What Are We Missing?

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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).

Restoring Participation

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?

A POTLUCK PARABLE

“Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others” (I Pet. 4:10).

The Saturday Supper Society

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For as long as she can remember, Ashley and her parents have eaten Saturday dinner with the Supper Society. For them, if it’s late Saturday afternoon, their response is almost automatic: they head for the dining hall. Ashley knows that, with a name like Supper Society, the group must have begun ages ago. How long? She has no idea.

Another weekend is here, so Ashley and her parents make their way to the customary meal. As usual, Chef Charlie has prepared it well. Ashley, always curious, asks if she might tour his kitchen. “Of course,” he says. His diverse array of cooking tools amazes her. And just above a large, gray file cabinet—which she assumes holds his recipes—hangs his framed culinary degree.

Tonight, Ashley sees fatigue lines in Chef Charlie’s face. For 17 years he has come up with menu ideas and meals every week. Seeing him on the verge of burnout distresses her. And, to be honest, even in herself she detects a lack of eagerness. The same-old-same-old nature of the gatherings has made them highly predictable.

Ashley wonders if that filing cabinet in Chef Charlie’s kitchen holds any untried entrees. On opening the top drawer she finds recipes galore. One aging folder, tagged “History,” intrigues her. It’s the backstory of the Supper Society. Nearly 150 years ago, a young couple had begun inviting friends and neighbors over for Saturday potluck meals. Someone had painstakingly recorded a whole year of who-brought-what. For example, Johansson: Swedish meatballs. Rossi: pasta. Chan: sweet and sour pork. Williams: scones with strawberry jam.

How, Ashley wonders, had they gone from share-the-cooking potlucks to depending completely on chefs like Charlie? The rest of the file reveals how the transition took place. Food-preparation had gotten wearisome. It took time and trouble. People began showing up empty-handed, expecting to eat what others had prepared. Oh, yes, everyone enjoyed and wanted to keep the togetherness. But they wanted it without having to sacrifice for others.

So they had hired a chef to take over the Saturday-meal chores. All began paying dues. They compensated the chef to do what they had originally done for one another. As she closes the file drawer, Ashley’s mind bursts with fresh ideas. The following Saturday, she arrives with notes for a brief pitch. Her main points:

  1. Chef Charlie is overworked.

  2. Each of us has an adequate kitchen.

  3. We can all cook—even if that ability needs to be discovered and developed.

  4. Proposal: We should break with tradition and return to the original potluck model.

  5. Our founders proved that potlucks work.

  6. Our menus will be less predictable—more varied and interesting.

  7. Chef Charlie can use his training and experience to help us expand our cooking skills to serve each other.

“Please think on my proposal,” Ashley says to the group. “Let’s vote on it next week.”

___________________________

What do you imagine the Supper Society decided to do about Ashley’s proposal—and why?

From this little story, what might we learn about church gatherings?

If you are part of a small group of Christians, how could you discuss this parable with them?

(Your comments are welcome. See below.)

Some Inconvenient Church Questions

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 seventh on such books.

Milt Rodriguez has a way of asking inconvenient questions about the way we do church. No, he is not anti-church. His slim, 142-page book, The Priesthood of All Believers, makes it clear that he dearly loves the church. But his questions are inconvenient, because they require us either to face them honestly or duck them completely. In his Preface, he lobs the first question:

“Why does the church we see today look so different from the church we see in the New Testament?”

Rodriquez does not think God has any one-size-fits-all blueprint for the church. However, “God does have a pattern for the church. He does care about how the church is built. This ‘pattern’ is based on life, divine life, not rigid organizational machinery.” Just as DNA provides the pattern for our physical bodies, God’s own life supplies the pattern for the Body of Christ.

Rodriguez warns against trying to merely copy the outward actions and forms of the first-century church. Back then, God’s “life flowed out of the people and it took the form of certain actions. Let’s not make the mistake of duplicating those actions in hopes of having the life. That’s backwards. . . . Please do not read this book as a manual on how to do church. These ‘observations’ are simply things I have seen of the pattern of divine life as revealed in the scriptures and in my own experiences.”

“What is the main purpose for us to gather together as believers?”

Ask almost any Christian today, and they will say we meet to “worship.” We have worship centers, worship services, worship bands, worship leaders, worship songs, worship seminars, and even worship software. But to this inconvenient question, Rodriguez offers a completely non-traditional—yet biblical—answer. We gather “for the purpose of edification [building up] of the members through their God-given ministry to one another.”

“Even though worship is important, we must realize that worship is not the reason we gather together. Paul teaches that worship is offering up our whole lives to God (see Rom. 12:1, 2). We don’t come together primarily to worship because our whole life is to be an act of worship. We should just continue that flow of worship when we come to meetings.”

This, of course, assumes that our lives through the week have prepared us to have something to offer our fellow Christ-followers. “If we don’t, then we really have nothing to give. . . .Every part or member is to be given freedom to minister as God leads. I Cor. 14:26 makes this very clear.”

“Why does only one person need to bring a teaching?”

Paul told the Roman believers he was convinced that they were “competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). But Rodriguez observes that “in modern church settings the people just sit there and receive all the time. . . .God wants an activated priesthood. What good is it that we are priests if all we do is sit there and watch like an audience at a show? It’s time for all leaders to train, encourage, and open the way for all the believers to participate in ministry during the meetings.”

He also notes the absence of song or worship leaders in the New Testament churches. Why? “Because all the saints [led] out in songs and sang to God and one another during the meetings.” As Paul puts it in Ephesians 5:19, “. . . speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.”

“This participatory, every-member-involvement in first-century church gatherings leads Rodriguez to his next inconvenient question:

“Did a church in the first century ever hire one of these [professionals] and pay them a salary to be a ‘Minister’ for their congregation?”

Clearly, the answer is no. As Os Guinness says in his book, The Call: “there is not a single instance in the New Testament of God’s special call to anyone into a paid occupation or into the role of a religious professional.”

Rodriguez agrees: “You will not find anything like our present day clergy system anywhere in the New Testament. It just doesn’t exist. What you find instead is a body of believers who all minister to one another. What you find is a ‘priesthood of all believers.’ . . . Unfortunately, the clergy/laity system has all but destroyed every member functioning within the church.”

Of course, the New Testament church did have leaders. “It was always elders (plural), never elder or pastor (singular).” But, “They are not to be ‘the ministers’ for the congregation. They are not to do all the ministry while the believers sit down and soak it all in. Their ministry is to equip the saints to do their ministry. . . .The elders and deacons were simply priests among priests who were there to train and develop the other believers’ ministries and watch over the church.”

“Where did the professional clergy come from?”

Participatory meetings continued through the first century. The clergy system took root in the second. “At the beginning of the second century there was a man that began pushing for one-man rulership in each church. His name was Ignatius of Antioch. . . .He taught that the bishop had absolute power over the congregation and the elders. The bishop was to perform the Christian ‘sacraments’ of communion, baptisms, marriages, and preach sermons.”

“Cyprian of Carthage came along in the third century. . . .He was responsible for bringing back the Old Testament system of priests, temples, altars, and sacrifices. Bishops now became known as ‘priests’ and were accepted as representatives of God and anyone who questioned them would be opposing God himself.”

Moving on to the fourth century, Rodriguez points out that under the Roman Emperor, Constantine, “the church became more like an organization than a body.” Centuries later, Martin Luther and the Reformation brought the church “a great step forward.” However, “Even though the Bible was put into the hands of the believers, the ministry was not. . . .The priesthood of all believers was not restored to the church. The same clergy/laity system was still used. . . . Instead of being called priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes; now they were called pastors, ministers, parsons, preachers, and reverends!”

Another outcome of the Reformation: church divisions. “Christianity became a very divided and splintered group. Many new organizations, called denominations, began to come forth, each of them rallying around a certain leader or reformer.”

“Why call in a doctor when the body can heal itself?”

Just as God has built healing capacities into our physical bodies, he has also done so in Christ’s Body. “If all the believers are functioning as priests and ministers, then needs can be met quickly and easily instead of some pastor having to be at six places at one time. . . .The church is a life, not just a meeting.”

In other words, “if meetings function the way they that they are supposed to, then the believers will want to be together outside of the meetings as well. During the meeting, people will learn to care for their brothers and sisters and this will cultivate a love between them that will surely extend outside of the meetings. . . .The power, authority, and character of Christ will be expressed through His church. The fullness of Christ will be made visible!”

“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)

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Links to Previous Book Reviews in This Series

Shared Church: A Forgotten Way

Dr. Amy Anderson serves as Professor of Greek and New Testament in North Central University, Minneapolis, MN. PhD.-University of Birmingham, England; MA-Fuller Seminary, Pasdadena, CA.

Dr. Amy Anderson serves as Professor of Greek and New Testament in North Central University, Minneapolis, MN. PhD.-University of Birmingham, England; MA-Fuller Seminary, Pasdadena, CA.

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 sixth on such books.

A blurb on the back cover of When You Come Together (title from I Cor. 14:26) sums it up. It points out that “Amy Anderson reminds us of the raw power of the original model” of meeting as Christians. Anderson herself explains that she wrote the book hoping it would “raise issues you have not thought about, and to start you on the road to developing a vital biblical theology of the gathered people of God.”

Early in her first chapter, Anderson grants that the New Testament prescribes no set arrangement for our gatherings. At the same time, she says “we will find principles in scripture that can open a window to the wise intentions of God, and help us to be faithful followers as we build up the church together.”

Challenging “ChurchSpeak”

Clearly sensitive to the terms we use, Anderson opposes speaking of Christian gatherings as church services. In the U.S. she says, such language suggests rigid agendas and tightly planned schedules. “But is that what we really want? Is that what God intended? Maybe we should stop using the word service to describe a gathering of believers.” Would that change in our vocabulary, she wonders, “assist us in moving away from the tendency to want to ‘put on a show’ on Sunday mornings?”

But her concern is not just with what we call it but also with what we do when we get together. “In most churches, the same things happen every Sunday morning, with little or no variation. A plan has been made—an ‘order of service’—and the leaders lead the people through it. . . . the leaders and the congregation are treating the ‘service’ like a performance.”

The Clergy/Laity Distinction

Church leaders—even those paid to lead, Anderson says—are needed. But, “Christ does not prescribe a professional paid clergy who do the actual ministry (by which we tend to mean such things as preaching, leading worship, visiting the sick, planning events, etc.) while the people of God are seen as support staff at best or passive consumers at worst.” It appears, she says, “that our human tendencies toward hierarchy and control continually cause us to return to behaviors that the Holy Spirit then needs to correct in each generation.”

Our hankering after pecking orders and control run counter to the biblical concept of the priesthood of all believers. “Churches have a tendency to give lip service to the priesthood of all believers,” she points out, “but they still often separate the pastor out as the only person who is allowed to preach, marry, bury, serve communion or perform other ministries.”

Practicing the Priesthood of All Believers

What happens when our theology and our practice don’t match? “Many pastors who teach about the priesthood of all believers fail to train their people to do priestly ministry. Many would agree theoretically that the Holy Spirit gifts all people for ministry, but do not provide opportunities for those gifts to be practiced and developed.”

“If we want the saints to be equipped and the church to be healthy, we must all step back and re-consider how we ‘do church.’” Toward that end, Anderson asks some searching questions:

  • “What are we teaching our people about God and the world and salvation and mission if we treat them as an audience that watches a show every Sunday?”

  • “What we do we teach them about the community of believers if our worship music is so loud that people can’t hear themselves singing, let alone be enriched by the passionate love of God expressed by the voice of their neighbor?”

  • “What do we teach about individual giftedness if we fail to recognize and appreciate their gifts in a public manner?”

  • “What does it mean to equip the saints? Just to put them through a new members’ class and then assign them to a committee? To convince them to show up at events the leaders have planned? That sounds more like using the saints than equipping them.”

Paradigms for Worship Gatherings

The Concert Paradigm. In Chapter 6, Anderson names and describes a couple of typically-followed “paradigms for worship gatherings.” The first: “The Concert Paradigm.” Here, “A more or less talented worship band is stationed at the front, normally on a platform and plugged in. They have chosen the songs and other elements of the musical part of the gathering. They have practiced their program in advance, and they always follow their plan. . . . Churches that follow the concert paradigm typically follow up the worship band performance with a monologue speech, called a sermon. Again the emphasis is on delivery, professionalism, and even entertainment.”

The Big Band/Symphony Paradigm. In this model, the “gathering is strongly directed from the front, with one person in leadership of the musical part of worship. Here, however, whatever musical instruments are employed are seen as supporting the entire congregation, which is considered to be producing the worship music. It is as if each person were an instrument in a band or orchestra.” The sermon may be more interactive than in the Concert Paradigm—even including a Q & A time. While Anderson sees this as an improvement over the first paradigm, she warns that “there is still a plan to be followed, and if God wishes to speak it would be mostly limited to the leadership.”

The Jazz Band Paradigm. By contrast, Anderson recommends what she calls “The Jazz Band Paradigm.” Although it has leaders, they are “less obvious, less dominant. . . .As a jazz piece is being played, any member of the band can add something, and the others welcome the new impulse and respond accordingly. . . . There is also the adventure of not knowing exactly what is going to happen next. . . .What’s good about this paradigm? [It] fits very nicely with the description Paul gave in I Cor. 14:26, as well as the theological concepts of the body.” The problem with this paradigm is that “. . . we have forgotten how to do it.”

Recovering What We Lost

Because doing church this way has been long-forgotten, Chapter 7 suggests many ways church leaders can go about recovering what has gone missing in our gatherings. In Chapter 8, Anderson describes how those who lead singing can help bring about the needed change. Such reform, she says, begins with prayer. It takes teaching, training, and empowering the congregation. She urges that leaders “recognize that God may choose to speak through any member, that you expect it to happen, and that nothing would make you happier. You must . . . give them permission to ‘disrupt’ the plan for the gathering if the Holy Spirit so prompts.”

When we gather as Christ-followers, do we have the courage to repossess what belongs to us?

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).”

Pastoral Job Description: Shared Church

Suppose a church begins acting as an assembly of priests (see previous two blogs). What, then, does a pastor do? Will practicing the priesthood of all believers impair pastoral work? Might the fear of a reduced role discourage pastors from sharing the priesthood? Since the Reformation, Christians have spoken of the priesthood of all believers. Spoken of? Yes. Practiced? Not so much.

Daryl McCarthy, with the Forum of Christian Leaders, says, “Tragically, the priesthood of all believers is the one Reformation doctrine that has never been fully embraced by evangelical churches.” And Dr. Art Lindsley adds, “The priesthood of all believers has been the most neglected central teaching of the Reformation.”

But why?

Might pastoral job descriptions be putting a damper on practicing a shared priesthood?

I just reviewed a few such job descriptions offered as models. They have the pastor doing nearly everything in gathered-church meetings: preaching, leading worship, administering ordinances, and officiating at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. One job description has the pastor heading all boards and committees to develop the vision for the church, supervising staff, providing pastoral care, and so on. The first sentence in one model said: “The pastor is to be the spiritual leader of the church.” Not one of the spiritual leaders, but the spiritual leader.

In most cases, pastors get paid to do what these job descriptions call for. Those in a congregation typically receive no compensation for doing church-related work. So, paychecks add pressure on pastors to carry out their extensive to-do lists. Any surprise so many burn out?

What, I wondered, might a pastoral job description look like if it were written for a church that wanted to actually live out the priesthood of all believers? My pondering prompted me to jot down a list—practices that would connect the dots between how the New Testament pictures church leadership and congregational life in the 21st century. Would the following role description fit every setting? No. But I hope it will stimulate some creative thinking:

 Job-Description: Shared-Church Pastor

Job Title: Pastor/Elder

Reports to: Board of Elders and Church Body

Job Summary: The pastor/elder, coequally with fellow-elders, is responsible for watching over and nurturing the life of the church body and for preparing those within it to serve in both the gathered and scattered church.

Primary Job Responsibilities:

Sets an example for other believers by:

  • Maintaining a vital relationship with Christ and with others in both the gathered and the scattered church.
  • Living a life—in attitudes, actions, and speech—God would approve as a model for other believers in the church body.

Together with fellow-elders, ensures that the gathered church is fed regularly with sound biblical teaching and guards the church against false teaching.

Shares with fellow-elders the work of helping those within the church body to identify and  develop their God-given spiritual and natural gifts.

Helps to recognize and train others within the church body who are gifted and motivated to serve as elders, to preach and teach, and to lead the gathered church in public prayer.

Oversees the setup and maintenance of:

  • A listing of those in the church body with ministries in these five sectors: family, school, marketplace, neighborhood, and hobbies/recreation.
  • A church-wide prayer ministry for those ministering in the five sectors.

Sets aside one day a week to spend “on location” with those in the church body who minister in one or more of the five sectors, gathering their prayer needs and hearing their stories of how they see God working.

Coaches believers in writing and presenting personal testimonies.

Structures gathered-church meetings in such a way that they provide opportunities for:

  • Those with teaching gifts to develop and exercise them.
  • Those who have been prepared to do so to lead in public prayer.
  • Christians to report on what God is doing in their ministry sectors during the week.
  • Public prayer for the issues and opportunities Christians are facing in their workplaces, families, neighborhoods, and other areas of their weekday lives.

Invites and helps to prepare others in the church body to baptize believers and to take the lead in overseeing the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Seeks to include personal testimonies in gatherings for baptisms, weddings, and memorial services.

Pastoral Role Enhanced

So, practicing the priesthood of all believers in a shared-church context does not set aside or reduce the importance of pastoral service. Rather, the pastoral role becomes even more important as catalyst and multiplier, releasing the gifts and ministries of others.

In our traditional non-practice of the all-believer priesthood, church governance language often says that elders, boards, deacons, etc., “shall assist the pastor.” Shared-church practice turns that upside down. Pastors/elders assist other priests to develop and carry out their respective ministries in the gathered and scattered church. In doing so, they fulfill Eph. 4:12.

According to Paul, pastors—along with other church leaders—are “to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”

Shared Church: An Assembly of Priests (part one)

Think back to the Easter gathering of your church. What term would most Christians there use to identify themselves? Some may hold unbiblical self-identities. Seeing myself as “laity” can silence me in a church meeting. As one Christian put it, “I'm just a layperson. I don't think they'd listen to me.” Perceiving ourselves this way works against shared church.

Many might say, “I’m a child of God.” This offspring image calls attention to the vertical relationship with God. Others may see themselves as “saints.” Still others might say, “I’m a disciple,” an apprentice to Jesus. All three are biblical identities, but none points us toward one-anothering.

Thankfully, the New Testament also provides identities that remind us of our horizontal calling to serve each other. For example, we are “members of one body” (Eph. 4:25); body parts work for each other. We also need to dust off that long-neglected New Testament word, priest. Martin Luther said, “This word ‘priest’ should become as common as the word Christian.” Luther based this on Scripture. Peter calls the Christian community both a “holy priesthood” and a “royal priesthood” (I Pet. 2:5, 9). John says Jesus has made us “priests” (Rev. 1:6).

Seeing ourselves as priests would help blaze the trail to shared-church meetings. Not only does the word priest express our relationship with God, it also speaks of our relationship with people. Melchizedek, the first priest mentioned in the Bible, served vertically as “priest of God Most High.” But he also served horizontally by bringing Abraham bread, wine, and a blessing (Gen. 14:18-20).

I recently asked those in my Bible study group if they ever thought of themselves as priests. Most said no. Why do so few Christians see ourselves in the priestly role? At least two reasons come to mind. First, the word priest carries centuries of heavy baggage. The term is packed with Old Testament images—slaughtering animals, wearing scented clothing, burning sacrifices, and so on. In our time, we associate “priest” with clerical collars, cassocks, and silk skullcaps. Because we connect priest with images like that, most of us can’t identify.  

Second, we associate priests with church officials. For nearly all in my Bible study group, the word priest brought to mind religious leaders. The thesaurus in the Word program offers pastor and minister as synonyms for priest. By whatever name, a clergypersons' work looks like priest-work. As Greg Ogden puts it in The New Reformation, “Even in the Protestant tradition the minister has a priestly aura. . . . All pastors; have experienced a sense of being treated differently because of their priestly position.”

Coaching a congregation to self-identify as priests will help prepare them to practice shared church. But, in the New Testament sense, how are we to live out being members of the royal or holy priesthood? How do such priests spend their time? Most will not serve on a paid church staff. The great majority will work in non-ecclesiastical roles—as electricians, homemakers, software engineers, secretaries, or what have you. Few will wear unusual clothing or answer to religious titles.

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I write: “Although Martin Luther and other reformers recovered this truth of the priesthood of believers, in the centuries since then—even in Protestant churches—it has gotten far more lip-service than legwork. The doctrine shapes our church meetings about as much as an exhibit of horse-drawn buggies in a museum affects our daily drive to work. In When You Come Together, Amy S. Anderson writes, ‘Many pastors who teach about the priesthood of all believers fail to train their people to do priestly ministry.’”

But what does that “priestly ministry” look like? In Part Two, we will explore the roles of New Covenant priests.