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.
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.