Paul writes to the church in Corinth: “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14.26a). In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Gordon Fee comments that what Paul writes here “offers a description of what should be happening at their gatherings” . He notes that “It is possible that some of this was already going on; but the rest of the context, including chapter 12, suggests that this is a corrective word rather than a merely descriptive one. Martin . . . offers the possibility that the repeated “has” may be a form of reproof; however, nothing in the text itself mildly hints at disapproval here.” So, in a nutshell, Paul is saying that when the church is gathered, different members should be contributing to the meeting according to their particular gift or gifts. Paul follows this by writing, “Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Corinthians 14.26b).
The New Testament pattern, then, is that there should be sufficient opportunity to allow contribution from a variety of people, and flexibility to allow the Holy Spirit to direct the meeting, whilst maintaining order (1 Corinthians 14.26,40). And everything that is contributed should be for the edification of the whole gathering. In David Peterson’s words: “Paul’s emphasis is on coming together to participate in the edification of the church” . Some contributions will be spontaneous. Others may be prepared beforehand (this would typically be true, for example, of much of the teaching). Some contributions will be shorter; a few may be longer – for example, contributions by those who are gifted as teachers. Each gathering, too, will differ – some may find their focus more on teaching, some others on prayer, for example.
In an article that you can read HERE, Nick Berube, who was a pastor for 43 years, writes, “In 1992 I planted a church in St Paul (Christ Community Church) . . . . A good 15-20 minutes was separated for ‘Sharing’ from the congregation. We tried to have a 90 minute service but more often it was closer to 2 hours. Sometimes a bit beyond. And I’m sure that the length eliminated a few folks. Maybe a lot! But our thinking was built on what we perceived as a dearth of spiritual impartation by the body to each other. And many complained and thought that could be better met by a system of small groups. In fact, one couple that visited thought our service was more like a big small group, which they meant largely as a critique, but we felt that the trade-offs were worth it.”
Berube comments, “If we do not provide a venue for the general sharing of the body in a worship service or small group, we run the risk of creating an elite that alone can speak the word of the Lord. And that is not to dismiss gifted preachers who should indeed be handling the bulk of preaching and teaching, but there must be a place for the larger body to bring their unique perspective into the mix of a worship service. And as I share these sentiments, I am also personally aware of pastors and friends who would consider these thoughts anathema. And there are decent reasons for so thinking. There are a lot of ways for this to go off the rails. But if there is sufficient teaching and healthy leadership during the worship service that can be minimized. We did this for 18 years at Christ Community Church with far more blessing than weird off-key expressions.”
For many years, from the 1970s to the early 2000s, my wife and I were part of a church in Surrey, UK. In this church’s Sunday gatherings, there was a high degree of participation by others besides the leader of the gathering and the preacher. There was considerable freedom for people to share, for example, by teaching from the Scriptures, or through prophecy, etc. But, despite the freedom for anyone to share, start a hymn or chorus, prophecy, etc., it was noticeable how rare it was for there to be anything ‘out of order’.
But this kind of gathering is rare in the modern Evangelical church. It’s interesting to ask why this is. Gordon Fee gives one answer in this same commentary on 1 Corinthians a few pages further on: “By and large the history of the church points to the fact that in worship we do not greatly trust the diversity of the body. Edification must always be the rule, and that carries with it orderliness so that all may learn and all be encouraged. But it is no great credit to the historical church that in opting for ‘order’ it also opted for a silencing of the ministry of the many.”
Why do we need a wider degree of participation in our gatherings? Three reasons come to mind:
●Those who have even a small amount of gifting – in for example, teaching – will have regular opportunity to exercise that gifting and grow in it. If they are denied such opportunity, how will their gifting be developed? How will the church be edified with the gifting that God has given them? If such opportunity is lacking, both they and the whole church will be impoverished.
●If there is opportunity to contribute to the gatherings, there will be motivation for members of the church to seek God during the week for something to share in the coming gathering. These members will look forward to the gathering, not only in anticipation of receiving edification, but in giving edification to their brothers and sisters in the body. If there is no opportunity to participate, that particular incentive to seek God for something to share is absent – and so again, individual members and whole church are in danger of being impoverished.
●In the church that my wife and I attended it was often the case that a contribution – whether, for example, a teaching, a prophecy, a prayer, or a word of encouragement – sparked off another member to contribute, and so on like a Spirit-led chain reaction. It was wonderful to see this happen. If there is no opportunity to participate, such a ‘chain reaction’ will not happen. And so, again, individual members and whole church will be impoverished.
Finally, here are a few comments about the actual practice of ‘open’ participation in the gatherings.
●Rather than opening the whole time for open participation, just a portion of the gathering might be specially set aside for this – as happened in Ned Berube’s church, where “A good 15-20 minutes was separated for ‘Sharing’ from the congregation”.
●Gatherings where open participation is encouraged require wise Spirit-led oversight – unobtrusive, yet ready to intervene when necessary to guide the proceedings.
●Open participation needs to be encouraged and guided through Biblical teaching on this subject – for example, teaching on the various spiritual gifts, and on the purpose and practice of the gatherings.
●Ned Berube commented that “many complained and thought that could be better met by a system of small groups” . However, if such participation is restricted to small groups alone, then the whole church will not hear and be edified by what is contributed in the group. It also places considerable demands on the small group leader to exercise wise oversight of the gathering. Not all small group leaders may be equipped to do this.
●Finally, it’s worth pointing out that spontaneous contributions are not necessarily to be valued above those that are prepared beforehand. The key thing is whether what is shared with the gathering is guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit, and therefore edifying to God’s people.
CREDITS ► Text copyright © 2017 Robert Gordon Betts ► All Scripture quotations (other than those in quotations from other writers) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers. © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.