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:
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?