Some thoughts on open participation in the Sunday gatherings

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.

Video and study guide on local church life (part 14 of The Journey)

In this video we explore:

 what the local church is, and what it means to be part of a local church;

 the four key pictures that the New Testament uses to describe the church – the body of Christ, God’s household, God’s temple, and the Bride of Christ;

 the spiritual gifts that God gives believers;

 how God’s people can fulfil the royal and priestly roles that God intended mankind to fulfil from the very beginning;

 why we gather together regularly as a local church, and what we do when we gather – including the Lord’s Supper.

This video is accompanied by a a group study guide. The video and guide are suitable for use in a small group study or Bible class on local church life.

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Leader’s Guide for group study

This Group Study Guide contains three questions, with Bible passages to read, together with some notes to help the group leader to guide the discussion.

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the PDF version of this Leader’s Guide.

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You may want to begin by asking if anything particularly struck people as they watched the video.

Question 1
What is the purpose of our church gatherings?

Bible passages to read
Acts 2.42, Acts 13.1-3, 1 Corinthians 14.1-5,26, 1 Timothy 4.13, Hebrews 10.24-25.

Acts 2.42 seems to suggest a broad outline for what happens in our gatherings – “teaching”, “fellowship”, “breaking of bread”, and “prayers”. The word “fellowship” translates the Greek word koinonia. This word suggests partnership in something done together.

What should a gathering of the local church include? There might be teaching and public reading of the Scriptures. There may be praise, thanksgiving and adoration of God – both spoken and sung. There may be prayer for the needs of people or situations. There may be prophecy, messages of wisdom, messages of knowledge, words of encouragement, tongues and interpretations. There might be testimonies – that is, people sharing what God has done for them. Not all these things will necessarily occur in every gathering. Each time we meet will be a unique occasion. And there may be times when the main focus of the meeting is, for example, prayer or teaching.

Everything that takes place when we meet together should build up the body. Paul writes: “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” (1 Corinthians 14.26 NIV). For example, too, those that prophesy, do so for believers’ “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” (1 Corinthians 14.3).

It seems clear from the New Testament that there should generally be opportunity for a variety of people to contribute. We can all take part in encouraging and building up our fellow-believers.

The Lord’s Supper is central to the life of a local church. It’s a shared meal that celebrates the new covenant between God and His people (prophesied in Jeremiah 31.31). This new covenant was sealed with Jesus’s blood. Through His blood – in other words, His sacrificial death – Jesus paid the penalty and made full amends for our sin. Now we can come into relationship with God. We can be bound to Him by the New Covenant.

In the Lord’s Supper, the bread symbolises Jesus’s body given for us. The wine symbolises His blood shed for us. When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we remember that it was His death that enabled us to be in covenant relationship with God – and to enjoy all the blessings that this brings.

All believers are bound to God by His New Covenant. And that means we’re bound to each other, too. We are one body. The Lord’s Supper is a time of fellowship with God. And it’s also a time of fellowship with each other. The Lord’s Supper provides an opportunity for believers to reflect on their relationship with God and with other believers. Are they really living according to the terms of the New Covenant, loving and obeying God, and loving and serving their fellow-believers?

Question 2
The Church is God’s temple. What implications does that have for our lives?

Bible passages to read
Exodus 40.34-35, 1 Kings 8.10-11, John 14.23, 1 Corinthians 3.16-17, 1 Peter 2.4-5.

The church is God’s temple – the place where God lives. Each believer is a temple – as Paul tells us: “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Corinthians 6.19). God lives within them (John 14.16-17,23). The whole Church, too, is a temple (1 Corinthians 3.16-17, 2 Corinthians 6.16, Ephesians 2.21-22).

God is holy (for example, Leviticus 11.44-45, Isaiah 6.3). His holiness is more than His moral purity; it is the sum of His divine attributes that sets Him apart from everything that He has made. He is the Uncreated, eternal, transcendent, divine Being, overwhelmingly and awesomely glorious in majesty. He is absolutely separate from evil, infinitely perfect, immaculately pure, faultlessly righteous. Central to God’s holy being is love – perfect, pure love.

When the Tabernacle was complete, “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (Exodus 40.35). God’s glory filled the Temple, too, at its dedication ceremony (1 Kings 8.10-11). Remember, too, Mount Sinai quaked and smoked as God descended on it (Exodus 19.18). Now God lives in each believer, and among us as a local church! The lesson is clear: we, and our church, must be in a state fit for God to live amongst us. In other words, we have to be holy. Peter writes: “. . . as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1.15-16).

God is uniquely holy in a way that is totally unattainable by any created being. But we believers are holy, too, in the sense that we now belong to God. We are His own special, distinctive people, set apart for His purposes. God made us believers holy (or, to use another Bible word, “sanctified” us) at the moment we became a child of God. We’re “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1.2).

Yet becoming holy (in other words, our sanctification) is also a process that continues throughout our lives. We’re to turn away from sin and pursue godliness. We have to put off our old way of life – our wrong attitudes, wrong ways of thinking and speaking, and sinful habits. New attitudes, right ways of thinking and speaking, and godly habits, need to be formed (see Ephesians 4.21-24, Colossians 3.5-17). God’s Holy Spirit guides us and gives us the power to do all this. But we must co-operate with Him and obey Him. As we obey Him, His Spirit purifies us, so that all that we think and say and do reflects more and more exactly the character of the holy God Who lives in us.

A vital part of our obedience to God is this: we’re to read the Bible and pray regularly, and meet often with other believers (see Hebrews 10.24-25). These things will strengthen us and help us to live holy lives.

Holiness means to belong to God for His purposes. Our purpose as God’s people is to be a community of people who extend His Kingdom across Earth through the power of His Spirit. Each believer has a special role in this magnificent calling. But to fulfil our role, we must be holy. So you can see how crucial our own personal holiness is to God’s plan for this world.

Question 3
What do these three images of the Church – a human body, a temple, a household – have in common?

Bible passages to read
Romans 12.3-8, 1 Corinthians 12.12-27, Ephesians 2.19-22.

Three ways in which the Church is pictured in the Bible are as a temple, a body, and a household. A temple is a single structure made up of many different components. A body is a single organism comprising a complex assembly of cells, tissues and organs, each of which has a part to play in the health and function of the whole body. A household is an economic and socially interdependent group of people who share a common life.

Each of these three images implies an integrated, interdependent community. Why is there such emphasis on community and interdependence? Because that’s how God made us. As we saw in Session 3, mankind isn’t just a group of unrelated individuals. The human race is a family, all descended from Adam and Eve. We’re all connected. John Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself. . . .” At the heart of our beings is the capacity for love. We are relational beings. Donald Macleod wrote: “A life lived apart from community is a life that violates human nature”.

So when God speaks about the Church as a temple, a body, and a household, it isn’t a completely new idea. He built the idea of community into human nature right from the beginning. The Church is God’s new humanity. The Church is a community of people who love each other, support each other and share their lives with each other. When people see a local church functioning as a community as God intended, they are seeing what it really means to be truly human.

And all this means that we affect one another – for good or bad. We have the power to be a blessing to each other. In the church, God has given each of us gifts to build up our brothers and sisters in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 14.12,26, and see also Ephesians 4.11-16). Conversely, we have power to harm each other. Failing to use my gifts damages the body. One person’s sin can defile many (compare Hebrews 12.15). We hurt people by breaking off relationships, or refusing to forgive.

CREDITS Text copyright © 2017 Robert Gordon Betts Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked ‘NIV’ are taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.