I was reading an article today by a christian minister who I respect, and he said:
“Christians gather in order to listen to the Scriptures being read, and to the gospel being proclaimed.”
It made me think ….. Why?
The goal of christian ministry
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Christian leaders and ministers are supposed to be enabling us to do ministry, and to be able to walk in the Spirit, so we will know God and obey him. This would fulfil Jeremiah’s prophecy (31:34) that we will all know the Lord.
So why, two millennia after Jesus, are ministers still keeping us passive while they teach us?
We can read and comprehend
For centuries before the invention of the printing press, the Bible wasn’t readily available. For centuries, many people couldn’t read it anyway. If they were going to know the scriptures, the Bible had to be read out loud to them. And in those days, if they were going to apply the scriptures to their lives, they probably needed some guidance.
But, as Aragorn said before the final battle in Lord of the Rings, “It is not this day!”
This day, in first world countries at least, we can all buy Bibles and we can all read. Most of us can comprehend, and we can all pray for the Spirit’s guidance. And most of us can look up a concordance or Bible commentary in a book or on an app.
So why do we need to have the scriptures read to us, then explained in sermons which can run from 20 to 50 minutes?
There are some good reasons ….
It doesn’t do us any harm to hear the scriptures again, and if we can focus, we may learn something. Likewise hearing someone’s explanation of a difficult passage or concept, or being encouraged from the Bible, are good if we can focus.
…. and some bad reasons
But there are many reasons why this is a poor way to make and grow disciples.
The New Testament emphasises fellowship
If you go through every New Testament passage that describes or discusses christians meeting together as a church, and tick off the various elements mentioned – praying, singing, eating, etc – two things immediately stand out.
- Sermons as we know them are never mentioned. The nearest things are dialogue, discussion or argument, “words from the Lord”, and Paul’s long talk at Ephesus that put one listener to sleep (Acts 20).
- The most mentioned element is fellowship – mutual sharing, encouragement and support.
I encourage you not to just believe me, but do the exercise yourself.
Knowledge isn’t everything
Bible reading and preaching tend to be knowledge-based. But the New Testament teaches us that while knowledge is good, it can be over-emphasised. Obedience, walking in the Spirit, using our gifts and serving others are all important too.
We all have gifts and everyone should minister
Jesus gave gifts to us all, and we all should have opportunity to use them. And for many of us, those gifts should be used when christians meet together. 1 Corinthians 12-14 gives us several principles:
- Everyone should bring something to the meeting, and within the limits of good order, have opportunity to share it.
- Sharing a song, a prayer, a prophecy or a word can all be worthwhile.
- If a speaker is talking and someone else has something from God, the speaker should stop and allow the other person to speak. Imagine that!
Long sermons (i.e. longer than 5-10 minutes) from the same person each week monopolise the meeting and prevent others using their Spirit-given gifts. Providing greater opportunities for others would be difficult in today’s services, but if we are obedient to the New Testament we will try to move in that direction.
Fear and control
I can’t prove this, but I’ve long felt that a lot of what goes on in churches these days is based on fear – fear of unplanned things getting out of hand, fear of wrong teaching as defined by that denomination, fear of criticism, fear of losing numbers and eventually livelihood, fear of losing self esteem. And so things are carefully controlled.
Trouble is, the iron hand which exercises control also squeezes the Spirit out and squeezes the life out of people, who become passive and bored. Some things need control, but many things don’t.
Communication is more than talking
Teachers and communicators know that it is not enough to speak truth – it must be received, understood and acted on if communication is to be effective.
It seems that preachers are the last to know that sermons are a very ineffective form of communication. If sermons are the main reason we go to church, our church will likely be rather ineffective, although it may look effective, for sermons have been shown to make people feel good while not teaching them or changing them much.
Equip us to take responsibility
Christians should be reading the Bible at home and in their Bible study groups, and we should be sufficiently educated and equipped to understand them and apply them. If we are not, then reading the scriptures at church and preaching is not going to help much – in fact it is maybe the reason why christians are so ineffective or unmotivated.
Pastors and teachers should be equipping us for the work of walking and ministering, not spoon-feeding us.
Let’s by holistic in the Holy Spirit
Church services should be about the whole community of God’s people coming together to encourage each other with what they are learning and experiencing and doing in ministry. We should be relating to God and each other and sharing our gifts, hearing the good things God is doing, giving thanks and praying for the needs. Not everyone will be involved, but many will.
So by all means, we should be hearing the scriptures read – and acted, and portrayed. And by all means someone (not the same person every week!) who has a good understanding and a teaching gift should explain difficult passages where necessary. But this shouldn’t be the whole focus.
The focus is Jesus, and the Spirit he has left with us. And the task he has left us to love and serve the world and so share the truth that leads to faith in him – using the gifts given to the whole body.
Like the saying goes:
“Let’s not just sit there, stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up, eat cake, go home.”
Cartoon: ASBO Jesus, modified by unkleE