Activating Unused Church-Building Tools

In church-as-usual, the majority sit, watch, and listen as onlookers, sightseers, bystanders. Traditional formats have taught most in the room to stay silent while a few others exercise their gifts from the platform. Old habits die hard. So, any movement toward a shared-church agenda must be done gradually and with care. In this and the next few blogs, I’ll explore how to help prepare God’s people to meet in more participatory ways.

What must benchwarmers have to become active players in a church meeting? They will need a new (and perhaps untapped) source of strength, energy, and wisdom—a source God supplies for Christ-followers. Because Jesus died, God has forgiven our sins. Because Jesus returned to his Father, he has given us the live-in Holy Spirit. Now and then in the Old Covenant, the Holy Spirit “came upon” people to empower them for special tasks. In the New Covenant, God has “poured out” his Spirit on his servants (Acts 2: 17, 33). The Holy Spirit is actually “in” them (Jn. 14:17). How does all this relate to shared church?

This Holy Resident moves in bearing gifts. Not gifts in the sense of Christmas presents given to please the receivers. Instead, these gifts are more like the tools contractors provide for their crews. God’s Spirit gives his gifts so that we may join Jesus in completing his construction project—the building-up of the Body of Christ. As Paul urged the believers in the church at Corinth, “try to excel in gifts that build up the church” (I Cor. 14:12). In their church meetings, they were to bring out their gift-tools and use them “for the strengthening of the church” (v. 26).

That worked in New Testament churches. But today, thanks to centuries of learned passivity in church meetings, many believers have little or no idea of what their Spirit-given gifts may be, let alone how to use them. Back in 2009, the Barna Group, specialists in conducting research in churches and among Christians, reported their findings from a survey on spiritual gifts. They found that “between those who do not know their gift (15%), those who say they don’t have one (28%) and those who claimed gifts that are not biblical (20%), nearly two-thirds of the self-identified Christian population who claim to have heard about spiritual gifts have not been able to accurately apply whatever they have heard or what the Bible teaches on the subject to their lives.”

What explains this ignorance of spiritual gifts and the inability to use them? In some cases, the lack of clear teaching may lie at the root of the problem. But another factor also plays a major part. How much opportunity does the typical church meeting offer for practicing the use of the Holy Spirit’s gifts? The saying, “Use it or lose it,” may shed some light here. Non-use of our gifts can surely cause us to lose sight of them.

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I say, “Imagine the results if construction workers were given cordless drills, pneumatic nail guns, and circular saws and told how the tools worked—but without any opportunity to practice boring holes, driving nails, or cutting two-by-fours. An apprenticeship in carpentry includes both teaching about the tools as well as hands-on experience in using them. Discipleship in following Jesus and learning to help build his church should also include carefully structured opportunities to practice using the Spirit-given gifts.”

But the traditional non-participatory church meeting encourages believers to leave their gifts in the unopened tool box. In his book, The Reconstruction of the Church—On What Pattern? E. Stanley Jones wrote: 

“The very setup of the ordinary church tends to produce the anonymous. The congregation is supposed to be silent and receptive and the pastor is supposed to be outgoing and aggressive. That produces by its very makeup the spectator and the participant. . . . It produces the recessive, the ingrown, the nonconributive, and the parasite. Men and women who during the week are molders of opinion, directors of large concerns, directors of destinies are expected to be putty on Sunday, and are supposed to like it. They have little responsibility, hence make little response, except, perhaps, ‘I enjoyed your sermon.’ They have little to do, hence they do little.”

God gave the church leaders to help Christ-followers learn how to use their gift-tools in his church-construction project. As Eph. 4:12 puts it, “Their responsibility is to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (NLT). Equipping Christians to find and use their gifts will require teaching. But it will also call for providing constant opportunity to practice using those Spirit-given tools.

Shared church happens when teachers not only instruct but also share speaking time with other members of the Body of Christ. Where else will believers learn to vocalize their commitment to Christ, to develop the connection between their voices and their faith?

Planting Shared Churches in Brazil

Suppose someone were to develop new software called “Question Detector.” If you were to use it  before, during, and after the sermon on a given Sunday in your congregation, how many questions would the program uncover in the pews or chairs? More importantly, how many of those questions would remain unasked and unaddressed as the meeting ended?

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In his blog, Dave Simpson, a pastor in Maryland, asked: “Where did we ever get the idea that Christians shouldn’t ask questions about their faith? . . . We may not be putting inquirers on the rack . . . anymore, but our spoken and unspoken attitudes toward questions are driving people away.”

Church Discussions in Sao Paulo

In doing the research for my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I interviewed Jane Hawkins. She and her husband, Pete, had planted the Sampa Community Church in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The main teaching for the congregation came by means of DVDs (with subtitles for Portuguese speakers) from Andy Stanley, pastor of the Northpoint Community Church in Atlanta, GA. After the 35-40-minute message, the congregation divided into small groups to discuss what they had heard. In time, the Sampa Church hired a teaching pastor. But the people insisted on keeping the after-sermon discussion period.

The Hawkins have planted 2 other churches using the same approach—messages by Stanley followed by the conversational interaction time immediately afterward. To prompt discussion, the Hawkins use modified questions supplied by Northpoint Ministries. To prevent the risk of any arguments over theology or having to publicly correct someone, they make certain the questions are experiential. As each meeting ends, Pete wraps up the discussion, repeats worthwhile comments, ties everything back to the message, and closes in prayer.

Questions for God

The other day, in response to my blog on the importance of questions, Jane wrote with news from their most recently planted church in Sao Jose dos Campos. At a church gathering earlier that week, she had invited the people to write out their responses to this question: “If you could ask God a question, what would it be?” The results surprised her. “These were mostly Christians,” she wrote, “and yet, look at the questions we got.”

  • Why do people feel so lonely that they have to believe in God? Does God really exist?
  • If a person doesn’t have faith or believe, will God forgive them at the end? I mean… will he show them the truth and give them a chance to save themselves?
  • What’s the difference between God’s permission and God’s plan?
  • Why did God change people’s languages at Babel?
  • Does God really love everyone independent of their religion or belief?
  • Why does God stay silent when you are living a difficult moment? You pray, pray, and nothing happens. Why? Tell me!
  • How was God created?
  • Is God one person or three? Why do Christians believe that Jesus is also God? What about the Holy Spirit?
  • If the Bible was written by humans, how can I believe it is inspired by God?
  • If there are so many religions, why do you preach that Christianity is the right one?

Jane said: “I knew during the church discussion no one would call out their question for God. So at the end of the 15-minute discussion period, I read out that list. The room went quiet, because they were questions so many of us could relate to, and they were so honest.”  Pete and Jane decided to focus in on the first question and open the meeting up to discuss it. They deliberately chose NOT to have a pastor give the "right" answer, but to let the "ordinary" people themselves make comments.

“Revolutionary. Community-Building”

“Wow,” wrote Jane, “it was powerful. A girl from Estonia talked about life under the Soviet Union where they were taught there is no God, then they became independent and missionaries of all kinds came, and 'Now, I am still trying to figure it out.'  Two guys quoted from apologist William Lane Craig. One person talked about the wonders of creation that testify to a Creator. She said this planet, space, and the animal kingdom all testify that they were designed. One person said he had had a prayer answered that week.”

Jane concluded: “All that to say—doing this sort of discussion after the message is revolutionary and community-building. It engages everyone.” Well, almost everyone. One Christian left the fellowship  because the whole-church discussion time made him uncomfortable. Jane believes he was more at ease in the traditional church of his childhood. “He is shy,” she said, “and doesn’t mix with people—not visitors, not lost people, not even other Brazilian Christians.”

In his book, Partners in Preaching, Reuel L. Howe, describes the interplay between questions and responses: “Dialogical preaching . . . is a two-way give-and-take; it is a partnership. In dialogical preaching we need the question and the answer. The question awaits the answer, and the answer needs the guidance of the question. The preacher is, so to speak, master-of-ceremonies in the dialogue between question and answer.”

I doubt that question-detecting software will be available anytime soon. No matter. We don’t need it. By simply adopting a shared-church format, leaders will find that church people are eager to ask their pressing questions. The askings will come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. As Jane Hawkins found, many will come as surprises. Some will require I-don’t-know-but-will get-back-to-you responses. But the payoff will come in the form of increased relevance, as the timeless truths of the Gospel sync with the real-life concerns of contemporary Christians.

Shared Church Takes On Monday Stress


Where is your church on Monday?

No, I don’t mean the building at the corner of First and Main. I’m talking about the church—the people, the Body of Christ. Weekdays, much of your church scatters to work in hardware stores, classrooms, government agencies, sales offices, repair shops, and so on.

In your church, how many working people regularly show up on Sunday? You can easily make a rough estimate. For example, in the U.S., around 63 percent of those 16 and older serve in the labor force. So if your church has 100 people in that age range, nearly two-thirds may spend most prime-time hours in the work world.

What might these fellow believers be going through on the job? The American Institute of Stress (AIS) says, “Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades.” Rising  quotas. Too few workers. Coercion from demanding bosses. Toxic fellow employees. Killer overtime schedules. All these and more help explain why Gallup has found that 70 percent of American workers are either not engaged or disengaged on the job.

Created (and Re-Created) to Work

Does the church—do its people—have any responsibility here? Let’s see how the New Testament speaks to this issue. For starters, consider what it says about why God made us into new creations in Christ: “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).

No, we are not saved by good works. We are saved by faith--for good works. This Greek word translated as “works” is not a stained-glass, churchy word. It includes the everyday get-your-hands-dirty work of weekdays. Paul used the verb form of the same word when said, “We work hard with our own hands” (I Cor. 4:12). It’s the word he used to say that former thief should “work, doing something with his own hands” (Eph. 4:28). It’s the word he used to tell the Thessalonian believers, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands” (I Thess. 4:11).

Put all this together. Why did God form us in Christ? Not only to join him in heaven someday but also to do good work on earth here and now. Not only good church work but also good work that will help his creation and our fellow creatures thrive. Good work that will demonstrate the difference it makes when we work as new creations in Christ. The labor of each Christian puts God’s own artisanship on display (we are his "workmanship"). So the way we do our work matters greatly.

Mending Wounds from Workplace Stress

Now relate this to shared church. As AIS says “job stress is far and away the major source of stress.” Are Christians exempt from this kind of workplace hassle and tension? Hardly. Just as the post-sin lives of Adam and Eve involved thorns, thistles, sweat, and pain (Gen. 3), we still work in a fallen world. In such a setting, our work depletes and frays us. So Christians in the labor force regularly need three kinds of repair work the New Testament calls on all of us to do for each other. When disheartened, they need to be encouraged. When exhausted, they need to be strengthened. And when knocked down, they need to be built up.

I’ve regularly observed traditional church services for three-quarters of a century. And from what I’ve seen, platform performances typically leave little if any time or space for one-anothering. More than half the people present likely spend their weekdays working among people who will not—and cannot—encourage, strengthen, or build them up. But even on Sundays, among fellow Christ-followers, the damage they’ve sustained in the work world is rarely attended to.  

Shared Church Frees Up One-Anothering

That’s why shared church, which opens doors for New Testament one-anothering, is so important. Working Christians need to hear encouraging accounts from other working believers who are experiencing God’s sustaining presence on the job. In my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include  this quotation by Alan and Eleanor Kreider from their book, Worship and Mission after Christendom:

“If we receive no reports from the front in our congregations, we are in trouble. Without testimonies we experience a drought, a nutritional deficit for healthy Christian living. And the dominant cultural narratives take over. God seems powerless and inactive. And Christians who do see evidence of the missional activities of God in our time may only whisper about it in the church’s hallways or discuss it during the week in house groups or on the telephone—but not in worship services.”

Of course, those who spend their weekdays in the workplace are not the only ones who need to be strengthened, encouraged, and built up. So do single moms. Those battling cancer. Spouses who are struggling in their marriage relationships. And believers coping with many other situations. All of us need to hear from each other stories of how God is at work in our scattered-church lives. Those on the front lines who have seen God deliver can best refresh others who are struggling in similar arenas.

Without using the term "shared church," the author of Hebrews wrote about our need for it. The instructions are just as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds [literally, 'works']. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24-25). That Day is even nearer now than when the author penned those words. This makes moving toward shared church an urgent concern.

A Favorite Tool of Jesus

Think back. In the past year, how many times have you sat in a church service in which people were invited to ask questions? The previous blog quoted from You Lost Me, in which David Kinnaman says, “Fully one-third of young Christians (36 percent) agree that ‘I don’t feel that I can ask my most pressing life questions in church.’”

Questions Begin Early

Why do toddlers and preschoolers ask so many questions? Because, instinctively, they know they can learn by doing so. Why do people die? Where do babies come from? How do birds fly? And, as any parent knows, the answer to one question may uncork a dozen more. Imagine a family gathering where the unwritten rules allow no one to ask questions. Sadly, such rules seem to shape the agenda in a great many contemporary gatherings of God’s family.

And yet the Master disciple-maker, Jesus, relied on the give-and-take of questions and answers as a key part of his teaching technique. How large a part did questions play in Jesus’s relationships with others during his brief teaching ministry on earth? To get a better idea about that, I counted the questions in the first and fourth gospels. (I did not tally questions in Mark and Luke, because they repeat many found in Matthew.) By my quick scan through Matthew and John, Jesus asked 130 questions—and was asked about the same number by others. Questions swirled around Jesus:

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He asked them of his disciples: "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" “How many loaves do you have?” “Do you still not understand?”

Jesus asked questions of others: "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?” “Do you want to get well?” “Why is my language not clear to you?” "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

His disciples asked Jesus: "Lord, to whom shall we go?” "But Rabbi . . . a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?" "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" "What does he mean by 'a little while'?”

Others asked Jesus: "What must we do to do the works God requires?" “What is truth?” "By what authority are you doing these things?" "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"

Clearly, questions, responses, and dialogue played a prominent part as Jesus began to build his Church. It seems reasonable, then, to think he would endorse that same kind of learning context in the later stages of Church-building and disciple-making. Centuries of church tradition, though, seem to rule out  participation within our Sunday gatherings.

Can questions fit into church meetings in 2017? And, if so, how?  Good questions. Glad you asked.

In answer to the first question: Yes, questions can fit. In response to the second question: My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes interviews with 25 church leaders who tell how, in various ways, they are making their church services more participatory. Sample just a few of the techniques they are using to open their Sunday meetings to more interaction:


One pastor, following the sermon, calls for questions and comments. Sometimes he replies to questions himself. On other occasions, he invites a knowledgeable panel to respond to the points people raise. The panel may join him up front or speak from roving microphones. Another pastor, says: “Fairly often, at the end of a sermon series, people will have questions that the teaching has raised but not answered. So we will form a panel of, say, three persons up front. Then we open things up for questions from the body. This usually makes up the entire service.”

Reports from the Front.

After hearing requests for spoken testimonies, one pastor began asking two from the congregation to tell their faith-stories during Communion services. Normally, those asked to speak are not in the limelight. Better, the pastor believes, to ask “average” believers others can identify with. As a result, some have come requesting opportunities to share their stories. Although these are not Q & A sessions, the sharing in these reports actually responds to many applicational questions people struggle with.

Community Time.

A church in Minnesota opens its Sunday meetings not with the traditional “stand-up-and-greet” moment but with “community time.” The leaders usually offer two suggested ice-breaker questions to help get conversations started. Instead of taking 60 seconds, this segment lasts from five to eight minutes. As one of the pastors says, “You can’t remember someone unless they share something with you.”

A Real Meal.

The book includes an account from my own experience while serving as pastor. During our once-per-month celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we filled the room with tables and embedded Communion into an actual meal. We emphasized the need to keep the menu simple—often soup, bread, and perhaps a salad. The families from one of our small groups—including children and young people--provided the meal and did the serving.

Each month the message for Communion Sunday focused on some aspect of Jesus’s death and its meaning for us. Then, during the meal, we paused as we shared the bread and later the cup, during which times someone briefly helped us focus on the significance of each. Conversations across the tables liberated us from any somber stiffness. Yet the focus on the meaning of the bread and cup preserved the seriousness of what we were remembering. We found that dining together restored a sense of family and one-anothering. On each table we included a few suggested conversation-starters designed to stimulate mutual encouragement and spurring on.

Sharpening a Well-Used Tool

Jesus promised, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). Dialogue made up one of the major construction tools for this Carpenter/Church-Builder. The results in that first-century Church proved he knew what he was doing. As we Christians meet together in our century, can we sharpen and use the same tool?

Shared Church and the Exodus of Young People


Does doing church the-way-we’ve-always-done-it help to explain why so many young people are checking out? In his book, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman says research by the Barna Group found that, “Overall, there is a 43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement.” Commenting on how this looks on a line graph, he says, “The ages eighteen to twenty-nine are the black hole of church attendance; this age segment is ‘missing in action’ from most congregations.”

In light of this trend, Kinnaman asks: “Can the church rediscover the intergenerational power of the assembly of saints?” This sentence caught my attention. I take him to mean that we have lost the potent outcomes that result when Christians connect across the age ranges. As Kinnaman points out, this is something we need to “rediscover.” I agree. From what I’ve observed, in most “assemblies of the saints” (church services) the people sit and listen as spectators. The typical meeting format leaves no opening for comments or questions from the congregation.

True, church experience includes more than the main congregational gathering. Most churches offer other venues for nurturing faith. Most of these, though, usually provide less "intergenerational power" than the weekly event most call "church." The very term "youth group" narrows the age range. Many young adults have attended only age-graded Sunday-school classes. Small groups may include young and old but often do not.

"I Want to be the 'Talker-Man'"

In the main gatherings of some churches, the pastor has nearly all the speaking parts. I knew a boy of ten or so who, after watching how church meetings work, said when he grew up he wanted to be the “talker-man.” The word-ministry of those with shepherding and teaching gifts is vital to the oversight of any congregation. But the New Testament never paints the church as monovoiced.

Something Paul wrote in I Cor. 13 can help us see why the gathered church needs to hear more than one voice. “For we [plural] know in part and we prophesy in part” (9). Paul goes on to say, “Now I [singular] know in part” (12). In other words, none of us knows it all. Even Paul himself, who wrote a quarter of the New Testament, did not.

Each member of the Body of Christ has knowledge, even though it is partial. Each has received a portion of God’s grace. Experience with grace gives us some knowledge of it. Each has received at least one Spirit-given gift—equipping us with another form of knowledge. Each is "taught by God" (Jn. 6:45). So the question becomes: How can we structure our church meetings in such a way that we can all share our partial knowledge? The resulting "pool" will supply far more than any one of us could individually.

Learning from Our Bodies

As Paul makes clear, the way all the parts of the human body work together paints a clear picture of how members of Christ’s Body interact. Each part should do its work. It belongs to all the others. It brings a unique contribution to the other parts. It dare not see itself as either non-essential or more important than other parts. It occupies a God-arranged place in the body--a place that provides a distinct perspective.

How do you and I stay in touch with the realities of the physical world? Only through the parts of our physical bodies. Think of what you would miss if the following parts of your body worked poorly or not at all:

  • Eyes: Losing vision in just one eye can reduce your depth perception (close one eye and try threading a needle). It can also cut peripheral vision by about 20 percent.
  • Feet: Neuropathy can cause the nerves in the soles of your feet to lose touch with the ground or floor, throwing off your balance.
  • Ears: Your ability to communicate with others, to recognize voices, or to savor the sounds of a symphony can all suffer from impaired hearing.
  • Fingers: Failing finger nerves can dull the warning signals of pain from a too-hot surface.
  • Nose: As one person with anosmia put it, “Not being able to smell yourself makes personal hygiene incredibly stressful.”
  • Tongue: You were born with thousands of taste buds. But if you lose your sense of taste, you might unwittingly eat food that has gone bad.

In these and other ways, your body illustrates how the Body of Christ works. No single member “knows” everything your body needs. But each member in good working order can contribute its “knowledge” of surrounding physical conditions for the benefit of all the rest. Similarly, a meeting of the church should allow members of Christ's Body to share from what they know of Spirit-revealed reality. This releases, in Kinnaman’s words, “the intergenerational power of the assembly.”

Any Room for Doubts, Questions?

How does this apply to young people? In a meeting format that permits them to do so, they can contribute from their “partial knowledge” by asking questions. Struggling to relate faith to life in the 21st century equips them with first-hand knowledge of the quandaries they and their peers face—questions adults may not even realize need answers.  As Kinnaman says in You Lost Me, “Fully one-third of young Christians (36 percent) agree that ‘I don’t feel that I can ask my most pressing life questions in church.’ One out of ten (10 percent) put it more bluntly: ‘I am not allowed to talk about my doubts in church.’”

Kinnaman reminds us how young people are coming of age in an era of interaction. They have a "participatory mindset." But,  he says, “the structure of young adult development in most churches and parishes is classroom-style instruction. It is passive, one-sided communication—or at least that’s the perception most young people have of their religious education. They find little appetite within their faith communities for dialogue and interaction.”

But a willingness to venture outside the-way-we’ve-always-done-it can change that perception. Kinnaman writes of a “faith community in Oregon [that] hosts a weekly worship service that invites anyone to ask any question they have about faith. To fit with the uber-connected world of young people, the church accepts questions submitted via text and Twitter. . . .The entire community gets to witness, on a weekly basis, what it looks like to wrestle with doubt, to confess our questions without abandoning faith.” My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes more than two dozen examples of churches that are making their main weekly meeting more participatory.

Paul described shared church nearly 2,000 years ago, when he said “the whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Peter agreed: “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).

So we don’t have to invent shared church. We simply need to rediscover it.

Why Do We Gather as Christians? (Part Two)

(In Part One we saw that the widespread idea that worship is the purpose of church meetings is not supported in the New Testament. Now, in Part Two, we will take a closer look at the New Testament pattern for gathering and ask why a clear idea of the purpose matters.)

The “Currents” in a Church Meeting


In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include a diagram (see right) with arrows that show the New Testament picture of the dynamic movements that ought to take place when we meet as Christians.

I. Howard Marshall explains these movements in these words: “When a specific function or purpose is ascribed to a church meeting [in the New Testament] it is not the glorification of God but the building up of the church and the ministry to its members. Church meetings are for the benefit of the congregation and so indirectly for the glory of God [emphasis added]. Worship in the sense of giving praise to God is thus logically secondary to ministry in the sense of God’s ministry to us. At the same time, since this ministry is exercised between persons, the church meeting has the character of fellowship in which the keynote is mutual love. The symbol of the church, therefore, is not simply an upward arrow from man to God, nor simply a downward arrow from God to man, but rather a triangle representing the lines of grace coming down from God to his people, the flow of grace from person to person, and the response of thanks and petition to God [emphasis added].” (From "How Far Did the Early Christians Worship God?")

As Marshall’s last sentence points out, worship can and should take place in a church meeting. But it comes about as a by-product of our Spirit-empowered one-anothering. By his Spirit, God pours his grace into this Christian and that one in the church gathering. They share it with others in the same meeting,  who—moved by God’s action—then return thanks and praise to him.

Why Does Our Purpose for Gathering Matter?

As stated in Part One, congregations typically get the message that worship is the purpose of church meetings. Holding this idea can determine how church leaders format the Sunday agenda. If worship sums up the whole point of the meeting, then some things just don’t fit. For example, it may seem out of place to include reports on what God is doing on weekdays through those who work at Starbucks, Lowes, or Homeland Security. Why? Because those concerns seem earthly, not heavenly (not worshipful). As a result, a congregation never gets to hear fresh accounts of how God is moving through his people during the other six days.

Believing the church meets to worship can press leaders toward manipulative methods. A blog carries this title: “34 Tips for Creating Powerful Worship Experiences and Vibrant Worship Teams.” But worship is not an “experience” one person can “create” for someone else.  Another blog, “How to Set up a Worship Set,” offers a 13-step process for doing so. Nothing like those steps, though, seem to have been included in the New Testament for use by the first-century church.

Members of a congregation may hold an unbiblical definition of worship, seeing it as the music or as a feeling. If they think the whole meeting is about worship, they will try their best to get into a worshipful mood. Or they may struggle to keep their focus exclusively on God. In response to Thom S. Rainier’s blog post, “Should Your Church Stop Having a Stand and Greet Time?” one reader explained emphatically why a greeting should have no place in the congregational meeting: “You do that before and after worship — not DURING worship! Worship is for God – that is why you are there!!!” In this way of thinking, one-anothering would distract from the “real” purpose of gathering.

God is Glorified in Our One-Anothering

At times, of course, we should focus our attention exclusively on God. But God, unlike some of us, does not insist on constantly being the center of attention. Like a loving human father, God delights in seeing his children enjoying, helping, reassuring, supporting, and encouraging each other. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! . . . For there the Lord bestows his blessing. . .” (Ps. 133:1, 3).

It pleases God to have us focus on and serve one another when we meet. The plural-you wording in each of the following verses strongly suggests a church-meeting context. And in each case, Paul was calling on the believers to pay attention to each other:

  • “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). 
  • “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19).
  • “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).

As God’s grace reaches us through our fellow brothers and sisters, we will—and without any human engineering—spontaneously praise and worship God. Serving other members of Christ’s body is serving him—which he receives as worship. So, yes, worship should take place when we gather as it should when we scatter. And it will rise to God as we practice the unified one-anothering he repeatedly calls for in the New Testament.

Why Do We Gather as Christians? (Part One)

True or false: “The New Testament reason for meeting with other Christians is to worship God.”

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If you said true, your answer lines up with what most of us have been taught. One website, which suggests how to speak to children about church, begins with: “People go to church to worship God.” We call our main congregational meetings “worship services.” In those meetings we sing “worship songs,” led by “worship leaders” in charge of “worship teams.” Sometimes we call church buildings “worship centers.”

I know it is not RC (religiously correct) to question the nearly universal idea that gathering with other believers is all about worship. So please grant me a little grace as I ask you to examine the evidence for this rarely questioned conviction.

Right off, I’ll reveal my assumed starting-point. I believe Scripture is our only rule for faith and practice. Faith involves what we believe—truths such as the deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and so on. Practice involves what we do, including how we meet with other Christians. I am assuming the New Testament, not church traditions, should have the last word on why we assemble.

Check It Out

What is “worship”? In the New Testament, the Greek words for worship of God all reflect attitudes and actions directed toward him. Duties carried out toward God. Esteem and reverence directed toward him. Obedience and service oriented toward God. Bowing down toward God. In short, in worship, we aim our attention in a God-ward direction. Think of a single arrow pointing upward from us to God.

If you have a complete concordance, trace the uses of “worship/worshiped/worshiping” in the New Testament. You’ll find that, together, those English words appear about 70 times (NIV version). Yet you will not find those words used in contexts that speak about what we Christians do in our regular gatherings.

Yes, in Acts 13:2, while fasting and praying, a group of prophets and teachers were “worshiping.” Not so much a church gathering as a prayer meeting among church leaders. And in I Cor. 14:25, Paul says an unbeliever, after hearing gathered Christians prophesy, might be led to “worship” God. Here, an unbeliever—not believers—is worshiping. Neither text describes what typically goes on in church meetings. But this is about as close as the New Testament comes in connecting the word “worship” with Christian assemblies.

By contrast, a great many verses describe worship as taking place not in church gatherings but by individuals in other settings. The Magi, upon seeing baby Jesus, worshiped (Matt. 2:11-12). Anna, presumably by herself in the Temple, worshiped (Lk. 2:37). The disciples worshiped Jesus in a boat (Matt. 14:33). As they hurried away from his empty tomb, the two Marys worshiped Jesus (Matt. 28:>9). The man born blind worshiped Jesus (Jn. 9:38). And so on. These are not what we call “corporate worship” occasions.

Others Agree

After a study of all the Greek words translated as “worship” in the New Testament, the late I. Howard Marshall (well-respected as a New Testament scholar) says: “It is a mistake to regard the main or indeed the only purpose of Christian meetings as being the worship of God.” (See "How Far Did the Early Christians Worship God?")

And in Paul’s Idea of Community, Robert Banks writes, “One of the most puzzling features of Paul’s understanding of ekklesia [assembled church] for his contemporaries, whether Jews or Gentiles, must have been his failure to say that a person went to church primarily to ‘worship.’ Not once in all his writings does he suggest that this is the case.”

Then Why Should Christians Gather?

The New Testament leaves no question that we believers should meet. But why? If not to worship, what should be our main purpose for getting together? Think of it this way: you and I are to worship anywhere and everywhere—all alone, with our families, in our workplaces, and in our church gatherings. In other words, worship can rise to God even when no one else is around.  

But time after time the New Testament calls us to do something we simply cannot do by ourselves: one-anothering. In his new commandment, Jesus calls us to “love one another” in the way he has loved us (Jn. 13:34). These words became the seed from which the dozens upon dozens of New Testament one-another/each-other instructions grew.

For example, the two one-anothers in Hebrews 10:24-25 explain why we should never stop meeting together: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Getting together lets us see and hear each other. This  creates the setting in which we may spur on and encourage each other.

This focus on one-anothering when we meet, although in different words, shows up in I Cor. 14:26: “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.” Each of us has been given one or more gifts to use in building each other up. The New Testament term “fellowship” is a one-anothering word. The church is a body made up of mutually-supportive members. It is a family whose members huddle to help each other. This is shared church.

(Part Two will explore why the single-arrow model does not reflect the gathered-church picture seen in the New Testament. It will also ask, “Why Does Our Purpose for Gathering Matter?”)

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.”

Sunday Calendar.jpg

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.

Is the Church an Audience?

A blog for preachers explained how to write sermon introductions. No less than 28 times the author called the congregation an “audience.” Another blogger wrote, “There are some things you can do in advance, when preparing your sermon, to ensure you’ll keep your audience hooked.”

But is the church an audience? The New Testament speaks of it as a body. A family. A temple. Never as an audience. Even so, these days we often use that term to describe the church. Does it really matter if we think of church as an audience?


Think it Through

An audience, like your TV set, is a receiver. It takes signals in but does not transmit them. An audience watches and listens. It has well-developed eyes and ears but hardly any mouth. By contrast, in addition to its ability to see and hear, a body can also speak in ways that make a difference. Members of a body and of a family interact with each other. They engage in give-and-take.  Calling it an audience can lead us to deal with the church in ways we would not if we were relating to a body or family.

I enjoy being part of an audience. For example, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting in a Seattle audience as we watched and listened to ten gifted pianists make music on ten grand pianos. Audiences can and should gather for sports events, political rallies, and stage plays. But for most of its regular meetings, the church should assemble not in audience mode but as a body and family—in the one-anothering mode. We might compare the contrast between being a member of an audience or a member of a body to the difference between watching a play and appearing in it. We Christians are not to be hearers only.

The Playhouse Model

Church architecture helps squeeze the church into audience mode. In the nineteenth century, churches in the U.S. shifted to the playhouse model for church meeting places. That is the point made by Jeanne Halgren Kilde in her book, When Church Became Theatre. By the twentieth century, she says, megachurch buildings offered “a space, time, and place in which one might get away from it all. Attending a service is an activity akin to going to a movie: One need not dress up, worry about the kids misbehaving, or be upset by a depressing message.”

But, she continues, “The use of religious auditoriums . . . is not isolated within the nondenominational megachurch movement. . . . Hundreds of congregations, building new churches in the newest ring of suburbs . . . now choose the amphitheatre form. . . . The amphitheatre space can accommodate a large audience in a way that allows everyone gathered to hear and see the performances taking place upon the stage.”

Theaters Have Consequences

They Invite Performance. An elevated stage or platform provides the ideal place for star-making. The performers who regularly appear up there get magnified larger than life. In a theater, only a tiny fraction of those present enjoy platform privileges. This entitlement makes them seem more momentous than those in the audience. In the Church, any perception of insignificance flies directly in the face of what the New Testament teaches about the vital importance of every member of the body.

They Induce Applause. Today, church audiences clap approval when they relate strongly to the message or music. But human adulation easily stimulates an appetite for more, and repeated exposure to such ovations can play havoc with the ego of those on stage. (I write this as one who served for two decades as a pastor.) Too often we have witnessed the elevation of Christian celebrities—whether pastors or musicians—and watched in sorrow as they fell from their lofty heights. Superstars share the weaknesses common to us all. Hero worship edifies neither hero nor worshiper.

They Inhibit Participation. Think back to the last movie you saw in a cinema. Or to those occasions when you have attended a concert in an auditorium. Or listened to a lecture in a hall. Other than clapping (and perhaps laughing or crying), how much did you participate? Almost all the action that mattered took place up front. A good audience knows how to be reactive, mostly silent, and passive. Everyone but those on the platform or stage are expected to play the observer role. Hardly the New Testament picture of the Church.

They Isolate People. Even in a crowd of 300 or 1,000, you can feel all alone. As I note in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, although it can provide some sense of being together, an audience allows you to assemble with your individualism unchallenged. It lets you come and go with little or no perception of any responsibility for the other spectators. An audience provides slight if any opportunity to lay down your life for others or to risk using your Spirit-given gifts for their benefit. In spite of some surface socializing in an audience, you are free to leave just as detached and self-absorbed as when you arrived.

By contrast, the member of a body serves and is served by fellow members. Each part of a body works not on the basis of individuality but of mutuality. Equipped with something to share, it interacts with and contributes to the other members. Your presence or absence makes no difference to an audience. But an absent body member is sorely missed.

Practicing church as theater, with a crowd of spectators watching a few performers, began centuries ago. The road back to shared church--church as body/family life—will be neither short nor easy. Traveling it will require courage and patience. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include more than two dozen accounts from churches that are finding ways to incorporate participation in their congregational meetings.

Only as the Body of Christ, not as the audience of Christ, can we serve as the world’s light—which he calls us to be and to do.

Shared Church Cultivates Critical Thinking (Part Two)

Lie Detector.jpg

In the previous blog (Part One), I said church meetings should provide a context for developing critical thinking skills in adults and young people. Shared church can help us fine-tune our lie detectors.

In my experience, many Christians have received little if any encouragement or instruction in such thinking. During online classes, I see this in students who have learned largely by rote. When asked to evaluate course material in, say, a journal entry, they can recap and restate what they have heard and read. But they struggle with seeing underlying assumptions and evaluating whether the material is persuasive, complete, applicable, and biblical. Doing so,  of course, requires critical thinking.

Here in Part Two, I’ll follow up with a question that rarely gets asked about church meetings. 

Can Unbelievers Help Us Learn How to Think?

Sometimes, hearing from those who lack a Christian perspective can help to nurture the ability to sift and evaluate. While writing Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I interviewed Trevor Withers, Network Church, St. Albans, UK. In his account, he tells how he invited “Rachel,” an unbeliever, to visit their weekly gathering and state up front her questions about the Christian life. Some of those in the congregation thought Withers had gone too far. Others welcomed the opportunity to hear her.

Rachel had often come for Network’s Sunday lunches but only rarely for their services. Having grown up in a home in which both parents were atheists, she had begun serious questioning when she was in her late teen years. “I am clearly seeking something,” she told the congregation, “but I am not finding it.” Her first thought-provoking question had to do with human sinfulness. Why would an all-powerful, holy God, she wondered, need a relationship with us if we are sinful? The session with Rachel lasted more than half an hour, with helpful dialogue between her and several in the congregation.

Imagine for a moment that you had been a part of that gathering on that day. What kinds of fruitful heart-and-mind work was likely going on among those present?

  • Mature Christians, some of whom in the past had struggled in a similar way, recalling how God had found them and drawn them to follow Jesus.
  • Newcomers, unaccustomed to witnessing such candid sharing in a church gathering, deciding to make Network Church their home—or never to return.
  • Young people hearing something authentic—honest words from a soul describing the ache of a search for truth that had, until then, proved unsuccessful.
  • All present participating in the give-and-take as members of Christ’s body wrestled with questions they normally would not have heard from each other in church.

How Will Young People Learn to Think?

Church meetings can project an aura of unreality. Not because the teaching is untrue, but because it seems so distant from the actual questions that vex people. According to a Barna Group report, 36 percent of the Millennials surveyed said part of their problem with the church is the inability “to ask my most pressing life questions in church.” If not in church gatherings, where are these young people—or their parents—going to learn to think critically about their faith and messages coming at them from their culture?

In her book, Finding Truth, Nancy Pearcey reminds us that, “In today’s pluralistic, multicultural society, teens have to navigate their way through a complex web of competing worldview claims. . . . Yet church youth groups rarely teach apologetics, majoring instead on games and goodies. . . . Parents are rightly concerned about the risk involved in exposing their children to nonbiblical perspectives. But there is also a risk in raising children who think the only way they can test their mettle is by breaking away from their family and church.”

Colossians 2:8 warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” But how many church young people have learned how to avoid being taken in by such deceptions? Suppose a college professor tells them, “God did not reveal what is in the Bible. It is just an obsolete book written by many people over thousands of years.” If not equipped with thinking tools, how will they cope with misleading statements in a university classroom, a workplace, a science textbook, a blog, a movie, or a television commercial?

Shared Church Pools Insights

Shared church means meeting together in a format that includes opportunity for anyone to ask a question, contribute an understanding, challenge an interpretation, or test a teaching. It offers a way to stimulate and mature the ability to think critically about our faith. While each of us individually should heed the following words, Paul originally addressed them to corporate gatherings of believers: 

  • “You are reasonable people. Decide for yourselves if what I am saying is true.” (I Cor. 10:15, NLT).
  •  “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best . . . .” (Phil. 1:9-10).
  • “Don't be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what's good. Throw out anything tainted with evil.” (I Thess. 5:21-22, MSG).

These and other texts leave no doubt that God wants us to be prepared to evaluate false teaching, fake news, and whatever else fails to line up with the truth. In the verses just listed--calling for deciding, discerning, checking things out--Paul wrote in the second-person plural. The closest American English can come to that is “you-all.” And if our meeting formats permit a shared-church experience, those gatherings can provide one of the best opportunities for training ourselves and our young ones in critical thinking.

What do you think? Have you encountered Christians who resist the idea of critical thinking? If so, how  best can you help them understand its importance?

Shared Church Cultivates Critical Thinking (Part One)

Fake News in the News

As 2016 ends, fake news is making real news. The Bible calls the vendors of bogus reports false teachers or false prophets. Can practicing shared church help equip us to follow Jesus in a world full of phony reports and spiritual viruses?

From Genesis to Revelation Scripture warns us about the dangers of being deceived. Today all of us—including our young people—swim in a torrent of information, some true, some misleading, some both. It surges in endlessly through our cell phones, the Internet, tweets, television, magazines, books, classrooms, and so on. 

Even something we hear in a church meeting may not pass the truth test. Peter warned his Christian readers, “there will be false teachers among you” (II Pet. 2:1). And Paul cautioned the Ephesian elders, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth” (Acts 20:30). From our enemy’s point of view, insiders make ideal carriers of fake news.

Is Critical Thinking Biblical?

Clearly, we need to be on our guard. Yet today some conservative believers warn against critical thinking, often associating it with those who attack the authority of Scripture. While being interviewed on a radio program, Nancy Pearcey called for Christians to practice critical thinking. The liberal program host exclaimed, “Critical thinking? Most people on the conservative Christian Right would say that’s one of the biggest dangers we have—this 'nonsensical' idea of critical thinking.”

In a review of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Robert Knetsch wrote: “I have been frustrated by the lack of deep thinking within Christian circles and often I find myself branded as a cynic for asking too many questions.”

But in I Corinthians 14, Paul actually instructs us to do critical thinking when we gather with other Christians. The context includes a call to practice shared church: “everyone” can say something to benefit others (v. 26). How should they hone their truth-detector skills during church meetings? By practicing Paul’s how-to-meet instructions: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (I Cor. 14:29).

“Weigh carefully” (NIV) comes from the Greek diakrino. Other Bible versions translate it as “evaluate,” “pass judgment,” or “discern.” God’s Word Translation says, “Everyone else should decide whether what each person said is right or wrong.” And the New International Reader’s Version puts it this way: “Others should decide if what is being said is true.” So in Paul’s thinking, shared church was the natural setting in which to cultivate critical thinking.

Can Church Meetings Still Train Us in Critical Thinking?

Is it possible to develop critical thinking skills in contemporary church meetings? In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include an interview with Lowell Bakke who recalled what he had done while pastoring Bethany Baptist Church in Puyallup, WA. In his words:

“For three summers while serving as pastor in in this church, I used a five-question strategy. Maybe the best part of the whole process was that it put everyone on an equal footing—young believers, mature believers, and not-yet-believers. I chose a Bible book and divided it into sections. Each section became my text for that week, and everyone was notified in advance of the Scripture passage to be read.”

After teaching from the text, he asked questions that helped the congregation form some critical-thinking skills:

1.      What did you like about this text?

2.      What did you not like about the text?

3.      What did you not understand about the text?

4.      What did you learn about God—Father, Son, Holy Spirit?

5.      What are you going to do now that you’ve read the text?      

He then invited the congregation to interact, using the same five questions. Roving microphones made it possible for everyone to hear clearly. Bakke says, “I was amazed at some of the insights. It made me realize that even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, my mind as a pastor is so finite that I don’t understand many things about the Bible that the congregation was able to bring to the table each Sunday.”

His statement leaves no doubt that Bakke did not see himself as having the last word. In The Incendiary Fellowship, Elton Trueblood, 20th-century author and theologian, wrote: “There is little chance of renewal if all that we have is the arrangement by which one speaks and the others listen. One trouble with this . . . is that the speaker never knows what the unanswered questions are, or what reservations remain in the [listener’s] mentality. Somehow or other we must arrange opportunities for Christian dialogue, since the old idea of the preacher standing ten feet above contradiction simply will not do.”

Paul praised the church in Berea for sifting and evaluating what he taught: “The people there were more open-minded than the people in Thessalonica. They listened to the message with great eagerness, and every day they studied the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was really true” (Acts 17:11, TEV). Yes Paul was handpicked by Jesus to serve as an apostle. But that did not exempt him or what he said from careful scrutiny.

What do you think? I invite you to engage in some critical thinking and to post your thoughts as a comment below.

Dialogical Christmas

During this Advent season the biblical account of Jesus’s birth has reminded me how much God favors dialogue. The buildup to Christmas—the entire Old Testament—shows him as the God who speaks and listens. God had conversed with his human creatures in Genesis 1 and 2, but the real give-and-take begins in Chapter 3. In verses 8-13, God calls the pair out of hiding, asks them four questions, and they reply three times.

God also dialogues with their firstborn. In his conversation with Cain in Chapter 4, God asks five questions. Cain gets in a question of his own. And his spoken responses reveal his heart—both  dishonesty and fear. The relationship between God and Abraham is often a ping-pong-like series of questions and responses. The patriarch’s responses to God took many forms: falling down in worship, laughing, asking how, and negotiating. Moses, too, had a dialogical relationship with God, beginning at the fiery bush.

In his book, Communicating the Gospel God’s Way, Charles H. Kraft contends that “God’s interactions with human beings are characteristically in the form of dialog, rather than monolog. The Bible, from beginning to end, represents God as seeking conversations with people.” Imagine that: the God of ocean-like wisdom asks for input from those with nanodroplets of insight!

Birth Announcements: Dialogical

So no surprise that, when God began to speak to the world through his embodied Son, the advent is announced dialogically. Conversation does come as a shock, though, to Zechariah the priest. As he goes about his usual routine, burning incense in the Temple, a heavenly being suddenly appears and begins to speak. The announcement that Zechariah’s aging, childless wife would have a son—welcome as that might have been—prompts the elderly man to ask how he can know for sure. After all, he reminds the angel, “I am old and my wife is well along in years” (Lk. 1:18).

Several months later, the same heavenly visitor addresses a young woman in Nazareth. Again, the angel makes a birth announcement, this time of her Son to be called Jesus—but also the Son of the Most High. And as with Zechariah, the angel allows Mary to speak, to ask a logical question raised by this incredible announcement. After a bit more dialogue, the angel takes his leave.

As promised, Mary delivers the One who will save his people from their sins. Twelve years later, Joseph and Mary, in company with others, take Jesus to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. On the return trip, however, they discover the Boy is not with them. So back they go, only to find that Jesus has—for at least three days—been dialoguing with the rabbis in the Temple: listening, asking questions, and offering answers. All this prompts even more dialogue among Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (Lk. 2:41-50). 

Adult Ministry: Dialogical

The Boy with the dialogical beginnings becomes the Man who relates to people with back-and-forth conversation and interaction. Far more than 100 times the Gospels show us Jesus “asking” and “answering.” The Master Teacher understands the cooperative process of involved in effective teaching and learning. Why, then, do so many churches continue to make the monological sermon the centerpiece of the Sunday gathering?

Reuel L. Howe, in The Miracle of Dialogue, asks: “How does the Church or any other group of people become a community?” His answer: “It becomes a community when as persons, the members enter into dialogue with one another and assume responsibility for their common life.” In his opening paragraph, Howe says, “Dialogue is to love, what blood is to the body.” And he flatly states, “Monologue is not effective communication.”

Contemporary Sermons: from Monological to Dialogical

My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes interviews with pastors who have seen the advantages of dialogical preaching. For example, Dan White, one of the pastors in Axiom Church in Syracuse, NY, had preached monologically for years. Influenced by his training and experience, he saw himself as a platform preacher. “When I visualized what preaching is all about,” he says, “it came down to me, a pulpit, and an audience. I relied heavily on my personality, my words, and my ability to bring the Word of God into focus for his people.”

But that all changed when he began to look into some of the New Testament Greek words surrounding the preaching/teaching of Paul. “Most of his preaching,” White says, “had an element of proclamation, but it was very dialogical. I began to realize that I had been interpreting what the New Testament said about preaching through my own contemporary lens.” How, White asked himself, could he translate the way preaching was done in the first century into the twenty-first century context?

He wanted to make certain his congregation continued to hear messages rooted in the authority of Scripture. And he determined to avoid the pitfall of a meandering, rudderless conversation. Over time, he developed a method of dialogical preaching—now used by himself and the other pastors—that  includes four “movements”:

Instructive. White takes 10-15 minutes to explain his text in its historical and sociological context. This segment includes no dialogue. Following this, he asks two thought-provoking questions: (a) in what you have just heard, where is there conflict for you? and (b) where is there clarity? He then calls for a full minute of silence to “level the playing field” between those who tend to dominate and those who need time to process what they have just heard.

Expressive. In this 10-minute segment, White invites the congregation to respond to the two questions posed just before the waiting period. He acts as moderator, drawing out comments and relating them to the theme of the message. Sometimes, White says, a comment from the congregation may contain a better insight than what he had planned.

Collective. Next White moves to a whiteboard on which he summarizes what has been shared during the expressive segment. This 5-minute Collective time, too, is interactive, with opportunities to refine what has previously been said.

Summarative (a word coined by White).  In the final 10 minutes, White uses material prepared beforehand to draw together the truth from the text and the congregational comments. He usually ends with questions, such as: “What is God proclaiming over our lives,” and “What is our take-home?” As the congregation has grown in dialogical experience, this segment includes more and more of what has been written on the whiteboard. Together, all four segments total about 40-45 minutes, of which more than half has been prepared in advance by the one teaching.

Sharing the Body-Building Workload

The interviews with 25 church leaders in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis includes accounts of other pastors who have also developed methods of dialogical preaching. As one of them says, “All in all, participatory church meetings have made it clear that there is a lot of wisdom in this church—far more than just what I am able to bring.” This insight seems to echo the last half of Eph. 4:16, that the Body of Christ “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” When practiced on Sunday, the dialogue seen throughout the Bible and in the Christmas story distributes the body-building work—shared-church work. Does it also point toward a way out of pastoral burnout?

What Does Shared "Church" Mean?

In our men’s Bible study this past week, the study guide booklet suggested we discuss how to use Paul’s prayer in Col. 1:9-12 as a model in praying for our church. One man said, “When most Christians say ‘church,’ they are thinking of the bureaucracy, not of the people.”

His comment prompted me to reflect on how much our terms matter. The meaning we attach to words can change over time. To “broadcast” used to mean planting seeds. Yesterday’s  “clerk” is today’s clergyperson. And “hospital” no longer means inn or motel. Words can work like concrete forms, molding our thoughts. Over time our thinking rigidifies.

What we label as “church” will shape the way we understand (or misunderstand) shared church. At least three misnomers for church have crept into our vocabulary.

Church as Building

Those concrete word-forms get set in place early in life. You may recall this children’s song—and the hand motions that went with it: “Here is the church (interlace fingers inside hands) and here is the steeple (press index fingers together and point them straight up). Open the doors (spread palms apart) and see all the people (wiggle fingers).” The takeaway for toddlers? The church is the building.

The New Testament takes only passing notice of the buildings where Christians met. When Acts 4:31 says “the place where they were meeting was shaken,” it offers no clue as to the size or shape of the room. And when Acts 20:8 notes that there were “many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting,” we know only that getting there must have meant climbing stairs.

For many, shared church means two or more churches, at different times, gathering in the same building. The Latin simultaneum mixum originated in 16th-century Germany to describe two distinct congregations—perhaps Roman Catholic and Lutheran—meeting in the same facility. Understood this way, shared church speaks of divvying up the use of a building, not of one-anothering among believers. Seen as building, church is a place we go to, not who we are.

Church as Bureaucracy

Any local church must, of course, have a measure of organization. The believers within it need to recognize those with gifts of shepherding, teaching, and leadership and allow them to serve in their various roles. They form part of the church but are not “the church,” as such.

Yet my friend in the study group recognized that church, in the minds of many, refers to those with official titles and specifically-assigned (often paid) roles in the establishment. This may surface in statements such as, “The church ought to take a position on civil rights for minorities.” The idea here seems to imply that some detached leadership group should initiate actions and promote policies. Church-as-institution fosters an “us-and-them” versus a “we” mindset. Shared church, seen from this perspective, may lead the larger body of people, like shareholders, to delegate any significant work to the “company.”

Church as Denomination

Adding to the confusion, we often speak of denominations as “churches.” Even the world knows the lingo: the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church. Yet, as Lesslie Newbigin defines the term in Foolishness to the Greeks, a denomination “is a voluntary association based on the free personal choice of a number of individuals to cooperate for certain purposes.” So a denomination, he says, “is not, in any biblical sense, the church.”

For most regulars in a local church, the denomination is a far-off, little-understood abstraction—as remote as the cloud in the world of computers. Those in charge at that level apparently write statements of faith, issue policies, and stake out positions on controversial issues. Seeing church as denomination could lead to interpreting shared church as paying one’s fair share to some remote fund or group of officials. But again, this understanding of church fails to help us grasp our responsibilities to live as members of a mutually serving body.

Assessing and Repairing the Damage

Defining it as building, bureaucracy, or denomination can dilute or distort our vision of what Jesus means by “church.” Any of these, wrongly labeled church, can exert a powerful pull on all involved. This, in turn, may warp the way we see and practice gathering. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians regarding their way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, he warned them about “not discerning the Lord’s body” (KJV) or not “recognizing the body of the Lord” (I Cor. 11:29, NIV).

Was Paul speaking of the physical body of Christ on the cross? Or the corporate Body of Christ, the Church? Perhaps both. But much in the context favors the second idea. In this entire section on the Lord’s Supper, Paul mentions many symptoms that suggest a lack of body-awareness: opposing groups; divisions; going ahead with one’s own meal; despising the church of God; and putting to shame fellow believers in need. By naming these practices, Paul seems to be dealing with their failure to discern or recognize the church as the Body of Christ.

The antidote? One anothering: “when you come together to eat, wait for each other” (v. 33). The way they gathered proved they were not perceiving in one another the presence of the Body of Christ. This even though Jesus had given top priority to one-anothering in his new command: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn. 13:34).
Practicing shared church requires that we begin with a clear definition of ekklesia, the word usually translated as church in English New Testaments. There it refers to Christ-followers in community—either in a local get-together or in their totality. Because the ekklesia is an assembly or gathering, sharing and one-anothering are built into the word itself.

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include 25 interviews with church leaders who, in various ways, are helping their congregations practice shared church. Doing church that way typically involves breaking out of traditional molds that have shaped how we speak of church.

We do need words to describe our buildings, bureaucracies, and denominations. And well-known terms can fill the bill. Why not call buildings meeting places? Let’s speak of church officials as support staff. And denominations are branches or sections of the Church (as in the Baptist branch, or the Presbyterian section).

The later definitions of church that our traditions ushered in are newcomers. For the characters in his novel, 1984, George Orwell developed a language known as “newspeak.” Its purpose was, in his words, "to diminish the range of thought." Whose purposes would it serve, we might ask, to use non-Biblical definitions of church to reduce our range of thought when it comes to the Body of Christ?

Our vocabulary matters. Perhaps it’s time we adopt “oldspeak,” retraining ourselves to think and speak of the church in the way the New Testament writers did.

Did Fast Food Change the Church?

Fast Food.jpg

If you google on “Why are people leaving the church?” you’ll find more websites than you could possibly open in years. Various authors, of course, explain the exodus in different ways. In his book,  British author John Drane says some of the trouble has come from The McDonaldization of the Church.

He borrowed the fast-food reference in his title from The McDonaldization of Society, by George Ritzer. Drane explains that “when I . . . applied Ritzer’s four characteristics of the McDonaldization process—efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control—to the Church, I began to see some of the reasons why so many of today’s people struggle so much with it.”

Drane taught Practical Theology in the University of Aberdeen’s Department of Divinity. That role put him in touch with leaders from a great variety of churches across Scotland. “I soon realized,” he says, “that if our faith was to continue to make a difference to our nation in the twenty-first century, we could not continue to do the same things as our forebears had done before us.”

Squeezing More Out of Less Effort

McDonald’s now sells burgers in more than 100 countries—in part because the chain has turned efficiency into an art form. Drane sees a similar priority in churches.  “I have come away from too many churches feeling that I have been given the same sort of pre-packaged ‘welcome’ as I might expect in a fast-food outlet where the server will routinely enquire about my day, but really has no interest in either me or my life.”

In the McDonaldized church, “somebody else does the thinking for you, predigests it, and serves it up in an efficient manner. It is the spiritual equivalent of fast food, and unlike the home-prepared meal it requires no preparation, no cleaning up afterwards, and no involvement in cooking it.”

In my own book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I describe church meetings in which “all elements . . . are preplanned, in which the voices heard are prearranged, and in which any words spoken or sung by members of the congregation are preselected by someone else and provided for them.”

Running by the Numbers

Drane sees calculability as the second characteristic of McDonaldization evident churches. As he puts it, “Christians are not immune from this obsession with numbers and quantity.” But our counting does not end with bodies, buildings, and budgets. Drane contends that “most churches just have far too many gatherings that they expect their people to attend, midweek as well as at weekends.” Christians serious about their spiritual lives, he says, are likely to remain unimpressed.

Drane includes an example from the experience of a pastor friend: “He had started with just seventeen people, and ended up with more than 3000, but in the process the church had become a depersonalized machine. . . . Growth led to increased numbers, which required a bigger space to contain them, which called for fund-raising and building projects, which necessitated a mortgage to pay for it all, which demanded efficient marketing and sales techniques to maximize the attendance in order to raise enough money to meet the payments, and on and on in a vicious spiral of cause and effect. When all of that came together, it created a system that, in terms of human relationships and real spiritual growth was pathologically self-destructive—but which was apparently necessary in order to maintain the trappings of ‘success.’”

Avoiding Surprises

Admittedly, says Drane, “The security of what is predictable can indeed help people to feel safe—but the downside is that it all becomes routine. . . . Pragmatically, the Church’s love affair with this aspect of McDonaldization is a major stumbling block to effective evangelism in today’s post-modern culture.”

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I quote a blogger who wrote, “Routines are convenient and make for a comfortable, easy life. They make you think less. They let you predict the future. In essence, routines make you lazy. They make your life and you boring. Routines won’t provide you with stories to tell.” Even so, in some churches regulars don’t even have to read the order of service in the bulletin to know what will come next.

Managing the Event

“This issue of power and control,” Drane says, “is at the heart of all the other factors that are at work in a McDonaldized style of being.” As an example, he points to the typical church practice of offering self-tests to help people discover their spiritual gifts.

“While we say we are wanting to be sensitive to people’s skills, and open to using them in the life of the church, the possible ministries that are on offer invariably have an over-emphasis on particular areas—all of them carefully chosen to ensure that we identify in other people only those gifts that are not going to challenge the position of the established leadership.”

The Shared-Church Connection

What does all this have to do with shared church? I’ll close with one more quotation from Drane when he says that today’s world will require the church in its worship services to “place the mutual sharing of stories of faith at the center of its search for meaningful human community, not to mention its obedient commitment to the gospel.”

A New Look at Left vs. Right

What can Christ-followers do in a culture polarized between left and right? In Los Angeles, an anti-Trump protester yelled, “We have to fight back. There will be casualties on both sides.” Sides. Division. Verbal wars. These words describe the mindset of the dog-eat-dog world. Far too many see no way of escape from it.

Those not sharing our faith increasingly see the Church—if they even think about it—as marginalized, impotent, irrelevant. Those of us in the Church, like David’s friends, may complain, “The foundations of law and order have collapsed,” and ask: “What can the righteous do?" (Ps 11:3, NLT).

What Can We Do?

There is, of course, no instant fix for crumbling foundations. The Church, however, can shine light into the darkness that surrounds those who stumble and collide in their efforts at repair. In his new command (Jn. 13:34), Jesus told us how those in the world will come to know we are, as we claim to be, his disciples: by our loving each other in the way he has loved us.

Could it be that the world sees the Church as a sidelined subculture because we have not lived out that kind of love for fellow believers? What might begin to occur if we were truly to authenticate our identity as Christ-followers in the way he instructs us? What if the world could watch as a colony of ordinary human beings live out the unity of heaven here on earth?

One of Webster’s definitions of politics is “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” For many people, relationships between left and right in that complex must always involve bruising conflict. There is, however, one society in the world in which left-right clashes are not inevitable: the Body of Christ.

Left and Right Members

To the Apostle Paul the human body, with its various members, provides a way for us to understand the Body of Christ. Any human body has both left and right members—eyes, ears, feet, hands, and so on. But in a properly functioning human body, left and right members never work at odds with each other. Instead of choosing sides, they operate side by side. They do not compete; they cooperate. Each supplies a strength and a perspective the other lacks.

In the Body of Christ, what explains the harmony between left-members and right-members? Each is directly connected with and responsive to the Head. Whenever the situation calls for action, Christ the Head has a single purpose. Members on both the left and the right work together to carry out that one aim.

We Need Practice

Shared church is all about working together. Like the world, the Body of Christ includes members with diverse viewpoints, gifts, and backgrounds. Unlike the world, all are equipped to respond to the one unifying Head. But in what setting may we practice working and speaking in agreement with one another?

Too often our traditional ways of gathering on, say, Sunday mornings rule out authentic one-anothering. We come together as audiences rather than as bodies with interacting members—passive watchers instead of active participants. Rarely, if ever, does the meeting format allow left-members and right-members the opportunity to speak and listen to each other in the way of I Cor. 14:26— “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” (The Message).

Jesus asked his Father to grant that we might “be brought to complete unity,” experiencing the same oneness they have enjoyed throughout eternity (Jn. 17:23). Those words, “be brought to,” suggest that arriving at this unity will not come about instantaneously. It will take practice, exercise, rehearsal. Where can we develop, and demonstrate that right-member/left-member unity if we do not do so when we come together as shared church?

Left-member/right-member unity in the Body of Christ exploded into the world in the first century. The divided world is waiting for it to happen again.

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. 

Walking in Ancient Paths

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Two friends of ours—Millennials—don’t know each other. Yet in separate conversations I heard them use exactly the same word about a church in our community. The church meets in a building that, until a few years ago, had been a movie theater. Our friends, a man and a woman, at different times had each attended this church briefly, then left. She and days later he described the Sunday meeting as a “show.” Apparently the former theater building still draws an audience of watchers.

Participatory Path in Passover

Although young, these two are seeking an old way of gathering with other believers. A way that includes relationships, interactive body life, shared church. Two-way communication in church meetings is not a new idea. Christ-followers practiced it when they gathered back in the first century. During their last Passover meal, Jesus and his disciples engaged in a lot of back-and-forth conversation. Check it out. Count the “asked” and “answered” words in just John 13.

Paul called for the Corinthian believers to practice shared church: “So here’s what I want you to do. 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” (I Cor. 14:26, The Message).

Monologue: One-Way Street

In his 1963 book, The Miracle of Dialogue, Reuel L. Howe says, “Monologue is not effective communication.” He based his statement on research done by the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies and other experts in communication. “Young ministers,” he says, “are disillusioned about the effectiveness of preaching and suspect that ‘telling’ is not a sure means of communication, but because they know of no alternative, they are caught in the one-way street of monologue.”

Less than a decade later Ray Stedman, in Body Life, lamented that “Christian meetings have turned into dull, stodgy rituals where many Christians gather to go through completely predictable performances, all conducted in an atmosphere of ‘reverence’ which permits no interchange with one another, no exchange of thought, no discussion of truth, and no opportunity to display Christian love in any but the most superficial of ways.”

Soul Rest in Old Paths

So the roots of shared-church reach far back in time. Jeremiah the prophet quoted what the Lord said to the Israelites: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). But today, far too many churches have not learned the power of walking in those “ancient paths” when they gather.

Millennials and others may not be able to articulate it. But they are looking for the kind of relational, church-body life seen in the New Testament. The Barna Research Group reports that, “The first factor that will engage Millennials at church is as simple as it is integral: relationships.” Barna President David Kinnaman says, “. . . the most positive church experiences among Millennials are relational. . . . huge proportions of churchgoing teenagers do not feel relationally accepted in church.”

Much of the one-anothering seen in the New Testament can be recovered in our main congregational meetings. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, 25 church leaders explain the paths they are exploring as they pursue that goal.

Reports from the Front

On Sunday, we Christians rightly hear what we are to believe and do. We also hear what God did back in Bible times. But how often do we hear what God is doing today in our neighborhoods, workplaces, families, and other arenas of our scattered-church lives?

A few churches regularly include what Alan and Eleanor Kreider call “reports from the front.” That can mean reports from the “front lines” where we live out our daily lives. Or it can also mean reports we hear “from the front” of the meeting room.

Evidence of God at Work

As the Kreiders say in Worship and Mission after Christendom, “If we receive no reports from the front in our congregations, we are in trouble. . . . God seems powerless and inactive. And Christians who do see evidence of the missional activities of God in our time may only whisper about it in the church’s hallways or discuss it during the week in house groups or on the telephone—but not in worship services.”

Such reports were once called “testimonies.” Why have they fallen out of fashion in our church meetings? The Kreiders explain: “Testimony is a term that bores some people and alarms others. It bores people because at times testimonies are oft-repeated stories about long-ago conversion experiences. . . . Testimony in worship alarms people when the stories become embarrassingly personal.”

The faculty member of a seminary told me, “When I have been in a church where there is an ‘open mic’ time, the sharing is seldom about anything except sickness and personal problems.” Sadly, many believers have suffered through similar experiences.

Pastoral Coaching

But rightly done reports from the front will neither bore nor alarm. In some churches, leaders resist spectatoritis by coaching believers in how to put into words what God is doing in their daily lives. (My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes guidelines the pastors in one church use in coaching those who will present reports from the front.) While conversion stories have a place, reports from the front should cover a much wider range. For example:

  • This week I saw God at work in my workplace when he . . .

  • Would you please pray for me about . . .

  • Do you ever struggle with the temptation to . . . ? Let me tell you my story . . .

  • We just saw God open a whole new opportunity in our neighborhood by . . .

  • Here is how God has answered a long-term prayer. . .

  • Yesterday God used [name] to encourage me when she . . .

  • As I was reading [Bible passage], the Holy Spirit moved my heart with . . .

Hebrews 10:24-25 explains the importance of shared church, our gathering with other believers: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Most encouraging and spurring on involves speaking to and hearing each other—the very activities involved in reports from the front. 

People gave reports like this even in the Old Testament. For example, the Psalmist encouraged telling stories of God acting in the workplace: “Let them [merchants God had delivered from perils at sea] exalt him in the assembly of the people” (Ps. 107:32). How much more are such reports possible now that each believer has received the gift of God’s outpoured Spirit!

What do you think? How would giving and hearing reports from the front encourage you in your faith and spur you on to act it out?

The Faith-Voice Divide

A friend phoned this morning to say that someone close to him, a believer, had died a few days ago. My friend had been called on to offer some words of comfort at the memorial. “Could you,” he asked me, “help me find some Bible verses that would be appropriate for the occasion?”

Of course I was happy to do so and responded with three different passages he might want to consider. When I did so, he made a comment that left me sad and pondering. This man, probably around 60 years old, said, “I’ve attended church all my life, but still can’t find Scriptures when I need them.”

My friend is a Christian, but when a moment of opportunity comes, he is unable to locate or vocalize Scripture. His faith and his voice remain disconnected. This is one of the disabling symptoms of Sunday spectatoritis. In his decades of church attendance, no one has expected him to become an apprentice or student of Jesus and his words—in other words, a disciple.

In his book, Preaching as Dialogue, Jeremy Thomson says, “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.”

Paul noted that the disciples in the Roman church were “competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). He wrote that the Colossian believers were to “teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16). Instructing, teaching, admonishing—those all require a linkage of faith with voice. And if the meeting formats in those churches followed the pattern of the church at Corinth (I Cor. 14:26), everyone had opportunities to develop and practice using that faith-voice connection when they gathered.

 What do you think? How might the meeting format of your church be modified so that Christians like my friend could practice connecting their faith with their voices?

How Would Jesus Teach in Church?

Monologue or Dialogue?

Think back to the church meetings you’ve attended in the past year. How did the usual method of teaching compare with the way Jesus taught? “Jesus seldom, if ever, monologued,” says Charles H. Kraft, a Fuller Seminary Professor. Instead, “He interacted.”

In his book, Communicating the Gospel God’s Way, Kraft writes, “The word ‘preach’ that is ordinarily used in English translations of [Mark 16:15] is only one way of communicating. Indeed, it is a form of communication that Jesus used very seldom.” 

I checked that out. What we call the “Sermon on the Mount,” as Matthew records it, is monologue. Jesus does most of the talking in John 13-16. But his teaching in those chapters is full of dialogue, conversational back-and-forth. Nearly 60 times the gospels say “Jesus [or he] asked.” Just about the same number of times gospel writers report that “Jesus [or he] answered.” His exchanges included both groups and individuals. Among others, Jesus interacted with John the Baptist, the twelve disciples, women, men, Jewish religious leaders, and foreigners.

Before coming as one of the pastors to Jacob’s Well Church in Chicago, Mark Brouwer, had traveled to coach other pastors. “As I visited churches during that period,” he says, “I discovered how strange it was to sit through a service as a passive observer. I came to believe including discussion times is more biblical and helpful to spiritual growth.”

What do you think? Why did Jesus mainly rely on teaching with dialogue rather than monologue? Why is his method so rarely used in the teaching/preaching that takes place on Sunday mornings today?