Shared Church on Sunday Morning?

The other day, a woman who recently began participating in our home group made a telling comment. She has regularly attended a variety of churches for decades. “But in church,” she told us, “I could never ask my questions and hear answers about the Christian life.”

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Today shared church—the sort of one-anothering seen in the New Testament church—is more likely to take place in small groups that meet in living rooms than in main congregational meetings. Yet few Christians ever call those home gatherings “church.” Instead, like the woman in our small group, when they say “church," they mean the large assembly that usually gets together on Sunday.

Many Never Take Part in a Small Group

So although what happens in a home cluster comes closer to the practice of first-century Christians, a great many believers never experience that kind of involvement. According to Joseph R. Meyers, in The Search to Belong, “Books on small groups, tapes, seminars, and models abound, yet few of us achieve more than a 30 to 35 percent participation rate.” If accurate this translates to 65-70 percent whose experience of church is something far less participatory.  

Aaron Earls, writing in the website, “Facts & Trends,” pegs the small-group participation rate a bit higher: “In a typical month, less than 6 in 10 churchgoers attend some type of small Bible study group at least once. This means that over 40 percent of those who are in your church building at least on a monthly basis never go a small group.” 

Jesus clearly intended that his followers share in the give-and-take of one-anothering: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).

The dynamics in a congregation of 150 or 300, of course, differ greatly from those in a group of 8 to 12. But as already noted, a large proportion of believers never take part in a small group. How, then,  can they experience one-anothering in the only form of church life they know?  

One-Anothering Possible in Congregational Meetings

The interviews with church leaders in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis make it clear that some level of body life can take place even in the larger congregational setting. For example:

Panels. One pastor, after his sermon, invites questions from members of the body. Sometimes he organizes a panel of mature believers to help him respond to what people ask. Those on the panel may join him up front or speak from roving microphones.

Shared Preaching/Teaching. In another church of about 300, the pastor shares the preaching/teaching ministry with a dozen or so church members who are gifted and able to serve in this way. “My goal,” he says, “is to have someone from the congregation preach once a month, without pulling in a guest speaker from the outside.”

FaithStories. Nearly every Sunday a church in Minnesota includes “FaithStories” in their congregational meeting. Each one usually runs about five minutes. In addition to the examples included in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, these stories  cover a wide range of topics, including reports on: How Christians are living out their faith on the job; How a new mom received encouragement from the church’s meal’s ministry; How God worked in the life of another mother to heal her after she lost two of her children; How the Lord delivered a man from his involvement in a cult. Those presenting their stories are carefully coached as they develop what they will say and how they will say it. This avoids the objections raised against what, in other times, were called “testimonies.”

Sermons with Dialogue. Some pastors have carefully developed the art of preaching that draws the congregation into conversation. They prepare a significant part of the message ahead of time and present it without interruption. But with the skillful use of thought-provoking questions, these pastors invite the people to take part in a dialogue. Anyone may ask about something they do not understand, contribute an insight, express a doubt, or read a related Scripture.

By means of these and other ways to structure the main church meeting, a leader can open new opportunities for those who will never join a small group. This frees them to become contributors instead of passive consumers. They get to know the names and stories of others in the congregation. And after tasting body life, they may even choose to join a home group.

An Experiment

In The Other Six Days, R. Paul Stevens invites churches to “Consider an experiment that has been undertaken in several churches. The culture of a local church can be partially changed in fifty-two weeks by refusing for one year to give ‘air-time,’ speaking time, to visiting missionaries, denominational officials and professors from denominational colleges in the Sunday service. Instead each week an ordinary member should be brought forward and in five minutes interviewed along these lines: 'What do you do for a living? What are the issues you face in your work? What difference does your faith make to the way you address these issues? How would you like us as a church to pray for you in your ministry in the workplace?'”

Ephesians 4:11-12 calls church leaders “to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ (NLT).” God’s people include not just those in small groups but also those whose only church experience occurs in the main congregational meeting. Church meetings, even fairly large ones, can be structured to some degree as shared-church gatherings that allow that kind of body-building work to take place.

Shared-Church Insights from Online Classrooms

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Teaching, so they say, is the best way to learn. They are right. Over the past four years, I have learned much from teaching online for the Bakke Graduate University. For example, leading these classes has expanded my understanding of shared church. In what follows, I’ll explain how.

My courses cover the “theology of work,” focusing on what God’s Word says about our everyday work. Because nearly all the students are Christ-followers, each class is full of those to whom the Holy Spirit has given various gifts. So, class members have received resources God gave them for the benefit of others.

Creating a Learning Environment

Because I earned a graduate degree in the theology of work, I bring to each class a wider grasp of the subject than almost all who enroll. But my background does not mean I am the only one with something useful to say about how God views our work. Instead, my challenge is to create a learning environment. This means putting together an agenda made up of a series of experiences that will change how the students think, believe, act, and pass along to others what they have learned.

Woven into those experiences are resources I have written. For example, I ask them to read my articles, “How to Weave Theology of Work into Church Life” and “Regaining a Biblical Worldview.” They also view and listen to my narrated PowerPoint presentation, “Stewardship.” Assigned reading also includes a variety of books by many others—for some of which they must write book reviews. Learning requires instruction by gifted, knowledgeable, and authorized teachers.

Yet another critical element in this carefully shaped discovery environment is what they learn from each other. An instructor who knows a subject well can easily lose a sense of what those still trying to comprehend it for the first time are going through. Fellow students, those also struggling to grow in their understanding, are often in the best positions to say it in ways others in the class can “get it.”

Interaction: the Benefits

To help that kind of learning take place, I have devised assignments that ask students to interact with each other. For instance, in one lesson I task them with reading a case study, answering three questions about it in writing, and posting their paragraphs in the online classroom for other students to read. But there’s more. Before the end of the week, each student must respond in writing to what at least two other students have posted on the case study. This interrelating results in several benefits as students:

  • Encourage and affirm each other. Supportive statements like these are often posted: “I concur with your comment here.” Or, “You have well articulated the idea that ‘all work matters to God as God matters to all our work.’” And, “I am compelled to borrow your idea of ‘working as a family.’”
  • State truth in words that help fellow students understand. One student had posted a comment about “Church members who have been taught to glorify their leaders. . ..” To which another responded, “That is an interesting perspective I hadn't thought about before, about those who idolize the leader.”
  • Raise questions about unclear points. One student had written, “all positively positioned work (i.e. not illegal or immoral) is sacred work as it aids in the establishment and flourishing of human communities on God’s planet Earth.” In her response, a fellow student wrote: “I am seeking clarification on two things when you spoke of work that is not illegal.” This resulted in a fruitful dialogue that benefited not only these two but the rest of the class as well.
  • Tactfully disagree and offer a contrasting viewpoint. For example, one student had written that, “We have to become vigilantes on the war on adverse waste disposal.” When another objected about that language as too strong, the first writer responded, “In retrospect the word 'vigilante' may be too harsh and inappropriate. I would like for us to be in 'advocates of change' instead.”

Making Disciples in Shared Church

How does all this relate to shared church? When Jesus told his first disciples to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19), the word he used could be translated, “enroll people as learners.” Making learner-disciples should be a vital part of gathering as a church. My experience with online classes has demonstrated that learning takes not only through one-way communication from a teacher but also requires interaction among the learners themselves.

 Shared church, like an online classroom, must include instruction by qualified pastors and teachers. But enrolling learners also calls for structuring a church-meeting learning environment in which they may interact with and teach each other. Even though he had not yet met them, Paul was convinced that the believers in Rome were “competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). And he urged believers in Corinth to meet in a shared-church format in which everyone had opportunity to participate (I Cor. 14:26).

 Churches are not just preaching stations where one or two exercise their teaching gifts. Rightly structured, the congregational meeting itself offers opportunities for disciples to learn how to articulate their growing faith in front of each other.