question. What if the Israelites demand the name of the one who sent him? God responds with some detailed instructions and promises. Moses tries again to duck what God is asking him to do. “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue." God reminds him who made his mouth. Moses: “Please send someone else to do it.” So God—angrily—agrees to let Moses’ brother serve as his spokesperson. Conversation. Questions. Answers. Negotiation.

Jesus the Conversationalist

In Jesus, God-with-us, this dialogical pattern remains. In his preaching/teaching, Jesus relies heavily on interactions with others. One author says the New Testament records 187 questions others asked Jesus. The same author counted 307 questions asked by Jesus. For instance: Who do you say that I am? What do you want me to do for you? Do you l.ove me? Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? What are you discussing as you walk along? Questions serve as invitations to conversation.

Notice the conversational nature of the last supper (Jn. 13-14). Jesus asks at least 5 questions. Peter asks 3. Other disciples ask 3. Jesus launches his dialogue with the woman at the well with a question (Jn. 4). She, in turn, poses 3 questions of her own. The New Testament offers very few instances of Jesus giving long speeches. Most of his teaching is conversational. Questions. Responses. Comments. Observations.

Even on those occasions in the Bible when God does speak in a monologue, it is relatively brief. Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount includes about 2,300 words (NIV). The longest “speech” of God in the Old Testament is found in Job 38 to 41. Here, God addresses just over 1,800 words to Job—a discourse that includes at least 66 questions. Job briefly interrupts this monologue once (40:3-4). Both the Sermon on Mount and God’s question-filled address to Job run half or less the length of the typical 30-minute Sunday message. A sermon delivered at 150 words per minute for a half hour would contain 4,500 words.

Imitating what God Models

Paul told those in the Ephesus church to “be imitators of God.” In the Bible, God speaks to people mostly (but not always) through dialogue. His authority is not threatened by questions, feedback, discussions—or even challenges. He has modeled the interactive way of relating to and teaching human beings. As our Creator, he knows how we learn and the best way to teach us. Educators—far from inventing participatory learning—are simply discovering what God has already built into us and into the teaching-learning process.

Why not, then, let God’s participatory example shape our Sunday teaching?

A POTLUCK PARABLE

“Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others” (I Pet. 4:10).

The Saturday Supper Society

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For as long as she can remember, Ashley and her parents have eaten Saturday dinner with the Supper Society. For them, if it’s late Saturday afternoon, their response is almost automatic: they head for the dining hall. Ashley knows that, with a name like Supper Society, the group must have begun ages ago. How long? She has no idea.

Another weekend is here, so Ashley and her parents make their way to the customary meal. As usual, Chef Charlie has prepared it well. Ashley, always curious, asks if she might tour his kitchen. “Of course,” he says. His diverse array of cooking tools amazes her. And just above a large, gray file cabinet—which she assumes holds his recipes—hangs his framed culinary degree.

Tonight, Ashley sees fatigue lines in Chef Charlie’s face. For 17 years he has come up with menu ideas and meals every week. Seeing him on the verge of burnout distresses her. And, to be honest, even in herself she detects a lack of eagerness. The same-old-same-old nature of the gatherings has made them highly predictable.

Ashley wonders if that filing cabinet in Chef Charlie’s kitchen holds any untried entrees. On opening the top drawer she finds recipes galore. One aging folder, tagged “History,” intrigues her. It’s the backstory of the Supper Society. Nearly 150 years ago, a young couple had begun inviting friends and neighbors over for Saturday potluck meals. Someone had painstakingly recorded a whole year of who-brought-what. For example, Johansson: Swedish meatballs. Rossi: pasta. Chan: sweet and sour pork. Williams: scones with strawberry jam.

How, Ashley wonders, had they gone from share-the-cooking potlucks to depending completely on chefs like Charlie? The rest of the file reveals how the transition took place. Food-preparation had gotten wearisome. It took time and trouble. People began showing up empty-handed, expecting to eat what others had prepared. Oh, yes, everyone enjoyed and wanted to keep the togetherness. But they wanted it without having to sacrifice for others.

So they had hired a chef to take over the Saturday-meal chores. All began paying dues. They compensated the chef to do what they had originally done for one another. As she closes the file drawer, Ashley’s mind bursts with fresh ideas. The following Saturday, she arrives with notes for a brief pitch. Her main points:

  1. Chef Charlie is overworked.

  2. Each of us has an adequate kitchen.

  3. We can all cook—even if that ability needs to be discovered and developed.

  4. Proposal: We should break with tradition and return to the original potluck model.

  5. Our founders proved that potlucks work.

  6. Our menus will be less predictable—more varied and interesting.

  7. Chef Charlie can use his training and experience to help us expand our cooking skills to serve each other.

“Please think on my proposal,” Ashley says to the group. “Let’s vote on it next week.”

___________________________

What do you imagine the Supper Society decided to do about Ashley’s proposal—and why?

From this little story, what might we learn about church gatherings?

If you are part of a small group of Christians, how could you discuss this parable with them?

(Your comments are welcome. See below.)

Some Inconvenient Church Questions

Several authors have urged a return to what I call “shared church.” But their books don’t appear on best-seller lists, and few Christ-followers know about them. This blog is the seventh on such books.

Milt Rodriguez has a way of asking inconvenient questions about the way we do church. No, he is not anti-church. His slim, 142-page book, The Priesthood of All Believers, makes it clear that he dearly loves the church. But his questions are inconvenient, because they require us either to face them honestly or duck them completely. In his Preface, he lobs the first question:

“Why does the church we see today look so different from the church we see in the New Testament?”

Rodriquez does not think God has any one-size-fits-all blueprint for the church. However, “God does have a pattern for the church. He does care about how the church is built. This ‘pattern’ is based on life, divine life, not rigid organizational machinery.” Just as DNA provides the pattern for our physical bodies, God’s own life supplies the pattern for the Body of Christ.

Rodriguez warns against trying to merely copy the outward actions and forms of the first-century church. Back then, God’s “life flowed out of the people and it took the form of certain actions. Let’s not make the mistake of duplicating those actions in hopes of having the life. That’s backwards. . . . Please do not read this book as a manual on how to do church. These ‘observations’ are simply things I have seen of the pattern of divine life as revealed in the scriptures and in my own experiences.”

“What is the main purpose for us to gather together as believers?”

Ask almost any Christian today, and they will say we meet to “worship.” We have worship centers, worship services, worship bands, worship leaders, worship songs, worship seminars, and even worship software. But to this inconvenient question, Rodriguez offers a completely non-traditional—yet biblical—answer. We gather “for the purpose of edification [building up] of the members through their God-given ministry to one another.”

“Even though worship is important, we must realize that worship is not the reason we gather together. Paul teaches that worship is offering up our whole lives to God (see Rom. 12:1, 2). We don’t come together primarily to worship because our whole life is to be an act of worship. We should just continue that flow of worship when we come to meetings.”

This, of course, assumes that our lives through the week have prepared us to have something to offer our fellow Christ-followers. “If we don’t, then we really have nothing to give. . . .Every part or member is to be given freedom to minister as God leads. I Cor. 14:26 makes this very clear.”

“Why does only one person need to bring a teaching?”

Paul told the Roman believers he was convinced that they were “competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). But Rodriguez observes that “in modern church settings the people just sit there and receive all the time. . . .God wants an activated priesthood. What good is it that we are priests if all we do is sit there and watch like an audience at a show? It’s time for all leaders to train, encourage, and open the way for all the believers to participate in ministry during the meetings.”

He also notes the absence of song or worship leaders in the New Testament churches. Why? “Because all the saints [led] out in songs and sang to God and one another during the meetings.” As Paul puts it in Ephesians 5:19, “. . . speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.”

“This participatory, every-member-involvement in first-century church gatherings leads Rodriguez to his next inconvenient question:

“Did a church in the first century ever hire one of these [professionals] and pay them a salary to be a ‘Minister’ for their congregation?”

Clearly, the answer is no. As Os Guinness says in his book, The Call: “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.”

Rodriguez agrees: “You will not find anything like our present day clergy system anywhere in the New Testament. It just doesn’t exist. What you find instead is a body of believers who all minister to one another. What you find is a ‘priesthood of all believers.’ . . . Unfortunately, the clergy/laity system has all but destroyed every member functioning within the church.”

Of course, the New Testament church did have leaders. “It was always elders (plural), never elder or pastor (singular).” But, “They are not to be ‘the ministers’ for the congregation. They are not to do all the ministry while the believers sit down and soak it all in. Their ministry is to equip the saints to do their ministry. . . .The elders and deacons were simply priests among priests who were there to train and develop the other believers’ ministries and watch over the church.”

“Where did the professional clergy come from?”

Participatory meetings continued through the first century. The clergy system took root in the second. “At the beginning of the second century there was a man that began pushing for one-man rulership in each church. His name was Ignatius of Antioch. . . .He taught that the bishop had absolute power over the congregation and the elders. The bishop was to perform the Christian ‘sacraments’ of communion, baptisms, marriages, and preach sermons.”

“Cyprian of Carthage came along in the third century. . . .He was responsible for bringing back the Old Testament system of priests, temples, altars, and sacrifices. Bishops now became known as ‘priests’ and were accepted as representatives of God and anyone who questioned them would be opposing God himself.”

Moving on to the fourth century, Rodriguez points out that under the Roman Emperor, Constantine, “the church became more like an organization than a body.” Centuries later, Martin Luther and the Reformation brought the church “a great step forward.” However, “Even though the Bible was put into the hands of the believers, the ministry was not. . . .The priesthood of all believers was not restored to the church. The same clergy/laity system was still used. . . . Instead of being called priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes; now they were called pastors, ministers, parsons, preachers, and reverends!”

Another outcome of the Reformation: church divisions. “Christianity became a very divided and splintered group. Many new organizations, called denominations, began to come forth, each of them rallying around a certain leader or reformer.”

“Why call in a doctor when the body can heal itself?”

Just as God has built healing capacities into our physical bodies, he has also done so in Christ’s Body. “If all the believers are functioning as priests and ministers, then needs can be met quickly and easily instead of some pastor having to be at six places at one time. . . .The church is a life, not just a meeting.”

In other words, “if meetings function the way they that they are supposed to, then the believers will want to be together outside of the meetings as well. During the meeting, people will learn to care for their brothers and sisters and this will cultivate a love between them that will surely extend outside of the meetings. . . .The power, authority, and character of Christ will be expressed through His church. The fullness of Christ will be made visible!”

“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)

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Links to Previous Book Reviews in This Series

Shared Church: A Forgotten Way

Dr. Amy Anderson serves as Professor of Greek and New Testament in North Central University, Minneapolis, MN. PhD.-University of Birmingham, England; MA-Fuller Seminary, Pasdadena, CA.

Dr. Amy Anderson serves as Professor of Greek and New Testament in North Central University, Minneapolis, MN. PhD.-University of Birmingham, England; MA-Fuller Seminary, Pasdadena, CA.

Several authors have urged a return to what I call “shared church.” But their books don’t appear on best-seller lists, and few Christ-followers know about them. This blog is the sixth on such books.

A blurb on the back cover of When You Come Together (title from I Cor. 14:26) sums it up. It points out that “Amy Anderson reminds us of the raw power of the original model” of meeting as Christians. Anderson herself explains that she wrote the book hoping it would “raise issues you have not thought about, and to start you on the road to developing a vital biblical theology of the gathered people of God.”

Early in her first chapter, Anderson grants that the New Testament prescribes no set arrangement for our gatherings. At the same time, she says “we will find principles in scripture that can open a window to the wise intentions of God, and help us to be faithful followers as we build up the church together.”

Challenging “ChurchSpeak”

Clearly sensitive to the terms we use, Anderson opposes speaking of Christian gatherings as church services. In the U.S. she says, such language suggests rigid agendas and tightly planned schedules. “But is that what we really want? Is that what God intended? Maybe we should stop using the word service to describe a gathering of believers.” Would that change in our vocabulary, she wonders, “assist us in moving away from the tendency to want to ‘put on a show’ on Sunday mornings?”

But her concern is not just with what we call it but also with what we do when we get together. “In most churches, the same things happen every Sunday morning, with little or no variation. A plan has been made—an ‘order of service’—and the leaders lead the people through it. . . . the leaders and the congregation are treating the ‘service’ like a performance.”

The Clergy/Laity Distinction

Church leaders—even those paid to lead, Anderson says—are needed. But, “Christ does not prescribe a professional paid clergy who do the actual ministry (by which we tend to mean such things as preaching, leading worship, visiting the sick, planning events, etc.) while the people of God are seen as support staff at best or passive consumers at worst.” It appears, she says, “that our human tendencies toward hierarchy and control continually cause us to return to behaviors that the Holy Spirit then needs to correct in each generation.”

Our hankering after pecking orders and control run counter to the biblical concept of the priesthood of all believers. “Churches have a tendency to give lip service to the priesthood of all believers,” she points out, “but they still often separate the pastor out as the only person who is allowed to preach, marry, bury, serve communion or perform other ministries.”

Practicing the Priesthood of All Believers

What happens when our theology and our practice don’t match? “Many pastors who teach about the priesthood of all believers fail to train their people to do priestly ministry. Many would agree theoretically that the Holy Spirit gifts all people for ministry, but do not provide opportunities for those gifts to be practiced and developed.”

“If we want the saints to be equipped and the church to be healthy, we must all step back and re-consider how we ‘do church.’” Toward that end, Anderson asks some searching questions:

  • “What are we teaching our people about God and the world and salvation and mission if we treat them as an audience that watches a show every Sunday?”

  • “What we do we teach them about the community of believers if our worship music is so loud that people can’t hear themselves singing, let alone be enriched by the passionate love of God expressed by the voice of their neighbor?”

  • “What do we teach about individual giftedness if we fail to recognize and appreciate their gifts in a public manner?”

  • “What does it mean to equip the saints? Just to put them through a new members’ class and then assign them to a committee? To convince them to show up at events the leaders have planned? That sounds more like using the saints than equipping them.”

Paradigms for Worship Gatherings

The Concert Paradigm. In Chapter 6, Anderson names and describes a couple of typically-followed “paradigms for worship gatherings.” The first: “The Concert Paradigm.” Here, “A more or less talented worship band is stationed at the front, normally on a platform and plugged in. They have chosen the songs and other elements of the musical part of the gathering. They have practiced their program in advance, and they always follow their plan. . . . Churches that follow the concert paradigm typically follow up the worship band performance with a monologue speech, called a sermon. Again the emphasis is on delivery, professionalism, and even entertainment.”

The Big Band/Symphony Paradigm. In this model, the “gathering is strongly directed from the front, with one person in leadership of the musical part of worship. Here, however, whatever musical instruments are employed are seen as supporting the entire congregation, which is considered to be producing the worship music. It is as if each person were an instrument in a band or orchestra.” The sermon may be more interactive than in the Concert Paradigm—even including a Q & A time. While Anderson sees this as an improvement over the first paradigm, she warns that “there is still a plan to be followed, and if God wishes to speak it would be mostly limited to the leadership.”

The Jazz Band Paradigm. By contrast, Anderson recommends what she calls “The Jazz Band Paradigm.” Although it has leaders, they are “less obvious, less dominant. . . .As a jazz piece is being played, any member of the band can add something, and the others welcome the new impulse and respond accordingly. . . . There is also the adventure of not knowing exactly what is going to happen next. . . .What’s good about this paradigm? [It] fits very nicely with the description Paul gave in I Cor. 14:26, as well as the theological concepts of the body.” The problem with this paradigm is that “. . . we have forgotten how to do it.”

Recovering What We Lost

Because doing church this way has been long-forgotten, Chapter 7 suggests many ways church leaders can go about recovering what has gone missing in our gatherings. In Chapter 8, Anderson describes how those who lead singing can help bring about the needed change. Such reform, she says, begins with prayer. It takes teaching, training, and empowering the congregation. She urges that leaders “recognize that God may choose to speak through any member, that you expect it to happen, and that nothing would make you happier. You must . . . give them permission to ‘disrupt’ the plan for the gathering if the Holy Spirit so prompts.”

When we gather as Christ-followers, do we have the courage to repossess what belongs to us?

The Biblical Case for Shared-Church Meetings

Several authors have urged a return to what I call “shared church.” But their books don’t appear on best-seller lists, and few Christ-followers know about them. This blog is the fifth on such books.

Can church meetings act as a spiritual fire extinguisher? Yes, according to Andrew W. Wilson in Do Not Quench the Spirit: A Biblical and Practical Guide to Participatory Church Meetings.

When I first saw this book, I asked myself, “Are its title and subtitle a mismatch?” Not quenching the Spirit, of course, points to I Thess. 5:19. But what does that have to do with participatory church meetings?

How Can Meetings Quench God’s Spirit?

Here’s how Wilson makes the connection in the I Thess. 5:19 context: “To ‘quench the Spirit’ refers to trying to stop the powerful working of the Spirit of God in the life of the church by restricting the freedom of the people of God to use their spiritual gifts.” So if the format of a church meeting leaves the congregation speechless, it douses the flame ignited by God’s Spirit in all for mutually encouraging one another.

In other words, if only a few up front on the platform—those with microphone rights—have the freedom to speak, then the Spirit-given gifts of the great majority get suppressed. What Wilson is saying flies in the face of the traditional agenda for church meetings. However, his message lines up with the participatory meetings seen in the New Testament church.

The words “Biblical and Practical” in the subtitle provide a preview and broad outline for the book. The book’s early chapters explore what those first-century Christians did when they gathered together. Later chapters explain the foundational principles for shared-church meetings, deal with arguments against them, and answer questions often asked about them.

Watching a First-Century Church Meeting

In Chapter 2, Wilson unpacks I Corinthians 14:26-40. Verse 26 says, “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.” “In this passage,” Wilson says, “we have the most detailed picture of what actually went on in a church service in New Testament times.”

He notes the absence of several elements we associate with church meetings: sermons, liturgies, pulpits, platforms. “Paul nowhere mentions ‘the sermon’, one main message, the centrepiece of a church service. This is not because Christians in apostolic times did not believe in preaching. Rather the reverse: they believed in preaching so much that they allowed opportunity for multiple people with different spiritual gifts to preach in the church service.”

Wilson has done his homework, often quoting well-known New Testament scholars. For example, he cites Gordon Fee: “What is striking in this entire discussion [in I Cor. 14] is the absence of any mention of leadership or of anyone who would be responsible for seeing that these guidelines were generally adhered to. The community appears to be left to itself and to the Holy Spirit.”

Does this mean those first-century meetings were chaotic free-for-alls? No. In verse 40 of I Cor. 14, Paul cautions that “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” This “principle of orderly decency,” Wilson says, is “a second principle that is to be balanced against the principle of opportunity for participation given in verse 39.”

If we twenty-first-century Christians were to visit one of those first-century church meetings, we’d be in for a jolt. “The variety of gifts, contributed by multiple people interacting with each other,” Wilson says, “shows that the New Testament church was not a ‘one-man show.’ How different the New Testament picture is to what we find in most contemporary churches, with our productions and programs, liturgies and set orders of service.”

More Insights into New Testament Gatherings

The picture Paul paints in I Corinthians 14 is just one of several New Testament descriptions of how New Testament Christians regularly met. In his third chapter, Wilson examines I Thess. 5:19-21. “These exhortations,” he says, “appear to depict a church whose gatherings were participatory.” He quotes Scottish theologian, I. Howard Marshall: “Gifts for ministry were being exercised, but some people were trying to suppress them (we don’t know just how), but it is wrong to do so.”

In Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, Wilson sees even further evidence of participatory patterns in church meetings. Paul told Timothy to stay in Ephesus for a while so that he could “command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer” (I Tim. 1:3). Paul left Titus on Crete to appoint elders who could “encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Tit. 1:9). By their teaching, these well-trained elders could silence those who were “teaching things they ought not to teach” (v. 11).

The fact that some taught wrongly shows that the teaching/preaching role was not limited to just one specialist. Wilson says, “Neither Timothy nor Titus are given honorific titles anywhere in the New Testament . . . .Timothy and Titus were neither the first bishops nor the senior pastors of the churches. . . . Many (if not all) of the brothers were free to speak, upon whatever subject they wished, but abuses that this system allowed were not left uncorrected, and high standards of teaching were encouraged and expected.”

Principles Behind Participatory Church Meetings

In Chapter 8, Wilson identifies New Testament elements that undergird participatory church meetings:

  1. The Holy Spirit’s work: “It is possible for us to restrict God’s Spirit’s activity within the church. We shut God’s Spirit out, hose down the fire of His power, hinder His operations and stop His activity among His people.”

  2. Gifts of the Spirit: “In modern evangelical churches there is a shrinking gift-pool due to the increasing professionalization of Christian ministry.”

  3. Mutual Building Up. “The New Testament lays heavy emphasis upon the need for Christians to know each other, closely and intimately enough to be able to bear one another's burdens, confess faults one to another, encourage, exhort, and admonish one another; and minister to one another with the Word, song and prayer.”

  4. All-Believer Priesthood. “The idea of a distinction between the ministry and other Christians, leading to the setting up of a clerical ‘caste’, is unknown to Scripture.” Wilson again quotes Gordon Fee who deplores “the one-man show of many denominational churches.”

Other elements include the government of the Church (participatory), the Church as a Body (not a few superstars), and Christ as Lord (who rules the Church through the Holy Spirit). Wilson quotes A. W. Tozer, who said: “We must acknowledge the right of Jesus Christ to control the activities of His church. . . . It is not a question of knowing what to do; we can easily learn that from the Scriptures. It is a question of whether or not we have the courage to do it.”

Moving Toward Participatory Meetings

Because “a church that is not used to participatory church gatherings will probably not be able to start having meetings like this without a transition period,” Wilson offers 20 suggestions for making the shift. Among his recommendations: persistent prayer, personal Bible study, good expository preaching, multiple preachers, testimonies, questions and discussion after sermons, to name just 6.

He closes his book with these words: “Doing anything for God requires that we step out in faith, that obstacles and opposition will arise, and that nothing will ever be perfect on earth. Conviction is required for all who wish to do the will of God in their own generation, like David (Acts 13:36). ‘Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind’ (Romans 14:5).”

A Shared-Church Classic

Several authors have urged a return to what I call “shared church.” But their books don’t appear on best-seller lists, and few Christ-followers know about them. This blog is the fourth on such books.

Ray Stedman wrote it nearly a half-century ago. But his classic book about shared church still speaks a much-needed message to us in the 21st century.

Billy Graham valued the book’s message enough to pen its Foreword. He writes: “In Body Life, Ray C. Stedman uses the leverage of the Word itself to bring us back to the Church’s real meaning and mission. With strong, convincing argument he points to the weaknesses within the institutional church and clearly reminds us of the strength inherent in Christ’s body, the true church.”

Ray Stedman served 40 years as pastor of the Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, CA. During those decades, he and the elders established a shared-church meeting environment. Stedman tells the story of that church in Body Life, originally published in 1972. In 1995, Discovery House Publishers issued an updated version. Some of the quotations in this blog come from that edition.

Ray Stedman2.jpg

A Tragic Unawareness

What blocks us today from experiencing the full-of-life church we read about in the pages of the New Testament? Stedman explains in his Preface: “The major factor that keeps this from happening today is ignorance. Most Christians are tragically unaware of the biblical pattern for the operation of the church.”

At the core of this ignorance, Stedman says, is that Christians are oblivious to the Holy Spirit and his gifts. “It is obvious that there can be no hope of ever getting the church to operate as it was intended to do until each individual member recognizes and begins to exercise the spiritual gift or gifts which he [or she] has received.” So it comes as no surprise that Stedman devotes two whole chapters to the Holy Spirit and his gifts.

Gifts for Church and World

God gives these gifts—even today—not only for the building-up of the gathered church but also for the benefit of the scattered church in its various ministries. “The gifts of the Spirit are not only for use within the church,” Stedman contends. “They are for the world as well. Some who have the gift of teaching ought to be exercising it in their homes. Some who have the gift of helping ought to be using in the office, the shop, or wherever they are.”

He asks, “Have you ever noticed that the really important figures of the New Testament are not the priests and religious leaders? They are shepherds, fishermen, tax-gatherers, soldiers, politicians, tentmakers, physicians, and carpenters! These are the ones who occupy the center of the stage. So it must be again today.” This, of course, requires a paradigm shift in the way we understand church roles: “It is not the pastors who are on the front lines of ministry; it is the people—all the saints—whose job it is to go out into the world, to land on the beachheads of the world, to take the territory, to win the world by the quietly transforming resurrection power of Jesus Christ.”

How can this happen? “You can tell the good news of God at work around a water cooler in an office if the occasion is right. Or over a lunch bucket. You can heal a hurting heart as you’re going home in the carpool. You can teach the truth that liberates people over a cup of coffee in a kitchen or the back fence. You can pray the prayer of deliverance beside a sick bed. You can interject Christian insights into business transactions or governmental problems—and the insights you share may mean the difference between conflict and strife, hope and despair, or even heaven and hell for the person whose life you touch!”

The Situation a Half-Century Later

Now—nearly 50 years after Stedman wrote Body Life—has his message been widely put into practice? Many more recent books suggest otherwise—books such as, You Lost Me, by David Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins; Unchurching, by Richard Jacobson; and Church Refugees, by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. Even among those who remain in the institutional churches, many lament the lack of body life and the increasing move toward platform-driven, theater-like, sit-watch-and listen church meetings.

That trend had already begun, even back in Stedman’s day. He spoke of “a gradual transfer of ministry responsibility from the people (whom we now call the laity) to the few pastor-teachers (whom we now call the clergy . . . ). The scriptural concept that every believer is a priest before God was gradually lost, and a special class of super-Christians emerged who were looked to for practically everything, and who came to be called the ‘ministry.’ Somehow, the church lost sight of the concept, so clearly stated in Ephesians 4, that all Christians are ‘in the ministry.’”

What resulted from shifting ministry to the clergy? “When the ministry was left to the ‘professionals,’ there was nothing left for the people to do other than come to church and listen. They were told that it was their responsibility to bring the world into the church building to hear the pastor preach the gospel. Soon Christianity became little more than a Sunday-morning spectator sport, much like the definition of football: twenty-two men down on the field, desperately in need of rest, and twenty thousand in the grandstands, desperately in need of exercise.”

What, Then, Shall We Do?

What needs to be done? “Pastors, particularly, must restore to the people the ministry that was taken from them with the best of intentions.” This still leaves pastors with a lot of very important work to do. “Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor-teachers exist not only to equip the members of the body to do ministry but also to build them up and support them in a mutual ministry to each other, so that the entire body will be vibrant, vital, and effective.”

Stedman recognizes that shared church has drawn opposition during most of church history. “Throughout the Christian centuries, no principle of church life has proved more revolutionary—and more bitterly fought!—than the declaration of Ephesians 4 that the ultimate work of the church in the world is to be done by the saints—plain, ordinary Christians—and not by a professional clergy or a few select laypeople. We must never lose the impact of the apostle Paul’s statement that apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers exist ‘for the equipment of the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12).’”

Shared Church in Operation

In Chapter 12 of his original book, Stedman asks, “Will [these principles] work today as they did in the early church? The answer is a resounding Yes!” To demonstrate his point, he closes the chapter by reprinting an article from the May 21, 1971, issue of Christianity Today that begins with these words: “It happens every Sunday night. Eight hundred or more people pack into a church auditorium designed to seat comfortably only 750.”

The article goes on to describe a Peninsula Bible Church meeting that includes open and honest sharing, singing in which those in the congregation call out song selections, teaching that provides opportunity for questions, and prayer with joined hands. “We determined,” Stedman says, “to make a place for this ministry by wiping out the traditional structure of the evening service and using the time to invite a sharing of needs and gifts by the people.”

But with 800 people? “It may surprise many to discover how much larger meetings of Christians can be characterized by such a spirit of loving, non-judgmental acceptance, that many deeply personal problems can be shared openly without fear of rejection or giving rise to scandal.”

Quotations have been taken from both the original 1972 edition and from Body Life: The Book that Inspired a Return to the Church's Real Meaning and Mission © 2011 by Ray Stedman and used by permission of Discovery House, Grand Rapids, MI 49501. All rights reserved.

A Fresh Look at the Sermon

Several authors have urged a return to what I call “shared church.” But their books don’t appear on best-seller lists, and few Christ-followers know about them. This blog is the third on such books.

Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow?

When Jeremy Thomson, in his subtitle, asks, “Is the sermon a sacred cow?” he is not being flippant. Instead, he raises this serious question: Have we elevated the sermon—like Hindus have the cow—to the point of its being venerated and above question? In his little booklet (just 28 pages), Thomson strongly supports preaching. He says, “because I believe passionately in it . . . I want to see it done yet more faithfully.”

In Chapter 1, he points out that “preaching has become stereotyped into sermons.” The danger: when the 1st-century Bible says “preaching,” our 20th century minds read “sermon.” Yet preaching and teaching in the New Testament rarely, if ever, took place in the same “social setting” as the contemporary sermon.

Jeremy Thomson.jpg

No Pulpits for Jesus and Paul

Yes, Jesus gave “a few extended discourses . . . to a ‘passive audience’ (for example in Mk. 4:1ff; 6:34; 13:3ff).” But most of his preaching/teaching took place in other settings: the doorway of a house; during meals; on a shoreline or from a boat; walking through fields or along a road; on the Mt. of Olives; and so on. “Much of Jesus’ teaching,” Thomson says, “was given ‘on the way’ and involved a high degree of interaction with the audience (Mk. 8:27-10:52).”

Back-and-forth discussions, questions, responses—most of Jesus’ teaching involved dialogue. The woman at the well. Nicodemus. Crowds and critics. The man blind from birth. And, “The so-called upper-room discourse includes extensive interaction with the disciples (Jn. 14:1-16:23).”

Like Jesus, Paul preached interactively. Thomson cites an article by Stanley Sowers who “examines the circumstances of Paul’s preaching activity and shows that the most significant settings for it were the private house and the leather workshop. He concludes that ‘the widespread picture of Paul the public orator, sophist, or street corner preacher is a false one.’”

How Monological Sermons Became Central

In Chapter 4, Thomson traces how, as time passed, preaching and sermons came to be seen as nearly identical. Martin Luther’s recovery of “justification by grace through faith meant that this Pauline doctrine had to be declared. Thus the sermon became the very centre of the service of worship. . . . For John Calvin also the preacher was the ‘mouth of God’. . . . Calvin believed that congregations . . . should be passive receptors of sermons . . . implying congregational acquiescence so that any format other than the monologue sermon is unthinkable.”

More recently, “Martin Lloyd-Jones refused any idea of dialogue in the proclamation of the gospel.” In his book, Preaching and Preachers, Lloyd-Jones wrote: “We cannot in any circumstances allow [God] to become a subject for discussion or of debate or of investigation. I base my argument at this point on the word addressed by God Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-6). Moses . . . was proposing to turn aside and to examine this astonishing phenomenon. But immediately he is rebuked by the voice . . . . That seems to me to be the governing principle in this whole matter.”

However, as Thomson points out, taking Lloyd-Jones’ own example of the burning bush, right after this incident Moses engages God in a back-and-forth conversation, with questions and even negotiations. Thomson observes, “God takes human personality utterly seriously, graciously allows questions and supplies answers in a dialogical relationship. This . . . impels us to reject a monological theology of the sermon.”

The Case for Dialogue

Thomson offers his alternative in Chapter 5: “A Theology of Preaching as Dialogue.” He insists that real personhood involves give-and-take with others. In our vertical connection with God, he says, we “are called and invited into a dialogical relationship with God rather than subjected to megaphone-style address and manipulating power.” In our horizontal connection with other people, each of us is made in the likeness of the one-yet-three-personed God who within himself is relational. Monologue, then, is “distorted communication.” Dialogue is “genuine communication.”

God’s word to the gathered church comes not simply through one individual but “within the process of dialogue.” Thomson points to I Cor. 14:29, in which a prophet says something and someone else judges or evaluates what was said. In other words, God speaks not just through a single person but through the Body of Christ, as “each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). This communication “process may require interaction for the purposes of clarification, interpretation, and application.”

Christian growth, says Thomson, actually depends on such interaction. “There must be a dialogue between teachers and learners if there is to be maturity in the church community; how can characters develop without the opportunity to verbalize? How can a community be a community if one person does all the talking? . . . The greatest preacher of them all asked questions, brought people into the conversation, took the observations and questions of others as opportunities to tackle the burning issues of life. Why have preachers forsaken him in this?”

We Christians, have, Thomson asserts, been “unduly influenced by a hierarchical view of reality.” Why? Because we have focused more on God as one than on God as social Trinity (see previous blog on Trinity in Human Community). Yes, there is a place for leadership in the church. But according to Jesus, leadership is not based on hierarchy but on what Thomson calls “lowerarchy.”

Changes Needed

In Chapter 6 Thomson lists several “practical implications.” In summary:

  1. Turn away from the idea that traditional sermons “fulfil the responsibility to preach and teach. . . . A conventional sermon may be the most effective means of preaching from time to time; I do not mean that we must abandon the [monologue] sermon altogether.”

  2. Do less evangelizing in normal church gatherings and more disciple-making through teaching. “Preaching should largely aim at teaching believers.”

  3. Rely less on the monologue and learn how to make sermons participatory. “For Christians, the scriptural models of communication and education should count most.”

  4. Let those teach who can draw out and involve others in the truth being presented. “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.”

  5. Give time both to prepared messages and those that respond on the spot to expressed needs. “On-going programs may sometimes have to be set aside in order to deal with unexpected and pressing questions.”

A New Wineskin for Sermons

After offering several practical suggestions for how to transition to dialogue sermons, Thomson concludes with this: “The resources available in the church are squandered if members believe that preaching is largely the responsibility of a special few who give sermons in religious settings. In order to communicate God’s word effectively preachers must recognize the limitations of the monologue format of the sermon and encourage more interaction with their congregations. The new wine of preaching will burst the old skin of the sermon.”

A Church Patterned on Trinity

Several authors have urged a return to what I call “shared church.” But their books don’t appear on best-seller lists, and few Christ-followers know about them. This blog is the second on such books.

How Should “Trinity” Shape the Church?

In Trinity in Human Community, Peter R. Holmes explains how. His subtitle, Exploring Congregational Life in the Image of the Social Trinity, offers a hint. God, he says, is a social, relational Being. This truth should mold the way we meet and interact in our churches.

As those created in the likeness of this personal, communal God, we grow best as we relate to him and to others in true community. But too often church people do not experience such fellowship. Holmes notes that “Congregational meetings can look like the classroom, faith being a thing we learn to do intellectually. We often stand in rows to worship God.”

After-Effects of Augustine

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Why do we find it so challenging to experience real community? Holmes traces much of the difficulty to the theology we in the Western Church got from Augustine. Most of us don’t realize how greatly the ideas of this fourth/fifth-century theologian still color the way we think. Influenced by Greek thought, Augustine emphasized the oneness of the Godhead. By contrast, the Eastern Church had stressed the personhood of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From Augustine, says Holmes, we “inherited . . . the idea of a static, transcendent Trinity.” This “makes it more difficult for us to imagine the possibility of engaging with our spirituality, and knowing an intimate relationship with God.”

The insights of Augustine, Holmes believes, need to be counterbalanced with those of his Eastern-Church contemporaries, the Cappadocian Fathers—Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil the Great. Although we should not see them through rose-colored glasses, the Cappadocians offer an understanding of God we have missed: perichoresis. This means that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always lived in intimate social relationship, mutually indwelling each other. As Jesus said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (Jn. 14:11). In other words, God himself is, lives, and loves as a Community.

A Reluctant Church Planter

In 1998, along with four others, Holmes planted Christ Church Deal (CCD) in Deal, a coastal UK city located where the North Sea and English Channel meet. With years of experience in churches and church leadership, Holmes had a “personal problem” in making the transition to a perichoretic church. “It had never really occurred to me,” he admits, “that congregational life could or should be more than a series of regular meetings, and that ‘fellowship’ as I was regularly practicing it was actually not authentic community.”

He discovered that he had “deep personal prejudices against ideas of ‘community.’” Solid Christians didn’t need community, he thought. He’d been raised to think of himself as a strong, independent male. Who needed close relationships? He had read and heard stories of the heroes of the faith, recalling that “Most of these writings seem to focus on the journey and successes of the individual.”

Realizing what it would cost to practice perichoretic church, Holmes resisted. “I instinctively and stubbornly held on to the old ways, redoubling my efforts rather than taking the risk of changing my thinking. What I had to admit was that reproducing traditional institutional Church is always much easier for me. After all, I had had over thirty-five years of doing it this way. The task of seeking to create a new model of congregation as community was far too daunting to undertake.”

Steps Toward a Perichoretic Church

But as he began to listen to the hearts of those in the newly planted church, Holmes began to realize that what he and they needed most was a true community patterned on the social Trinity. He recalls that the people in CCD “did not want meetings, but they did want relationships.” Since then, CCD has intentionally taken steps to create an environment in which relationships in community can flourish. For example:

  • “We have experimented with the idea of doing things together, seeing this as an excuse for a get-together, or for making a job a relational event.”

  • “Another change in our community was when we moved the worship band to the back of the congregation, requiring each person to proactively visualize worshiping Christ in relationship rather than continue to be passively ‘led’ in worship by the singers and musicians.”

  • “On the last Sunday of the month, we cancel Sunday church altogether. We do this to facilitate social relations in and outside the congregation.”

CCD has not built or bought a building. “We decided that would not put money into buildings, but into people.” So their homes serve as their primary meeting-places. As the congregation grew, they rented or leased space when they needed more room for special events.

Should We Meet to Worship, or . . . ?

For CCD, the central reason for gathering together differs from the typical understanding of why Christians gather. “A characteristic for Paul of faith community life was that people did not go to church to ‘worship.’ Rather, Paul saw one’s whole life as worship (Rom. 12:1-2). . . . Paul saw the purpose of meeting corporately as the spiritual strengthening of one another (1 Cor. 14:12, 19, 26). This was done through sharing gifts in mutual ministry or charism (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16-17).”

This one-anothering—which Jesus calls for in his New Command—has led CCD to adopt a non-hierarchical church structure. “In CCD we have sought to take up the idea of a flat organization. . . . Easy access to the leadership is important. . . . we elect most of our Leadership Team (LT) of ten men and ten women, and choose a chairperson from among this group. All are lay people and work on a voluntary basis.” CCD has adopted “arrangements [that] militate against individuals having power over others or developing a power base within the congregation.” Holmes says, “by putting people ahead of tasks, we have endeavored to mirror social Trinity.”

“What I am suggesting is that our modern practice of one priest leading a congregation is in danger of usurping what Hebrew thought and Paul are actually saying to us. It is the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ as Peter suggested (1 Pet. 2:9), that should form the foundation of local congregational life and leadership, not just one man or woman.”

Rapha: A People-Mending Community

A core teaching in the CCD community comes from God’s word to the community of Israel after their exodus from Egypt: “I am the Lord, who heals you” (Ex. 15:26). In Hebrew, that word for heals is rapha, which means “to stitch together.” God wants to stitch his people back together from being ripped apart by such things as our bent to sinning, our inability to find God, and our being held captive by external forces. So the whole body of believers, as each part does its work, becomes a therapeutic community.

Throughout the book, Holmes intersperses many quotations in which CCD people describe their experience in this perichoretic church community. Here are just three:

  • “There is an accountability with each other within the community.”

  • “There is a sense that the load is shared. If you have got a problem . . . you can seek someone else to help you, a community of helping.”

  • “Prior to CCD I thought being a Christian was like having a label, being part of a club you attended once a week. . . . But since being at CCD, I understand that being a Christian is about how you live your life every day—it’s in you, about living in truth and loving each other, belonging.”

Holmes says, “In CCD we have now been seeking to live this journey of intentional therapeutic faith community for a number of years. . . . We have not got everything right, but we are trying.”

Gathered Church with Many Voices

Several authors have called for a return to what I call “shared church.” But their books don’t appear on best-seller lists, and few Christ-followers know about them. This blog series will introduce some of those writers and their books.

“Churches have structured for passivity!”

With this quotation Anne Wilkinson-Hayes opens her Foreword to The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church, by British authors, Sian and Stuart Murray Williams.

Multivoiced, of course, contrasts sharply with monovoiced where one person—typically a pastor—does nearly all the speaking on a Sunday morning. As the Williams explain, “Multivoiced church is an alternative to the dominant tradition in which large numbers of the Christian community are passive consumers instead of active participants.”

Most contemporary Christians have never experienced multivoiced church. So the book’s eight chapters describe what that looks like in today’s Western culture. “Mulltvoiced church matters,” contend the Williams, “because it is the biblical pattern, however much cultural influences and prevailing church practices have obscured this over the centuries.”

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Multivoiced Church is Biblical

In a fast-paced overview, the Williams recount the New Testament basis for meeting in a multivoiced context. It all began on the Day of Pentecost, with many people in various languages “declaring the wonders of God” (Acts 2:11). In his brief message, Peter explained that the outpouring of the Spirit meant that “all” would speak. The authors then trace the multivoiced nature of the Church in the remainder of Acts, on into the Church at Corinth, and throughout the rest of the New Testament.

They also point out that “Jesus rarely preaches a sermon.” Instead, he “devises parables, tells stories, asks questions (but rarely answers them), teaches through symbolic actions, engages people in conversation, invites others to interpret Scripture, and presents those who listen to him with enigmatic sayings that require them to wrestle with their meaning.”

Multivoiced Worship

One whole chapter explains multivoiced worship. “It simply means that when God’s people gather, our corporate worship is expressed by many people and in many formats, tones, and accents.” The chapter is peppered with accounts from various churches. In one, gatherings allow 20 minutes or more in which people, using microphones from where they are seated, tell how they have or have not experienced God during the week. “There is no room to hide,” say the Williams, “as there is in monovoiced churches, behind a few spiritual superstars.”

Multivoiced Learning

The Williams devote another whole chapter to multivoiced learning. They make it clear that they value sermons—and often preach them. But they argue that monologue sermons are out of step with the way people communicate today: “Nowhere else does one person speak at length to a silent and passive audience that has no expectation or opportunity of engaging with the speaker.” This, however, is not a capitulation to contemporary culture. In first-century churches, dialogue was the norm. “Sermon” and “homily” come from Latin and Greek terms that mean conversation.

Multivoiced learning, the Williams write, rests on three underlying bases. It is “learner oriented,” “multivoiced” (participatory), and “open-ended.” Those principles unfold in the following practices:

  • Pausing to reflect

  • Discussing and responding

  • Providing space for comments

  • Inviting interruptions

  • Living in the Word

  • Preparing sermons jointly

Multivoiced Community

Multivoiced practices not only foster learning, they also build community. The dozens of one-another/each-other passages show that Jesus and the New Testament writers expected many voices to contribute to church life. “What we have here,” say the Williams, “is the persistent rhythm and heartbeat of multivoiced community. . . . What multivoiced churches need are leaders who can broker and encouraging one-anothering.” In this kind of community, real friendships—not merely the superficial “fellowship” that too often fills the gap—can develop and thrive.

Community nurtures two more benefits: “discerning and deciding.” The Williams summarize three traditional church-governing patterns—the episcopal, congregational, and presbyteral—and explain the strengths and weaknesses of each. They list a half-dozen techniques multivoiced churches have used to reach their decisions as a body.

Multivoiced Church Leadership

What role do leaders play in discerning and deciding? “The task of those with leadership responsibilities is neither to dominate nor to abdicate, but to facilitate. Encouraging those with valuable insights who are reticent to speak, noticing those who might otherwise be marginalized, challenging those who respond ungraciously to others, reminding those who speak a lot that listening is even more important, judging when it is time to move from discerning to deciding, summarizing the conversation and drawing out the salient points, making sure everyone knows what decision has been made and why, helping the community reflect on the process and learn from it—providing leadership for multivoiced discerning and deciding is multifaceted and demanding.”

Con: the Case Against

In their final chapter, the Williams set forth several reasons churches might not want to adopt a multivoiced model. Tradition: the Church has practiced monovoiced gatherings for centuries. Difficulty: multivoiced church is hard to keep up over time. Schedules: it demands too much time from busy people and church leaders. Capability: few church leaders have the training, ability, or motivation for it. Immaturity: those in the church, so their leaders think, don’t have what it would take.

Pro: the Case For

But the Williams urge that, despite these obstacles, churches should move forward into multivoiced mode, because it:

  • Represents “the biblical norm.”

  • Has been the path on which the Holy Spirit has led many historic “renewal movements.”

  • Works against a monopolizing clergy, pastoral exhaustion, and “abusive leadership.”

  • Encourages Christians to learn the Bible and theology well enough to carry out their life roles.

  • Unlocks spiritual gifts for the benefit of all.

  • Develops grownup learners instead of immature, passive dependents.

  • Contributes to “the emergence of missional churches in post-Christendom societies. . . . Most people in our society are much more likely to encounter individual Christians in the places in which they live, work, and relax than they are to respond to invitations to participate in church-run activities. . . . The skills we learn in multivoiced churches are transferable to other spheres of life.”

In The Power of All, the Williams recognize the obstacles that stand in the way of participatory church gatherings. But they write with the “hope . . . that setting alongside each other arguments for and against multivoiced church will clarify the issue and ensure that those who choose to embrace multivoiced practice will be under no illusions about what may be involved.”

Interactive Preaching in Shared Church

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Think back.

Have you ever heard a sermon in which the speaker invited interaction from the congregation? Possibly. But most sermons are monologues—one person speaking, everyone else (hopefully) listening. Yet monologue messages are rare in the New Testament. Jesus, Paul, and Peter most often taught with dialogue—back and forth between speaker and listeners. Some pastors who teach dialogically report that people sit forward on their seats, tuned in attentively to the interaction.

In the following dialogue, two pastors discuss their experience with interactive preaching. Their conversation originally appeared as an article in the Reformed Worship magazine. Michael Kooy serves as pastor of Grace Community Christian Reformed Church in Oak Lawn, Illinois. Mark Brouwer serves as pastor of Jacob's Well Church Community in Evergreen Park, Illinois.

______________________________________________

Pastors encourage people in our churches to be more than passive observers. Affirming the priesthood of believers, we encourage members to be active participants in the life of faith and in the work of the church. But usually these encouragements happen in the context of a sermon, where we do the talking and they just listen. We teach with our words about participation, but the way we do it teaches people to be disengaged, silent, and inactive.

Mark: First, a little background. I came to interactive preaching as a reluctant convert. Last year I became the pastor of Jacob’s Well Church Community in Evergreen Park, Illinois, a new congregation whose founding pastor, John Wilczewski, had embraced interactive preaching. I realized from the beginning that interactive worship—and interactive sermons— were a core value in the congregation, and I would need to work with that. I was intrigued! I’ve been at Jacob’s Well for seven months, and am still in the process of learning and adapting to this way of preaching. Mike, how did you and your church get started on this journey?

Mike: We began interactive preaching in connection with a Calvin Institute of Christian Worship grant we received in 2009. Our grant proposal arose from a discussion between worship leaders at Grace Community that centered on Grace’s value of participatory worship. We were thinking about ways we could revitalize our worship practices. We believed that vitality would come through the full, active, and conscious involvement of all participants in worship. We asked: How might this apply to sermons? Are the worshipers only passive recipients of a sermon? How might worshipers be more actively engaged in preaching?

Mark: So as you did this study and reflection together as church leaders, what did you discover?

Mike: We looked at some of the biblical models for preaching. We saw that most models for preaching center on the role of the prophets in ancient Israel, like Elijah speaking God’s word of warning to people who were bent on worshiping Baal. We thought of a prophet as a lone voice speaking God’s Word to God’s gathered people. But, in Christ, all God’s people are prophets. Might not the congregation have a role in discerning God’s will for the community today? When we turned to the New Testament, we found that nearly thirty Greek words are used to describe the ways God’s good news was explained and applied. Many of those ways involved interaction with the audience. Peter’s sermon on Pentecost was in response to a question; his monologue left room for a follow-up question from his listeners. Philip “preached the good news” to the Ethiopian eunuch, a one-to-one presentation involving questions and responses. Paul engaged audiences large and small with the good news, often involving a discussion or dialogue.

Mark: And clearly, much of Jesus’ teaching involved varying degrees of dialogue, with people making comments and asking questions. If nothing else, this variety of terms for and practices of gospel proclamation in the Bible should free us to explore a variety of forms for preaching today.

It’s also helpful to think about interactive preaching in light of biblical principles, not just practices. The priesthood of all believers implies that worshipers are called collectively to let the Word of God dwell in them richly as they teach and admonish one another. That is an important principle, but it’s overshadowed by the passive audience orientation of our worship today.

What are we saying to people in our churches by the way we do things? Sadly, the message too often is, “Sit down and be quiet—the preacher knows what is important for you to know about this text. You just listen.” We might think that we’re doing things this way because of our commitment to the “centrality of the Word.” But it’s not the centrality of the Word that is emphasized by this—it is the power of the preacher and the passivity of the people. By creating space for questions and dialogue, we can emphasize the centrality of the Word and the power of community.

Mike: That’s so true. In our church we have several practices that help with how we go about interactive preaching. Once a month, I meet with a group of people from the congregation who study and discuss the text that will be the basis of an upcoming sermon. As the group digs into the text, they seek out its meaning and discuss angles of application to our church and community. I use this discussion as a major piece of my preparation work for the sermon. I bring my own skills and theological insights to the table, but the group’s different voices add insight and perspective that would be left out if I relied only on my own study.

During the sermon delivery, I invite interaction with members by asking open-ended questions about the text and its implications. Sometimes I leave a minute or two of silence, encouraging members to reflect privately on the sermon, writing down their insights. Other times I lead a five-minute conversation with members around a particular question arising from the sermon text. At other times, members are asked to talk with each other in groups of three or four to discuss the sermon-related question for five minutes.

Curing Sunday Spectatoritis  includes interviews with other pastors who practice dialogical preaching.

Curing Sunday Spectatoritis includes interviews with other pastors who practice dialogical preaching.

Mark: The way we experience interactive preaching at Jacob’s Well has changed over time, and varies from week to week. Sometimes we have discussion happening in several places in the message. Other times, I might preach a sermon in a fairly straightforward way, and have a time at the end for questions or comments. Sometimes we might take time for silence and meditation on a passage, and then invite several members to share thoughts or questions that emerged from this reflection. It depends on what works best for the particular passage.

But however we do it, I am struck almost every week by how helpful and insightful the questions and comments are. Every Sunday I find that some important point gets brought up that clarifies or adds to what I was saying and helps drive the point home.

Mike: We’re finding that too. Discussions before and during preaching have helped worshipers become active participants in all of worship and consciously integrate both their story and our community’s story with God’s story.

(Reprinted with permission)

Hospitality as Shared Church

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What if old Screwtape, the senior devil in C. S. Lewis’s book, had wanted to derail shared church? He could have advised Wormwood, his apprentice, to abolish . . . hospitality.

“Convince multitudes of Christians,” Screwtape might well have counseled, “that they simply don’t have the spiritual gift of hospitality--and so need not practice it.” Wrong! Hospitality never shows up in any of the spiritual-gift lists in the New Testament. Yet how many times have you heard Christians say, “That’s not my gift”?

What is Hospitality?

In the New Testament, hospitality and hospitable carry the ideas of loving guests, lodging outsiders, being a host, and generously receiving others. Two terms translated as hospitality are built around phileo, one of the Greek words for love. For example: “Offer hospitality [philoxenoi] to one another without grumbling” (I Pet. 4:9). Hospitality, then, is one of the major ways of carrying out the love and one-anothering Jesus calls for in his new command.

A older widow named Etta was, hands down, probably the best practitioner of hospitality I have ever known. Although she lived in a small apartment—just one bedroom, one bathroom—she made it a regular practice to invite people into her modest quarters for a simple meal. International students, seekers, seniors, singles, new believers, mature Christ-followers—her bandwidth for guests stretched as wide as her heart. And when you left her home after a meal and some rich conversation, you came away with a much-enlarged understanding of the word welcome.

I doubt that Etta ever thought of hospitality as her gift. For her, it was more like a habit, something she carried out so regularly that it had become her way of life. Repetition had honed her skills for extending hospitality. But her unpretentious living space and simple meals made it clear: hospitality is not beyond the reach of any of us. As someone put it: “Hospitality is not a gift I have, but a gift I give.”

What’s Happened to Hospitality?

Sadly, the likes of Etta seem to be getting scarcer in Christian circles. “The practice of hospitality has fallen on bad times,” says the late Eugene Peterson in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. “Fewer and fewer families sit down to a meal together. The meal, which used to be a gathering place for families, neighbors, and ‘the stranger at the gate,’ is on its way out. . . . a primary, maybe the primary, venue for evangelism in Jesus’ life was the meal.”

In The Hospitality Commands, Alexander Strauch tells the story of a single woman who, while in a former church, “had to travel more than an hour by bus every Sunday to attend a small suburban church. Each week after the Sunday morning service, she would eat alone in a restaurant and then spend the entire afternoon in a park or library so that she could attend the evening service. She did this for four years. What left her with sour memories of this church was the fact that in four years no one invited her home to eat a Sunday afternoon meal or to rest. It wasn’t until she announced she was leaving that an elderly woman in the church invited her home for a meal on her final Sunday.”

What Explains the State of Hospitality?

Why, as Peterson put it, has hospitality “fallen on bad times”? The idea that hospitality is a gift—and one most don’t have—has played its part. But other factors undoubtedly help explain why it is in short supply. Some may fear that their homes or their culinary skills are not up to par. Individualism, so prevalent in western culture, has crept into our Christian circles. Intimacy frightens many. Cell phones, computers, entertainment, TV—all these can encourage self-absorption in ways that would make Screwtape smile.

Add to these the notion that hospitality means little more than welcoming visitors to church gatherings so they will return and become part of our congregation. The term for this is church hospitality. But this can easily slip into programmed hospitality. If we delegate the job to welcome committees, greeter teams, parking lot attendants, and clear signs that help newcomers navigate the building, it’s tempting to think we’ve taken care of this responsibility.

Should we make guests feel at home and safe in our congregational meetings? Of course. But when the New Testament calls for hospitality, it speaks mainly of having outsiders and guests into our homes. The settings are family rooms, dining rooms, meals around tables, and people sitting in circles—not auditoriums with all seats facing elevated platforms up front. In an article, “Whatever Happened to Hospitality?” Chuck Crismier writes, “Even our church buildings are now being designed like malls, breeding grounds for artificial relationships—we belong to a club of strangers yearning desperately for fellowship.” Those early Christians “broke bread in their homes and ate together” (Acts 2:46). Yes, they met in larger groups. But their homes served as the launch-pads of their world-reaching hospitality.

Hospitality from the Heart of God

Trace hospitality to its source, and it will lead you right back to the three-in-one God. From all eternity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit welcomed, embraced, and shared intimate fellowship with one another. Then they widened the circle. Through Jesus, they extended a hospitable invitation to outsiders, to us—we who were “strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12).

During Jesus’s time on earth, meals formed a vital part of his work with people. More than once, he himself hosted and fed large crowds. “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ came and ate with him and his disciples” (Matt. 9:10). He ate in the homes of Pharisees. And he described his own work by saying, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Lk. 7:34). When he sent followers out ahead of him, he told them to stay in homes, “eating and drinking whatever they give you” (Lk. 10:7). And just days before his crucifixion and resurrection, he arranged a Passover meal and revealed the true meaning of the bread and cup.

Getting Started

In an age when real-life examples like Etta are few and far between, how can you and I learn how to extend hospitality in our homes? A few suggestions:

  • Thank the Lord for the privilege of extending hospitality and ask for guidance as you do so.

  • If you know someone like Etta, ask them to serve as your hospitality coach.

  • Start a list of neighbors, church people, co-workers, and others you believe would respond to an invitation into your home.

  • Gather recipes for easy meals. Search online for helpful books along that line.

  • Mark the dates and times on your calendar that will work for inviting people in.

  • Develop a few simple, open-ended questions to stimulate fruitful discussion. For example: “What do you consider as your high point in the past year?” Or, “What are your dreams for next year?”

  • Begin inviting people on your list.

Life-Changing Hospitality

Several years ago, I spent a week on a short-term mission trip to Ecuador. Our leader divided the team into smaller groups. My threesome visited a home one evening. The hosts and their other guests did not speak English. We foreigners knew only a few Spanish words like hola, como esta, and adios. The room was small and the food simply cake. And yet the loving hospitality was thick and intense. Just recalling it brings tears to my eyes.

Was hospitality like that the norm in the New Testament church? In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gustav Stahlin says, “One of the most prominent features in the picture of early Christianity, which is so rich in good works, is undoubtedly its hospitality.” To what degree did this shared-church hospitality contribute to the astounding growth of that first-century church? What might happen if we recovered the practice today?

Watch Your Language: Part Seven

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Pastor

The ways we Christians commonly use that word often block the path to shared church. As one who has spent decades as “layperson” and 21 years as pastor, I can speak from experience. This seventh episode of “Watch Your Language” takes us into a delicate zone. So I want to speak the truth in love.

Let’s begin with today’s common understanding of the word pastor itself. A pastor, says the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a clergyman serving a local church or parish.” We use the term constantly. Countless church road signs display such identifiers as Pastor So-and-So. While I was serving in the pastor role, our local bookstore provided a discount card called “Pastor’s Perks.” A Google search on “pastor,” in quotation marks, turned up 357 million hits.

And yet . . . not once does pastor (singular) appear in the New Testament. In the plural, the word pastors turns up just once—in Ephesians 4:11—as one of five church-equipping roles. So, yes, in Scripture the term is there but rare. We have turned this biblically scarce word into a surplus. The problem? Our traditions have locked us into some hurtful ways of using the word.

Pastor as Title

It’s one thing to say, “Pastor Bob Smith” and another thing to say, “Bob Smith, a pastor.” The first turns the word pastor into a religious title. The second describes Bob’s role in the church. We don’t change other church roles into titles. For example, the person who hands out bulletins might squirm if introduced as “Usher Mary Grayson.” How would the woman who signs church payroll checks react if we greeted her with, “Hello, Treasurer Sheila Thompson!”? We don’t stiffly refer to the one who leads an adult Bible study as “Teacher Patrick Mason,” but comfortably say, “Patrick Mason, our Bible study teacher.”

No, only pastors are entitled. We even omit names and simply use titles in speaking to or about pastors: “Pastor, our daughter would like to be baptized.” And, “I spoke with Pastor about baptizing our daughter.” Through our speech, in the way we use the word pastor, we help to raise one member of the Body of Christ above all others. Titles support pedestals. Titles undergird the British aristocracy, from its Lords and Ladies all the way to its Barons and Baronnesses. Titles help keep order in armies and navies. But titles work against shared church.

That’s why Jesus warns his followers not to use religious titles. "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ” (Matt. 23:8-10). In every case, Jesus speaks of “calling” certain people by religious titles, whether Rabbi, father, or teacher. The title pastor can be used in exactly the same way.

Jesus Explains. Immediately, Jesus tells us why he rules out the use of titles among his people: “If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored” (v. 12, CEV). The Message paraphrase puts its memorably: “If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.” Titles puff up. They magnify and elevate. “All of you, said Jesus to his followers, “are equal as brothers and sisters” (Matt. 23:8, NLT). In families, titles by which some siblings outrank others will play havoc with relationships.

Naturally, Jesus was not asking us to shun words like father and teacher to describe roles. Luke speaks of teachers in the Antioch church (Acts 13:1). James says not many should become teachers—implying that some should fill that role (James 3:1). Children, Paul urges, are to honor their fathers and mothers. And he instructs fathers not to frustrate or alienate their children (Ephesians 6:3; Colossians 3:21). It is only as these and similar words—like pastor—turn into religious titles that they become hazardous to church health.

We Christians often speak of “the Apostle Paul.” Yet Paul never entitles himself that way in the New Testament. His consistent way of identifying himself and his role is: “Paul, an apostle.” He does so in the first chapters and first verses of II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and I and II Timothy. If Scripture is our “only rule for faith and practice,” why not let its patterns in this area guide our practice?

Pastor as Solo

If we Christians watch our language carefully, we’ll see that we typically use the title pastor in the singular: “The Pastor.” Not, “the pastors,” plural. After all, on Sundays one personality so often eclipses all others. The pastor calls for greetings. Prays. Preaches. Gives announcements. Baptizes. Officiates at the Lord’s Table. And speaks the benediction. Many have used the phrase, “one-man show,” to describe the all-too-typical church meeting.

Nothing like this comes from the New Testament. Paul says that when believers come together, “everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (I Cor. 14:26). A few verses later, he adds, “All of you can take your turns speaking what God has revealed” (v. 31, GWT). When the family of God got together, everyone could contribute something. No wonder, then, that John saw that the situation in the assembly of his good friend, Gaius, threatened shared church: “Diotrephes,” John wrote, “loves being in charge” (III Jn. 9, MSG).

Plural Church Leadership. New Testament churches had leaders, but they worked as teams of elders/shepherds/overseers—not as solo pastors. A few (of many) examples: while in Miletus, Paul “sent to Ephesus for the elders [plural] of the church” (Acts 20:17). Timothy was to “appoint elders [plural] in every town” (Titus 1:5). Those who were sick were to “call the elders [plural] of the church to pray” (James 5:14).

No, the “one-man show” comes not from Scripture but from church tradition. In his book, Your Church Can Grow, C. Peter Wagner helped confirm that tradition by writing, “The local church is like a company with one company commander, the pastor, who gets his orders from the Commander-in-Chief [Jesus]. The company commander has lieutenants and sergeants under him for consultation and implementation, but the final responsibility of his decisions is that of the company commander, and he must answer to the Commander-in-Chief....the pastor has the power in a growing church.”

Notice that Wagner speaks of “the pastor [singular].” And he uses military terms—company commander, lieutenants, sergeants—to describe church leadership. Nowhere does the New Testament use such language. The church is a body and family, not an army. Because the Holy Spirit lives in each member of Christ’s Body, all receive orders from Jesus—not merely from one pastor serving as “company commander.”

Pastors, according to Ephesians 4:11, are part of a team of gifted ones Jesus gives to outfit those in the church to minister to others. In a church of 200, Jesus has likely gifted it with several people to serve as pastors. Most will not be on the payroll. Many have yet to be discovered.

“Beware the papacy of the pastor,” said the late John Stott. Too many, he added, “believe not in the priesthood of all believers, but in the papacy of all pastors.” The way we use the word pastor can either help support the traditional system or move us in the direction of shared church.