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.

Shared-Church Singing

My surprising discovery came when I looked at the lyrics of the top ten Christian songs. But the story does not begin there. It all started when the teacher/facilitator of our Sunday adult class requested that I fill in for him. On what aspect of our faith, I asked, should I help the class to focus on? Then something came to mind.

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Songs to God as Creator?

Not long before that, and for another group, I had prepared a devotional on worshiping God as Creator. In John’s vision of the worship in heaven, the 24 elders are saying, "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being" (Revelation 4:11). The motivation for this outburst of praise? The mind-boggling truth that God created absolutely everything.

As I developed that devotional, I began to ask myself: How often do we Christ-followers sing about God as Creator? In the grand sweep of the scriptural story, God has revealed himself as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Restorer. I thought back on decades of experience as part of the church. I suspected that we sing a whole lot about God as Redeemer—grateful for personal forgiveness—but not so much about him as Creator.

True, some songs—although it seems we rarely sing them anymore—do celebrate the Creator. For instance, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “This is My Father’s World.” But what is happening today? I wondered. Have songs about God's grace as our Redeemer displaced songs about his role as our Creator? 

A Look at the Top-Ten Songs

In an attempt to answer that question, I typed into my Google search box “top ten Christian song lyrics.”  In a flash, links to a number of websites showed up. I clicked on the first one. And there they were—in ranked order—all ten of the current, Christian, chart-topping songs. One by one, I copied the lyrics for all the songs and pasted them into a single Word document.

The Word program, of course, can “find” individual words. So I searched on “creator.” No matches. “Creation.” Nope.  I tried “maker.” Nothing. Although I was disappointed, it did confirm what I had suspected. Then I thought, well . . .  as long as I have this document open with all ten of the current popular Christian songs, I’ll search on ten other words to see how many times each of them appears in the whole group of lyrics. Here’s what I discovered:

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The results of this tiny bit of research took me by surprise. In the ten songs, 374 words were all about first person singular: I (I’m), me, and my. The absence of openly biblical words like God, Jesus, Spirit, Kingdom, and Cross alarmed me. True, most of the 90 “you” words apparently referred to God or Jesus—but since they were never named, that pronoun remained anonymous. For example, “You give me so much” could refer to a caring human being. Which raised a  question in my mind: To reach the top of the charts, must Christian songwriters avoid terms like God and Jesus and Spirit? For that question I have no answer.

These songs did not reach top-ten standing by their use in church meetings. Instead, their ranking came from how often they were aired on radio--probably along with some digital sales and streaming activity data added in. And yet the music heard through those media regularly finds its way into Sunday mornings as well. How can a church make certain that its music includes biblical terms that clearly identify the Trinity and communicate a well-rounded biblical theology? How can a church ensure that its songs include a full spectrum of truth about God as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Restorer?

Letting the Body of Christ Choose the Songs

My October 19, 2017, blog, “Participatory Church Music Choice" (click here), suggests a way to safeguard the selection of songs we sing when we gather. In summary, the idea is to practice shared church. When it comes to music, this means giving members of Christ’s body a voice in choosing it. Almost any church includes young, middle-aged, and older people. Given the opportunity, each will pick songs that speak to them and express their hearts. This will make way for current songs, not-so-new songs, and those that have stood the test of time.

Such participation will greatly enrich the repertoire of any church's music. The selections will not be limited to the musical preferences of just one or two people week after week. Instead, when “everyone has a hymn” (I Cor. 14:26) or psalm or spiritual song, the door will open to the whole range of God’s revelation of himself. Here are some examples--and samples--of songs the diverse members of a congregation might choose:

Creator: “Thou Art Worthy” (click here). “The Earth is the Lord’s” (click here). “God of Wonders” (click here). “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (click here).

Sustainer: “Be Still My Soul” (click here). “God Will Take Care of You” (click here). “His Eye is on the Sparrow" (click here). “The Lord’s My Shepherd” (click here).

Redeemer: "I Am Not Skilled to Understand” (click here). “In Christ Alone” (click here). “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” (click here). “And Can it Be?” (click here).

Restorer: “What a Day That Will Be” (click here). “Because He Lives” (click here).  “It May be at Morn” (click here). "Soon and Very Soon" (click here).

What we sing when the church gathers does not have to reflect someone’s top 10, top 20, or top 100 list. Instead, the songs should come from the hearts of those who love the God who reveals himself in Scripture, in his Creation, and supremely in his son, Jesus Christ. Shared church includes restoring to all members of Christ’s Body their rightful role of contributing to each other—even through songs in which they hear God’s voice.  

Shared Church and the Exodus of Young People

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Does doing church the-way-we’ve-always-done-it help to explain why so many young people are checking out? In his book, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman says research by the Barna Group found that, “Overall, there is a 43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement.” Commenting on how this looks on a line graph, he says, “The ages eighteen to twenty-nine are the black hole of church attendance; this age segment is ‘missing in action’ from most congregations.”

In light of this trend, Kinnaman asks: “Can the church rediscover the intergenerational power of the assembly of saints?” This sentence caught my attention. I take him to mean that we have lost the potent outcomes that result when Christians connect across the age ranges. As Kinnaman points out, this is something we need to “rediscover.” I agree. From what I’ve observed, in most “assemblies of the saints” (church services) the people sit and listen as spectators. The typical meeting format leaves no opening for comments or questions from the congregation.

True, church experience includes more than the main congregational gathering. Most churches offer other venues for nurturing faith. Most of these, though, usually provide less "intergenerational power" than the weekly event most call "church." The very term "youth group" narrows the age range. Many young adults have attended only age-graded Sunday-school classes. Small groups may include young and old but often do not.

"I Want to be the 'Talker-Man'"

In the main gatherings of some churches, the pastor has nearly all the speaking parts. I knew a boy of ten or so who, after watching how church meetings work, said when he grew up he wanted to be the “talker-man.” The word-ministry of those with shepherding and teaching gifts is vital to the oversight of any congregation. But the New Testament never paints the church as monovoiced.

Something Paul wrote in I Cor. 13 can help us see why the gathered church needs to hear more than one voice. “For we [plural] know in part and we prophesy in part” (9). Paul goes on to say, “Now I [singular] know in part” (12). In other words, none of us knows it all. Even Paul himself, who wrote a quarter of the New Testament, did not.

Each member of the Body of Christ has knowledge, even though it is partial. Each has received a portion of God’s grace. Experience with grace gives us some knowledge of it. Each has received at least one Spirit-given gift—equipping us with another form of knowledge. Each is "taught by God" (Jn. 6:45). So the question becomes: How can we structure our church meetings in such a way that we can all share our partial knowledge? The resulting "pool" will supply far more than any one of us could individually.

Learning from Our Bodies

As Paul makes clear, the way all the parts of the human body work together paints a clear picture of how members of Christ’s Body interact. Each part should do its work. It belongs to all the others. It brings a unique contribution to the other parts. It dare not see itself as either non-essential or more important than other parts. It occupies a God-arranged place in the body--a place that provides a distinct perspective.

How do you and I stay in touch with the realities of the physical world? Only through the parts of our physical bodies. Think of what you would miss if the following parts of your body worked poorly or not at all:

  • Eyes: Losing vision in just one eye can reduce your depth perception (close one eye and try threading a needle). It can also cut peripheral vision by about 20 percent.
  • Feet: Neuropathy can cause the nerves in the soles of your feet to lose touch with the ground or floor, throwing off your balance.
  • Ears: Your ability to communicate with others, to recognize voices, or to savor the sounds of a symphony can all suffer from impaired hearing.
  • Fingers: Failing finger nerves can dull the warning signals of pain from a too-hot surface.
  • Nose: As one person with anosmia put it, “Not being able to smell yourself makes personal hygiene incredibly stressful.”
  • Tongue: You were born with thousands of taste buds. But if you lose your sense of taste, you might unwittingly eat food that has gone bad.

In these and other ways, your body illustrates how the Body of Christ works. No single member “knows” everything your body needs. But each member in good working order can contribute its “knowledge” of surrounding physical conditions for the benefit of all the rest. Similarly, a meeting of the church should allow members of Christ's Body to share from what they know of Spirit-revealed reality. This releases, in Kinnaman’s words, “the intergenerational power of the assembly.”

Any Room for Doubts, Questions?

How does this apply to young people? In a meeting format that permits them to do so, they can contribute from their “partial knowledge” by asking questions. Struggling to relate faith to life in the 21st century equips them with first-hand knowledge of the quandaries they and their peers face—questions adults may not even realize need answers.  As Kinnaman says in You Lost Me, “Fully one-third of young Christians (36 percent) agree that ‘I don’t feel that I can ask my most pressing life questions in church.’ One out of ten (10 percent) put it more bluntly: ‘I am not allowed to talk about my doubts in church.’”

Kinnaman reminds us how young people are coming of age in an era of interaction. They have a "participatory mindset." But,  he says, “the structure of young adult development in most churches and parishes is classroom-style instruction. It is passive, one-sided communication—or at least that’s the perception most young people have of their religious education. They find little appetite within their faith communities for dialogue and interaction.”

But a willingness to venture outside the-way-we’ve-always-done-it can change that perception. Kinnaman writes of a “faith community in Oregon [that] hosts a weekly worship service that invites anyone to ask any question they have about faith. To fit with the uber-connected world of young people, the church accepts questions submitted via text and Twitter. . . .The entire community gets to witness, on a weekly basis, what it looks like to wrestle with doubt, to confess our questions without abandoning faith.” My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes more than two dozen examples of churches that are making their main weekly meeting more participatory.

Paul described shared church nearly 2,000 years ago, when he said “the whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Peter agreed: “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).

So we don’t have to invent shared church. We simply need to rediscover it.

A New Look at Left vs. Right

What can Christ-followers do in a culture polarized between left and right? In Los Angeles, an anti-Trump protester yelled, “We have to fight back. There will be casualties on both sides.” Sides. Division. Verbal wars. These words describe the mindset of the dog-eat-dog world. Far too many see no way of escape from it.

Those not sharing our faith increasingly see the Church—if they even think about it—as marginalized, impotent, irrelevant. Those of us in the Church, like David’s friends, may complain, “The foundations of law and order have collapsed,” and ask: “What can the righteous do?" (Ps 11:3, NLT).

What Can We Do?

There is, of course, no instant fix for crumbling foundations. The Church, however, can shine light into the darkness that surrounds those who stumble and collide in their efforts at repair. In his new command (Jn. 13:34), Jesus told us how those in the world will come to know we are, as we claim to be, his disciples: by our loving each other in the way he has loved us.

Could it be that the world sees the Church as a sidelined subculture because we have not lived out that kind of love for fellow believers? What might begin to occur if we were truly to authenticate our identity as Christ-followers in the way he instructs us? What if the world could watch as a colony of ordinary human beings live out the unity of heaven here on earth?

One of Webster’s definitions of politics is “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” For many people, relationships between left and right in that complex must always involve bruising conflict. There is, however, one society in the world in which left-right clashes are not inevitable: the Body of Christ.

Left and Right Members

To the Apostle Paul the human body, with its various members, provides a way for us to understand the Body of Christ. Any human body has both left and right members—eyes, ears, feet, hands, and so on. But in a properly functioning human body, left and right members never work at odds with each other. Instead of choosing sides, they operate side by side. They do not compete; they cooperate. Each supplies a strength and a perspective the other lacks.

In the Body of Christ, what explains the harmony between left-members and right-members? Each is directly connected with and responsive to the Head. Whenever the situation calls for action, Christ the Head has a single purpose. Members on both the left and the right work together to carry out that one aim.

We Need Practice

Shared church is all about working together. Like the world, the Body of Christ includes members with diverse viewpoints, gifts, and backgrounds. Unlike the world, all are equipped to respond to the one unifying Head. But in what setting may we practice working and speaking in agreement with one another?

Too often our traditional ways of gathering on, say, Sunday mornings rule out authentic one-anothering. We come together as audiences rather than as bodies with interacting members—passive watchers instead of active participants. Rarely, if ever, does the meeting format allow left-members and right-members the opportunity to speak and listen to each other in the way of I Cor. 14:26— “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” (The Message).

Jesus asked his Father to grant that we might “be brought to complete unity,” experiencing the same oneness they have enjoyed throughout eternity (Jn. 17:23). Those words, “be brought to,” suggest that arriving at this unity will not come about instantaneously. It will take practice, exercise, rehearsal. Where can we develop, and demonstrate that right-member/left-member unity if we do not do so when we come together as shared church?

Left-member/right-member unity in the Body of Christ exploded into the world in the first century. The divided world is waiting for it to happen again.
 

Walking in Ancient Paths

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Two friends of ours—Millennials—don’t know each other. Yet in separate conversations I heard them use exactly the same word about a church in our community. The church meets in a building that, until a few years ago, had been a movie theater. Our friends, a man and a woman, at different times had each attended this church briefly, then left. She and days later he described the Sunday meeting as a “show.” Apparently the former theater building still draws an audience of watchers.

Participatory Path in Passover

Although young, these two are seeking an old way of gathering with other believers. A way that includes relationships, interactive body life, shared church. Two-way communication in church meetings is not a new idea. Christ-followers practiced it when they gathered back in the first century. During their last Passover meal, Jesus and his disciples engaged in a lot of back-and-forth conversation. Check it out. Count the “asked” and “answered” words in just John 13.

Paul called for the Corinthian believers to practice shared church: “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” (I Cor. 14:26, The Message).

Monologue: One-Way Street

In his 1963 book, The Miracle of Dialogue, Reuel L. Howe says, “Monologue is not effective communication.” He based his statement on research done by the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies and other experts in communication. “Young ministers,” he says, “are disillusioned about the effectiveness of preaching and suspect that ‘telling’ is not a sure means of communication, but because they know of no alternative, they are caught in the one-way street of monologue.”

Less than a decade later Ray Stedman, in Body Life, lamented that “Christian meetings have turned into dull, stodgy rituals where many Christians gather to go through completely predictable performances, all conducted in an atmosphere of ‘reverence’ which permits no interchange with one another, no exchange of thought, no discussion of truth, and no opportunity to display Christian love in any but the most superficial of ways.”

Soul Rest in Old Paths

So the roots of shared-church reach far back in time. Jeremiah the prophet quoted what the Lord said to the Israelites: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). But today, far too many churches have not learned the power of walking in those “ancient paths” when they gather.

Millennials and others may not be able to articulate it. But they are looking for the kind of relational, church-body life seen in the New Testament. The Barna Research Group reports that, “The first factor that will engage Millennials at church is as simple as it is integral: relationships.” Barna President David Kinnaman says, “. . . the most positive church experiences among Millennials are relational. . . . huge proportions of churchgoing teenagers do not feel relationally accepted in church.”

Much of the one-anothering seen in the New Testament can be recovered in our main congregational meetings. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, 25 church leaders explain the paths they are exploring as they pursue that goal.