An old(?) normal for return to church

If the last year has taught us anything about church, it is that at its core is “assembly” (ekklesia) and not “virtual contact.” Apart from the many psycho-social reasons I pointed to even before the first lockdown – a year less a week ago – one key realisation to many is the centrality of participation.

As a church musician arguing for “home-grown” rather than commercial CCM for our lockdown services, my trigger was the passivity we felt ourselves at home as slick American music played during the livestream, owing to some advantageous licensing arrangement. Not only did we not feel inclined to sing along, partly because the commercial arrangements kept us confused, but somehow we weren’t singing along in our heads, either. When our own familiar band was able to record stuff via e-mail and multitracking, it seems people felt more as if they were actually in the usual worship space.

This was also true in the brief periods when live worship restarted and the band could play live. Legally the congregation may have been muted behind their muzzles, but there was a lot of humming going on, if not more supposedly lethal activity. Some physical sharing was going on.

In even the most stage- or pulpit-led services, true worship is characterised by participation, through the obvious things like singing, liturgical responses, the sharing of communion, Amens, offertories and so on. If you’re Anglican you may share a stiff “Peace,” of if you’re in a black church your tradition may probably include a lot of vocal response to the sermon. Most Nonconformist traditions do a lot more than the minimum in terms of having “lay” people reading, leading prayers or whatever.

But lockdown has also shown the subtle power of close proximity, facial expression, and other “crowd effects” that make a meeting a living thing, far greater than the sum of the parts. It is the coming together of people each endowed with a differing portion of the Holy Spirit, so that they make up the body of Christ. “Body” being as literal and physical as “spirit” is literal and spiritual. That, of course, is why (as I’ve said in previous posts) Hebrews 10:25 insists on meeting, and probably would have done so even had Zoom existed then, and why Ephesians 5:18-19 links refilling with the Holy Spirit with communal singing, an example set by Jesus in the upper room the night before his death.

These considerations are the main reason I and another elder seized the opportunity, nine weeks ago, to exploit the limits of the regulations and start an afternoon service with a dual emphasis on teaching (because the times they are a’changing whilst the churches have been closed or livestreaming), and on participation, since all conversation, let alone conversation about the Lord, has been more or less embargoed for an entire year. And that’s also why the whole church leadership is now asking what lessons we have learned, as we plan to open up public worship as fully as is possible for a church in public view, with a congregation as indoctrinated by Dr Whitty’s fear campaign as everybody else in Britain.

There is a clear template for participatory worship in the New Testament, followed more often in the breach than the observance since we got used to professional hierarchies of clergy and the cult of the worship leader and his or her contemporarily minded band. That is in 1 Corinthians 14:26, with its simple formula for Sundays:

When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all be done for edification.

In considering this, I first want to cast aspersions on two common models for such “every-member ministry.” The first example came in a recent Baptist Union video, in which a pastor wisely concluded that live worship and livestreams are separate beasts, and that doing the latter well will detract from the former, if they are combined. That truth poses problems for those finding that livestream reaches outsiders effectively, as it suggests they must add a separate, expensive, production to the church’s agenda. In our case, though, we find the initial interest from the “unchurched” has dropped off, and sticking a camera at the back of the hall for a privately-accessed viewing for the elderly and infirm would be sufficient, and a beneficial development.

So far, so good, then, but the worthy pastor then decided to apply livestream lessons to his live services anyway: cut the sermon to a few minutes, and then break into discussion groups to comment on it. Participation achieved. “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear oh,” as my granddaughter used to say. We’re at a point in society where the Bible may soon follow Dr Seuss in being banned by Amazon for unwokeness, and where church teaching has been in near-total abeyance for months, and he wants to restrict the trained ministry in favour of the unlearned sharing their ignorance.

If we’re honest, I suspect we mostly hate the experience of break-out groups in any setting, as they are more often designed to give the illusion of democracy than affect already-decided policy.

But apart from that, the main work of effective teaching is to change our lives as it is digested, often unconsciously. It develops our Christian worldview, and that is a deeper process than feeding us new ideas. Immediate responses are what has caused 24-hour News to decrease our understanding of the world, rather than increase it. Christians should be the ones interested in deep reality, not first impressions.

The second model I want to critique is the sacred cow of the Charismatic Movement. I was involved in this from early days, and have become convinced that its popularity has skewed our approach to many things of the Spirit, including participation in worship. It’s not so much individual manifestations I mean here, but the underlying theological assumptions which can, in my view, hinder growth in worship when they are claimed to enhance it.

Back in my Cambridge days, one of the local Anglican vicars had “gone Charismatic,” and decided that his preaching should now be Spirit-led. So he abandoned all preparation, and opened his Bible in the pulpit, preaching whatever came to mind as he read. I went there one week, and predictably it was awful, because the Spirit’s work in the teacher is in assisting his learning and preparation, not in bypassing it. That lesson has been learned in all but the heretical hypercharismatic outfits now, I fancy. Church teaching varies in quality (too much), but preparation and study are acknowledged to be part of the spiritual gifting of pastoral ministry.

But somehow, under the Charismatic model, that insight seems lacking outside the trained minsitry. Instead, people are encouraged to share spontaneous thoughts and “pictures,” instantly-perceived words of knowledge and wisdom, prophetic words (scarcely ever publicly weighed by others) and, where permitted, utterances in tongues that are seldom translated. This favours the extroverts and narcissists, and the impressionable who are persuaded to have a go as well, with an equal lack of preparation.

A good many churches I’ve been in, suffering from the excesses of this, either revert to front-led services or bottle out of “open worship” and try to get people to offer their contributions in advance, so they can be screened.

But that’s not actually what 1 Corinthians 15 says: the people have their various contributions, apparently already to hand when they assemble (and that would include, in the organised church, the minister with his prepared sermon). Like the money they’ve put aside for the collection for the saints, it seems they’ve usually gathered their verbal offering during the week, too. Here’s a model I suggest is worth considering.

God interacts with us during our week in all kinds of ways, and particularly in our daily devotions (what we called our “quiet time” in my day). A Scripture we read strikes us (and perhaps leads us to meditate on its significance), or a providential experience encourages us, or a serious prayer-need comes to mind. And so on.

Suppose we train ourselves to consider each of these experiences as potentially helpful in edifying others. Then we will get into the habit of knocking them into shape to offer at a suitable time in the Sunday service. Not only will others be “built up” for the tough week ahead, but a culture of personal worship, of recognising the Lord in daily life, and in offering those insights to the assembly will develop. Not only that, but experience shows that the Holy Spirit often weaves these individual contributions together into a coherent whole. The psalm that so affected Jennifer on Tuesday perfectly illustrates the pastor’s sermon on Mark. And that is a remarkable and encouraging sign that “God is indeed in our midst.”


One serious question is how to develop such a participatory culture amongst Christians used to spoon-feeding from the front? How do we enable the reticent, so often swamped by those who love the sound of their own voice? One personal example gives me a clue.

Years ago we visited a large church in Lausanne, Switzerland, with anything up to a couple of hundred celebrating “le culte” in a large warehouse. When a time came for open prayer, I was amazed at how freely people dotted round the hall spoke out in fervent prayers, basically until the pastor called a halt. I’m convinced this freedom came because the “association” had started, not many years before, as a gathering of friends in an apartment, in which such sharing was easy, and as people were converted and joined they simply adopted the prevailing culture, until it was as easy to speak out amongst two hundred as it would be in the house church.

Contrary to much that we assume, newcomers easily acclimatize to the unfamiliar when those familiar are obviously comfortable, provided of course nobody puts them on the spot by expecting them to share in a breakout group or exchange a kiss of peace! That’s why too much novelty in services is bad for everybody: if you’re clearly enjoying Moody and Sankey or the 1662 prayer book, I’ll be asking why rather than heading for the door.

In other words, cultural change should start in small groups – house groups, directed specifically in this pattern, are the obvious place to begin. However, amongst the dozen or so masked and anti-socially distanced people in our afternoon service, nine weeks has produced a significant increase in freedom to participate.It helps that as well as my repeatedly offering the pattern above, I’ve mentioned the additional carrot that church is still the only setting in Britain where such worthwhile conversation is legal.

My hope, of course, is that these folk will feel able to feed their liberty of worship into larger services, once they restart, thereby helping to develop a culture both of real and mature worship on Sundays, and real and mature spiritual growth in our private lives during the other six days. We are going to need such solidly-grounded Christian communities for the increasingly hard times ahead.

Finally, though, let me disclaim any originality in this idea. Elements of it have been in my mind for years, it’s true, but in researching the history of my church, back to the church books of the 1650s, I find it is exactly the way they prospered under persecution back then. I suspect they’d read 1 Corinthians.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to An old(?) normal for return to church

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    Jon,

    I like your insight from 1 Corinthians 14.26 (“When you come together, each of you has [or possesses – ἔχει (echei)] a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation”) that each contribution is ‘apparently already to hand’ when the church assembles.
    It seems to me that the centuries-old model of folk arriving at church ‘to be fed’ by the teacher/pastor without the need for them to make any preparation, or to contribute, is unBibilical and unhealthy.

    As you observe, 1 Corinthians outlines the Biblical model and it involves everyone being willing, being able and being prepared to contribute and to edify the others.
    Clearly teaching is not the only gift of the Spirit that requires preparation. All of the gifts do. Of course, some gifts by their very nature are spontaneous – no-one says, “Here’s a tongue and an interpretation that I prepared earlier”; equally, a word of wisdom may become relevant only when someone else in the congregation shares a need; but all spiritual gifts are exercised within the context of the believers’ lives and practices.
    Better that a ‘spontaneous’ prophecy, or any other gift, arises out of the context of a regular prior prayer life and study of the Scriptures. Even the gift of healing requires preparation. When the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon Jesus said, “This kind comes out only by prayer”; and he meant prior prayer rather than contemporaneous prayer.

    I also like the insight that the assembly should be more like a conversation in which everyone is given the opportunity to participate. The church meeting is a family gathering, not a seminar. And whilst good leadership is necessary, the best leadership promotes others, not itself.
    “…the body is not made up of one part but of many…” and “…those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable …”. I take that to mean the seemingly ‘less gifted’, and the children too.
    In my own home groups we encourage everyone to ‘exercise their hearts’ before meetings and to be ready to share what they have.

    There have always been ‘churches in the home’ during my lifetime, but it has not been a prominent feature of church life. I gain the impression from various quarters across the world that home churches have begun to undergo a resurgence.
    With you, I hope that this will foster the mature worship and spiritual growth that is needed.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Of course, some gifts by their very nature are spontaneous – no-one says, “Here’s a tongue and an interpretation that I prepared earlier”; equally, a word of wisdom may become relevant only when someone else in the congregation shares a need; but all spiritual gifts are exercised within the context of the believers’ lives and practices.

      Peter, from time to time I’ve been critical of the Charismatic model of prophecy, mainly because it allows so much falsehood to be put in God’s mouth and never held to account.

      But a trusted friend was telling me recently how he was given a career-changing prophecy by someone at his church, who said, “I’ve been struggling with this for three weeks, and wondering how I should put it to you.” In other words, the prophecy arose within, and was shaped by, his mind and spirit over time.

      By contrast (in the context of how my heart sinks whenever I hear someone say, “I’ve got a picture…”) I received a similar “course correction” from an evangelist for whose town-mission I was supposed to lead the worship band, except that I slipped a disc and hardly met the man. After the last session he prayed for me with some other team members, and said that he was seeing a picture (unusual for him) of me walking into new fields. Shortly after that I changed churches, started a preaching ministry and became an elder.

      In the context of the OP my main point is that the most frequent and valuable contributions are “bread and butter” insights from a normal devotional life. The first step for that, I guess, is a normal devotional life!

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