Sermons: Core of Church Meetings?

Over nearly eight decades—as infant, child, adult—I’ve been part of at least a dozen churches. Large and small, urban and rural. As I visualize the arrangement of the meeting room in each church building, one thing stands out: the pulpit. Usually of wood, it was ornate or plain. Sometimes just a simple stand. Almost always on an elevated platform, it served as the focal point of the layout. Rows of pews or chairs faced it. And from it came the main event of the gathering, the sermon.

Throughout my upbringing in the church culture, it seemed only natural that the sermon serve as the centerpiece of our Sunday meetings. Why? Because of its length and placement in the agenda. And because that was all I had ever known. Today, it’s easy to assume that the sermon and the way we “do church” is the way first-century believers must have done it. Pulpits and sermons—both appear so essential to church as we practice it now.

Encouraging Signs

But more and more church leaders are questioning our customary Sunday ways. They are seeing that church-as-silent-audience cannot measure up to church-as-one-anothering seen in the New Testament. The most recent example of movement in this direction just came to my attention—an October 2019, Premier Christianity article by Sky Jethani: “The Case Against Sermon-Centric Sundays.”

In his article, Jethani, a pastor and former Managing and Executive Editor of Leadership Journal, “explains why digital technology is disrupting our 500-year-old emphasis on lengthy Sunday sermons.” He traces some of the dramatic leaps in humankind’s ability to communicate. We’ve gone from scrolls to hand-written codexes to printing presses to electronic devices. Each step in this evolution of information-sharing affected the shape of Christian meeting practices.

Technology has Transformed Us

But, says Jethani, “With the advent of digital technology and smartphones, we are witnessing the most significant shift in communication since the printing press. . . .Anyone with a smartphone may access thousands of sermons from anywhere, anytime. . . . This low demand and high supply means the market for Bible instruction has reduced the cost to virtually zero. . . . There is a lot of excellent, orthodox content available online – but few churches are helping their people find and engage with it. What if church leaders reallocated some of the time that had been devoted to sermon preparation, and instead used it to curate the best online biblical resources and content for their people to engage with, Monday through Saturday?”

I can personally confirm this easy access to great teaching. Three times a week I spend nearly an hour in a fitness center. There, rather than watching the TV monitors on the exercise machines, I listen to some of finest biblical scholars and teachers on the planet. How? By tuning into YouTube on my iPhone, which delivers the messages right into my ears.

Assessing the Sermon

The sermon, though, continues as the focal point of most congregational meetings. This in spite of the absence in first-century gatherings of sermons of about the same length by the same person week after week. David Norrington, in the conclusion to his book, To Preach or Not to Preach: The Church’s Urgent Question, writes: “In the New Testament churches the growth into spiritual maturity of both individuals and communities was achieved by a variety of means, which did not include the regular sermon.” He says sermons may only have become “standard practice . . . as late as the 4th century.” Martin Luther and other reformers made sermons the centerpiece of church meetings. John Calvin called the preacher “the mouth of God.”

Today, Jethani, says, “Most churches have inherited a 16th Century model that is increasingly unsustainable with 21st Century realities. . . . Pastors carry a Reformation mindset that sees Bible teaching as a scarcity, which makes their sermons valuable, while millennials with a digital mindset recognize the abundance of Bible teaching available, making most pastors’ sermons, and therefore Sunday attendance, unnecessary.”

Widespread Isolation

It may seem to millennials that getting together with other believers is not needed. Yet at the same time, these younger people typically long for the kind of relationships and one-anothering called for in Jesus’ New Command (John 13:34-35). Could it be that at least part of their reason for considering church meetings “unnecessary” may be that passive-audience church meetings are all they have ever known?

Jethani cautions, “both biblical instruction and gathering with believers remains essential to our faith and mission. There is” he says, an epidemic of loneliness in both the US and UK. We are more connected than ever digitally, but more isolated than ever relationally. Attending a church with hundreds of others, all facing a stage and listening to a preacher, does little to overcome this sense of disconnection.”

That’s a point I make in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis: From Passivity to Participation in Church: “Audience mode, while providing some sense of being together, allows us to assemble with our individuality unchallenged. Audience mode allows me to come and go with little or no perception of responsibility for the other spectators. Audience mode provides slight if any opportunity to lay down my life for others or to risk using my Spirit-given gifts. Audience mode means that, in spite of some surface socializing, I am free to leave just as isolated and self-absorbed as I arrived.”

The Alternatives?

What can we do in lieu of the 16th Century model of preaching? Jethani is not asking us to abandon messages from qualified teachers. Neither is he “advocating one new model.” Instead, Jethani points to two promising directions being practiced by some churches.

The first approach restores the Lord’s Table, rather than the pulpit, as the main focus of the church meeting,. That Table, Jethani points out, “can’t be digitized. Communion is an incarnate experience. The bread is held, blessed, broken, given, and eaten. Believers gather to pray, confess, absolve and affirm. The entire enterprise requires engagement and activity. It cannot be passively listened to via headphones. The body and blood cannot be downloaded or streamed.” Of course, history teaches that even the Table can be co-opted as an opportunity for clerical domination.

Jethani’s second suggestion notes what Francis Chan did after leaving his California megachurch. He began a system of interconnected house churches, “which allows the church gatherings to focus on prayer, fellowship, practical application, relationship-building, and encouragement.” Such an arrangement lets church leaders spend more time developing disciples and less time on sermon preparation.

Earlier blogs in this website have identified other ways to make meetings less sermon-centric. Click on these links:

The Sticking Point?

What does Jethani see as the most formidable barrier to leaving the sermon-centric model and moving in new directions? He writes: “I suspect the most significant obstacle is within preachers’ hearts. Are we willing to give up the spotlight? Are we willing to step aside from the pulpit and welcome other gifted Bible teachers into our ministries? Are we willing to lay down our lives our microphones and our egos for our sheep? The future shape of the Church depends on how we answer these questions.”

Is continuing on the only path we have ever known the best way? The biblical way?

Unearthing Shared Church

“See that mound over there?” the Israeli guide asked our tour group. “It’s covering some 20 civilizations.” As our minibus continued around Israel, we saw many sites where archaeologists were unearthing evidence of long-forgotten ways of life.

The Mound of Traditions

In a somewhat similar way, the participatory meeting patterns of the first-century church lie buried under layer upon layer of church traditions. As the centuries came and went, the church lived through the spiritual equivalent of hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Each left its coating of sand, silt, or debris. Leaders, faced with disunity, twisted teachings, and selfish ambition, put into place practices they thought would meet the crisis of the moment. Many remedies, perhaps justified as temporary measures, stayed put as succeeding generations made them sacred.

As a result, church meetings today deprive us of the one-anothering called for in Jesus’ new command and practiced by first-century believers. So twenty-first-century century Christians find it difficult even to imagine what went on in those original church gatherings. How can we get to the buried treasure? We need scriptural “shovels” to dig our way through the traditional strata to unearth the shared-church ways followed by those early believers.

I recently came across such a useful “shovel”—an article by Michael Konomos. “Participatory Church” appeared in the website of the International Teaching Ministry of Douglas Jacoby. In it Konomos looks at the clues that point to what first-century Christians did when they met. Below are excerpts from his article (in italics), followed by some concluding comments of my own.

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Partnership.png

I am taking a closer look at the case for participatory church meetings outside 1 Corinthians 14. I will concede that 1 Corinthians 14 is the closest that we have to a model/command to do so, and that in general there is a dearth of scriptures describing church meetings. One might argue that means it is up to us to do as we wish, or one might argue that the structure of the meeting was assumed. Whatever the conclusion one draws in light of these unanswered questions, it would be foolish to simply ignore the evidence that we do have. With that in mind, I posit the following...

In general, we are not left with very many instructions in the NT regarding meetings of the church, but what little that we do have seems to point to a more participatory meeting than what we are used to seeing in modern churches.

The clearest case for this type of meeting is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church.

1 Cor 14:26-38
v26- “Everyone has”... All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.

A good exercise is to consider the “one another” passages throughout the NT. After reading each of them, follow it with a “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader” and see if it sounds like it is in keeping with the plain meaning of the passage.

Romans 15:14
I am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”

Ephesians 5:19
Speak to each other in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”

Colossians 3:16
Teach and admonish one another with all wisdom...sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”

Colossians 4:2
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”

1 Timothy 2:8
I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. “...but not at the church meeting unless you are a leader”

There are other fragments of evidence scattered throughout the NT pointing to a more participatory meeting.

Acts 15:4-5
The believers that belonged to the party of the Pharisees were apparently able to stand up during a meeting express their convictions. These were notably not the elders or apostles (v.4).

Acts 15:22
The apostles and elders, together with the whole church, make a decision.

Acts 20:7
Paul may have been “dialoguing”

Perhaps the most powerful argument of all is to think of all the teaching sessions/‘church meetings’ that Jesus held. Were they participatory or rigidly structured? Did people ask questions or sit silently in their chairs? Look through countless scriptures in the gospels—Jesus taught through dialogues much more often than monologues! Jesus “taught” by asking questions—and often not rhetorical ones!

What is the likely format in a church in which all of the members were ‘priests’ that was born in the synagogues and met in each other’s homes? Would it look like the old Priest-officiating-over-the-wretched-people-model?

This is clearly not an air-tight case for participatory meetings. The truth is that, as with many questions we have, we are not left with 100% certainty about the answers. Surely Ockham’s Razor [the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the right one] would seem to be an appropriate philosophy when posed with these questions. The simplest explanation is that the early church had clear, dynamic leadership and participatory meetings in which the various members of the church were able to exercise their gifts. The reasons that modern churches are not conducted in this manner have much more to do with centuries of tradition than they do with a careful study of scripture.

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Tradition versus Scripture

The conflict between those two stretches back a long way. Jesus fought in that battle: “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt. 15:3-4). Paul warned that human traditions can actually gain control over us (Col. 2:8).

Check your own church’s constitution or statement of faith. It may say something like, “the Bible is our only rule for faith and practice,” or “Scripture is the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct.”

Put differently, God’s Word in the Bible—not human tradition—is to have the say-so in both what we believe and what we do. In many cases, although the Bible gives no explicit believe/do command, we discover God’s will by seeing what several passages—taken together—point to. Here’s a “believe” example. Nowhere does Scripture say, “Believe in the Trinity.” Yet we believe in the threeness of the one God because of what Scripture says about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And here’s a “do” example. No commandment says, “Meet on Sunday.” But most Christians do so because we see that pattern in Acts 20:7 and I Cor. 16:2 and because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week.

As the Konomos article points out, the New Testament does not command us in so many words to make our meetings participatory. But the bulk of the evidence says first-century church meetings were highly interactive and relational—shared church. And that makes total sense. Would the all-wise God have given a spiritual gift “to each one of us” (I Cor. 4:7) only to have us bury it unused during Sunday meetings? How does the many-membered, multi-gifted Body of Christ mature? It “grows and builds itself in love as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).

Search for yourself. Can you find any evidence that New Testament church meetings looked anything like the passive-audience format most churches now follow on Sundays?

Focus on the Frontline

Suppose on Sunday you were to ask ten people, “Who serves at the frontline in our church?”

Chances are that several would say the frontline people are the pastor and those in on the elder board or leadership group. If you heard that response, would you catch the hidden assumption behind it—that the frontline lies within the gathered church? No, says Neil Hudson, in Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples. He sees the church’s frontlines in those locations into which it scatters.

Your Frontline: Where You Live

He explains, “By the term ‘frontline’, we mean the place where we realize God’s calling to engage with non-Christians in mission. Of course, we are called to be missional in all of life, and called to grow in godliness wherever we are, but usually there’s a particular place or group of people that we sense God is guiding us to bless and reach out to. They are often in the place where we spend most of our time—school, work, neighbourhood, a gym, a club.”

While “frontline” shows up repeatedly in his book, Hudson uses the term “whole-life” even more. Most often whole-life modifies disciples or discipleship. Hudson says, “Whole-life discipleship intends to mean what it says: there is no area of a Christian’s life that Jesus does not have ownership of, and there is no part of their life that he does not want to use for his glory.”

The Imagine Project

Hudson serves on the Imagine Project with The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC). In that role, he led a three-year project involving 17 churches in a study of “how church communities might learn to engage in the central task of whole-life disciple-making.” The project involved hundreds of Christians and church leaders. In his book, Hudson aims to show how a church can be transformed into one that produces whole-life disciples—people equipped to carry out Jesus’s mission in whatever setting they scatter into on weekdays.

But he notes, “whole-life disciple-making churches are in fact rather rare.”

Shifting Paradigms

In Chapter One, Hudson admits how difficult he himself had found the challenge to move toward whole-life discipling. As a pastor, he heard LICC’s Mark Greene argue for abolishing the sacred-secular dualism that has thwarted the church’s mission for so long. Greene’s urging to make whole-life disciples left Hudson feeling “indignant. I wanted to defend my past sixteen years in church leadership” But deeper down, he knew Greene had spoken truth.

Hudson went home and tested what he had heard in a church-wide prayer meeting. He asked three Christians to tell what they were going through regarding work. One was unemployed, one enjoyed his work, and one had just begun a job. Hudson asked them to explain what God was teaching each of them about him and themselves. He had posted four signs in the meeting room: “I love my job,” “I’d like a new job,” I wish I still worked,” and “I need to know what to do next.” Each one present in the meeting gathered around the sign that best fit their situation. Then those in the four groups discussed their circumstances and prayed for each other.

That prayer meeting, Hudson says, “triggered something in me.” Fast-forward to the three-year project. In his book, Hudson includes reports from pastors whose churches had taken part in it. For example, this pastor described the transformation that took place in his own church culture:

“What’s changed? Everything has changed, and the biggest change has been in me. I’ve had to change the most. For many years we have been an ‘attractional’ church. The central focus was on getting people into the church building. And over the years we’d done this well, filling the church building and putting on great services. But gradually we began to realize there was a disconnect between what was happening in the building on a Sunday and what was happening in people’s lives during the week. It was as though once we left the building, the really important business was over. I needed to be reminded that for the church members, it was just beginning.”

Five Challenges

Hudson knows transforming a church’s culture to one of whole-life disciple-making is not easy. He names five challenges:

1. “The challenge of people recognizing that this is what being a Christian means. . . . Many have little imagination to embrace the possibility that God would be able to use them in their everyday life for his purposes, or that God would engage in shaping their lives through mundane activities.”

2. “The challenge of the inward pull of the gathered church. . . . People easily begin to feel that the important spiritual activities take place in the midst of the gathered congregation, and that to be caught up in activities away from this community is to be dominated by ‘secular’ concerns which are, by definition, things that are outside the orbit of God’s dynamic interest.”

3. “The challenge to the role of leaders. . . . A primary component of the role of leaders is to help equip the people of God for their ministry. . . . Success will be marked by the number of people who have embraced their own frontlines as their arenas for ministry and are living fruitfully there.”

4. “The challenge of sustaining change. . . . It’s one thing to begin to address an issue; it’s another to keep going until whole-life thinking becomes a natural and self-sustaining response. . . . You must ensure that the vision of the Lordship of Christ over the universe and the church is presented continuously, so that people never unwittingly retreat to a personalized therapeutic form of Christianity.”

5. “The challenge of spiritual resistance. . . . A desire to release the people of God to serve him well will attract the attention of the enemy. . . . Os Guinness’s warning about our activities being privately engaging but publicly irrelevant would seem to be the perfect solution to the enemy of God’s people.”

Asking Some Bold Questions

In light of these challenges, Hudson recommends making “one-degree shifts.” As the well-worn proverb has it, “Rome was not built in a day.” But making long-term changes in the culture of a church to one of whole-life disciple-making should include asking some uncomfortable “why” questions. For example:

“Why do we sing so much?”
“Why does one person get to speak uninterruptedly for twenty to thirty minutes?”
“Why do we hear so little about everyday life in church?”
“Why do the songs we sing seem so disconnected from our time and place?”
“Why do people who are under stress in their everyday lives feel as though there’s nowhere they can talk about it in church circles?”

Jesus sends his followers into the world as light, salt, and seed. Every metaphor points to something that must be scattered to carry out its purpose. Only as we prepare whole-life disciples for their dispersed roles as 24-7 agents King Jesus will they glow in the dark, retard decay, and produce fruit that lets the world taste samples of the Kingdom yet to come.

Would Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples make a first-rate Christmas gift for the leaders in your church?

Shared Church in Manila

  • How can we open church worship services to congregational participation?

  • When did the church buy into the idea that one-anothering, which forms the very core of Jesus’s new command, must be mostly barred from larger congregational settings?

I raise those two questions in the Introduction to my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis. Not only there but also in this website I have called for making our Sunday meetings a participatory, shared-church experience. But conventional wisdom frowns and says no. That kind of involvement can happen in small groups on weekdays. But it’s a nonstarter in a large congregational meeting.

Is that true? Does a medium-to-large congregation require the one-way, monological meeting format? Are we locked into audience mode? Must any significant speaking always come from the platform?

Dialogue in Manila

If any doubt still lingered in my mind about participation in groups of hundreds, such uncertainty got knocked flat during the Lausanne Global Workplace Forum in Manila. Each morning, 720 of us met in the main meeting room of a multi-story church building—home of the Greenhills Christian Fellowship. A camera captured part of the room in this photo:

Table Groups.jpg

Our morning sessions included both speakers and panels. Messages from the platform took anywhere from 3 to 25 minutes. How could we have meaningful dialogue in such a crowd?

The secret lay in the seating arrangement. We sat in groups of six around small, rectangular tables—120 of them. Each table had a host. I served in that role for Table 18. The organizers had arranged it so people from similar occupations sat together. Engineers around this table. Artists at that one. Software designers over there. And so on. After each major presentation, a couple of questions flashed onto the screens. We then spent the several minutes discussing those questions and processing what the speakers or panelists had covered.

Echoes of Corinth

With 720 in the room, we clearly outnumbered any house church in first-century Corinth. Yet we were able to encourage, build up, instruct, and strengthen one another, much like they did in those meetings that followed the participatory pattern Paul describes:

“When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight. If prayers are offered in tongues, two or three's the limit, and then only if someone is present who can interpret what you're saying. Otherwise, keep it between God and yourself. And no more than two or three speakers at a meeting, with the rest of you listening and taking it to heart. Take your turn, no one person taking over. Then each speaker gets a chance to say something special from God, and you all learn from each other. If you choose to speak, you're also responsible for how and when you speak” (I Cor. 14:26-33).

Table Groups Well Received

The presenters in Manila spoke the truth powerfully. But in our table discussions, what they said became up close and personal as each of us told how the teaching meshed with our own experiences. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who benefited from those discussions. Others said:

  • “The bonding with my table members was excellent. We have kept the communication since we left.”

  • “The table groups were very well planned (six was the ideal number) and were a highlight of the Forum.”

  • “The speakers and my table group discussions were encouraging. Now I understand why I have been encountering delays in finalizing my retirement plans.”

  • “Connecting with others was the most significant part of the overall week.”

In that table-group setting, the body of Christ was set free to grow and build itself up in love as each part did its work (Eph. 4:16). Changes that would never have come about through just listening to speakers—good as they were—began to emerge as members of the body opened up to each other.

Table Groups in Sunday Meetings?

Once I returned from Manila (and after recovering from jet lag), no doubt remained in my mind: churches of any size can include table-group discussions in their Sunday meetings. “Why,” I asked myself, “would any local church not adopt this table-group arrangement?” Here’s what came to mind:

  • Our tables aren’t the right size and shape. And, anyway, we don’t have enough of them.

  • Doing it that way would take a lot more work.

  • We prefer to remain in audience mode. It’s more comfortable just to sit in rows and listen.

  • Visitors might not want to speak up among strangers.

  • Table groups? We’ve never done it that way before.

Taking issue with these objections would likely make no headway. But suppose, instead, you were to ask any doubters to visualize this “what if” scene?

What If . . . ?

What if, on a given Sunday morning, the pastor speaks from Col. 4:5-6—"Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone” (NLT). After the message, the pastor posts these questions on the screen: (1) In the context of your life, how can you live out the gospel as Paul urges in this passage? (2) Among your unbelieving peers, what have you found to be difficult in making the most of every opportunity?

What if, on that same morning, table groups discussed these questions. What if one table group included: (1) a college student majoring in elementary education, (2) a junior-high-school principal, (3) the mother of a third-grader, (4) a retired school superintendent, (5) a high-schooler considering a teaching career, and (6) a school counselor. What do you imagine might take place in the conversation around that table?

  • What can you hear those young people asking?

  • How do you think the older ones with school experience might respond?

  • What kinds of ongoing relationships—on beyond the table and that Sunday meeting—might be forged?

And finally, if the message had simply concluded with no table discussion, what might never have happened?

On the Absence of Sunday Work-Talk

VIDEO SUMMARY of The Global Workplace Forum held from 25-29 June 2019 in Manila, Philippines brought together participants from around the world to consider how best Lausanne's vision for kingdom impact in every sphere of society could be fulfilled.

I just spent a week in Manila, Philippines, with 850 Christians from 109 countries. If you’d been there, you might have thought you were in a church meeting. A praise band played. We sang from words projected on a screen. Speakers delivered messages. Prayers were offered. Yet those Manila gatherings included something church meetings typically avoid. We zeroed in on what most Christians do on Mondays. We talked about . . . work.

Each of us went to Manila to take part in the 2019 Lausanne Global Workplace Forum. Back in the 1970s, Billy Graham and John Stott launched the Lausanne Committee for Global Evangelization. Graham said: “"I believe one of the next great moves of God is going to be through believers in the workplace."

From those roots has grown the Global Workplace Forum. All week long there in Manila we explored our daily work and its role in God’s Kingdom agenda—the subject we seldom hear about in church.

A Question Full of Questions

Most people in the typical church congregation scatter on Monday into those places where they work: shops, homes, offices, fields, factories. Over a lifetime, each will spend around 90,000 hours working. Why, then, on Sunday, do we rarely hear God’s heart on what they invest their lives in during those other six days?

For years, I’ve puzzled over the answer to that. My search has left me asking even more questions:

  • Do we keep work and worship in separate boxes because of the Fourth Commandment—the one about working six days but avoiding work on the seventh? Does it seem to us that work-talk would somehow soil our rest-day, Sunday?

  • Do we keep work and worship apart because we know “works-righteousness” can never put us right with God? Has our right understanding of faith-not-works given the word “work” a black eye? Do we mistakenly leap to a worship-versus-work conclusion?

  • In short, have our perceptions of Old and New Testament truths led us to suspect God has little regard for our work/works? And, if so, have such misgivings largely kept work off the Sunday radar?

Are Work and Worship at Odds?

But wait, someone might object, “Weekdays are for work, Sundays are for worship. After all, in their meetings New Testament Christians heard teaching about Jesus, the Gospel, sin, salvation, and so on—not about work.”

Really?

Let’s fact-check that one. Letters to first-century churches were read to the whole congregation. Did those letters contain teaching on the daily work of those present? Well—truth be told—they did. Let’s comb through some examples of what New Testament Christians heard in their church meetings about their regular employment;

Demonstrate the Gospel in the way you treat your employers:

  • Respect their authority (Eph. 6:5).

  • Don’t goof around or slack off when they aren’t watching (Col. 3:22).

  • Don’t bad-mouth them. Put up with it if they treat you unfairly (Tit. 2:9).

Go to work with motives worthy of the Gospel:

  • Earn what you need through honest work (Eph. 4:28).

  • Avoid being a leech; work to support yourself (I Thess. 4:12).

  • Work to earn not just to meet your own needs but also to have enough to share with others (Eph. 4:28).

Let the light of Christ shine through the way you work:

  • Be fully engaged—bring not just your body to work but mind and heart as well (Col. 3:23).

  • Do your work so well others will find the gospel attractive (Titus 2:10).

  • Trust God to reward you for what you accomplish on the job (Eph. 6:8).

If you’re the boss:

  • Never manipulate employees with threats or intimidation (Eph. 6:9).

  • Don’t play favorites by being lenient with some and tough on others (Eph. 6:9).

  • Do right by your employees, treating them fairly (Col. 4:1).

Clearly, the New Testament supports bringing issues from workdays into Sunday gatherings. Imagine yourself sitting in one of those early-church meetings. Someone who is able reads the letter out loud to everyone. As you hear this or that point made by the letter-writer, something strikes you about the situation in your own workplace. This is, after all, a participatory, shared-church meeting (see I Cor. 14). So you chime in with your own comment before the reader moves on to the next sentence. Or if what you have heard raises a question, you ask it, and a discussion follows in which several others join in.

When Work-Talk Goes Missing

What has the absence of work-talk in today’s church meetings cost God’s Kingdom agenda? I’ll mention just three unfortunate results:

Disabling Traditions Grow Unchecked. First, this Sunday silence about work has let false traditions about our daily work multiply like weeds. Because I teach what the Bible says about work, I hear students give voice to many of these hurtful ideas. For example, some struggle under the idea that work came from God’s curse (Gen. 3). No way! God gave work to humanity in Gen. 2 as one of his good gifts. God is a Worker. That’s why we, made in his image, are workers. By working, we mirror our Maker!

Another example: many Christians have grown up thinking some work is “sacred” (that of pastors and missionaries) and other work is “secular” (what engineers, accountants, pilots, hairdressers, and plumbers do). This life-zapping notion has zero biblical support, but it still persists among believers. A companion idea holds that God calls people into those “sacred” roles but not into “secular” pursuits like law, government work, software development, or farming.

The Discipleship Deficit Continues. Second, not talking about work in church meetings has left the world with a shortage of Christ-reflecting disciples. Many Christians get up and go to work simply to pay the bills, give to the church, support missions—and save for retirement. Some have been led to believe they are there just to evangelize coworkers. That often leads to forced, ready-or-not “witnessing” among fellow employees—or to a guilt-ridden silence when sensitive Christians recoil from such tactics as pushy.

A blogger from Down Under says, “. . . the evangelical church in Australia at least, has an extremely thin theology of work. It is ill-prepared to counsel its own people on the meaning of work, the ways to navigate the space of work, and how to do anything other than use their work as a means of evangelism and earning money for ministry.” Not just in Australia.

Far too many believers have no clear idea of God’s many other reasons for sending them into the world’s workplaces:

  • Offering him their work as an act of worship.

  • Responsibly caring for his good creation—planet, plants, animals, and people.

  • Finding, encouraging, and praying for fellow Christ-followers among coworkers, customers, clients, vendors, students, patients, and so on.

  • Experiencing workplace stresses as gifts of God that produce spiritual maturity. (In Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson wrote, “I’m prepared to contend that the primary location for spiritual formation is the workplace.”)

  • And, yes, to represent King Jesus there and to pay the bills as well.

Jesus’ Sending Gets Short-Circuited. Jesus sends his followers into the world. Employment places them by the millions in that very world—the world of work. Employers and governments—rather than churches or mission boards—actually pick up the tab for workers being in the very places to which Jesus sends them. And yet, far too many Christians in so-called “secular” jobs see their work as a burden to escape rather than as a gift to transform into a vehicle for carrying out the purposes of Christ and his Kingdom. If Christians are to have the biblical vision of their daily work, where else—other than in their local churches—will they be nurtured and sustained in such vision?

In Manila, one of the women speakers challenged us with this question: “When was the last time you and your home group or your church prayer group really wrestled with challenges of the workplace?”

How would you answer her?

Body Parts Participate

The movie, Toy Story, takes us on an imaginative journey into “the secret life of toys,” in which Andy’s playthings huddle while he is out of the room. Imagine, for a moment, a meeting that includes the members and systems of our bodies . . . .

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The head had made it clear: the various parts of the body should meet—often. They had begun doing so eagerly.

Each part came to the gatherings with something to benefit all the others. Muscles supplied arms and legs with the power to move and lift. The seemingly weak skin could not do that, but it did stand guard against deadly germ invaders. All kinds of signals—pleasure, pain, tactile perception, timing, and so on—pulsed to and from the body’s various parts through the network of nerves. Lymph nodes, working quietly in the background, defended the whole body against infections. Each of the body’s many other parts—from tongue to toe, from head to heel—did its bit to make sure the whole organism could work well, stay healthy, and remain strong.

Taking part in those meetings was like playing in a symphony—each instrument contributing to the whole at just the right moment.

Then Something Changed

Over time, the music shifted. None of the parts recalls exactly how or why it happened. Did fatigue overtake some of them, making it easier just to receive than to give? Or was it because certain ones wanted to play larger and larger roles in the meetings? Maybe it was both. In any case, the result was the same. Most parts gave up their roles as contributors and became consumers. A very few active parts ended up serving a great many passive ones. The symphony-like meetings had turned into soloist performances.

Originally, the body carried out the head’s work-assignments with real power. Vitality flowed into and out from every specially endowed part. But with the change, the passive body became weak and far less able. The few working parts tended to burn out. The others, lacking regular exercise, became flabby or stiff.

A couple of centuries ago, Paul saw clearly what this body needed to recover: “. . . speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:15-16).

Full-Voiced Grace

“As each part does its work.“ Paul, of course, was speaking of the Body of Christ, the ekklesia, in the first century. And despite that Body’s shortfalls, its usual meeting format allowed each part to do the work it was cut out to do. Through its Spirit-given gift(s), any part was free to contribute its unique form of God’s grace to the rest of the Body (I Pet. 4:10). So the whole Body benefited from the rich supply of grace flowing through many—not just one or two—conduits. Built up and strengthened in that way, the church in those days stood its ground against opposition and made the world take notice.

Second-century Christian scholar Tertullian reported what those in the Roman Empire said about these early Christians: “See how they love one another.” Which only confirmed what Jesus had said in his New Command—that the world would know his followers by their love for one another.

Full-Bodied Action

Emerging from that kind of one-anothering, the love erupted into blessing for the surrounding pagan culture. Rodney Start, in The Rise of Christianity, writes: “To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. . . . For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable" (p. 161).

What Those Early Christians Lacked

Christ-followers multiplied at an astonishing rate throughout that ancient world. Yet those Christians had no missionary societies. No Bible colleges or seminaries. No denominations. No email, cell phones, or Internet. No megachurches or expensive buildings. No salaried staffs. Today, we have all those and more. But we have trouble even hanging onto our own young people once they leave home and church.

What did those early Christians have that we need to reclaim? They counted on the Holy Spirit dispensing God’s many-sided grace through members of Christ’s Body in participatory assemblies. We have forgotten how to gather in ways that permit Christians to exercise their grace-gifts in our week-in-week-out church meetings. We have traded one-anothering for operating in audience mode. It’s not only that we are not expected to share from our gifts in the congregation—we are expected not to do so. As a result, the overflowing, empowering river of God’s grace is reduced to a trickle. Platform-driven performances largely limit us to what comes through the gifts of those with microphones up on the stage

Living this far from the first century, what can we do? In The Message, Eugene Peterson, who lived into the twenty-first century, paraphrases I Cor. 14:26-33 this way:

“So here's what I want you to do. When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight. If prayers are offered in tongues, two or three's the limit, and then only if someone is present who can interpret what you're saying. Otherwise, keep it between God and yourself. And no more than two or three speakers at a meeting, with the rest of you listening and taking it to heart. Take your turn, no one person taking over. Then each speaker gets a chance to say something special from God, and you all learn from each other. If you choose to speak, you're also responsible for how and when you speak. When we worship the right way, God doesn't stir us up into confusion; he brings us into harmony. This goes for all the churches . . . .”

Why not?

Hearing the Hearts of Missionary Kids

Some time ago Kara Garrison told me how difficult it had been for her four “missionary kids,” upon returning from Thailand, to integrate into church as practiced in the U.S. In a Zoom interview last week, I asked her to describe their difficult transition. This blog is based on that interview. (Click here for video of interview.)

Where are you living now?

Click on arrow for video interview with Kara Garrison.

My husband and I are living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Our three daughters and one son are grown and living in various parts of this area of the country.

How many years did you spend in Thailand—and how old were your children at first?

Twelve years in Thailand itself. Our son was six. Our youngest daughter eight. Our second daughter had her tenth birthday the day we arrived in Thailand. And our oldest daughter was twelve.

How did your family experience shared church in Thailand—strengthening, building up, encouraging one another?

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In Chang Mai we first attended traditional churches led by Westerners. But in time we decided those churches were too much like the American church. While there, we wanted a different dynamic. So we started investigating house churches. Over the years, numbers ranged from 3 to 16 families. Especially positive for our kids were the opportunities to discuss Scripture. To be able to talk it over with adults other than their parents. To be able to voice concerns or disbelief and have other adults speaking to them. All that made for a way to build trust between individuals and community. A shared meal each time was especially important.

In the years we did church in the morning and started with breakfast, the young boys loved the bacon! When we asked the kids, “What is an important part of house church, in your opinion?” bacon always ended up on the list. So it wasn't all for spiritual reasons that the kids enjoyed it. It was also for social reasons, the ability to be considered a vital part of the church community. And it was also for emotional reasons. The kids just felt valued in the group.

What was one of the key values about fellowship around a meal?

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Meals provided a natural opportunity for life discussions to occur. You could be processing something that's already been discussed in the teaching. Or you might be processing things happening in life, in the kids’ school community. Because the families were so integrated, you could see your friends’ children inside or outside the church setting. You had things in common to talk to them about. If you saw them on the street, you had already developed this relationship inside the house church.

A meal around a table is very non-hierarchical, isn't it?

Absolutely! Sometimes you were sitting on the floor, sometimes you were sitting multi-generationally, sometimes the kids went off and it was divided generationally. It didn't seem to matter. It didn’t have to be this way or that. It was always different depending on whose house it was at—and it was very non-threatening.

Upon her return to the U.S., your oldest daughter, now 28, had a very difficult time. Could you describe it?

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It was hard for her to integrate into “formal” church, because she had so valued the interaction. She said, “What is this? What is this where one person gives a lecture, and the rest of us just listen? Who’s listening to the rest of us? And how do we get to discuss?” So it was extremely upsetting for her to accept that this was the new normal. She did not like the new normal.

Has the transition continued to influence her?

Yes it has. And after our return to the States, my husband and I followed up on several of our children's friends. We found that her response is not unique. Missionary kids, now young adults, living in other cities across the United States who grew up overseas are experiencing similar issues. They still want to be followers of Jesus, but they are very uncomfortable in this formal type of church community. They feel it's disingenuous.

What elements in your Thailand church gatherings are not typically present in the U.S.?

One of the things that strikes me personally is the lack of opportunity while you're at church to really fellowship with each other. I find this frustrating: you attend a Sunday school class and after class you're looking around for people you want to connect with. But there's this rush to get out, because another group is getting ready to meet in that same location—and because you need to quickly get to the service. So it doesn't really lend itself to developing community and relationships. Especially, I think, it's a problem in cities where people live so far away from the church building. That's the one time they're going to have the opportunity to be community with each other. That's the gathering place, and yet there is not a good opportunity to really fellowship with each other. You're there to listen to somebody else, not to each other. The informal interactions that are a natural part of House Church are missing.

The time crunch is also present in the larger meeting, isn’t it?

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It’s not just the formal part of the service that's timed. We we travel to many different churches, where you have two minutes to greet someone next to you. That's just an empty exercise in my opinion. It’s not very genuine to greet somebody, especially for the very first time, in two minutes or less, and really welcome them and ask questions. And then, when the service is over, people are scooting out. And so there’s not really a paradigm where people are gathering to interact with each other informally.

Your son once wrote a letter describing what he missed about church in Thailand. What did he say?

He was in about fourth grade when we came back to the United States. An English assignment let him write on anything he wanted. It came out more like a letter that explained why he missed and loved house church, how he felt valued there. He felt like he was a member of everybody's family—even used the phrase, “it feels like family.”

What about you—what do you miss?

With friends who have also returned to the U.S., we often discuss the drawbacks of integrating into the American church. We all feel the loss of community. Our friends at church are just “friends at church.” Many of those we knew before our time in Thailand are still in Tulsa. So for us, we were better able than many to re-establish those long-term relationships than other missionaries. But there is still definitely a difference. It is a lot more work to stay connected with your friends here due to schedules, physical distance, and weather. We do stay connected with certain family friends, just between us and their families, but it's hard as a group to stay connected.

What elements from church meetings in Thailand do you think should be incorporated into gatherings in the U.S.?

I think old things need to be recovered—things covered over that should be uncovered. For example, church potlucks and more fellowshipping before and after the church meeting. The very things people say they're craving—community and fellowship—are not being valued, because of concern that people won't stay for the very thing they say they want. That, to me, seems pretty conflicting.

What Are We Missing?

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When I was young, we had a crank telephone and a party line that let any neighbor listen in. We didn’t miss cell phones. Why? Because we’d never seen one.

We Christians in Western cultures have church meetings with audiences, platforms, and professionals. We don’t miss participatory, shared-church meetings. Why? Because we’ve never seen them.

Teachings and doctrines differ greatly from one church tradition to another. But whatever the “brand,” our meetings mostly take place in the same predictable setting. It doesn’t matter if the church is Baptist or Brethren, Presbyterian or Pentecostal, Anglican or Adventist, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, mega, mini--or even a cult. You can expect chairs or pews all facing forward, an elevated stage, and performers (many paid) up on that platform. If you sit in the “audience,” the unwritten meeting rules—like those in a theater—forbid speaking up (but you may clap or laugh out loud).

Designing a Meeting Format

In short, we typically do not practice shared church on Sunday mornings. But what are we missing out on? One way to find out is to read New Testament descriptions of what happened in their meetings back then. With that picture in mind, ask yourself: “How would I design the setting and agenda for a regular, week-in-week-out, church meeting in light of the following New Testament truths about the church?”

  • The Holy Spirit lives in each member of the body (Rom. 8:9b).

  • Each one has received the Spirit’s anointing and has been taught by God (I Jn. 2:20, 27; Jn. 6:45).

  • Every Christian has received a Spirit-given gift to be used for the benefit of the others (I Cor. 12:7-11).

  • Christ’s completeness is revealed through his multi-membered body, the church (Eph. 1:22-23).

  • Some Christians have received leadership gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers) to help fellow believers develop and use their ministry gifts (Eph. 4:11-12).

From the way God has given out his gifts, it seems clear that he has deposited in each Christian treasures that he wants to be shared with all the others. Such wealth should not be bottled up or corked. Releasing those gifts, of course, would require a meeting format that provides space and time to express them. In I Cor. 14:26-31, Paul calls for church meetings full of chances for that to happen:

“What then shall we say, brothers? 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. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.”

So what gets lost in meetings shaped by church tradition rather than this New Testament pattern? Those verses help us see what we are missing:

  • Openings to Speak

In the church meeting Paul describes, any Christian can use God-given gifts for the benefit of all. Every contribution mentioned in those verses involves speaking. But today’s typical church-meeting agenda prevents most in the meeting from doing so. Those in the “audience” without microphones can’t get a word in edgewise. When the professionals pre-plan and program church meetings down to the minute, they can speak, but other input gets shut out.

  • Exercise of Gifts

The six verses quoted above revolve around the use of spiritual gifts, which (in 14:1) Paul has just urged the Corinthian Christians to “eagerly desire.” But if the structure of our meetings does not permit people to use them, those gifts lie undiscovered, undeveloped, unused—and may atrophy. One of the now-seemingly-dormant gifts prominent in this I Corinthians passage is prophecy.

  • Hearing Others Prophesy

The text says, “you can all prophesy.” Many believe the gift of prophecy has vanished. But John Piper thinks otherwise. Prophecy, he says, includes more than words written or spoken by Bible writers, Jesus, and the Twelve: “We need,” Piper says, a new “category for the ‘spiritual gift of prophecy’—Spirit-prompted, Spirit-sustained, revelation-rooted, but mixed with human imperfection and fallibility and therefore in need of sifting.” (For his full article, click here.)

  • Practice in Checking Things Out

Sifting involves evaluating, sorting out what lines up with God-revealed Scripture from what does not. In those six I Corinthian verses, Paul says “others should weigh carefully what is said.” The Bereans received praise because they measured what was being taught against Scripture ((Acts 17:11). In a context that deals with teaching, Hebrews 5:14 refers to Christians “who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” But the typical church meeting today provides no opportunity to vocalize any assessment of what has been publicly stated. And so those in the “audience” get no practice in exercising critical-thinking skills.

  • Mutual Building, Instructing & Encouraging

In verses 26 and 31, Paul states the three-fold purpose of the church meeting—building up, instruction, and encouragement. In 26: “All of these must be done for the strengthening [literally, building up] of the church.” In 31: “that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” By repeating the word “all,” the Greek original for verse 31 emphasizes the every-member involvement: “You may all prophesy so that all may learn and all may be encouraged” (emphasis added). In other words, the responsibility for building up, instructing, and encouraging belongs to everyone gathered, not just to a few up front.

These, then, are some of the elements present in 1st-century but largely absent in 21st-century church meetings. Most Christians in a church “audience” today do not come expecting to contribute from their giftings, because they know the meeting format will allow them no opportunity. As E. Stanley Jones puts it in The Reconstruction of the Church—on What Pattern?, “They have little to do, hence they do little.” And yet, it is only “as each part does its work” that Christ’s body “grows and builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).

Restoring Participation

Can we suddenly reinstate all these missing pieces to our congregational gatherings? Of course not. But even if you are part of the “audience,” you can tactfully suggest that your leadership begin taking small steps in a participatory direction. For example:

  • Your church can schedule those in the congregation to bring five- or seven-minute reports on how God is moving in their workplaces, neighborhoods, and families. How else will the church family know what he is doing out in your community between Sundays?

  • Your pastor can open the floor to questions and comments following the sermon. I recently watched a YouTube video in which N. T. Wright brought a message to a fairly large congregation. A Q&A time followed immediately, during which Wright responded to important observations, questions, and points that needed clarification.

  • Mature, qualified Christians from the congregation can serve on a panel that discusses issues we may wrestle with. For example, “How can we explain the biblical perspective to someone asking for advice on gender-change surgery?” Or, “What is and is not appropriate for witnessing on the job?”

  • Your church can make it a priority to discover members of the congregation with teaching gifts and to schedule them to bring Sunday messages.

The old crank telephone was far better than no telephone. It let us get messages from one person to another, whether across town or across the country. But it lacked the apps of cell phones—no cameras, no calculators, no emails, no FaceTime, no eBooks. A platform-centered church meeting is far better than no church meeting. It permits us to hear preaching from a professional. But it allows no room for the use of the diverse gifts with which God has enriched the church.

There is a way to move toward congregational participation. Do we have the will to take that way?

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

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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

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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.

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.”

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.”

Sian and Stuart Murray Williams.jpg

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.

______________________________________________

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)