Trevor Withers serves as team leader at Network Church, St. Albans, UK. An account of how that church practices shared church appears in Chapter Six of my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis. In the following blog, Trevor provides additional insight into how Network Church cultivates participatory Sunday meetings.
I have been reflecting on some of the unseen areas that make increased participation possible in our Sunday morning meetings. There are a number of these, so I just want to take this opportunity to highlight them and share some thoughts.
Small Groups Nurture Participatory Skills
Let's start with the fact that Network Church encourages small groups which have a high level of participation. You might be asking what this has to do with Sunday mornings. Well, I think quite a lot. These small groups have environments where people are encouraged to be real, open and honest, and to look at applying their faith to everyday life. This earths our spirituality and, through facilitative leadership, enables a depth of contribution and participation.
Because this is a strong part of our church culture, it seems very natural for this same engagement to happen in our Sunday mornings. So the small groups act as a learning and developing space, which builds confidence for people to then participate in the larger setting. They are used to hearing their own voices, they are used to their ideas being accepted, they are used to speaking about spiritual things and making links with the everyday. They are used to giving and receiving prayer. So when this sort of opportunity is offered as part of our Sunday gathering, it seems like a natural place to be.
One of the things that makes this possible is good facilitative leadership in the small groups and the same is true of our Sunday morning space. I think it takes courage for a leader to open up the space, ask a question, propose an opportunity for people to speak. It is more natural perhaps to do this in a small group but equally possible on a Sunday morning and the same skills are required. The main one being to shut up and wait!
Inviting Weekdays into Sunday Meetings
One of the key values held by the central leadership team is to provide spaces and opportunities for those that are part of Network to be encouraged in the things that God is calling them to do in their lives beyond this Christian community. We are not trying to get people to commit to church programs or ministries. Instead, we want this body to be supported in the various things that each individual or group of individuals has on their heart.
This means that when an opportunity arises for participation, there is a sense in which it is anticipated that individuals will bring things from their week, share the challenges and joys of living out their faith, and be prayed for and indeed encouraged in what they are doing. So, in essence, the church exists to support those who are part of it to live for Jesus 24/7, rather than the church existing for its members to run the various programs that it offers.
Staying with the central leadership team, one of the things I have noticed is that, true to our name, we network. In doing so, we pick up all sorts of stories from within this Christian community, taking time to listen and reflect on what God is doing amongst us. This enables us to gently prompt those who have had a recent experience of God in their lives to share that in our Sunday gathering. We would never pounce on them unannounced, but as part of our leadership might seek to create an opportunity, or ask a question that gives an opportunity, for what we have discovered to be shared in a more public space.
The Shared Pulpit
One of the often-defended areas of Sunday church life is the pulpit. My friend Laurence Singlehurst describes us as having an "open pulpit." In his experience of travelling around many churches he is aware that this is somewhat unusual, as most church pulpits are "closed," by which he means they are occupied by a relatively small, specially-chosen group of individuals.
It is interesting to reflect on the scripture that is part of the “one anothers”—“teach and admonish one another”—from Colossians. This is one of the factors that encourages us to have a more open pulpit. In practice what this means is that we have a team of individuals that speak regularly which, as a percentage of our numbers on a Sunday, is about a quarter. Over and above this, we are always on the lookout for people who have things on their heart which they can bring to us in this teaching/sermon slot. For some this might be speaking twice a year on a particular topic or area that they are passionate about or have insight in, for others is might be occasional and prompted by something they have been learning or have found helpful from a different context.
An unseen area that enables all the above to work well is someone taking responsibility for co-ordination and communication, as one of the functions of their leadership, picking up the details of who is going to speak when on what, and gently following through with people who have hinted at the possibility of having something to say and making a space available for them to deliver this.
Seeing Each Other as Saints
Another facet of the atmosphere at Network is that we think of ourselves more as saints than sinners. It is quite difficult for sinners to feel that they can make a contribution, whereas if we appreciate each other as saints then this creates a very different feeling. Now, of course, we sit in the tension of living in both of those spaces, and I am not for a moment suggesting that we have gathered a more saintly bunch of people than any other church, but the fact that we view this particular Christian community through glasses that see them as saints and encourage them to act as such I think enables a sense of well-being and encouragement and draws out contribution.
These are just a few of the unseen areas that help to encourage engagement, participation and a sense of shared ownership around our Sunday meetings. This is by no means an exclusive list, and I'm sure there are other dynamics at play. Not least of which would be the fact that we have been developing this culture for a number of years and have established rhythms and patterns which enable it to be sustained and developed.