Monday, March 15, 2010

The Format of Church

Many of us have grown up with the idea that church consists of most of the members sitting quietly in the pews, only opening their mouths for singing or an occasional "Amen", while the leaders, particularly the preacher, speak from a raised platform, lecturing the quiet members.

But I contend this is more a format we've retained from 2000 years of tradition rather than gleaning from New Testament principles.

Even in the very first Gospel sermon, in Acts 2, there was give-and-take dialog rather than a strict lecture format.

The apostles spoke as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4). The people around asked what was happening, and some accused the apostles of being drunk (2:5-12). Peter addressed the crowd with his answer (14-36). The people again began to chatter and discuss (2:37). Peter again responded with his answer (2:38ff).

Then for the next few chapters there's a lot of brief history that doesn't really focus on church assemblies as such, but in chapter 20 we do find a church assembly, and in this assembly, Paul "dialogs" and "discourses" with the church. Note that he does not lecture, but that he "discusses", "reasons", "converses", "communes", "talks with" them (see Strong's Greek Dictionary, #1256 dialegomai, and #3656, homileo).

In the previous chapter, "Acts 19:8 [Paul] entered the synagogue and spoke boldly over a period of three months, engaging in discussion and trying to persuade them about the things related to the kingdom of God." Again, it's not a lecture; it's a discussion.

Looking closely at other hints in the New Testament, it appears that most of the assembling was about dialoging with each other rather than passively sitting and listening to a lecturer. 1 Tim 1:5 refers to those whose discussions have become unfruitful.

Turning to the church in Corinth, Paul does not instruct the members to sit quietly and listen to a lecture; instead, he says:
The Message 1 Cor 14:26-33So here's what I want you to do. When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight. If prayers are offered in tongues, two or three's the limit, and then only if someone is present who can interpret what you're saying. Otherwise, keep it between God and yourself. And no more than two or three speakers at a meeting, with the rest of you listening and taking it to heart. Take your turn, no one person taking over. Then each speaker gets a chance to say something special from God, and you all learn from each other. If you choose to speak, you're also responsible for how and when you speak. When we worship the right way, God doesn't stir us up into confusion; he brings us into harmony. This goes for all the churches—no exceptions.
Notice, it's not chaos, but neither is it everyone sitting being passive. He wants the members to be involved in some way to build up the others, with the speaking roles not taking over.

We also tend to think that church and eating are two different things. But to the same church in Corinth, Paul writes just three chapters earlier that when they come together to eat their meal combined with their observance of the Lord's Supper, they need to not be selfish about eating, but to rather wait on one another and eat as a family (1 Cor 11:17ff).

And we see the same church assembly/eating activity in Acts 20:7ff.

And we have the example which Jesus set for us in the very beginning, where the first Lord's Supper was incorporated into a meal (Mk 14:12ff).

Please do not get me wrong: I am not saying that the format to which we're accustomed is wrong. I am not saying that we should not have sermons/lectures.

I am saying two things:

Our traditional way of doing things has turned the bulk of the church body into do-nothing, passive listeners, and that we need to rethink how we do things. Should we have pews, or chairs/couches facing each other? Should we remove the podium altogether, or move it to the center of the group, or lower it, or replace the lectern with a chair? (Jesus sat when he taught; Matt 5:1-2; Luke 4:20-21). Should we encourage discussion, or continue with the lecture format?


Our traditional way of doing things may be marginalizing those people who don't fit into our traditional way of doing things. I'm thinking of those people who need a little chaos in order to learn. As a teen, I needed music blaring in my ear in order to study my school stuff. But that would not be allowed in our traditional way of doing things. Someone else may need to busy one part of their brain with a game on their cell phone in order to pay attention with another part of their brain to the sermon. Someone else may need lots of colors and artwork and sculptures in the building to feel comfortable enough to learn, and can't learn in our traditional blah color-scheme decorated by ... nothing.

I'm just asking you to rethink whether the format you know as "Church" is really Biblical, or just traditional. If it is just traditional, is there a format that is more Biblical, or that might would appeal to different learning styles?

Or is that what different congregations are for? The Northside Congregation is designed for fuddy-duddies; the Southside Congregation is designed for artsy-touchy-feely types? I think that might be a workable solution, provided that the Northside church does not condemn the Southside for their "unBiblical" format, and vice-versa.

God made us all different. Let's not condemn each other because they don't fit in with the way we learn. That person may need to play with his cellphone while sitting passively during a sermon; but he may need to move to the back to not distract those around him. Or he may need to stand and sway back and forth rather than sit for 20 minutes at a time. Move him to a place where he does not distract you; don't condemn him for not being you.

Let all things be done for edification (1 Cor 14:26); don't mistake your style of learning as being the Biblical style, and don't make the mistake of thinking that your style of learning works for everyone.


Anonymous said...

I know a brother who has this same idea where our assemblies are so traditional the invitation call at the end of the lesson is more a tradition than part of the scriptural order of the assembly. Discussion and dialogue would be more in the line of the discussions with the words of Moses and the way Paul went into the synagogue in Asia disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God.(Acts 19:8):) L

Anonymous said...

Several of the congregations where I attend have restructured their assemblies to have the Lord's Supper before the lesson so the main reason we meet assembling around the table is our primary reason for our gathering. I would be more interested in hearing more on this matter. Linda