Shared-Church Singing

My surprising discovery came when I looked at the lyrics of the top ten Christian songs. But the story does not begin there. It all started when the teacher/facilitator of our Sunday adult class requested that I fill in for him. On what aspect of our faith, I asked, should I help the class to focus on? Then something came to mind.

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Songs to God as Creator?

Not long before that, and for another group, I had prepared a devotional on worshiping God as Creator. In John’s vision of the worship in heaven, the 24 elders are saying, "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being" (Revelation 4:11). The motivation for this outburst of praise? The mind-boggling truth that God created absolutely everything.

As I developed that devotional, I began to ask myself: How often do we Christ-followers sing about God as Creator? In the grand sweep of the scriptural story, God has revealed himself as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Restorer. I thought back on decades of experience as part of the church. I suspected that we sing a whole lot about God as Redeemer—grateful for personal forgiveness—but not so much about him as Creator.

True, some songs—although it seems we rarely sing them anymore—do celebrate the Creator. For instance, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “This is My Father’s World.” But what is happening today? I wondered. Have songs about God's grace as our Redeemer displaced songs about his role as our Creator? 

A Look at the Top-Ten Songs

In an attempt to answer that question, I typed into my Google search box “top ten Christian song lyrics.”  In a flash, links to a number of websites showed up. I clicked on the first one. And there they were—in ranked order—all ten of the current, Christian, chart-topping songs. One by one, I copied the lyrics for all the songs and pasted them into a single Word document.

The Word program, of course, can “find” individual words. So I searched on “creator.” No matches. “Creation.” Nope.  I tried “maker.” Nothing. Although I was disappointed, it did confirm what I had suspected. Then I thought, well . . .  as long as I have this document open with all ten of the current popular Christian songs, I’ll search on ten other words to see how many times each of them appears in the whole group of lyrics. Here’s what I discovered:

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The results of this tiny bit of research took me by surprise. In the ten songs, 374 words were all about first person singular: I (I’m), me, and my. The absence of openly biblical words like God, Jesus, Spirit, Kingdom, and Cross alarmed me. True, most of the 90 “you” words apparently referred to God or Jesus—but since they were never named, that pronoun remained anonymous. For example, “You give me so much” could refer to a caring human being. Which raised a  question in my mind: To reach the top of the charts, must Christian songwriters avoid terms like God and Jesus and Spirit? For that question I have no answer.

These songs did not reach top-ten standing by their use in church meetings. Instead, their ranking came from how often they were aired on radio--probably along with some digital sales and streaming activity data added in. And yet the music heard through those media regularly finds its way into Sunday mornings as well. How can a church make certain that its music includes biblical terms that clearly identify the Trinity and communicate a well-rounded biblical theology? How can a church ensure that its songs include a full spectrum of truth about God as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Restorer?

Letting the Body of Christ Choose the Songs

My October 19, 2017, blog, “Participatory Church Music Choice" (click here), suggests a way to safeguard the selection of songs we sing when we gather. In summary, the idea is to practice shared church. When it comes to music, this means giving members of Christ’s body a voice in choosing it. Almost any church includes young, middle-aged, and older people. Given the opportunity, each will pick songs that speak to them and express their hearts. This will make way for current songs, not-so-new songs, and those that have stood the test of time.

Such participation will greatly enrich the repertoire of any church's music. The selections will not be limited to the musical preferences of just one or two people week after week. Instead, when “everyone has a hymn” (I Cor. 14:26) or psalm or spiritual song, the door will open to the whole range of God’s revelation of himself. Here are some examples--and samples--of songs the diverse members of a congregation might choose:

Creator: “Thou Art Worthy” (click here). “The Earth is the Lord’s” (click here). “God of Wonders” (click here). “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (click here).

Sustainer: “Be Still My Soul” (click here). “God Will Take Care of You” (click here). “His Eye is on the Sparrow" (click here). “The Lord’s My Shepherd” (click here).

Redeemer: "I Am Not Skilled to Understand” (click here). “In Christ Alone” (click here). “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” (click here). “And Can it Be?” (click here).

Restorer: “What a Day That Will Be” (click here). “Because He Lives” (click here).  “It May be at Morn” (click here). "Soon and Very Soon" (click here).

What we sing when the church gathers does not have to reflect someone’s top 10, top 20, or top 100 list. Instead, the songs should come from the hearts of those who love the God who reveals himself in Scripture, in his Creation, and supremely in his son, Jesus Christ. Shared church includes restoring to all members of Christ’s Body their rightful role of contributing to each other—even through songs in which they hear God’s voice.  

Watch Your Language: Part Six

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Flash back in memory to when you were nine years old. It’s Saturday night. Mom tells you and your sister and brother, “Pick out what you will wear tomorrow when we go to church.” Next morning, early, a friend phones and invites you to join their family for a day at the beach. “I can’t,” you say, “because we’ll go to church later this morning. And sure enough, at 9:30 a.m., Dad calls you from your room: “Hurry up! It’s time to go to church.”

A Phrase Enshrined in Tradition

What pictures did those words, “go to church,” etch in your nine-year-old mind? Probably the same ones that come up today if you google on the phrase “going to church” and click on the image icon. Most of the pictures show people either walking toward or sitting inside a church building. “The words “go to church” have become so deep-rooted in our Christian lingo, it may seem absurd for me to add them to this series on watching our language.

“Okay,” some may be thinking, “this guy has lost it completely. I’ve been ‘going to church’ since before I could walk. Going to church is good for us. God expects Christians to go to church.” Yes, I understand. Those words are part of my native language, too. That phrase slips easily off my lips. Christian leaders constantly urge us to “go to church.” In fact, countless articles online press us to do just that. Within a few minutes I found lists of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, and 13 “reasons to go to church.” In spite of all that, one writer insisted, “there is only ONE reason to go to church.”

So please bear with me while I explain why I believe the words “go to church” can blur our vision. The first two words, “go to,” work perfectly in other contexts. Saying, “I’m going to the store,” accurately tells where I’m heading. We rightly talk about going to all sorts of places and events—to theaters, to the mountains, to baseball games, and to piano recitals. Muslims properly speak of “going to mosque,” because the mosque is a place.

New Covenant? Or Old?

But here’s the rub: the Body of Christ, is neither a place nor an event.

Instead, it is people—people who have come to God through faith in Jesus. As someone has said, you cannot go to who you are. If your last name is Smith, you don’t “go to Smith.” Leaving work, you may go to your house for dinner or a nap. But you and the other Smiths who live there are a family. You are neither a place nor an event.

True, in Old Covenant days, God’s people did go to a place to offer their animal sacrifices and their tithes. First the Tabernacle, then the Temple, became the go-to places for the Israelites to maintain their relationship with God. For some of them, going to the Temple in Jerusalem amounted to a trek that took days. The Samaritans thought Mt. Gerizim was the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. So they made that their go-to place for meeting God.

But when Jesus had his long talk with the Samaritan woman at the well, he did away with the idea that getting with God required going to some special place. As he said to her: “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Mt. Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem. . . . Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:21, 23). New Covenant worship, then, is no longer tied to a place.

So how did this go-to-church tradition get started? We read in Matt. 16:18 that Jesus says, “I will build my church.” Except he didn’t actually say that. Instead, he said, “I will build my ekklesia [Greek for assembly].” The word church came to us not from the Greek but later through Anglo-Saxon. It meant “of the Lord” and in time came to mean “house of the Lord,” meaning a building. In William Tyndale’s 1525 translation of the Bible, he refused to translate ekklesia as church. In his version, Matt. 16:18—in now-obsolete English—reads like this: “And I saye also vnto the that thou arte Peter: and apon this rocke I wyll bylde my congregacion.”

Three Reasons to Stop Saying “Go to Church”

  1. It Blocks Our View. Because “going to church” signals heading for a building or event, the words encourage us to see ourselves as an audience. They make it more difficult to view ourselves as a family and as the Body of Christ. So those words distract us from the need to share, encourage, build up, and strengthen one another. Those words work against life together as shared church.
  2. It's Not Used for Other Church Gatherings. How often do you hear someone say they are “going to church” to describe getting together with fellow believers in a home group? I can’t recall ever hearing the words used that way. If teaching, fellowship, eating together, and prayer (Acts 2:42) are happening in a home group, why do we never refer to it as “going to church”? Most likely because the meeting does not take place in a “church building.” (The Anglo-Saxon meaning again.)
  3. It Implies Detachment. The words “go to church” suggest that we are somehow separated from it, so we must drive or walk somewhere to reach where it is. If I can “go to church,” I can also “go from church.” Is there a time when I disconnect from the Body of Christ? In Acts 8:1, we read that “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered.” When scattered, did those Christians cease being the church? Or did they simply begin operating in scattered-church mode—just as your blood gathers in the lungs and scatters to your arms, legs, and feet?

Other Words Serve Us Better

The Anglo-Saxon word church entered our English language centuries ago. Virtually all our Bibles today use the term. So that ship has sailed. We can’t communicate clearly without the word church.  But we don’t have to say “go to church.” Plenty of other words convey the right idea clearly enough.  Instead, why not say we’re going to meet—or gather or get together or assemble—with other Christians?

That said, I still may slip up and say I'm “going to church.” If I do, please call me out!

Watch Your Language: Part Five


Nora Watson nailed it in her remark about calling. While she was serving as a magazine writer/editor, Studs Terkel interviewed her for his book, Working. She told him: “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us . . . have jobs that are too small for our spirit.” She is right. Far too many—even among Christians—go to work with no awareness of calling.

What Camouflages Calling?

But why? What prevents us from seeing our work as part of God’s mission in the world? In The Other Six Days, Paul Stevens says, “almost the only people who speak of being ‘called of God’ are ‘full-time’ missionaries and pastors.” It’s easy to find examples online that illustrate Stevens’ point:

  • “It was during my time in college that I received my calling into pastoral ministry.”  
  • “I am often asked how I received my calling from God to be a full-time pastor.”
  • “I never once doubted my calling to the mission field.”

Yet in his book, The Call, Os Guinness says: “There is not a single instance in the New Testament of God’s special call to anyone into a paid occupation or into the role of a religious professional.” 

The Multiple Meanings of Call

Calling is a useful word—and a biblical one. At the same time, I think another biblical word offers a clearer way to describe how God directs us into this or that role or job or task. I’ll get to that word shortly. But first, let’s zero in on this word calling. The words call, called, and calling appear in the Bible hundreds of times. Those words in Scripture refer to the same things we mean when we speak them:

1. Call can mean to name something. If you call your daughter Stacy, that is her name. Many English translations of Rom. 1:1 and I Cor. 1:1 say Paul was “called to be an apostle.” But the Greek text has no “to be.” It simply says, “Paul, called an apostle.” God named Paul as an apostle.

2. Call can mean to initiate communication. I dial your cell phone to call you. While the boy was still in bed, “The Lord called Samuel,” because he wanted to talk to him.

3. Call can mean to summon. If illness leaves a restaurant short-staffed, employees may be called to fill in. Rom. 1:6 speaks of those “who are called to belonged to Jesus Christ.” Here called speaks of God’s invitation to come to him.   

Primary and Secondary Callings

Os Guinness distinguishes between our primary and our secondary callings. He says: “Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost, we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Mongolia).”

Guinness continues: “Our secondary calling, considering God who is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to the practice of law or to art history. . . . Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most.”

Another Word for God’s Work Assignments

So Guinness uses the same word, “calling,” both for God’s (primary) summons to come to him and for his (secondary) assignments regarding what he wants us to do. Using the identical word to refer to two different things can be confusing. So let me suggest another term I find useful in describing what Guinness refers to as God’s secondary call. When Jesus and the Bible writers wanted to speak of God or others assigning someone to do some kind of work or task, they usually used some form of the word “send.” For example:

  • God to Moses: "Say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your fathers . . . has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:15).
  • Jesus to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." (Jn. 20:21).
  • Paul to Timothy: “I sent Tychicus to Ephesus.” (II Tim. 4:12).

Mark 3:13 and 14 use two separate words for the primary and secondary meanings. “Jesus . . . called [them] . . . that he might send them.” That fits in with the way we speak, doesn’t it? If you want me to come to you, you call me. If, after I come, you want me to go and do something, you send me.

Call Means Come; Send Means Go

Jesus called you to himself—not simply so you can go to heaven someday when you die—but that he might send you in the here and now to work in his world.

  • Calling—being summoned to come to God—provides you with a new identity. So calling relates especially to who you are.
  • Sending—being assigned by God to do something—relates to roles and tasks. So sending relates to what you do.

God called Paul, naming or identifying him, as an apostle. God then sent Paul to represent him before Gentiles. This involved Paul in such roles as church planter, tent manufacturer, and prison inmate. 

God Sends in Various Ways

When God sends someone to do something, he may use words—or he may use the outworking of circumstances. In Paul’s case, God used words: “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” (Acts 22:21). But in Joseph’s case, God used circumstances. He worked in Egypt because his brothers bullied and sold him out. But much later he explained to them, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Gen. 45:7). God works in all things--even in the world of work--for the good of those who love him, those called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). 

Many Christians toil day after day with no sense of how their work connects with God's purpose. What do they need?

  • First, we need to hear clear and frequent teaching that all of God’s children have been called, summoned, to come to him and into his Kingdom through faith in Christ.
  • Second, we all need to hear clear and frequent teaching that everyone God calls to himself he then sends back out into the world to serve him in some way. God sends some of his children to work as teachers, shepherds, and equippers in the gathered church. He sends others to demonstrate Kingdom-of-God living as they work in paid and unpaid roles in the scattered church.

God sends all of us into full-time service for him. See your work as your current Kingdom post. Your assignment may change. Stay tuned!

Watch Your Language: Part Four

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Like a freeway losing a lane, a word can narrow. Its meaning can contract and taper down. Somewhere along the line, that happened to the word worship. For many Christians, it has come to mean almost the same thing as singing to God in a church meeting: “After worship, the pastor spoke.” Or when we say worship, we may mean the meeting itself: “We worship at 10:45 a.m.”

Worship: Its Meaning Matters

Because we so often hear worship used to mean music or meeting, we may ask: Does that even matter? It does, because we can easily read those narrowed meanings back into the Bible, our standard for what we believe and do. The New Testament mentions singing and music perhaps a half-dozen times in connection with Christians gathering. But—and this may come as a surprise—the word worship does not appear in those verses. Nor does the New Testament say worship is the reason for meeting together.

Can we worship through singing? Yes. Should worship take place when we meet? Of course. But the New Testament does not confine worship to the gathered church. Biblical worship also extends into every corner of our involvement in the scattered church. If we worship only in gathered-church mode, then worship narrows to only about one percent of our waking hours.

Bible Words for Worship

Four main words in the Greek New Testament sometimes get translated into English as worship.  Those words also appear in our Bibles as kneel, bow, (or prostrate), serve, and minister. It follows that worship may take many different forms. For example, the prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch worshiped as they fasted and prayed (Acts 13:1-2). The women at the empty tomb worshiped by holding onto Jesus’ feet (Mt. 28:9). Jacob, says the writer of Hebrews, “worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (Heb. 11:21). None of these examples of worship took place in what we call a church service.

The Old Testament, right from the start, began using a full-width, multi-lane, Hebrew word for worship.  The verb AVAD (and its noun AVODAH) are translated as worship, work, and serve. For example:

  • God to Moses: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship [avad] God on this mountain” (Ex. 3:22).
  • “You shall work [avad] six days . . . .” (Ex. 34:21).
  • “. . . choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve [avad]. . . . But as for me and my household, we will serve [avad] the Lord" (Josh. 24:15.) (Emphases added.)

To us, work and worship may seem unrelated, as different as land and sea. How, then, can the same Hebrew word describe both? What connects the two? The link is that third meaning of avad: to serve.  Both worshiping and working are ways in which we serve God. This means I can offer my daily work—paid or unpaid—to God as service/worship he accepts.

How Can Work be Worship?

“But how,” you may be asking, “can I actually offer my work to God as worship. My work seems so—well—ordinary. So earthly.” True, our culture and perhaps even our church traditions can condition us to think our work has zero spiritual value.

Old Covenant worship centered in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple. There, the people brought animals and cakes made of grain to place on an altar. So the essence of worship back then involved offering sacrifices in a particular place. Because Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for our sins on the cross, we no longer worship God by bringing him bulls or birds. Today, we worship by offering sacrifices of another kind.

The writer of Hebrews explains: “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb. 13:16). Ponder on that for a moment. Doing good. Sharing with others. Those are “sacrifices.” And such sacrifices “please God.”

Now stop and think about your work—paid or not. Does it help to provide products or services that do good for others? Does it supply you with the means to share with others? In his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster says, “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” And typically, our work actually does require us to sacrifice—giving up our own time, comfort, and pleasure to serve others with what we produce.

Offering Your Body in Worship

Your physical body becomes a major part of New Covenant offering. As Paul urges, “offer the parts of your body to him [God] as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). And again, “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship” (Rom. 12:1). Whatever your work, you do it with your body—hands, brain, feet, eyes, ears, and so on. As your body and all its parts work in faith, hope, and love—doing good and sharing with others—that work becomes your “spiritual act of worship.”

“But wait,” someone may object, “I can’t always be thinking about God while I work. I drive a bus. My mind must focus on my passengers and the traffic around me.” The good news is that offering your work to God as worship does not require you to consciously think or feel excited about him every second. As Jesus told the woman at the well, the Father is looking for those who worship him “in spirit and in truth.” While your work demands the full attention of your mind, your spirit--energized by the Holy Spirit--can continue in unbroken fellowship with God.

Talk about truth that transforms! Suddenly, when you realize you may worship as you work, that narrowed word worship suddenly widens. Work now becomes God’s good gift (click here for brief video). Work is now something to love rather than hate. If we have come to God through faith in Christ, we can stop hating Mondays and start looking forward to them. This lets worship out of its narrow space in a “Sunday box.” Worship on Sunday, yes, and on every other day of the week--including workdays.

Watch Your Language: Part Three

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When I was young, we kids had a ready-made comeback when hit with a nasty put-down: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” In the title of her new book, Joyce Schneider puts a fresh twist on that old saying: Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones: But Words Can Kill My Spirit.

A Pair of Spirit-Killing Words: Secular Work

In response to a short blog on so-called secular work, one reader wrote: “I personally struggle with this right now as a Christian, because I have a hard time seeing anything good about detailing and driving cars for a living or of what importance it has to me or to others I'm involved in. I keep seeing myself as a failure with a bachelor’s degree when I think about work right now.” Words from a spirit deeply wounded.

And no wonder. Secular work carries the implied meaning of being second-rate compared with ministry (see previous blog) or full-time Christian service. To define secular, dictionaries use words like “worldly rather than spiritual.” “Not having any connection with religion.” “Earthly.” “Profane.” “Irreligious.” The Oxford Living Dictionaries dubs secular as “Denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis. Contrasted with sacred.”

This Language Lives On

I’d like to think we Christians have gotten beyond talking of secular work. But the words are very much alive and well among us. From a blog: “I strongly felt, however, the call to something greater than just secular work.” Or, “One of the most troubled periods of my life came when I left the ministry of Youth for Christ and went into secular work.” And, “At times I was tempted to give up the ministry and go into secular work.”

Yes, sticks and stones bruise. But for those in non-church jobs who are serious about following Jesus, the secular-work dart poisons. It can make it seem as if those 80- to 100-thousand lifetime hours invested in the workplace add up to a spiritual zero. Yet Scripture never describes any work as secular. Why? The reasons reach all the way to God’s own activities and purposes.

God’s Work Becomes Our Work

In his activity, God has revealed himself in his work as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Restorer. It follows, then, that his purposes extend into all of these. By making us in his likeness, God gave us dignity by delegating to us much of his work on his planet. We workers, made in the image of the Worker, have the great honor of reflecting him in our daily work.

Garbage Collection. Our garbage-pickup driver comes every Tuesday. His job, according to the world’s value system, lies near the bottom of the occupational pecking order. That kind of work seems to have “no religious or spiritual basis.” Yet God himself engages in the cleanup business. His wind and rain cleanse the air. His sunlight disinfects. Garbage collectors are doing God’s work when they remove the debris from our homes and neighborhoods, waste that would kill us if left to putrefy. When garbage crews went on a two-day strike in Phnom Penh, 5,000 tons of rubbish piled up in the streets. It took 5 days and the intervention of military police to clear away the trash and end the stench.

Food Service. Are waitresses and waiters doing secular work? After all, in their jobs they serve merely physical (not spiritual) food to hungry, earthly bodies. But wait. God sent ravens to feed Elijah’s earthly body. He provided manna to sustain the bodies of the Israelites in the desert. Jesus fed thousands. “I do not want to send them away hungry,” he said, “or they may collapse on the way” (Mt. 15:32). So next time someone on a wait staff places that steak on your table, thank God that she or he is carrying out one of God’s purposes on earth. How can that be merely secular work?

Government Work. Surely working for an anything-but-godly government qualifies as secular work, right? Not so fast. God governs. “Dominion,” says David, “belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28). Joseph worked as prime minister of the pagan government in Egypt. Yet, he told his brothers it was to that very place that “God sent me” (Gen. 45:5). As a young man, Daniel went to work for the ungodly Babylonian government—and served God in that work for perhaps 70 years. Because they are carrying out God’s purposes, government authorities, says Paul, “are God’s servants" (Rom. 13:6). So is it right to call what they do secular work? Does it really have no spiritual basis?

Gathered-Church Work. Those who do what often gets called ministry or spiritual work are also carrying out God’s purposes. God rescues. He “redeems your life from the pit” (Ps. 103:4). “Our God is a God who saves” (Ps. 68:20). So those, too, who serve God and others by proclaiming and explaining the Good News are doing what God himself has been doing all along.

Church or Kingdom Perspective?

In light of who God is and what he does—and our being made in his likeness—what, then, keeps feeding this unbiblical concept of secular work? Could it be that we have allowed our practice of “church” to dwarf the far larger biblical theme of God’s Kingdom? As already quoted, “God rules over the nations.” When Jesus began teaching, he did not say the Church had arrived. Instead, his good news was that the Kingdom of God had come near. In The Other Six Days, R. Paul Stevens says, “Kingdom ministry has been almost totally eclipsed by church ministry.”

As King, with all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus cares about the well-being of both his original Creation and his New Creation. He sends people to work in both arenas to carry out his Kingdom purposes. The Church—in both its gathered and scattered modes—is here to announce and to demonstrate the presence of the King and his Kingdom.

To a church-program mindset, managing a bank, sweeping floors, or designing a building may seem irrelevant except as a means for evangelizing or making money to support “the ministry.” Which makes it so telling how the Collins English Dictionary defines secular: “not within the control of the Church.”

Kingdom work--carrying out  our Father's business--takes the labor of both the gathered and the scattered church. Making a higher-lower distinction between so-called secular and sacred work disables shared church.

Watch Your Language: Part Two

The previous blog explored how the clergy-laity divide works against shared church. In Part Two, we’ll look at how misuse of the word ministry has a similar effect.  

“When words shrink, people get smaller,” wrote musical composer Paul Crabtree.

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Among us Christians, the withering of the word ministry has done just that to people. Originally, any Christ-follower could engage in ministry. But the term has undergone something like what happens when you drag the corners of a computer image to resize it. What began as large-box ministry has become small-box ministry.

Diakonia. That’s the Greek word usually translated into English as ministry. One Greek-English dictionary says it means “the role or position of serving” or “a procedure for taking care of the needs of people.” Most legitimate work, paid or unpaid, serves and cares for the needs of others. “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others,” says Lester DeKoster in Work: The Meaning of Your Life.

Enter Ministry-Lite

But in today’s church circles, the ministry has narrowed to mean work such as serving as a pastor or missionary. It’s easy to find examples online:

  • “Five Signs You’re Meant to Enter the Ministry”
  • “Should You Enter the Ministry?”
  • “He left the ministry to follow business opportunities.”  
  • “She . . . left the ministry to pursue a writing career.”

It seems, then, that the resized ministry has come to resemble a room with a swinging door. You may enter it today and leave it tomorrow. Which raises serious questions. If you, as a mature believer, enter the ministry, what were you doing before that? And if you leave the ministry, does that mean you have now entered “non-ministry”?

What if you switch back and forth? A friend of mine asked an acquaintance, “You’re retired, aren’t you?” The reply: "I’m still working part time with a parachurch, international students’ organization.  We recently spent a year where many of these students had come from. So we taught them English for 20-30 hours a week.  The rest of the time we did ministry.” Was this person stuck inside a revolving-door: entering-leaving-entering-leaving? Did Paul rotate in and out of ministry, making tents now, doing ministry then?

Those words, “entering” and “leaving,” show that the ministry has been professionalized. Lawyers and doctors may enter or leave their professional careers. But as Os Guinness points out in The Call: “There is not a single instance in the New Testament of God’s special call to anyone into a paid occupation or into the role of a religious professional.”

Does the Small-Box Ministry Issue Matter?

Yes. First, because the resized word works against shared church. It tends to supersize those in the ministry. This only increases the distance between “clergy” and “laity.” Pedestals do not promote healthy one-anothering.  

Second, small-box ministry lets far too many Christians slip, so to speak, off the hook. It is easy to justify not laying down our lives in service for others by thinking, “But I’m not in the ministry.” Shared-church means every-member ministry. No one called by God gets a pass on serving him and others full time.

Third, countless Christians who wholeheartedly desire to serve the Lord in their work, get the strong impression—some are even taught—that this means they ought to “enter full-time ministry.” This is, they are often led to believe, a "higher calling." Far too many learn too late that God has not wired them to be pastors or missionaries. Some even end up needing the help of a psychiatrist or counselor.

Can We Find More Accurate Words?

Why do we continue to describe only the work of pastors and missionaries as the ministry? Do we lack the language to express the true situation? To find better ways of saying what we mean, it will help to keep a couple of truths firmly in mind:

  1. The church operates in two modes—gathered and scattered. Neither outranks the other. Each needs the other. Some have compared the rhythm to the body’s circulatory system. Blood gathers in the heart and lungs to be replenished, then scatters to the extremities to deliver life-giving oxygen and nutrients. Practicing shared church requires that we recognize both church gathered and church scattered and to give each its rightful place.
  2. God has called all of us to serve him and others—to minister—both with our words and our works. Many Scriptures emphasize both kinds of serving. For example, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed [literally, work], do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). The word-to-work proportion varies from member to member within the Body of Christ. Some are more word-focused. Some more work-focused. But each of us should engage in both.

With these gathered/scattered and word/work truths before us, perhaps we can discover new ways of speaking without falling back into the small-box-ministry language. Instead of saying, “He entered full-time ministry,” perhaps say something like, “He now serves as a shepherd in the gathered church.” Instead of saying, “She did not enter the ministry,” say something like, “She serves as a social worker in the scattered church.”

“Words are powerful; take them seriously” (Matt. 12:36, The Message).

Watch Your Language (Part One)

(This is the first in a series on how “church-speak” can thwart shared church.)

Of all people, we Christians should know that words matter. By his words God created the universe and keeps it going. Through words, God has revealed himself to us—via the Living Word and the written words of Scripture. So it should come as no surprise that practicing shared church depends heavily on our using right words in the right way.

Changing the Church Vocabulary

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Not long ago, I attended a gathering of those involved in faith-at-work ministries in our area. The event was held in Seattle Pacific University. Our speaker: Tom Nelson, author of Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work, serves as senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, KS. He told us the story of how he—after realizing the importance of equipping Christians for their weekday work—helped his church incorporate the theology of work into their Sunday gatherings.

After speaking, he opened an opportunity for questions. One person asked what he saw as the most important element in the transition. Nelson responded instantly: vocabulary. The church had to learn how to stop using certain terms and begin using other words. Like the forms construction workers use in pouring concrete, words shape our thoughts. These, in turn, harden into traditions that become nearly unbreakable.

Just a short time later, someone stood to ask another question. The man began by saying, “I’m just a layperson, but I wondered about . . . .” Before he could even finish his sentence, Nelson cut in. You have just illustrated my point about vocabulary, he said. In Christ Community Church, the habit of referring to Christians as “laypersons” had to be unlearned. Nelson was helping those in his church to carry out something Karl Barth had written years ago: “The term 'laity' is one of the worst in the vocabulary of religion and ought to be banished from the Christian conversation.” 

What Difference Does It Make?

But wait, you may be thinking, what’s so wrong with being a layperson? After all, our Christian parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents all saw themselves as laypeople. True. The word "laity" has been with us for a long time--but not long enough. Let’s look at a few reasons we should purge the term from our vocabulary.

First, the Bible never uses the word to describe Christ-followers. “We can look in vain for the term ‘lay’ in the New Testament. The laity is an unknown species in the texts of the gospel,” says Alexandre Faivre in The Emergence of the Laity in the Early Church. “There was still no distinction between clergy and laity at the time of the pastorals [I & II Timothy and Titus].”  By the third century, Faivre says, “The layman was quite certainly regarded as inferior to the clergy at that time.”

Second, when it comes to the body of Christ, such language is a put-down. Eugene Peterson has said, “Within the Christian community, there are few words that are more disabling than ‘layperson’ and ‘laity.’” That disability surfaced in the words of a blogger: “I’m just a layperson, looking in from the sidelines.” Another said, “I wouldn’t know, since I’m just a layperson.”

Third, the whole setup that labels some believers “laypersons” and others as “clergy” works powerfully against our practicing shared church. The terms reinforce a religious caste system that creates professionals and amateurs, an elite and a subclass. Sunday gatherings make this two-tiered arrangement plain for all to see. The few talk and do. The many listen and watch.

A Church Without Clergy or Laity

What a contrast to the action-packed words the New Testament uses to identify Christ-followers. For example, we—all of us—are:

  • Members of Christ’s body, each with gifts to be used to help everyone.
  • Priests who speak to, instruct, strengthen, and build up one another.
  • Branches of the Vine who bear his nourishing, refreshing fruit for the benefit of all.

That’s why, in describing what the Corinthian believers were to do when they gathered, Paul wrote: “When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you” (I Cor. 14:26, NLT). No “clergy.” No “laity.” Leaders, yes, but no superstars. Simply brothers and sisters in Christ.

How can you help do away with the “clergy/laity” vocabulary? Tactfully encourage your church leaders to set the example in their teaching and speaking. As Tom Nelson writes in Work Matters, “Our local church preaching team is vigilant in avoiding dichotomous or reductionistic words and phrases such as ‘a secular job,’ ‘sacred space,’ ‘full-time ministry,’ ‘frontlines ministry,’ or ‘moving from success to significance. . . . All too often our theology says one thing and our language communicates another.”

How Can a Church of 200 Serve 3,000?

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Get set for an out-of-the-box outreach idea. The good news: it won’t cost your church a dime. More good news: it will not involve another program. It does not require making new contacts or building new relationships. Sound too good to be true? Walk with me through some simple math.

Let’s begin with your church of, say, 200. If your church numbers half that, simply divide what follows by two, and you will see a similar potential in your congregation.

About 327 million people now live in the U.S. Of those, nearly 162 million are part of the nation’s labor force. So, roughly speaking, about half the population spend their weekdays on the job. That means that in your church of 200, there’s a good chance some 100 fan out on Monday into offices, shops, schools, hospitals, and so on. Perhaps 92 of these are employees and 8 are employers or supervisors of large staffs.

Now the Easy Math

At this point, let’s estimate that each of the 92 employees has already established some level of a job-related relationship with 25 others. These would include coworkers, supervisors, students and parents, patients, vendors, customers, and so on. Ninety-two employees times 25 contacts equals 2300.

When we factor in the entrepreneurs and supervisors, the number of relationships multiplies dramatically—perhaps to 100 or more per person. A friend who owns a manufacturing plant in Wisconsin that employs about 25 estimates his workplace relationships at hundreds. Eight employers/supervisors times even just 100 equals 800.

Add the two totals and you’ll see that your church of 200 may well have a salt-and-light reach of 3,100. (Or your church of 100? A reach of 1,550.)

Jesus Sends His People into the Work World

Come Monday morning the working folks in your congregation go just exactly where Jesus sends his followers—into the world. Their presence there makes not the slightest dent in the church budget. Someone else is paying them to be right where Jesus wants them.

Sadly, many see their jobs as placing them in a “secular” zone where any signs of faith must be parked outside the office door. Neither their training nor their experience prepares pastors to understand the challenges and opportunities of working as a Christian government employee, sales representative for a tech firm, or journalist. How, then, can those in non-church jobs learn how to serve as workplace-ready disciples? If given the opportunity, they can help equip each other.

You can search out mature Christ-followers who have learned how to shine the light of Christ into the dark corners of their work world. How do they “glow” without “glaring”? You can invite them to tell their faith-on-the-job stories during your congregational meetings. You can provide coaching to help them prepare and present those stories effectively. Trust the Holy Spirit to work through them to equip others to serve Christ by what they do and say in the work world.

Mutual Equipping through Workplace Stories

I was invited one Sunday to bring a workplace message to a congregation in another city. My wife and I invited “Brenda,” a Christian woman who worked for a state agency, to share—as a part of the message—her workplace story. After she finished, not knowing anyone in that unfamiliar church group, I asked whether anyone would be willing to pray for Brenda. Immediately a young woman raised her hand and volunteered to do so. As she began to pray, the young woman began to weep. Quickly regaining her composure, she offered a heartfelt prayer for Brenda. Afterward, we learned that what Brenda had said spoke directly to what this young woman had been facing in her own workplace that week. Nothing I might have said in my message could have spoken so well to the need this woman was facing as a Christian on the job.

 In The Other Six Days, R. Paul Stevens suggests that, “each week [in the church meeting] 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?” Stevens says that by including such reports, “the culture of a local church can be partially changed in fifty-two weeks . . . .” (p. 159).

Shared church includes both the church gathered and the church scattered. Openings in congregational gatherings create room for “reports from the front lines.” In these, members of the body of Christ help prepare each other to confront the challenges they face in their roles in the scattered church. Even a fairly small congregation can have a surprisingly large salt-light footprint in its community and beyond. How? By tapping into and releasing the treasures the Holy Spirit has already deposited in the hearts and experiences of seasoned believers from the world of work.

Learning to Pray the New Testament Way

In his John 17 prayer, Jesus says something to his Father that has long puzzled me: “I pray for them [my disciples]. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours” (Jn. 17:9). What has baffled me? Those seven words in the middle: “I am not praying for the world.”

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Some insight into this statement—and how it relates to shared church—has come in the past few weeks. To prepare for an adult Sunday School class on prayer, I searched the New Testament for what we might call “asking” (often called “petitionary”) prayers and for instructions on what to ask in prayer.

Surprise! Out of some 70 references, 41 had to do with praying for Christians. I found only 2 examples of  prayers for non-Christians to come to faith in Christ. As I pondered this great difference, those prayer-words of Jesus came back to mind: “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me.” The New Testament prayer-pattern seems to echo the prayer-priority seen in Jesus’s words to his Father.

How does “I am not praying for the world” fit with God’s will that everyone “be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4)? We’ll explore that question shortly. But first, have a look at the results of my research into New Testament praying:

For God’s Purposes

  • That his name be held holy. Mt. 6:9; Lk. 11:2
  • That his Kingdom come. Mt. 6:10; Lk. 11:2
  • That his will be done on earth. Mt. 6:10
  • That doors open for the proclamation of the gospel. Col. 4:3; II Thess. 3:1
  • That God send workers into his harvest. Mt. 9:38; Lk. 10:2

For Christ-Followers

  • That they would experience the grace, love, and fellowship of the Trinity. II Cor. 13:14
  • That they may come to complete unity. Jn. 17:20-23; Rom. 15:5-6
  • That God make increase their love for each other and everyone. I Thess. 3:12
  • That their love continue to grow in knowledge and deep insight. Phil. 19; Col. 1:9
  • That they may be full of joy and peace. Jn. 17:13; Rom. 15:13; II Thess. 3:16
  • That God protect them from the evil one. Jn. 17:15
  • That they may be sanctified. Jn. 17:17
  • That God sanctify them in body, soul, and spirit. I Thess. 5:23
  • That they will choose leaders wisely. Acts 1:24, 25
  • That they will favorably receive God’s messages and messengers. Rom. 15:31
  • That their hearts be enlightened to know all of Christ’s fullness: Eph. 1:18—19; 3:17-18
  • That they receive God’s Spirit of wisdom and revelation. Eph. 1:17
  • That they discern what is best. Phil. 1:10
  • That the Spirit will empower them from within. Eph. 3:16; Col. 1:11; I Thess. 3:13
  • That Christ may live in them through faith. Eph. 3:17
  • That their faith not fail. Lk. 22:32
  • That God fulfill their good purposes and actions produced by faith. II Thess. 1:11
  • That they stand firm in God’s will. Col. 4:12
  • That they reach full maturity. Col. 4:12
  • That they have full understanding. Philemon 6
  • That God heal their illnesses. Jas. 5:14
  • That tongues-speakers may interpret. I Cor. 14:13
  • That God grant them good health. III Jn. 2
  • That God grant life to Christians living in sin that does not lead to death. I Jn. 5:16
  • That they speak God’s word boldly. Acts 4:29
  • That God heal and perform signs and wonders. Acts 4:30
  • That God equip them to do his will and work in them what pleases him. Heb. 13:20-21
  • That God open a way for a visit to his people. Rom. 1:10
  • That God count them worthy of his calling. II Thess. 1:11
  • That God encourage and strengthen them in deed and word. II Thess. 2:17
  • That God show mercy to a believer and his family. II Tim. 1:16
  • That they remain pure, blameless, and fruitfully righteous until Christ returns. Phil. 1:10-11; Col. 1:10
  • That they endure to stand before Christ when he comes. Lk. 21:36

For Christian Leaders

  • That God protect them against the opposition of unbelievers. Rom. 15:31; II Thess. 3:2
  • That they receive God’s words and be fearless in speaking them. Eph. 6:19-20; Col. 4:3

For Non-Christians 

  • That unbelievers come to faith in Christ. Acts 26:29; Rom. 10:1

For Personal Needs

  • For receiving God’s Holy Spirit. Lk. 11:13
  • For daily provision of food. Mt. 6:11; Lk. 11:3
  • For forgiveness. Mt. 6:12; Lk. 11:4
  • For protection against falling into temptation. Mt. 6:13; 26:41; Lk. 11:4; Lk. 22:40, 46

For Those Who Mistreat Us

  • For enemies and persecutors. Mt. 5:44; Lk. 6:28; Lk. 23:34; Acts 7:60

For Earthly Authorities

  • That they rule in ways that bring peace. I Tim. 2:2

Of the prayer-references listed, just over 58 percent are for believers, while less than 3 percent are for unbelievers. Why? Does God not care about seeing unbelievers trust Jesus and so come into right relationship with him? Of course he does. God loves the world. He does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Pet. 3:9). So why did Jesus say he was "not praying for the world"?

In the same prayer, Jesus repeatedly asks that those first disciples and later Christ-followers be one, that they might be “brought to complete unity” (Jn. 17:11, 21-22). The demonstration of this unity, Jesus says, will enable the world to believe and to know the Father had sent him. So Jesus is concerned for the unbelieving world. But he knows that the eye-opener for a spiritually blind world is the display of heaven’s unity lived out by Christians on earth.

His prayer-priority, then, is for Christ-followers, for the community he launched and left here for the world to see. Read again all those prayers for Christians—prayers that God’s colony and colonists on earth will thrive spiritually so that the world may have access to samples of the coming Kingdom. Should we, then, pray that non-Christians trust Jesus. Yes—two of the prayers listed do so. But if we are to pray the New Testament way, it seems that most of our asking should be for fellow believers. Our loving one another, Jesus said, would provide the world with evidence that we are his disciples. And one-anothering prayer turns out to be a major part of loving each other.

That’s one more reason we need to learn how to practice New Testament praying in shared church.

Shared Church and Online Classes

Online classes. They’re everywhere. They cover everything—from doing aerobics to playing the zither. For the past five years, I’ve taught an online course for the Bakke Graduate University. The class aims to help Christians connect their faith with their daily work. Unexpectedly, teaching this course has sharpened my insight into shared church.

Church and Online Class: Two Modes

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Like the church, my online course operates in two modes—synchronous and asynchronous. In synchronous mode, the whole class “meets” online in a Zoom Room. Computer microphones and cameras let us see and hear each other. So we can present ideas, ask questions, clarify, explain, challenge, illustrate, or whatever. In asynchronous mode, students work separately. They complete assignments such as reading books and articles, watching videos, or posting their written responses to assignments.

In a similar way, the church acts in two modes—gathered (synchronous) and scattered (asynchronous). In gathered mode, we assemble. For most churches this happens on Sundays. When we gather, we should encourage and spur each other on (Heb. 10:24, 25). In scattered mode, we live out our faith at a distance from each other—in our homes, workplaces, and neighborhoods. When we scatter, our paths intersect with those in the world who need grace and light and salt.

How to Disable Synchronous Mode

Suppose, in a synchronous class session, I switch off all the students’ microphones (as professor, I have the power to do that). In that case, I now hold the only live microphone. If, during my presentation, I say something confusing, students have no way to ask me to restate my point. Or if a student recalls a perfect illustration from her own history, she cannot share it for the benefit of the others.

Why do we meet in synchronous sessions? Doing so allows a far richer, fuller learning experience. All of us—including me, as the professor—may profit from the gifts, understandings, and perspectives of everyone else. So if I were to shut down all the other voices except my own, I would deprive students of that fullness.

Traditional Sunday formats have brought us to a place where too many churches are platform-driven. Almost all the actions and words that matter come from the stage. As a result, in these synchronous sessions, very few have microphone privileges. This arrangement blocks the use of the God-given gifts in the congregation. As Paul puts it, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us as a means of helping the entire church” (I Cor. 12:7, NLT). Or as The Message paraphrases it, “Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits.”

The Loss in Asynchronous Mode

Losing the benefits of the synchronous mode takes its toll on what happens in asynchronous mode. Let’s say I ask a guest to facilitate a Zoom Room session on how our God-given spiritual and natural gifts relate to our daily work. A main purpose? To equip students when working by themselves in asynchronous mode. What they gain from the insights of our guest and his or her dialogue with the class should make them better able to handle their individual assignments. By turning off their microphones, I greatly reduce what they will take away.

What happens when we hush Christians in our church meetings? This leaves them unable to strengthen, build up, and encourage one another with their unique gifts. The loss will show up when they disperse into the roles God has placed them in during the other six days. In other words, the absence of mutual body-building when we gather will weaken our ability to carry out God’s mission in the world when we scatter.

Carrying Out Our Scattered-Mode Assignments

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I say: “Scattered translates a Greek word rooted in diaspora. It means to sow, as in scattering seed throughout a field. In one of his parables, Jesus speaks of sowing the ‘sons of the kingdom’ throughout the world-field like seed (Matt. 13:37, 38). In the Old Testament diaspora (dispersion), Daniel was one of those seeds God scattered into a workplace, right into the idolatrous core of the government in Babylon. In that pagan context, Daniel took root, grew, and bore fruit for God. Today . . . Christians need to see themselves as seeds—life-carrying cells flung into the world to carry out God’s agenda where they live, work, and play.”

In that world-field, the challenges to faith and fruit-bearing can overwhelm us as individual seeds. Bosses harass. Neighbors annoy. Family members let us down. Promising sprouts from the seed can wither. Our love and service can easily chill. World, flesh, and devil all conspire to bring us down. For that reason, we need to structure our times together so that the body “builds itself in love as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Yes, the Lord as our Good Shepherd restores our souls. But one of the main ways he does so is through the mutual ministry of the gathered church. We, together, serve as the Shepherd’s Body.

In a Washington Post article for children that explains how the human body works, Howard J. Bennett writes: “Your body works thanks to cells — trillions of them — doing their jobs. Some make chemicals to fight infection. Others make tears to protect your eyes. Still others make proteins to help you grow.”

All members of the body need the freedom to go about “doing their jobs,” to offer the body during synchronous sessions what God’s Spirit has gifted them with.

Trevor Withers: Network Church, UK

Trevor Withers, Team Leader, Network Church, St. Albans, UK

Trevor Withers, Team Leader, Network Church, St. Albans, UK

Trevor Withers serves as team leader at Network Church, St. Albans, UK. An account of how that church practices shared church appears in Chapter Six of my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis. In the following blog, Trevor provides additional insight into how Network Church cultivates participatory Sunday meetings.


I have been reflecting on some of the unseen areas that make increased participation possible in our Sunday morning meetings. There are a number of these, so I just want to take this opportunity to highlight them and share some thoughts.

Small Groups Nurture Participatory Skills

Let's start with the fact that Network Church encourages small groups which have a high level of participation. You might be asking what this has to do with Sunday mornings. Well, I think quite a lot. These small groups have environments where people are encouraged to be real, open and honest, and to look at applying their faith to everyday life. This earths our spirituality and, through facilitative leadership, enables a depth of contribution and participation.

Because this is a strong part of our church culture, it seems very natural for this same engagement to happen in our Sunday mornings. So the small groups act as a learning and developing space, which builds confidence for people to then participate in the larger setting. They are used to hearing their own voices, they are used to their ideas being accepted, they are used to speaking about spiritual things and making links with the everyday. They are used to giving and receiving prayer. So when this sort of opportunity is offered as part of our Sunday gathering, it seems like a natural place to be.

One of the things that makes this possible is good facilitative leadership in the small groups and the same is true of our Sunday morning space. I think it takes courage for a leader to open up the space, ask a question, propose an opportunity for people to speak. It is more natural perhaps to do this in a small group but equally possible on a Sunday morning and the same skills are required.  The main one being to shut up and wait!

Inviting Weekdays into Sunday Meetings

One of the key values held by the central leadership team is to provide spaces and opportunities for those that are part of Network to be encouraged in the things that God is calling them to do in their lives beyond this Christian community. We are not trying to get people to commit to church programs or ministries. Instead, we want this body to be supported in the various things that each individual or group of individuals has on their heart.

This means that when an opportunity arises for participation, there is a sense in which it is anticipated that individuals will bring things from their week, share the challenges and joys of living out their faith, and be prayed for and indeed encouraged in what they are doing. So, in essence, the church exists to support those who are part of it to live for Jesus 24/7, rather than the church existing for its members to run the various programs that it offers.

Staying with the central leadership team, one of the things I have noticed is that, true to our name, we network. In doing so, we pick up all sorts of stories from within this Christian community, taking time to listen and reflect on what God is doing amongst us. This enables us to gently prompt those who have had a recent experience of God in their lives to share that in our Sunday gathering. We would never pounce on them unannounced, but as part of our leadership might seek to create an opportunity, or ask a question that gives an opportunity, for what we have discovered to be shared in a more public space.

The Shared Pulpit

One of the often-defended areas of Sunday church life is the pulpit. My friend Laurence Singlehurst describes us as having an "open pulpit." In his experience of travelling around many churches he is aware that this is somewhat unusual, as most church pulpits are "closed," by which he means they are occupied by a relatively small, specially-chosen group of individuals.

It is interesting to reflect on the scripture that is part of the “one anothers”—“teach and admonish one another”—from Colossians. This is one of the factors that encourages us to have a more open pulpit. In practice what this means is that we have a team of individuals that speak regularly which, as a percentage of our numbers on a Sunday, is about a quarter. Over and above this, we are always on the lookout for people who have things on their heart which they can bring to us in this teaching/sermon slot. For some this might be speaking twice a year on a particular topic or area that they are passionate about or have insight in, for others is might be occasional and prompted by something they have been learning or have found helpful from a different context.

An unseen area that enables all the above to work well is someone taking responsibility for co-ordination and communication, as one of the functions of their leadership, picking up the details of who is going to speak when on what, and gently following through with people who have hinted at the possibility of having something to say and making a space available for them to deliver this.

Seeing Each Other as Saints

Another facet of the atmosphere at Network is that we think of ourselves more as saints than sinners. It is quite difficult for sinners to feel that they can make a contribution, whereas if we appreciate each other as saints then this creates a very different feeling. Now, of course, we sit in the tension of living in both of those spaces, and I am not for a moment suggesting that we have gathered a more saintly bunch of people than any other church, but the fact that we view this particular Christian community through glasses that see them as saints and encourage them to act as such I think enables a sense of well-being and encouragement and draws out contribution.

These are just a few of the unseen areas that help to encourage engagement, participation and a sense of shared ownership around our Sunday meetings. This is by no means an exclusive list, and I'm sure there are other dynamics at play. Not least of which would be the fact that we have been developing this culture for a number of years and have established rhythms and patterns which enable it to be sustained and developed.

Participatory Church Music Choice

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Church music—a topic sure to stir lively back-and-forth—came up just before we said our farewells at a recent men’s retreat. I suggested that those in church congregations should have a voice in choosing the songs. Others doubted that could work. But we had run out of time, leaving no opportunity for further discussion. So I returned home praying and thinking about how to make music selection participatory in a shared-church context.

Most importantly, does the New Testament support making song choice participatory? In I Cor. 14, Paul clarifies the right use of spiritual gifts in a church meeting. In v. 26 he opens the door for anyone to bring a song to the assembly: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn. . . .” (NIV). “Has” translates a Greek word that can mean having something to share with others. Paul knew God had given his Holy Spirit to each Christian for the benefit of everyone. Back then, one-anothering reached even to mutually selecting songs to sing as they gathered.

But can we realistically let people in 21st century church settings take part in music selection? No one wants to return to the so-called “worship wars” that pitted organs against guitars and hymns against contemporary choruses. Above all, we should aim for the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.

Drawing on my years of experience both on the platform and in the pew, I will propose a way to include the congregation in picking the music that should actually encourage unity. What follows are merely suggestions. I hope they will trigger further discussions and even better ideas.

Adopt Criteria for Congregational Songs

If people are going to participate in choosing music, they will need some pointers about what does and does not fit. Qualified church leaders could set forth and teach how to apply a few standards for song-selection. For example:

1. Theology. Are the lyrics of the song biblically sound? Does a song name Jesus or another member of the Trinity? Some songs lack any clear reference to the Lord. (Old song example: “Bringing in the Sheaves.”) Others might be sung to a boyfriend or girlfriend. (New song example: “In the Secret.”)

2. Vocabulary. Will the congregation easily understand what the words mean? (Old hymn: “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” does not connect, at least not without a lot of explanation.) Does the song repeat words and phrases to the point of producing mind-numbing repetition? (Contemporary chorus: I recently sat in a church meeting where much of one song consisted of “na-- na-- na na na.”)

3. Melody. Is the song singable to those in the congregation? Do intervals, syncopation, difficult rhythms, notes too high or low, or other characteristics put the piece out of reach of non-musicians?

The benchmarks should be few and easily grasped. Once leaders have adopted them, they should occasionally present and explain them to the congregation.

Provide a Way for Anyone to Suggest a Song

The church bulletin could include a simple form inviting people to nominate songs for congregational singing. The form could ask for the song title and the author (to prevent confusion over identical song titles). Space could be provided for briefly stating why the one suggesting it finds the song meaningful—perhaps God used it in calling them to Jesus or in their subsequent spiritual growth. The form should also make it clear that the suggestion will be reviewed and that filling out the form does not guarantee the song will be used.

Appoint Short-Term Task Groups to Review Song Suggestions

The completed song-suggestion forms could go to a small task group. To guard against this group becoming an entrenched power bloc, its members should serve for only a short time—perhaps two or three months, followed by another group. Each could include a younger member, an older member, and someone from the church’s music team. This group would evaluate each suggestion, asking whether it meets the church’s song-selection criteria.

Forward Approved Song Titles to the Pastor and Music Team

Songs that qualify could be passed along to the platform leaders. As the number of congregationally selected song suggestions grows, those leaders could select from the pool those that fit what they might need for any particular meeting. When appropriate, the song-selector’s reason for choosing it might be shared with the congregation.

The Pluses for Such a Plan

Something along the line of what I am proposing would offer several benefits:

1. Choice and Oversight. It would allow the congregation to participate and their leaders to oversee in the ministry of musical decision-making. Not everyone’s favorite classic hymn or contemporary chorus belongs in the Sunday-morning repertoire. Nor should musicians on the platform hold a song-selection monopoly

2. Old Songs and New. Because everyone would have opportunity to take part, the Sunday morning songs would include recent compositions (such as “There is a Redeemer” or “The Potter’s Hand.”) as well as musical treasures from the past (e.g., “It Is Well with My Soul,” or “To God Be the Glory”).

3. Across Generations. Such a plan would permit everyone, from children to seniors, to participate in the song-selection process. As a result, the music would reflect the life of the church body and not simply the tastes of one music leader or team. Older and younger generations could learn from and come to appreciate what each has to offer.

What do you think? Would a process something like this one increase participation your church? What changes might you suggest?

A Missing Word: Does It Obscure Shared-Church Prayer?

Although Webster estimates English includes a million words, our language still lacks one. Might that missing term make it more difficult for us to see the need for and to practice shared-church prayer?

A Word Gone AWOL

Roman Phalanx.jpg

That question came to mind during a study on prayer with our adult Sunday school class. Our text: Eph. 6:11-18, the well-known verses that urge us to put on the full armor of God and to pray. As I was exploring the passage on my own, I noticed a consistent pattern. In the NIV, each you (four times) and your (three times) translates the corresponding Greek plural—which disappears in today’s English. We use the same word, you or your, whether speaking to one person or a hundred. The mostly southern you-all is the closest we can come in English to a second-person-plural word. Otherwise, the plural you takes multiple words, as in all of you.

It's true, of course, that we should take this Ephesians passage to heart as individuals. The body of Christ is made up of individual members. But Paul’s repeated use of the plural you suggests that he means not only solo but also corporate action—armoring up and praying together. It seems, though, that individualism has gained the upper hand not only in our culture but also in our churches.

Individualism vs. Shared-Church Prayer

Something right may go wrong if it becomes an “-ism.” Watch out when community becomes communism. Everyone needs a mom, but not momism—unhealthy attachment to mother. You can learn much from the teachings of Calvin or Arminius, but stiff commitment to Calvin­ism or Arminianism can divide. Scripture guards our places as individuals, but it does not endorse individualism.

Individualism works against our learning to pray. How did you, as an individual, learn how to talk? Not all alone. You probably did so as one member of a family. As you listened to and interacted with others, your own spoken vocabulary developed. How do we, as individuals, learn how to pray? Again—not all by ourselves, but as members of the corporate body of Christ. Hearing other Christians pray helps us to develop our own ability to pray. But the missing English word, the plural you, can make that hard to see.

Some Christians, on the basis of what Jesus said about praying in our closets, insist that shared praying—praying together—is wrong. But there Jesus was surely speaking against praying to show off, against putting our prayers on parade. If he had forbidden them to pray with others, why did his disciples do so? “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14).

Prayer in Phalanx Formation

Eph. 6:11-18, full of the plural Greek words for you, links wearing God’s armor with prayer. A complete set of that protective gear includes the shield of faith. Jesus called for faith to accompany effective prayer: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer" (Matt. 21:22). And James speaks of the “prayer offered in faith” (5:15).

How does the plural you relate to the shield of faith and prayer? As one who spent a fair amount of time around Roman soldiers, Paul probably had the scutum in mind. This door-sized shield allowed the soldier to protect his entire body. He could wield it individually. But he could also use it when fighting alongside fellow soldiers as a group. In “phalanx” formation, he and others would align their shields side-by-side to form a virtual wall against the enemy. By lifting their shields overhead, they created a roof over themselves when flaming arrows rained down from above.

When we—together—pray with our united faith-shield, we present a more formidable spiritual “wall” or “roof” to the forces hell-bent on destroying us. Can we practice this united faith-praying during our Sunday meetings? In my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include this account from the Peniel Wesleyan Tabernacle in Greater Georgetown, Guyana.

Shared-Church Prayer on Sunday

The time set aside for praying for one another in this church . . . began when in 2011 it struck, Michael Suffrienin, the pastor, that he could not be there to pray for everyone. He knew the church body included many struggling and immature believers. But he also knew of many stronger Christians who could influence and help them. So one Sunday, during the worship service, he simply asked for a pause in which he shared a brief Bible passage relating to prayer. Then, after identifying a particular issue the church was facing at that time, he asked people to find a partner and join together in prayer for that concern.

When the church had grown accustomed to partnering in prayer during their main weekly gathering, he expanded the scope of prayer subjects by asking anyone with a need for prayer to share that with someone else and then pray for each other. These sessions of one-another prayer have included such concerns as family challenges, financial worries, loss of loved ones, and recovery after theft or flood damage. Although this prayer time is not a part of every meeting, when included it typically takes 10 to 15 minutes.

I have just returned from a three-day men’s retreat. On the final day, we noticed that one of the guys began receiving a flurry of texts on his phone. Soon we learned that his father, thousands of miles away, had only hours to live. We circled around him and formed a phalanx of faith-based prayer. His tears flowed freely as each of us, in turn, prayed for him and his family.

Shared-church prayer should take place no matter what the size of our gathering. We can pray together in twos (Matt. 18:19-20), in our small groups (Acts 13:3), and in our larger gatherings (Acts 1:14-15). Even without knowing Greek, we can practice the plural you of shared church.

School Interview Points to Need for Shared Church

In Mark Greene's "Sacred Secular Divide" video, a public school teacher describes the lack of prayer support for her work.

A few days ago—in the interest of shared church—I interviewed the principal and assistant principal of a local elementary school. The edited, five-minute video will be shown during the main congregational meetings of our church. I asked the principal and her assistant:

  • How does your administrative work in a public school carry on God’s purposes for life on earth?
  • What unique opportunities does your work provide for you as a Christian?
  • What challenges do you face in these roles?
  • What opportunities exist for retired people to serve as volunteers in your school?
  • How can our church pray for you and for your school?

Public School as a Calling

As I listened to the responses of these two school officials, the enthusiasm of both for their work poured out. They do what they do, day in and day out, because they know God has sent them to serve him and others in this context. For example:

  • “This work is the mission that I’ve been put on this planet to do.”
  • “We are on the front lines fighting for kids every single day.”
  • “Pretty much every kid in the country is funneled through public education, and that’s a huge opportunity.”

The assistant told about his earlier transition from working in a Christian school to serving in a public school. During the hiring interview, the prospective new boss wondered whether he understood what he would encounter in the public school environment: “You know,” he said, “there are kids here who do drugs and have sex. Are you really sure you want to be here?” To which the interviewee replied: “Yeah—I think that’s really why I want to be here.”

A Felt Need for Prayer

The interview also made it clear that these two want the prayer-backing of other Christ-followers. But others cannot pray if unaware of needs. This makes practicing shared church all that much more vital. When I asked how the church could pray for them, they responded with more requests than I was able to fit into a five-minute video. A few examples:

  • “Knowing that many children will return to homes with major dysfunctions, we both ‘take kids home’ every day.”
  • “Pray for the kids. Some of their stories are really normal and some of their stories are heartbreaking.”
  • “Pray for the staff. There’s a point where compassion fatigue enters. Sometimes kids show that they’re hurting and struggling by lashing out at the people who care about them the most. That happens—a lot.”
  • “It’s a challenge to balance work and family life every day.”
  • “We look at each other pretty much daily and say, ‘I don’t know what else to try.’”

UK Teacher Tells of Missing Prayer Support

Too often those called to work in public schools lack the prayer underpinning they need from fellow believers. In his YouTube video, “Sacred-Secular Divide,” UK-based Mark Greene includes a clip from a teacher who tells how she experienced this lack of prayer support:

“I teach Sunday School once a week for 45 minutes, and my church asks me to come up front so they can pray for me. For the rest of the week, I’m a full-time teacher, and yet as far as I can remember, no one has ever offered to pray for the work I do in school.   It’s as if they want to support half my profession and not the other half. It’s difficult, because no one would say that teaching Sunday School is more important than the work I do the rest of the week. But that feels like the message that I get. And if you look at it this way, I’ve got 45 minutes once a week with children who are generally open to the gospel with parents who are supportive of the faith—or 45 hours a week with kids who have very little knowledge of Christianity and parents who are either as ignorant or hostile to the faith.”

Where Christians Cross Paths with Non-Christians

In our neighborhoods and workplaces—in this case a school—the paths of Christians intersect most often and most relationally with those who do not know Christ. Only in a shared-church context can a congregation become aware of the opportunities and challenges their fellow believers face in their scattered-church roles.

The two school officials I interviewed lead a team of teachers and staff of 120 who are responsible for the safety of 765 children. They create the environment in which these children learn to read, write, do basic math, and live in community. The principal and her assistant also deal with hundreds of parents. Clearly, the opportunity to shine the light of Christ and live out his love is enormous.

Lesslie Newbigin, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, wrote: “It is in the ordinary business of the world that the sacrifices of love and obedience are to be offered to God. It is in the context of secular affairs that the mighty power released into the world through the work of Christ is to be manifested. . . . It is, of course, also true that individual Christians will be weakened in their efforts to live out the gospel in secular engagements if what they are doing does not have the support of the church as a whole.”

Regularly gathering in "audience mode" works against whole-church support. Only in shared-church mode can we get to know what others do during the other six days of the week. Only in shared church can we learn how to pray for the scattered church.

Antenna or Cable?

TV antenna versus cable connection: how can the difference illustrate an important truth about shared church? Stay tuned.

But First, Three Questions About Shared Church:

Antenna Cable.jpg
  • What is it?
  • When was it impossible?
  • How is it possible today?

What Is Shared Church?

When I got out of bed this morning, my body reminded me how shared church works. Eyes saw the numbers on the clock. Brain interpreted those numbers as time to roll out of bed. Legs and arms went into action to move me from mattress to floor. Feet carried me to the kitchen. Fingers pushed buttons to start the coffee-maker. Heart, lungs, nerves, etc., all chipped into the getting-up project as well.

Each part of my body shared in the work of getting my day underway. The New Testament says the church is a body. Its various parts—each one uniquely made to contribute—are to work together to carry out the chores that belong to the whole body. Arms and legs, if unable to move, severely curb what a physical body can do. In a church body, some ways of gathering together can immobilize members, so that only a few carry on the work. Such paralysis turns the church into an audience.

But we are “members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). In shared church, we don’t just spectate. We participate.

When Was Shared Church Impossible?

Back before Jesus came and did his work on earth, the Jews met together in various ways. But in most Old Testament assemblies, the Israelites met as audiences. Moses and Joshua “told the people” (Num. 11:24; Josh. 3:5). God spoke to his people through priests, Levites, and prophets. Ezra the scribe “stood on a high wooden platform” and read the law to the people (Neh. 8:4-13).

Although God had intended for his chosen people to serve him as “a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6), they shank back from coming near to God themselves. At the giving of the Ten Commandments, “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die’” (Ex. 20:18-19).

So at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the stage was set for a largely one-way, monovoiced, meeting format in ancient Israel. Shared church was impossible under the Old Covenant, in part because the people insisted that someone else listen to what God said and then pass it along to them.

How Is Shared Church Possible Today?

But things took a sharp turn under the New Covenant. Jesus, by his death and resurrection, won our forgiveness and gave us access to God’s throne. Upon his return to the right hand of his Father, God fulfilled a promise made hundreds of years earlier by Joel, the prophet: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29).

The presence of the Holy Spirit in all Christ-followers—and his gifts to us—make shared church possible today. He is not only “with” but “in” us. He provides gifts of knowledge, gifts of speaking, gifts of serving others. He teaches us, counsels us, guides us. Unlike God’s people in Old Covenant days, we don’t have to rely exclusively on a few religious professionals who tune in to God and tell us what he says. Being gifted by and filled with the Holy Spirit is the birthright of everyone who trusts Jesus.

Yes, in some, the Holy Spirit’s gifts make them able to help fellow Christians discover and develop their gifts. Church leaders are to serve as coaches, activators, trainers of apprentices, so that God’s people become doers—not merely hearers—of his Word. As a result, “the whole body [church] . . . grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).

In this way, under the New Covenant, shared church is possible today. But it’s still too easy to revert to Old Covenant-style meetings that rely on religious professionals doing most of the work.

From Antenna to Cable

I’m old enough to remember climbing onto the roof to install a TV antenna and fiddling with a set of “rabbit ears” on top of the television set to get the best signal. When I was young, we had access to just one channel that brought us a fuzzy, black-and-white picture. Today, we have access not only to countless TV channels but also to the Internet—no longer through clumsy antennas but through coaxial cables.

In some ways, the bygone days of rabbit ears and rooftop “antlers” are like meetings under the obsolete Old Covenant. Pretty much one-way communication. We and our television sets were mere receivers. A few professionals—news reporters, actors, musicians—prepared the programs for us, which we passively consumed. Of course, even with cable TV we can still veg out as couch potatoes.

But cable has opened opportunities that resemble the kinds of church meetings now possible through the Holy Spirit under the New Covenant. In the cable era, terms like smart TV and interactive television have entered our vocabulary. Cable allows me to teach theology-of-work classes via the Internet. The students and I can share in back-and-forth interaction not only in writing but also via Zoom. In an online “Zoom Room,” we can see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices by means of our computer cameras, microphones, and speakers.

“When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you” (I Cor. 14:26, NLT). Antennas work only as intakers. Cables permit give-and-take. Church meetings patterned on Old Covenant gatherings are largely one-way events. But meeting formats like those found in the New Testament allow both giving and receiving. The explosive growth of the early church took place in just that kind of a context.

An Asparagus Parable for Shared Church

As a farm boy, I had no inkling that watching my Dad work would one day help me understand the biblical role of pastors and church leaders.

                George Peabody Asparagus Farm (around 1956)

                George Peabody Asparagus Farm (around 1956)

Our farm had asparagus—23 acres of it. At 5 a.m., from mid-April until roughly the Fourth of July, we began cutting. (No, you do not “pick” asparagus; you pick peaches and other fruit that grows on trees.) The “we” included a crew of 12-15 teenagers Dad had hired to work each morning until time for school.

The Parable Stated

Cutting asparagus does not take a college degree. But it does require some training. New to the crew? Then Dad will help you internalize what five inches looks like. A stalk must reach that minimum height before it passes muster for market. Dad will also equip you to use the asparagus knife—a 12-inch steel rod with a wooden handle on one end and what looks like a slant-nosed putty knife on the other. To make the cut, grasp an asparagus stalk with one hand, aim the blade at an unseen point two inches beneath it under the soil, then push the knife until you can lift the stalk. Once you have handful, lay the stalks crosswise in a row flagged with stakes so the pick-up team can box them.

Dad, of course, had studied more about asparagus than any of us. And he could cut those stalks like a pro. If one of us began slacking off, chattering with a coworker, he would set an example by coming alongside the foot-dragger and cutting in the same row. But Dad spent most of his time coaching cutters and sharpening our knives. In other words, he saw his job as training us to do the work and making sure we had the right tools to do it. Years afterward, I’ve heard former crew members say, “I learned to work by cutting asparagus for George Peabody.”

The Parable Applied

But what does Dad's way with his asparagus crew say about the biblical role of church leaders? As Paul explains it, their responsibility is to “prepare God’s people to serve. If they do, the body of Christ will be built up” (Eph.  4:12, NIrV). The Holy Spirit has given a gift or gifts to each member of Christ’s body. Leaders in the church, like Dad in the asparagus field, should refrain from doing most of the work themselves. Rather, they are to fit out Christ-followers in the use of their gifts, to sharpen their tools, and to equip them for doing the bulk of the work.

Please bear with me while I paint a ludicrous word-picture. Suppose my Dad had built, off to one edge of the asparagus field, a set of wooden bleachers. As the high-schoolers show up at sunrise, he hands them files and asks each one to sharpen a knife for him. That done, he points the crew to the stands and invites them to take their seats. Then, with his supply of sharp knives, he starts down first one row then another, harvesting that day’s asparagus crop himself. Of course, he does an expert job—cutting just the right stalks, discarding the culls, and placing each handful neatly in the pick-up rows.

What makes this picture so absurd? With Dad trying to do the work himself, most of the day’s harvest will go to seed and be lost. (On a hot day, asparagus stalks can grow by many inches and become cow food.) With 23 acres of asparagus to cut, even a highly competent cutter like Dad would wear himself out and never finish the task. His best investment of time and effort: to make certain each one in the many-membered crew is ready and able to take on his and her share of the work.

Play the Game or Coach the Players?

Let E. Stanley Jones (changing the analogy from asparagus to sports) relate this to the church. “The laity, on the whole, have been in the stands as spectators, and the clergy have been on the field playing the game. . .. That setup must be changed. The laity must come out of the stands as spectators and take the field as players; and the clergymen must come off the field as players and take the sidelines as coaches of a team” (from The Reconstruction of the Church—On What Pattern?).

Jones wrote those words nearly 50 years ago. But even today, in far too many churches, the pastor and a few musicians still do most of the heavy lifting when we gather. Who “emcees” the Sunday meeting? Who reads Scripture aloud? Who offers the “pastoral prayer”? Who does almost all the preaching? Who always oversees the Lord’s Table? Who baptizes? Who dedicates babies? Who pronounces the benediction? Who chooses the songs?

Placing much of this work in the hands of the so-called “laity” does not diminish or downgrade the work of pastors. Rather, it makes their work more productive, as they multiply their influence through others they have coached and equipped. Sian and Stuart Murray Williams call for “multivoiced” (in contrast to “monovoiced”) church. They write: “In healthy multivoiced churches neither the leaders nor the community are disempowered” (from The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church).

But Are We Willing to Change?

Moving toward shared or multivoiced church, though, will require—on the part of both congregations and pastors—a Spirit-empowered willingness to change. Those long comfortable in the bleachers watching someone else perform must find the resolve to get up and stir their gifts into action. Pastors, after perhaps years of being in near-total control during Sunday meetings, will need to trust the Holy Spirit to work through others who are gifted and prepared.

With a bit of imagination and a resolve to provide the needed coaching and tools, pastors and church leaders can find ways to empower those in the congregation to: preside over Sunday gatherings, pray publicly, tell how God is working in their scattered-church lives, share in the preaching and teaching, baptize, lead during the Lord’s Supper, and more.

Paul describes all this so well: “As each part [of Christ’s body] does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Eph. 4:16, NLT). When each part is enabled to do its work for the rest of the body, we will discover how to connect our faith with our voices. If in our gathering together we do not learn how to voice a witness to each other, how can we expect in our scattering to voice a witness to the world?

Unintended Messages vs. Shared Church

Unintended messages. Are we sending them by the way we “do church”? And can such messages block shared church?

An Eight-Year-Old’s Ambition


When I was in my mid-forties, our pastor asked me to lead a church plant. So the mother church sent us out—a group of about 40 that included young people and children. Week after week, “Brad,” the eight-year-old in one family, saw and heard me preach. One day, we invited his family into our home. During our visit, I asked, “Brad what do you want to be when you grow up?” His reply came instantly: “I want to be the talker-man, like you.”

Clearly, watching me had appealed to something in Brad. But to what had it appealed? To the desires sin overstimulates in every one of us. To be noticed. To be seen as special or important. To be looked up to. He could realize those desires, Brad reasoned, if he were to become the solo “talker man,” the only one up front with the microphone Sunday after Sunday.

Had I meant for Brad to get this idea? Of course not. Until I asked the question, I had no idea what message he was receiving. He was not experiencing “shared” church, but church that made one person seem hyper-important. 

This over-focus on one member of the body comes from the system we have all inherited from our church traditions. Like other pastors, I was arranging the church meetings Brad sat through, doing so in line with what years of church gatherings had ingrained in me.

Church-Induced Expectations

From my earliest days, gathering with other believers on Sunday took top priority. During my growing-up years, I probably sat in on 900 or more church meetings. Each time, the sermon formed the centerpiece—mostly spoken by the same pastor week after week. When I was about 12, our pastor’s wife pulled me aside and said, “Larry, we are expecting to hear great things from your life.” Those were her words. But I heard this unintended message: “Larry, we are expecting you to become a pastor or missionary.”  No wonder, then, that by the time I left home for college, I believed that I ought to serve in one of those ways, if I wanted my life’s work to count for anything.

Just the other day I spoke with a man far younger than I who also received this unintended message. He recalled that his church experience had taught him that “the greatest thing you could possibly do was to go into 'full-time service.' You were expected to go to a Christian school so you could become a pastor. The highest calling, full-time vocational service, was somehow better than going into sales or some other line of work.” He recalled two peers, a young man and young woman, who had been led to think only "full-time Christian service would please God." Having received the same “call” to serve as cross-cultural missionaries, they concluded they should marry. Sadly, they were ill-matched and soon divorced.

He told me that, as he matured, he began to understand “church politics” as “people wanting power.” He realized that if he were to enter vocational church ministry, “I would relish people looking to me. I would have secretly enjoyed the self-aggrandizement.” Knowing himself well enough to foresee this would be a perpetual struggle for him, he chose not to enter so-called “full-time Christian service.”

The Urge to Be Seen as Significant

The New Testament provides many examples of our sinful leanings toward self-inflation. The Pharisees placed themselves in positions “to be seen” by others (Mt. 6:5). Jesus’s original disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt. 18:1). When they argued over which of them outranked the others, Jesus traced their dispute back to a desire to be “first” (Mk. 9:33-35). They tangled over the same issue during the last supper (Lk. 22:24). James and John, with Mom's help, lobbied for top spots in Jesus’s kingdom (Mt. 20:20-27). Some 50 years later, in a church setting, Diotrephes wanted to be “first” (III Jn. 9).

The culture outside our churches feeds this drive to be in the catbird seat. We once took some four-to-seven-year-olds to a children’s museum. One exhibit featured an elevated platform and some play microphones. The kids pushed and shoved to be on stage and at the center of attention. Rock concerts, political rallies, and TV shows all send the message that to be seen and heard by a crowd is the mark of success. "Take a microphone out of my hands," says Willard Scott, "and I'm just plain folks."

Blogger Mike Cosper writes: “Celebrity culture turns pastors and worship leaders into icons.”  This not to say that every pastor or musician is motivated by the need to be noticed. But when we make superstars of church leaders, we may be stirring something in the flesh of others that needs not to be cultivated but to be put to death.

A Biblical Antidote

The remedy? It seems almost too simple. New Testament churches avoided focusing on just one leader by having several. Notice these plural leadership terms: The church in Antioch had “elders.” Paul and Barnabas appointed “elders in every church.” Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every town.” The church in Jerusalem had “elders.” Philippi had “overseers and deacons.” James refers to “the elders of the church.” And Peter writes of “the elders among you.” The New Testament uses overseers and elders interchangeably. According to Paul, they should be “able to teach.” This suggests not only ability but also opportunity.

This was shared church! Not only did the gathered believers share in encouraging each other, but in the New Testament churches, even leadership and teaching responsibilities were shared among those with such gifts.

Young people learn not just from sermons on Sunday mornings but also from the way we practice meeting. If they invariably see the same person on stage week after week, what unintended message may we be sending them?

Serving One Another in Shared Church

As you slip into the church meeting, you guess the gathering must number about 300. At their appointed times, seven take their places up front—the pastor and six on the music team. From your spot eleven rows back and in the center section, you scan the bulletin. The text for the morning comes from Galatians 5:13—“serve one another in love.”

For the next hour, the seven on the platform devote themselves to serving the church body, using the gifts God gave them (I Pet. 4:10). But as you watch and listen, it strikes you that these with the microphones are the only ones with the opportunity to act on what the text says. That means less than two percent of those present are able—in this meeting—to do so. In your small group of twelve, you do serve others. But that still leaves your gifts unavailable to 96 percent of the full congregation.

True, before this meeting began, a few handed out bulletins. At offering time, others will usher. But you doubt that these activities, while useful, achieve what New Testament writers meant by one-anothering. In all your years in church meetings, this pattern of miniscule participation has prevailed. So you assume that a group of this size must make it impossible for any but a tiny minority to serve each other with their gifts.

However, one-anothering can work not just in small groups but also in the larger gatherings. Recent posts in this blog series have provided evidence. To recap:


June 15: In Mill City Church, Minneapolis, MN, Sunday meetings begin with a “community time” that lasts from five to eight minutes. Two suggested questions help people to begin greeting each other. As Stephanie Williams, one of their pastors, says, “You can’t remember someone unless they share something with you.”


July 27: Another blog presented the FaithStory of Rachel Bichler, from Northwood—a church of about 500 in Maple Grove, MN. As she unfolded her experience to the congregation, Rachel openly shared how drifting from a godly upbringing had led her to brokenness and repentance. While staying well within tasteful boundaries, her comments let everyone know that she had strayed.


July 20: This posting included comments from three pastors. Although saying so in different words, all recognized the richness that comes when those in the congregation participate in the teaching:

Mark Brouwer, Jacob’s Well Church, Chicago, IL: “There is a lot of wisdom in this church—far more than just what I am able to bring.”

Bob Hyatt, The Evergreen Community, Portland, OR: “I came to realize that, although I am the recognized preacher, I might not have the most important thing to say on a given Sunday morning.”

Lowell Bakke, had served as pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Puyallup, WA: “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.”

Spurring On

July 12: In Westview Bible Church, Quebec, Canada, a man who suffers from chronic back pain told the congregation, “I have such a temptation to take that extra pill. I know I’ll get addicted. It is so easy for me to become an addict.” After he spoke, two people came up to him and said, “You know, I’m addicted to painkillers, and I’m in the process of weaning myself off.” Nita Kotiuga, a pastor in that church, said: “These were two people we would have never thought of in this regard. In church, you can feel like everyone else has their life together and I’m the only one who’s wrestling. This happened in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. It was a beautiful, holy moment of God.”


July 1: Bob Maddox, pastor in Grace Community Church, Gresham, OR, explained why their church meetings include frequent one-anothering: “One of our pastors can get up and say, ‘We’re going to have Tom come up and illustrate this point.’ Suddenly, the mood in the entire auditorium changes. Everyone stops and leans forward, wanting to hear Tom’s story. We choose to have people from the body up front on a fairly regular basis, because they can say things we staff people cannot.”

Praying For

June 22: Ollie Malone recalled how, as a seminary student, he had attended The Church on the Way shortly after Jack Hayford had retired from his role as pastor:  

“I was surprised when Pastor Jack (who, although retired, was leading the service that morning, but not preaching) asked the congregation to form in groups of four or so members, introduce ourselves, and identify any specific prayer needs we might have. I ended up in a group with three other men who were alone at the time. Quickly we shared names and prayer needs, then took to the task of prayer. “I have often thought how simple the request was at The Church on the Way, yet how powerful and transformative it was in my life and, I suspect, in the lives of others who still believe in praying for one another, as the Scripture exhorts.”


Greeting. Confessing. Teaching. Spurring On. Encouraging. Praying For. Each of these six can be practiced by members of a church body in a congregational setting. Each offers a means of carrying out a seventh one-anothering action: serving one another. And each flows directly out of Jesus’s New Commandment, “love one another as I have loved you.” He loved us by laying down his life for us. “So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (I Jn. 3:16, NLT).

In various ways, each of the seven one-anothering actions described above involves laying down our lives for each other. How? By giving up time and self-interest. By moving out of our comfort zones. At times, by risking misunderstanding or even disapproval. But as we serve one another in these self-giving ways, the body of Christ “builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).

Confessing to One Another in Shared Church

What’s worse than anticipating a root canal? Visualizing ourselves confessing sin in front of the gathered church. First, the image of dirty laundry flapping on a clothesline flashes past our minds. Second, there’s the dread of what others will think and say—and spread. And third, for many, the fear of public speaking intensifies the shudder.

Thankfully, when Scripture says, “confess your sins to each other” (Jas. 5:16), it does not say to do so in front of the whole congregation. Rather, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it in Life Together, “A confession of sin in the presence of all the members of the congregation is not required to restore one to fellowship with the whole congregation. I meet the whole congregation in the one brother to whom I confess my sins and who forgives my sins.”

Yet done properly, uncoerced, and under the right circumstances, one anothering in a Sunday meeting may include public confession. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include the following FaithStory by Rachel Bichler, who is part of Northwood Church, a congregation of about 500, in Maple Grove, MN. While containing far more than just “confession,” her story does include admission of taking a wrong turn and then returning. In a sense, she tells the story of a prodigal daughter:

Rachel’s FaithStory

Have you ever had a sneaking suspicion that you just weren’t good enough? That no matter how hard you try, you just don’t have what it takes? I know I have. It’s something that has haunted me for my entire life. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with the idea that I’m somehow lacking. As a child I felt awkward, unable to connect with my peers. I was sure I could never be as relaxed and confident as the other kids appeared to be. At home, even though I was always quite sure that my parents loved me, I never felt quite sure that I deserved it.

Those very same misgivings also applied to my relationship with Christ. I became a Christian at a very young age. I’m not even sure just how old I was; only that it was a long time ago, in a Sunday school classroom, joined in prayer by a teacher whose name I no longer remember.

I was very lucky in that way, to be raised from infancy in a Christian home. My parents were also regular church attendees. Some of my earliest memories are of time spent in Sunday school. As I got older, I became active in youth group, went to Christian summer camps, and participated in missions work. I got to know other Christian kids my own age and made some good friends.

And yet, the older I got the more I felt like a fraud. I couldn’t escape from my continuing sense of inadequacy. I was certain that I was not as good a person as those around me. If they only knew my secret thoughts and secret sins I was sure they would recoil in horror. I often wondered how Jesus could love me when I couldn’t even love myself.

Then, in my teenage years, I began to surround myself with people that didn’t make me feel so inferior. I found people who had no place for morals or judgment. My new friends drank alcohol, did drugs, partied, lied, stole, and slept around. Eager for acceptance, I joined in their lifestyle with hardly a backward glance. And although I continued to think of myself as a Christian, I avoided attending church. I couldn’t help comparing myself to the others there and thinking they would all look down on me. After all, I wasn’t living a Christian lifestyle. My season of disobedience, self-loathing, and perpetual running from God lasted for more than 10 years. At the end I found myself divorced, and living back at home with my parents, and feeling utterly lost.

It was then, at a time when I was more broken than I had ever been, that I began to turn to God for healing. You see, even though I had spent many years running from him and his judgment, he was never far away. In fact, throughout my long rebellion, he never once gave up on me. He was just waiting for me to be broken enough to realize my need for him.

My return to faith wasn’t easy. It didn’t go perfectly. I struggled and backslid more than once. The biggest hurdle of all was my shame. I knew that God offered perfect love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, but I had a very hard time accepting it. More than ever I knew that I could never be good enough. But, with a will surely strengthened by God, this time I didn’t give up. I read my Bible. I started attending church more regularly. I practiced confessing my sins and asking God’s forgiveness. Slowly but surely I began to feel the presence of Jesus in my life.

Then I met my future husband, Matt, a seeker like myself, and things began to snowball. I could feel the hand of God gently pushing us together. We began attending Northwood together and in it found a welcoming place where we could grow in our rediscovered faith. When we were married a year later, we committed ourselves to regular church attendance and raising our children to know and love Jesus.

Since that time, my faith has continued to grow. Every day I come to rely a little more on the power of God’s sustaining love. As for my feelings of inadequacy, the truth is I still struggle. The difference is that I no longer have to struggle alone. I know now that I can take my weakness to Jesus and that he will use it to make me strong. I know that even though I will never be good enough in this life, God will still love me and forgive me and continue his work in me as long as my heart remains open to him.

When we regularly include authentic stories from the scattered-church lives of God’s people, some of those accounts will include divulging wrongs. Hearing such forthright reports goes a long way toward restoring the connection with reality that can so easily get lost in our church gatherings.

True-to-life FaithStories, like this one from Rachel, can cut through the time-encrusted layers of religiosity.

(To listen to an audio recording of Rachel’s story, click here.)

Teaching One Another in Shared Church

Picture the people in your church. Now imagine Paul the apostle telling them they are “competent to instruct one another.” How would you respond to his evaluation? Perhaps you’d say, “Paul, look again! Teaching should come from our pastor, not from one another.”

Yet Paul actually did write those words to the church congregations in Rome: ““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). So far as we know, the church in Rome was launched not by apostles but by Jews who had become Christ-followers. Were the church-planters the Rome residents who made up part of the crowd at Pentecost (see Acts 2:10)?

When he wrote to the Christians in Rome, Paul had never visited that city. His letter to them did include powerful teaching. But apparently those regular church folks—even before receiving his letter—were already qualified to engage in teaching each other.

Panel of New Testament Authors

Who should do the teaching in churches? By means of paraphrase, let’s follow an imaginary panel discussion among several of those who wrote the New Testament:

  • James: Only a few should become teachers. (Jas. 3:1)
  • Paul: True, but elders should be able to teach. (I Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9)
  • John: I agree. But the anointing of God’s Spirit equips all believers to receive teaching directly from him. Jesus himself said so. (Jn. 14:26; I Jn. 2:27).
  • Paul: Yet God has appointed gifted teachers in and for the church. (Rom. 12:7; I Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11)
  • Author of Hebrews: Think of it this way: infant-stage believers need someone to teach them, but maturity should bring an ability to teach. (Heb. 5;12)
  • Paul: Yes, the goal is that all believers should be able to teach and instruct each other. (Rom. 15:14; I Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16).

Each panelist is voicing a piece of the truth. What should we conclude after listening to all four? Might we summarize by saying that some Christians have the gift of teaching, but all should be able to participate in the teaching—with the Holy Spirit playing the key role in both groups?

In a similar way, some of us have the gift of giving, but all of us are to give. Some have the gift of mercy, but God calls all of us to show mercy. Think of the havoc it would play if only those with the gift of giving were allowed to give. Or if none but those with the gift of mercy practiced compassion.

Is Participatory Teaching Still Possible?

Was the balance between teaching by those with the gift and teaching by others possible only in New Testament-era churches? Must teaching today be either/or? Experience in contemporary churches leaves no doubt it can be both/and. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, my interviews with pastors and church leaders reveal how much the church can miss if “non-teachers” have no opportunity to teach. Four examples:

Mark Brouwer, Jacob’s Well Church, Chicago, IL: “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.”

Bob Hyatt, The Evergreen Community, Portland, OR: “I came to realize that, although I am the recognized preacher, I might not have the most important thing to say on a given Sunday morning. I’ve noticed that when someone other than the preacher begins to speak in a congregational gathering, people sit up and lean forward.”

Lowell Bakke, had served as pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Puyallup, WA: “I presented a short teaching commentary on the text then asked those present to interact. . . .Roving microphones made it possible for everyone to hear clearly. 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.”

Dan White, Axiom Church, Syracuse, NY: White has developed and fine-tuned a method of teaching with dialogue. A woman in the congregation told him, “In my previous church experience, I never felt I could offer any insights to the family of God—I was just consuming. Now I’m able to contribute.”

Practical Suggestions

Few Christians—even those with long histories in churches—have experienced the one-anothering kind of teaching during a church gathering. Few pastors have had any training in how to format a church meeting to make such teaching possible. Participatory teaching can take place in any number of ways. In his article, “Interactive Preaching,” Stuart Murray Williams suggests several options:  

“[Interactive preaching] might mean drawing the congregation into sermons by asking questions, inviting responses, welcoming insights. It might mean discussion groups during or after sermons. It might mean changing the way the chairs are arranged to make dialogue and discussion possible. It might mean having two speakers debating an issue together, with congregational participation. It might mean asking several people to reflect on a passage for a week and then construct a sermon together. It might mean inviting a congregation to do some preparatory reading during the week so that they can contribute thoughtfully to a teaching period. It might mean developing a culture where people know they are free to interrupt and interject comments.”

Paul is clear that the body of Christ “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). How much fullness would your church gain if all who have Spirit-given insights were given opportunity to do their work by sharing them?