Moving from passive to participatory church meetings involves seeing from a new viewpoint. Preparing God’s people for shared church calls for teaching the truth that regular, non-ordained Christians can hear God speak. If I think my peers in the pew have no spiritual insights worth hearing, I will oppose the idea of shared church. So, any transition in that direction needs to overcome the barrier of what we might call an “unclaimed entitlement.”
An entitlement remains unclaimed when people do not know it rightfully belongs to them. Financially, tens of billions of dollars go unclaimed. Spiritually, many who regularly attend church miss out on an entitlement that belongs to every Christ-follower: the privilege of hearing God speak. For some, the idea of hearing from God is a sign of having gone loony tunes. An old joke says: talking to God is prayer; hearing God talk to you is schizophrenia.
Yet Scripture leaves no doubt that the children of God are entitled both to the privilege of speaking to and hearing from the triune God. The Son: “My sheep,” Jesus said, “listen to my voice” (Jn. 10:27). The Father: “Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me” (Jn. 6:45). The Holy Spirit: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26).
Why does this entitlement remain unclaimed? Why do God’s people often remain hearing-impaired? Let’s look at three possible reasons. First, some may think God stopped talking after the last book in the New Testament. I have sometimes heard long-time churchgoers say, “I just wish God would speak to people today, like he did in Bible times.” Second, some believe God speaks to them only through the clergy. One man asked God to speak to him personally through the pastor, so that whatever God wanted him to hear would come that way. Third, others think hearing God speak means hearing an audible voice from heaven.
In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I quote the following from Dallas Willard: “One of the things I began to realize over time is that for many years God spoke to me and told me to do things, and I didn’t know it was him. I just thought it was me thinking” (The Allure of Gentleness).
Willard continues: “I believe the single most important thing I have to do is to encourage people to believe that God will speak to them and that they can come to understand and recognize his voice. . . . God speaks constantly to people, but most of them don’t know what’s happening. . . . Now, sometimes God does strange things to get people’s attention, but the fundamental way God speaks to us is by causing thoughts in our mind that we come to learn to have a characteristic quality, content, and spirit about them. . . . I don’t think we should rule out any options, but we should understand that God’s preferred mode is to address willing hearers by the thoughts that are given to their minds, the ‘still small voice’ of I Kings 19:12 (KJV).
Our culture can condition us to see reality only in terms of visible, physical matter. If we believe that to be true, the idea that God speaks to us in our thoughts can seem ludicrous. Yet people around the world rely on invisible signals from cell towers to communicate with each other. Why, then, should it seem impossible for the unseen God, who is Spirit, to send signals to our spirits in a way that is neither visible nor audible?
We all swim in an atmosphere brimming over with “broadcasts” from the spirit world. Some of these messages come from the good Spirit: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children” (Rom. 8:16). But some thoughts come from evil spirits: “In later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (I Tim 4:1). Therefore, we believers need to know how to sift out the true from the false broadcasts coming at us from the spirit world. “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).
Knowing Scripture, having Jesus’s words “remain in us,” is the key to recognizing God’s voice and his “accent.” God will not contradict what he has revealed in his written Word. In a shared-church meeting, believers who have claimed their entitlement and have learned to discern God’s voice, can help each other sort out and evaluate the messages. Any church always stands in danger of misleading broadcasts from the spirit realm. As Paul warned the elders from Ephesus: “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard” (Acts 20:30-31).
Standing guard is the task, not of just one member, but of the whole body of Christ. This makes preparing God’s people to hear his voice a vital part of equipping them to do the work of ministry. Then, within a shared-church meeting format, they will be free to serve one another with mutual discernment.