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.

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.”

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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.”

Did Fast Food Change the Church?

Fast Food.jpg

If you google on “Why are people leaving the church?” you’ll find more websites than you could possibly open in years. Various authors, of course, explain the exodus in different ways. In his book,  British author John Drane says some of the trouble has come from The McDonaldization of the Church.

He borrowed the fast-food reference in his title from The McDonaldization of Society, by George Ritzer. Drane explains that “when I . . . applied Ritzer’s four characteristics of the McDonaldization process—efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control—to the Church, I began to see some of the reasons why so many of today’s people struggle so much with it.”

Drane taught Practical Theology in the University of Aberdeen’s Department of Divinity. That role put him in touch with leaders from a great variety of churches across Scotland. “I soon realized,” he says, “that if our faith was to continue to make a difference to our nation in the twenty-first century, we could not continue to do the same things as our forebears had done before us.”

Squeezing More Out of Less Effort

McDonald’s now sells burgers in more than 100 countries—in part because the chain has turned efficiency into an art form. Drane sees a similar priority in churches.  “I have come away from too many churches feeling that I have been given the same sort of pre-packaged ‘welcome’ as I might expect in a fast-food outlet where the server will routinely enquire about my day, but really has no interest in either me or my life.”

In the McDonaldized church, “somebody else does the thinking for you, predigests it, and serves it up in an efficient manner. It is the spiritual equivalent of fast food, and unlike the home-prepared meal it requires no preparation, no cleaning up afterwards, and no involvement in cooking it.”

In my own book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I describe church meetings in which “all elements . . . are preplanned, in which the voices heard are prearranged, and in which any words spoken or sung by members of the congregation are preselected by someone else and provided for them.”

Running by the Numbers

Drane sees calculability as the second characteristic of McDonaldization evident churches. As he puts it, “Christians are not immune from this obsession with numbers and quantity.” But our counting does not end with bodies, buildings, and budgets. Drane contends that “most churches just have far too many gatherings that they expect their people to attend, midweek as well as at weekends.” Christians serious about their spiritual lives, he says, are likely to remain unimpressed.

Drane includes an example from the experience of a pastor friend: “He had started with just seventeen people, and ended up with more than 3000, but in the process the church had become a depersonalized machine. . . . Growth led to increased numbers, which required a bigger space to contain them, which called for fund-raising and building projects, which necessitated a mortgage to pay for it all, which demanded efficient marketing and sales techniques to maximize the attendance in order to raise enough money to meet the payments, and on and on in a vicious spiral of cause and effect. When all of that came together, it created a system that, in terms of human relationships and real spiritual growth was pathologically self-destructive—but which was apparently necessary in order to maintain the trappings of ‘success.’”

Avoiding Surprises

Admittedly, says Drane, “The security of what is predictable can indeed help people to feel safe—but the downside is that it all becomes routine. . . . Pragmatically, the Church’s love affair with this aspect of McDonaldization is a major stumbling block to effective evangelism in today’s post-modern culture.”

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I quote a blogger who wrote, “Routines are convenient and make for a comfortable, easy life. They make you think less. They let you predict the future. In essence, routines make you lazy. They make your life and you boring. Routines won’t provide you with stories to tell.” Even so, in some churches regulars don’t even have to read the order of service in the bulletin to know what will come next.

Managing the Event

“This issue of power and control,” Drane says, “is at the heart of all the other factors that are at work in a McDonaldized style of being.” As an example, he points to the typical church practice of offering self-tests to help people discover their spiritual gifts.

“While we say we are wanting to be sensitive to people’s skills, and open to using them in the life of the church, the possible ministries that are on offer invariably have an over-emphasis on particular areas—all of them carefully chosen to ensure that we identify in other people only those gifts that are not going to challenge the position of the established leadership.”

The Shared-Church Connection

What does all this have to do with shared church? I’ll close with one more quotation from Drane when he says that today’s world will require the church in its worship services to “place the mutual sharing of stories of faith at the center of its search for meaningful human community, not to mention its obedient commitment to the gospel.”

Reports from the Front

On Sunday, we Christians rightly hear what we are to believe and do. We also hear what God did back in Bible times. But how often do we hear what God is doing today in our neighborhoods, workplaces, families, and other arenas of our scattered-church lives?

A few churches regularly include what Alan and Eleanor Kreider call “reports from the front.” That can mean reports from the “front lines” where we live out our daily lives. Or it can also mean reports we hear “from the front” of the meeting room.

Evidence of God at Work

As the Kreiders say in Worship and Mission after Christendom, “If we receive no reports from the front in our congregations, we are in trouble. . . . God seems powerless and inactive. And Christians who do see evidence of the missional activities of God in our time may only whisper about it in the church’s hallways or discuss it during the week in house groups or on the telephone—but not in worship services.”

Such reports were once called “testimonies.” Why have they fallen out of fashion in our church meetings? The Kreiders explain: “Testimony is a term that bores some people and alarms others. It bores people because at times testimonies are oft-repeated stories about long-ago conversion experiences. . . . Testimony in worship alarms people when the stories become embarrassingly personal.”

The faculty member of a seminary told me, “When I have been in a church where there is an ‘open mic’ time, the sharing is seldom about anything except sickness and personal problems.” Sadly, many believers have suffered through similar experiences.

Pastoral Coaching

But rightly done reports from the front will neither bore nor alarm. In some churches, leaders resist spectatoritis by coaching believers in how to put into words what God is doing in their daily lives. (My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes guidelines the pastors in one church use in coaching those who will present reports from the front.) While conversion stories have a place, reports from the front should cover a much wider range. For example:

  • This week I saw God at work in my workplace when he . . .

  • Would you please pray for me about . . .

  • Do you ever struggle with the temptation to . . . ? Let me tell you my story . . .

  • We just saw God open a whole new opportunity in our neighborhood by . . .

  • Here is how God has answered a long-term prayer. . .

  • Yesterday God used [name] to encourage me when she . . .

  • As I was reading [Bible passage], the Holy Spirit moved my heart with . . .

Hebrews 10:24-25 explains the importance of shared church, our gathering with other believers: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Most encouraging and spurring on involves speaking to and hearing each other—the very activities involved in reports from the front. 

People gave reports like this even in the Old Testament. For example, the Psalmist encouraged telling stories of God acting in the workplace: “Let them [merchants God had delivered from perils at sea] exalt him in the assembly of the people” (Ps. 107:32). How much more are such reports possible now that each believer has received the gift of God’s outpoured Spirit!

What do you think? How would giving and hearing reports from the front encourage you in your faith and spur you on to act it out?

The Faith-Voice Divide

A friend phoned this morning to say that someone close to him, a believer, had died a few days ago. My friend had been called on to offer some words of comfort at the memorial. “Could you,” he asked me, “help me find some Bible verses that would be appropriate for the occasion?”

Of course I was happy to do so and responded with three different passages he might want to consider. When I did so, he made a comment that left me sad and pondering. This man, probably around 60 years old, said, “I’ve attended church all my life, but still can’t find Scriptures when I need them.”

My friend is a Christian, but when a moment of opportunity comes, he is unable to locate or vocalize Scripture. His faith and his voice remain disconnected. This is one of the disabling symptoms of Sunday spectatoritis. In his decades of church attendance, no one has expected him to become an apprentice or student of Jesus and his words—in other words, a disciple.

In his book, Preaching as Dialogue, Jeremy Thomson says, “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.”

Paul noted that the disciples in the Roman church were “competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). He wrote that the Colossian believers were to “teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16). Instructing, teaching, admonishing—those all require a linkage of faith with voice. And if the meeting formats in those churches followed the pattern of the church at Corinth (I Cor. 14:26), everyone had opportunities to develop and practice using that faith-voice connection when they gathered.

 What do you think? How might the meeting format of your church be modified so that Christians like my friend could practice connecting their faith with their voices?