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).”

A Fresh Look at the Sermon

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 third on such books.

Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow?

When Jeremy Thomson, in his subtitle, asks, “Is the sermon a sacred cow?” he is not being flippant. Instead, he raises this serious question: Have we elevated the sermon—like Hindus have the cow—to the point of its being venerated and above question? In his little booklet (just 28 pages), Thomson strongly supports preaching. He says, “because I believe passionately in it . . . I want to see it done yet more faithfully.”

In Chapter 1, he points out that “preaching has become stereotyped into sermons.” The danger: when the 1st-century Bible says “preaching,” our 20th century minds read “sermon.” Yet preaching and teaching in the New Testament rarely, if ever, took place in the same “social setting” as the contemporary sermon.

Jeremy Thomson.jpg

No Pulpits for Jesus and Paul

Yes, Jesus gave “a few extended discourses . . . to a ‘passive audience’ (for example in Mk. 4:1ff; 6:34; 13:3ff).” But most of his preaching/teaching took place in other settings: the doorway of a house; during meals; on a shoreline or from a boat; walking through fields or along a road; on the Mt. of Olives; and so on. “Much of Jesus’ teaching,” Thomson says, “was given ‘on the way’ and involved a high degree of interaction with the audience (Mk. 8:27-10:52).”

Back-and-forth discussions, questions, responses—most of Jesus’ teaching involved dialogue. The woman at the well. Nicodemus. Crowds and critics. The man blind from birth. And, “The so-called upper-room discourse includes extensive interaction with the disciples (Jn. 14:1-16:23).”

Like Jesus, Paul preached interactively. Thomson cites an article by Stanley Sowers who “examines the circumstances of Paul’s preaching activity and shows that the most significant settings for it were the private house and the leather workshop. He concludes that ‘the widespread picture of Paul the public orator, sophist, or street corner preacher is a false one.’”

How Monological Sermons Became Central

In Chapter 4, Thomson traces how, as time passed, preaching and sermons came to be seen as nearly identical. Martin Luther’s recovery of “justification by grace through faith meant that this Pauline doctrine had to be declared. Thus the sermon became the very centre of the service of worship. . . . For John Calvin also the preacher was the ‘mouth of God’. . . . Calvin believed that congregations . . . should be passive receptors of sermons . . . implying congregational acquiescence so that any format other than the monologue sermon is unthinkable.”

More recently, “Martin Lloyd-Jones refused any idea of dialogue in the proclamation of the gospel.” In his book, Preaching and Preachers, Lloyd-Jones wrote: “We cannot in any circumstances allow [God] to become a subject for discussion or of debate or of investigation. I base my argument at this point on the word addressed by God Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-6). Moses . . . was proposing to turn aside and to examine this astonishing phenomenon. But immediately he is rebuked by the voice . . . . That seems to me to be the governing principle in this whole matter.”

However, as Thomson points out, taking Lloyd-Jones’ own example of the burning bush, right after this incident Moses engages God in a back-and-forth conversation, with questions and even negotiations. Thomson observes, “God takes human personality utterly seriously, graciously allows questions and supplies answers in a dialogical relationship. This . . . impels us to reject a monological theology of the sermon.”

The Case for Dialogue

Thomson offers his alternative in Chapter 5: “A Theology of Preaching as Dialogue.” He insists that real personhood involves give-and-take with others. In our vertical connection with God, he says, we “are called and invited into a dialogical relationship with God rather than subjected to megaphone-style address and manipulating power.” In our horizontal connection with other people, each of us is made in the likeness of the one-yet-three-personed God who within himself is relational. Monologue, then, is “distorted communication.” Dialogue is “genuine communication.”

God’s word to the gathered church comes not simply through one individual but “within the process of dialogue.” Thomson points to I Cor. 14:29, in which a prophet says something and someone else judges or evaluates what was said. In other words, God speaks not just through a single person but through the Body of Christ, as “each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). This communication “process may require interaction for the purposes of clarification, interpretation, and application.”

Christian growth, says Thomson, actually depends on such interaction. “There must be a dialogue between teachers and learners if there is to be maturity in the church community; how can characters develop without the opportunity to verbalize? How can a community be a community if one person does all the talking? . . . The greatest preacher of them all asked questions, brought people into the conversation, took the observations and questions of others as opportunities to tackle the burning issues of life. Why have preachers forsaken him in this?”

We Christians, have, Thomson asserts, been “unduly influenced by a hierarchical view of reality.” Why? Because we have focused more on God as one than on God as social Trinity (see previous blog on Trinity in Human Community). Yes, there is a place for leadership in the church. But according to Jesus, leadership is not based on hierarchy but on what Thomson calls “lowerarchy.”

Changes Needed

In Chapter 6 Thomson lists several “practical implications.” In summary:

  1. Turn away from the idea that traditional sermons “fulfil the responsibility to preach and teach. . . . A conventional sermon may be the most effective means of preaching from time to time; I do not mean that we must abandon the [monologue] sermon altogether.”

  2. Do less evangelizing in normal church gatherings and more disciple-making through teaching. “Preaching should largely aim at teaching believers.”

  3. Rely less on the monologue and learn how to make sermons participatory. “For Christians, the scriptural models of communication and education should count most.”

  4. Let those teach who can draw out and involve others in the truth being presented. “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.”

  5. Give time both to prepared messages and those that respond on the spot to expressed needs. “On-going programs may sometimes have to be set aside in order to deal with unexpected and pressing questions.”

A New Wineskin for Sermons

After offering several practical suggestions for how to transition to dialogue sermons, Thomson concludes with this: “The resources available in the church are squandered if members believe that preaching is largely the responsibility of a special few who give sermons in religious settings. In order to communicate God’s word effectively preachers must recognize the limitations of the monologue format of the sermon and encourage more interaction with their congregations. The new wine of preaching will burst the old skin of the sermon.”