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).
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?