Out of Africa—Shared Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, what he is doing right now. Absolutely!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Participatory Baptisms and 5-Question Strategy

Lowell Bakke

Lowell Bakke

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

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

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

The Church Hears the Stories Behind the Baptisms

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

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

The 5-Question Strategy

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

  1. What did you like about this text?

  2. What did you not like about the text?

  3. What did you not understand about the text?

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Supper back into The Supper

Communion Contrast.jpg

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

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

Our Church Plant

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

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

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

Remembering Plus

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

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

Combining Communion and Meal

Combined Setup.jpg

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

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

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

The Changeover

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

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

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

FaithStories at Northwood Church

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

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

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

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

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

What is a FaithStory?

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

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

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

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

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

The FaithStory Coaching Process

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

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

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

How Much Prep Time?

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

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

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

The Fruit of FaithStories

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

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

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

Would Northwood Discontinue FaithStories?

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

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

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

For more FaithStories from Northwood Church, click here.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Shared-Church Singing

My surprising discovery came when I looked at the lyrics of the top ten Christian songs. But the story does not begin there. It all started when the teacher/facilitator of our Sunday adult class requested that I fill in for him. On what aspect of our faith, I asked, should I help the class to focus on? Then something came to mind.

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Songs to God as Creator?

Not long before that, and for another group, I had prepared a devotional on worshiping God as Creator. In John’s vision of the worship in heaven, the 24 elders are saying, "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being" (Revelation 4:11). The motivation for this outburst of praise? The mind-boggling truth that God created absolutely everything.

As I developed that devotional, I began to ask myself: How often do we Christ-followers sing about God as Creator? In the grand sweep of the scriptural story, God has revealed himself as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Restorer. I thought back on decades of experience as part of the church. I suspected that we sing a whole lot about God as Redeemer—grateful for personal forgiveness—but not so much about him as Creator.

True, some songs—although it seems we rarely sing them anymore—do celebrate the Creator. For instance, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “This is My Father’s World.” But what is happening today? I wondered. Have songs about God's grace as our Redeemer displaced songs about his role as our Creator? 

A Look at the Top-Ten Songs

In an attempt to answer that question, I typed into my Google search box “top ten Christian song lyrics.”  In a flash, links to a number of websites showed up. I clicked on the first one. And there they were—in ranked order—all ten of the current, Christian, chart-topping songs. One by one, I copied the lyrics for all the songs and pasted them into a single Word document.

The Word program, of course, can “find” individual words. So I searched on “creator.” No matches. “Creation.” Nope.  I tried “maker.” Nothing. Although I was disappointed, it did confirm what I had suspected. Then I thought, well . . .  as long as I have this document open with all ten of the current popular Christian songs, I’ll search on ten other words to see how many times each of them appears in the whole group of lyrics. Here’s what I discovered:

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The results of this tiny bit of research took me by surprise. In the ten songs, 374 words were all about first person singular: I (I’m), me, and my. The absence of openly biblical words like God, Jesus, Spirit, Kingdom, and Cross alarmed me. True, most of the 90 “you” words apparently referred to God or Jesus—but since they were never named, that pronoun remained anonymous. For example, “You give me so much” could refer to a caring human being. Which raised a  question in my mind: To reach the top of the charts, must Christian songwriters avoid terms like God and Jesus and Spirit? For that question I have no answer.

These songs did not reach top-ten standing by their use in church meetings. Instead, their ranking came from how often they were aired on radio--probably along with some digital sales and streaming activity data added in. And yet the music heard through those media regularly finds its way into Sunday mornings as well. How can a church make certain that its music includes biblical terms that clearly identify the Trinity and communicate a well-rounded biblical theology? How can a church ensure that its songs include a full spectrum of truth about God as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Restorer?

Letting the Body of Christ Choose the Songs

My October 19, 2017, blog, “Participatory Church Music Choice" (click here), suggests a way to safeguard the selection of songs we sing when we gather. In summary, the idea is to practice shared church. When it comes to music, this means giving members of Christ’s body a voice in choosing it. Almost any church includes young, middle-aged, and older people. Given the opportunity, each will pick songs that speak to them and express their hearts. This will make way for current songs, not-so-new songs, and those that have stood the test of time.

Such participation will greatly enrich the repertoire of any church's music. The selections will not be limited to the musical preferences of just one or two people week after week. Instead, when “everyone has a hymn” (I Cor. 14:26) or psalm or spiritual song, the door will open to the whole range of God’s revelation of himself. Here are some examples--and samples--of songs the diverse members of a congregation might choose:

Creator: “Thou Art Worthy” (click here). “The Earth is the Lord’s” (click here). “God of Wonders” (click here). “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (click here).

Sustainer: “Be Still My Soul” (click here). “God Will Take Care of You” (click here). “His Eye is on the Sparrow" (click here). “The Lord’s My Shepherd” (click here).

Redeemer: "I Am Not Skilled to Understand” (click here). “In Christ Alone” (click here). “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” (click here). “And Can it Be?” (click here).

Restorer: “What a Day That Will Be” (click here). “Because He Lives” (click here).  “It May be at Morn” (click here). "Soon and Very Soon" (click here).

What we sing when the church gathers does not have to reflect someone’s top 10, top 20, or top 100 list. Instead, the songs should come from the hearts of those who love the God who reveals himself in Scripture, in his Creation, and supremely in his son, Jesus Christ. Shared church includes restoring to all members of Christ’s Body their rightful role of contributing to each other—even through songs in which they hear God’s voice.  

Watch Your Language: Part Six

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Flash back in memory to when you were nine years old. It’s Saturday night. Mom tells you and your sister and brother, “Pick out what you will wear tomorrow when we go to church.” Next morning, early, a friend phones and invites you to join their family for a day at the beach. “I can’t,” you say, “because we’ll go to church later this morning. And sure enough, at 9:30 a.m., Dad calls you from your room: “Hurry up! It’s time to go to church.”

A Phrase Enshrined in Tradition

What pictures did those words, “go to church,” etch in your nine-year-old mind? Probably the same ones that come up today if you google on the phrase “going to church” and click on the image icon. Most of the pictures show people either walking toward or sitting inside a church building. “The words “go to church” have become so deep-rooted in our Christian lingo, it may seem absurd for me to add them to this series on watching our language.

“Okay,” some may be thinking, “this guy has lost it completely. I’ve been ‘going to church’ since before I could walk. Going to church is good for us. God expects Christians to go to church.” Yes, I understand. Those words are part of my native language, too. That phrase slips easily off my lips. Christian leaders constantly urge us to “go to church.” In fact, countless articles online press us to do just that. Within a few minutes I found lists of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, and 13 “reasons to go to church.” In spite of all that, one writer insisted, “there is only ONE reason to go to church.”

So please bear with me while I explain why I believe the words “go to church” can blur our vision. The first two words, “go to,” work perfectly in other contexts. Saying, “I’m going to the store,” accurately tells where I’m heading. We rightly talk about going to all sorts of places and events—to theaters, to the mountains, to baseball games, and to piano recitals. Muslims properly speak of “going to mosque,” because the mosque is a place.

New Covenant? Or Old?

But here’s the rub: the Body of Christ, is neither a place nor an event.

Instead, it is people—people who have come to God through faith in Jesus. As someone has said, you cannot go to who you are. If your last name is Smith, you don’t “go to Smith.” Leaving work, you may go to your house for dinner or a nap. But you and the other Smiths who live there are a family. You are neither a place nor an event.

True, in Old Covenant days, God’s people did go to a place to offer their animal sacrifices and their tithes. First the Tabernacle, then the Temple, became the go-to places for the Israelites to maintain their relationship with God. For some of them, going to the Temple in Jerusalem amounted to a trek that took days. The Samaritans thought Mt. Gerizim was the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. So they made that their go-to place for meeting God.

But when Jesus had his long talk with the Samaritan woman at the well, he did away with the idea that getting with God required going to some special place. As he said to her: “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Mt. Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem. . . . Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:21, 23). New Covenant worship, then, is no longer tied to a place.

So how did this go-to-church tradition get started? We read in Matt. 16:18 that Jesus says, “I will build my church.” Except he didn’t actually say that. Instead, he said, “I will build my ekklesia [Greek for assembly].” The word church came to us not from the Greek but later through Anglo-Saxon. It meant “of the Lord” and in time came to mean “house of the Lord,” meaning a building. In William Tyndale’s 1525 translation of the Bible, he refused to translate ekklesia as church. In his version, Matt. 16:18—in now-obsolete English—reads like this: “And I saye also vnto the that thou arte Peter: and apon this rocke I wyll bylde my congregacion.”

Three Reasons to Stop Saying “Go to Church”

  1. It Blocks Our View. Because “going to church” signals heading for a building or event, the words encourage us to see ourselves as an audience. They make it more difficult to view ourselves as a family and as the Body of Christ. So those words distract us from the need to share, encourage, build up, and strengthen one another. Those words work against life together as shared church.
  2. It's Not Used for Other Church Gatherings. How often do you hear someone say they are “going to church” to describe getting together with fellow believers in a home group? I can’t recall ever hearing the words used that way. If teaching, fellowship, eating together, and prayer (Acts 2:42) are happening in a home group, why do we never refer to it as “going to church”? Most likely because the meeting does not take place in a “church building.” (The Anglo-Saxon meaning again.)
  3. It Implies Detachment. The words “go to church” suggest that we are somehow separated from it, so we must drive or walk somewhere to reach where it is. If I can “go to church,” I can also “go from church.” Is there a time when I disconnect from the Body of Christ? In Acts 8:1, we read that “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered.” When scattered, did those Christians cease being the church? Or did they simply begin operating in scattered-church mode—just as your blood gathers in the lungs and scatters to your arms, legs, and feet?

Other Words Serve Us Better

The Anglo-Saxon word church entered our English language centuries ago. Virtually all our Bibles today use the term. So that ship has sailed. We can’t communicate clearly without the word church.  But we don’t have to say “go to church.” Plenty of other words convey the right idea clearly enough.  Instead, why not say we’re going to meet—or gather or get together or assemble—with other Christians?

That said, I still may slip up and say I'm “going to church.” If I do, please call me out!

Watch Your Language: Part Five

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Nora Watson nailed it in her remark about calling. While she was serving as a magazine writer/editor, Studs Terkel interviewed her for his book, Working. She told him: “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us . . . have jobs that are too small for our spirit.” She is right. Far too many—even among Christians—go to work with no awareness of calling.

What Camouflages Calling?

But why? What prevents us from seeing our work as part of God’s mission in the world? In The Other Six Days, Paul Stevens says, “almost the only people who speak of being ‘called of God’ are ‘full-time’ missionaries and pastors.” It’s easy to find examples online that illustrate Stevens’ point:

  • “It was during my time in college that I received my calling into pastoral ministry.”  
  • “I am often asked how I received my calling from God to be a full-time pastor.”
  • “I never once doubted my calling to the mission field.”

Yet in his book, The Call, Os Guinness says: “There is not a single instance in the New Testament of God’s special call to anyone into a paid occupation or into the role of a religious professional.” 

The Multiple Meanings of Call

Calling is a useful word—and a biblical one. At the same time, I think another biblical word offers a clearer way to describe how God directs us into this or that role or job or task. I’ll get to that word shortly. But first, let’s zero in on this word calling. The words call, called, and calling appear in the Bible hundreds of times. Those words in Scripture refer to the same things we mean when we speak them:

1. Call can mean to name something. If you call your daughter Stacy, that is her name. Many English translations of Rom. 1:1 and I Cor. 1:1 say Paul was “called to be an apostle.” But the Greek text has no “to be.” It simply says, “Paul, called an apostle.” God named Paul as an apostle.

2. Call can mean to initiate communication. I dial your cell phone to call you. While the boy was still in bed, “The Lord called Samuel,” because he wanted to talk to him.

3. Call can mean to summon. If illness leaves a restaurant short-staffed, employees may be called to fill in. Rom. 1:6 speaks of those “who are called to belonged to Jesus Christ.” Here called speaks of God’s invitation to come to him.   

Primary and Secondary Callings

Os Guinness distinguishes between our primary and our secondary callings. He says: “Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost, we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Mongolia).”

Guinness continues: “Our secondary calling, considering God who is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to the practice of law or to art history. . . . Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most.”

Another Word for God’s Work Assignments

So Guinness uses the same word, “calling,” both for God’s (primary) summons to come to him and for his (secondary) assignments regarding what he wants us to do. Using the identical word to refer to two different things can be confusing. So let me suggest another term I find useful in describing what Guinness refers to as God’s secondary call. When Jesus and the Bible writers wanted to speak of God or others assigning someone to do some kind of work or task, they usually used some form of the word “send.” For example:

  • God to Moses: "Say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your fathers . . . has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:15).
  • Jesus to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." (Jn. 20:21).
  • Paul to Timothy: “I sent Tychicus to Ephesus.” (II Tim. 4:12).

Mark 3:13 and 14 use two separate words for the primary and secondary meanings. “Jesus . . . called [them] . . . that he might send them.” That fits in with the way we speak, doesn’t it? If you want me to come to you, you call me. If, after I come, you want me to go and do something, you send me.

Call Means Come; Send Means Go

Jesus called you to himself—not simply so you can go to heaven someday when you die—but that he might send you in the here and now to work in his world.

  • Calling—being summoned to come to God—provides you with a new identity. So calling relates especially to who you are.
  • Sending—being assigned by God to do something—relates to roles and tasks. So sending relates to what you do.

God called Paul, naming or identifying him, as an apostle. God then sent Paul to represent him before Gentiles. This involved Paul in such roles as church planter, tent manufacturer, and prison inmate. 

God Sends in Various Ways

When God sends someone to do something, he may use words—or he may use the outworking of circumstances. In Paul’s case, God used words: “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” (Acts 22:21). But in Joseph’s case, God used circumstances. He worked in Egypt because his brothers bullied and sold him out. But much later he explained to them, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Gen. 45:7). God works in all things--even in the world of work--for the good of those who love him, those called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). 

Many Christians toil day after day with no sense of how their work connects with God's purpose. What do they need?

  • First, we need to hear clear and frequent teaching that all of God’s children have been called, summoned, to come to him and into his Kingdom through faith in Christ.
  • Second, we all need to hear clear and frequent teaching that everyone God calls to himself he then sends back out into the world to serve him in some way. God sends some of his children to work as teachers, shepherds, and equippers in the gathered church. He sends others to demonstrate Kingdom-of-God living as they work in paid and unpaid roles in the scattered church.

God sends all of us into full-time service for him. See your work as your current Kingdom post. Your assignment may change. Stay tuned!

Watch Your Language: Part Four

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Like a freeway losing a lane, a word can narrow. Its meaning can contract and taper down. Somewhere along the line, that happened to the word worship. For many Christians, it has come to mean almost the same thing as singing to God in a church meeting: “After worship, the pastor spoke.” Or when we say worship, we may mean the meeting itself: “We worship at 10:45 a.m.”

Worship: Its Meaning Matters

Because we so often hear worship used to mean music or meeting, we may ask: Does that even matter? It does, because we can easily read those narrowed meanings back into the Bible, our standard for what we believe and do. The New Testament mentions singing and music perhaps a half-dozen times in connection with Christians gathering. But—and this may come as a surprise—the word worship does not appear in those verses. Nor does the New Testament say worship is the reason for meeting together.

Can we worship through singing? Yes. Should worship take place when we meet? Of course. But the New Testament does not confine worship to the gathered church. Biblical worship also extends into every corner of our involvement in the scattered church. If we worship only in gathered-church mode, then worship narrows to only about one percent of our waking hours.

Bible Words for Worship

Four main words in the Greek New Testament sometimes get translated into English as worship.  Those words also appear in our Bibles as kneel, bow, (or prostrate), serve, and minister. It follows that worship may take many different forms. For example, the prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch worshiped as they fasted and prayed (Acts 13:1-2). The women at the empty tomb worshiped by holding onto Jesus’ feet (Mt. 28:9). Jacob, says the writer of Hebrews, “worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (Heb. 11:21). None of these examples of worship took place in what we call a church service.

The Old Testament, right from the start, began using a full-width, multi-lane, Hebrew word for worship.  The verb AVAD (and its noun AVODAH) are translated as worship, work, and serve. For example:

  • God to Moses: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship [avad] God on this mountain” (Ex. 3:22).
  • “You shall work [avad] six days . . . .” (Ex. 34:21).
  • “. . . choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve [avad]. . . . But as for me and my household, we will serve [avad] the Lord" (Josh. 24:15.) (Emphases added.)

To us, work and worship may seem unrelated, as different as land and sea. How, then, can the same Hebrew word describe both? What connects the two? The link is that third meaning of avad: to serve.  Both worshiping and working are ways in which we serve God. This means I can offer my daily work—paid or unpaid—to God as service/worship he accepts.

How Can Work be Worship?

“But how,” you may be asking, “can I actually offer my work to God as worship. My work seems so—well—ordinary. So earthly.” True, our culture and perhaps even our church traditions can condition us to think our work has zero spiritual value.

Old Covenant worship centered in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple. There, the people brought animals and cakes made of grain to place on an altar. So the essence of worship back then involved offering sacrifices in a particular place. Because Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for our sins on the cross, we no longer worship God by bringing him bulls or birds. Today, we worship by offering sacrifices of another kind.

The writer of Hebrews explains: “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:16). Ponder on that for a moment. Doing good. Sharing with others. Those are “sacrifices.” And such sacrifices “please God.”

Now stop and think about your work—paid or not. Does it help to provide products or services that do good for others? Does it supply you with the means to share with others? In his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster says, “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” And typically, our work actually does require us to sacrifice—giving up our own time, comfort, and pleasure to serve others with what we produce.

Offering Your Body in Worship

Your physical body becomes a major part of New Covenant offering. As Paul urges, “offer the parts of your body to him [God] as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). And again, “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship” (Rom. 12:1). Whatever your work, you do it with your body—hands, brain, feet, eyes, ears, and so on. As your body and all its parts work in faith, hope, and love—doing good and sharing with others—that work becomes your “spiritual act of worship.”

“But wait,” someone may object, “I can’t always be thinking about God while I work. I drive a bus. My mind must focus on my passengers and the traffic around me.” The good news is that offering your work to God as worship does not require you to consciously think or feel excited about him every second. As Jesus told the woman at the well, the Father is looking for those who worship him “in spirit and in truth.” While your work demands the full attention of your mind, your spirit--energized by the Holy Spirit--can continue in unbroken fellowship with God.

Talk about truth that transforms! Suddenly, when you realize you may worship as you work, that narrowed word worship suddenly widens. Work now becomes God’s good gift (click here for brief video). Work is now something to love rather than hate. If we have come to God through faith in Christ, we can stop hating Mondays and start looking forward to them. This lets worship out of its narrow space in a “Sunday box.” Worship on Sunday, yes, and on every other day of the week--including workdays.