Unintended Messages vs. Shared Church

Unintended messages. Are we sending them by the way we “do church”? And can such messages block shared church?

An Eight-Year-Old’s Ambition


When I was in my mid-forties, our pastor asked me to lead a church plant. So the mother church sent us out—a group of about 40 that included young people and children. Week after week, “Brad,” the eight-year-old in one family, saw and heard me preach. One day, we invited his family into our home. During our visit, I asked, “Brad what do you want to be when you grow up?” His reply came instantly: “I want to be the talker-man, like you.”

Clearly, watching me had appealed to something in Brad. But to what had it appealed? To the desires sin overstimulates in every one of us. To be noticed. To be seen as special or important. To be looked up to. He could realize those desires, Brad reasoned, if he were to become the solo “talker man,” the only one up front with the microphone Sunday after Sunday.

Had I meant for Brad to get this idea? Of course not. Until I asked the question, I had no idea what message he was receiving. He was not experiencing “shared” church, but church that made one person seem hyper-important. 

This over-focus on one member of the body comes from the system we have all inherited from our church traditions. Like other pastors, I was arranging the church meetings Brad sat through, doing so in line with what years of church gatherings had ingrained in me.

Church-Induced Expectations

From my earliest days, gathering with other believers on Sunday took top priority. During my growing-up years, I probably sat in on 900 or more church meetings. Each time, the sermon formed the centerpiece—mostly spoken by the same pastor week after week. When I was about 12, our pastor’s wife pulled me aside and said, “Larry, we are expecting to hear great things from your life.” Those were her words. But I heard this unintended message: “Larry, we are expecting you to become a pastor or missionary.”  No wonder, then, that by the time I left home for college, I believed that I ought to serve in one of those ways, if I wanted my life’s work to count for anything.

Just the other day I spoke with a man far younger than I who also received this unintended message. He recalled that his church experience had taught him that “the greatest thing you could possibly do was to go into 'full-time service.' You were expected to go to a Christian school so you could become a pastor. The highest calling, full-time vocational service, was somehow better than going into sales or some other line of work.” He recalled two peers, a young man and young woman, who had been led to think only "full-time Christian service would please God." Having received the same “call” to serve as cross-cultural missionaries, they concluded they should marry. Sadly, they were ill-matched and soon divorced.

He told me that, as he matured, he began to understand “church politics” as “people wanting power.” He realized that if he were to enter vocational church ministry, “I would relish people looking to me. I would have secretly enjoyed the self-aggrandizement.” Knowing himself well enough to foresee this would be a perpetual struggle for him, he chose not to enter so-called “full-time Christian service.”

The Urge to Be Seen as Significant

The New Testament provides many examples of our sinful leanings toward self-inflation. The Pharisees placed themselves in positions “to be seen” by others (Mt. 6:5). Jesus’s original disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt. 18:1). When they argued over which of them outranked the others, Jesus traced their dispute back to a desire to be “first” (Mk. 9:33-35). They tangled over the same issue during the last supper (Lk. 22:24). James and John, with Mom's help, lobbied for top spots in Jesus’s kingdom (Mt. 20:20-27). Some 50 years later, in a church setting, Diotrephes wanted to be “first” (III Jn. 9).

The culture outside our churches feeds this drive to be in the catbird seat. We once took some four-to-seven-year-olds to a children’s museum. One exhibit featured an elevated platform and some play microphones. The kids pushed and shoved to be on stage and at the center of attention. Rock concerts, political rallies, and TV shows all send the message that to be seen and heard by a crowd is the mark of success. "Take a microphone out of my hands," says Willard Scott, "and I'm just plain folks."

Blogger Mike Cosper writes: “Celebrity culture turns pastors and worship leaders into icons.”  This not to say that every pastor or musician is motivated by the need to be noticed. But when we make superstars of church leaders, we may be stirring something in the flesh of others that needs not to be cultivated but to be put to death.

A Biblical Antidote

The remedy? It seems almost too simple. New Testament churches avoided focusing on just one leader by having several. Notice these plural leadership terms: The church in Antioch had “elders.” Paul and Barnabas appointed “elders in every church.” Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every town.” The church in Jerusalem had “elders.” Philippi had “overseers and deacons.” James refers to “the elders of the church.” And Peter writes of “the elders among you.” The New Testament uses overseers and elders interchangeably. According to Paul, they should be “able to teach.” This suggests not only ability but also opportunity.

This was shared church! Not only did the gathered believers share in encouraging each other, but in the New Testament churches, even leadership and teaching responsibilities were shared among those with such gifts.

Young people learn not just from sermons on Sunday mornings but also from the way we practice meeting. If they invariably see the same person on stage week after week, what unintended message may we be sending them?