Comments on Church life

There follows some observations made over 40 plus years of Christian ministry. It seems to me that if we are to believe that the Bible is the basis of the Christian faith a much more careful observation of its teachings is foundational to the preservation of holiness. The little things are just as important as the larger issues and careless or unthinking behaviours in the small things is counter-productive and even destructive to the growth of the church. Over the years I have seen many little foxes creep into the church and slowly turn local churches away from ways of behaviour that were more careful and meticulous in the observance of biblical teaching.

(Song 2:15 NRSV) Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards—for our vineyards are in blossom.”

Liturgy.

A rite or body of rites prescribed for public worship.
I find it interesting that most churches seem to need to prescribe a series of rites that the believers are to follow in order to fulfil a church act of worship. Paul’s admonition that all should be done decently and in order seems to be taken as meaning this rigid patterning of worship. Perhaps this was not at all what Paul meant. Decently is fair comment but in regard to order a question arises. What kind of order are we to consider ? A routine pattern set out by humankind, or a way of worship that allows the Holy Spirit to direct each moment.

The Brethren church has an interesting approach in their sitting in silence to allow God to speak through one of the people. From this simplicity a High Mass in the Roman tradition shows the other end of the scale, where every word or sound is carefully prepared.

A great span of ideas from simple listening to God in community to a form which is perhaps like a sacrificial offering carefully prepared and offered as a finished work.

However no matter what the form, a slavish sticking to the same way of behaving is in the final analysis found to be traditions of man.

Where the Spirit of God is, there is liberty. This is more than physical. It involves the freedom of the mind and spirit and the loosing of the individual in a manner that allows each and every person opportunity to move in the spiritual realm. The Brethren are closer to this idea than the Roman church.

In its early beginnings the Pentecostal movement had insights into the problem and some groups were able to release the ministry which was and is present in the body of the church whenever they meet. This “body ministry” which it came to be called, had as a basic idea that rigid plans were seldom, if ever, set out for a meeting of the church. Elders, singers, musicians, intercessors, those who exercised gifts of the Spirit, young, old, all came together to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and so worship in Spirit and in truth as it seemed proper and in order at the time. It was very successful for a time and only began to fail when some leaders (mostly those styled ‘Pastors’, who in the majority of cases rejected or modified the idea of multiple leadership of the Elders) started to try and impose their own ideas about order. A slow decay began and has ended in a form of set liturgy.

Of course the many Pentecostal churches will deny this and affirm, sometimes very strongly, that they have no set liturgy. There may be no permanent written liturgy, but attendance at a number of such churches will show that the pattern in each is remarkably similar.

Briefly the order seems to be:
Energetic chorus singing for about ten to 40 minutes or so;
Reading of notices;
Short exhortation on giving;
Collection of oblation;
More choruses which leads to a time of worshipful song and singing in the spirit with tongues, etc.;
Perhaps a message of prophesy, although this is becoming a rare form of ministry;
Short word followed by communion and prayer;
Preaching of a message from the “Pastor(s)” — seldom if ever from any other member of the church. Even the Elders are rarely heard;
Closing chorus or prayer for the sick or those called by the word just given;
Service ends.

Some minor variation of the above from church to church but once the local pattern is set it appears to repeat itself week after week in the classical liturgical fashion.

Shepherding

Strange that the shepherd task of feeding the sheep has become restricted to the idea that the food can only come through the shepherd. Shepherds lead the flock into green pastures. They do not grow the grass. Nor is their carefully tending personal paddock always the best nourishment for the sheep. Food can be found in many places, not always the same old paddock. The life giver may grow grass in someone else’s paddock. The shepherd’s job is to lead the sheep to it.

Other tenders of grass can be children, church members, visitors and saints in great array. Everyone has their own personal paddock and therein tend the grass given to them by the Holy Spirit. From this source they are enjoined to bring some of this rich food to share with the brethren as the opportunity presents itself. (And it should do so) Good shepherds or dutiful sheep don’t corner the food supply market.

(1 Cor 14:26 NIV) What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.

Many local Shepherds are active in inviting other “Pastors” to visit and “share” with their people. This is excellent food for the sheep. But care is needed that this doesn’t crowd out the many in the local church that could contribute to the supply of grass.

Tradition.

It seems that humankind just can’t help themselves when it comes to the traditional. In the early days of the Holy Spirit revival 1940 onwards, there was a strong movement against the idea of having a special clergy. It was thought that such was contrary to the spirit of the New Testament church and that the clergy idea was a corruption introduced from Paganism and the “Priesthood” ruling class of those earlier religions.

(Rev 2:6 NIV) But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
(Rev 2:15 NIV) likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

Each local church was to have its leaders but please no formal clergy. It worked. Many local churches were formed and were very successful. Horrors, they were started by men & women who had little or no formal training, mostly none, but churches sprang up and grew.

Then that inevitable desire of humankind to control things began to have its way. Churches joined together to achieve larger objectives, which is fine, but what was not fine was the desire to have centralised control. How to achieve this was the same old Babylonian method. Let us build us a tower and have us a name.

(Gen 11:4 KJV) And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

The central group began to lay down the rules about who could or could not run “their” churches. Only if the Ministry are “qualified” and of course we (the clergy/Pastors) will decide what that means. Mission accomplished and a “Clergy” has been established under a tradition set by man.

This is the beginning of making the Word of God of no effect because of tradition.

Power

Around this word clusters that greatest collection of rationalisations known. Examples…..

We need to control standards. So set qualifications, establish bible schools, and only employ those who are “qualified” .

However the Holy Spirit chooses whosoever the Spirit pleases. Qualifications help but are NOT necessary. (1 John 2:27 KJV) But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.

“People need to know who is “in charge”.  So give them labels or titles, Bishop, Father, Pastor, Reverend, Canon etc, etc.

Very good answer, but this also gives the individual an inner feeling of being “in charge” and this is not so. Leaders of the local church share plural leadership as co-elders. Labels can misdirect the people to follow one person and they, the people, need to call for the Elders (plural) of the church with real understanding of the principle of plurality..

(Mat 23:8 NIV) “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.
(James 5:14 NIV) Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.

“Everything needs to be organised.”

This usually means “by me”. Not so. Everything needs to be in order. That is so, but the order is to be the way of the Spirit as He moves within the many membered body. It is rarely the same day by day. The taking over of organising power by any individual doesn’t leave much room for the Holy Spirit to move. Part of the Eldership ministry is to TEACH the people how to respond to the Holy Spirit’s organisational power as and when the church meets together for worship and fellowship. To know how to respond “in the now” is not achieved by over planning.

“The “movement” must have a constitution or whatever”.

Scriptures were good enough for the New Testament church. Guidance is one thing but insistence on absolute conformity is an exercise in power and control. Control of the local church is absolutely in the hands of the local Elders. All central control groups are an unscriptural exercise of man made power.

Nor can the local Elders abdicate their responsibility by handing their God-appointed rule to a central group even if all the members agree to do so. Anything written, other than the Scripture correctly interpreted is subject to error. At any time the local church may be guided by the Holy Spirit to see this error and correct it. How so if centrally-made rules bind the local church? Yes, the Civil Law requires that we conform to certain written rules. Let that be enough.

In regard to Vision and Statements of faith the local church is more than able to formulate these as required: “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

“Platform ministry must be kept well under control.”

An amazing variety of responses are proposed for this kind of rationalisation. Views range over; only the ordained priest/pastor/elder is able to mount the “pulpit”, or -only if the person is carefully vetted by the minister for accuracy, or -are they worthy, or -only if they will fit in, or -only if they can speak well, or -only if we have time.

These are just some of the ways power is exercised and the “clergy” concept enhanced. I’m sorry, but the platform/pulpit/so called altar space etc. is not sacred and ALL members are royal priests and have every right to speak from the “platform” if (and this is the criteria,) the Holy Spirit so guides. Many of our “Pastors/Elders” forget this and place such limitations on the church that the idea of members being free to follow their heart felt desire to share becomes an unheard presumption, rather than the very possible likelihood that this is exactly what the Holy Spirit desires. Sheep are led not herded.

Only the prophetic or gifts if we have time etc.

I’m surprised at how many churches restrict the people by having them ask the Pastor first “if it’s all right to minister”. People learn by doing and knowing “when” is learned! The possibility of gagging the Holy Spirit is very clear. Yes, it’s very hard to organise a big church so that any that are so called by the Spirit to minister the gifts may do so etc. But it should be done. Perhaps this is another pointer to the possibility that a church can get too big!

Music

Sometimes I wonder about the music and musicians. There does seem to be a question as to just what they are doing among God’s people. Do singers and musicians entertain the church? Do they display their skill for the entertainment of the church? Is the church an audience? Does the “platform” dress up to please an audience need to see a display or a good show? Are the recent church movements using the ways of the concert hall and the rock concert? Hillsong is a classic example of this trend.

Does the layout of the physical gathering have an effect on the people who have gathered to worship? Is there any “need” for the church to see the music and singers as a display?

Do they really need electronic amplification to ear splitting loudness? What is more important, to hear the words or the music?

Why situate the music in particular, at the front of the church? Why not sit musicians and choir at the side or at the back? Eldership seems not to realise how ugly a scatter of instruments and the usual electronic clutter really is for the long suffering people. The constant trooping on and off the platform by the muso’s adds very little to the grace and beauty of the service and if they stay there during some parts of the worship it is even worse. .

Eldership needs to more carefully consider the strength of music and showmanship. This is very cleverly used in Rock concerts and the like and very effectively exploits the soul power of the young in particular. Many Pentecostal churches may well be close to following the spiritually weak method of “if you can’t beat them join them” in these areas.

“Audiences” will come but is this worship in spirit and truth by the Royal Priesthood?

Choir and music are support functions to help the saints to worship in song and not to lead. Their sounding needs to be under the song of the people to lift and support and it is a rare experience to hear this kind of worship. Too often music & choir smothers the song of the people.

The singer ministry leads but this is not the same thing as the choir singing and music. The singer ministry can be likened to the gift of prophecy. It is a directly anointed stepping out into spiritual warfare and worship.

Yet church after church continues the present crude arrangements.

Silence

A lost quality in worship. Many modern church gatherings fail to appreciate the need for silence. We seem to be frenetic in our ways and can’t bear to be still and quiet.

(Psa 37:7 NIV) Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
(Psa 46:10 NIV) Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.

The Roman/Anglican churches are very restful in the entry into the beginnings of their services. The people are very aware that “My house shall be called a house of prayer” and are usually found at prayer before the service begins or at least quiet and meditative.

Community

Being called out and gathered together the saints become the Church. I wonder how many realise that this is not just for Sunday. It only requires two.

(Heb 10:25 NIV) Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Altars and focus

The non-denominational movement and many Protestant churches cast away the altar concept of the Roman & Anglican traditions as not proper etc. Unfortunately many have gone too far and deprived the people of a point for them to focus attention on during worship services. A band of musicians is just not good enough.

Some have substituted a cross, other a table a banner, etc., but there is a need for something a little bit more inspiring than a row of singers and musicians. A decorated curtain, a beautiful window, perhaps floral decoration would be an improvement on electrical clutter and musical instruments.

And please put the Worship Leader off-centre. He /she needs to be as self-effacing as possible.

Size

Jesus showed His wisdom when likening the local church to a body. There are big bodies and small bodies. There are also thin (under nourished and without all the parts needed for optimum function) and fat bodies who are carrying around a lot of stuff they could easily do without. In the species mankind there is an optimum size. Big is not always beautiful and useful. Big with muscles or big with fat creates problems. The muscle body is continually working to develop the muscle. The fat body continually trying to work off the fat. The real things of life just don’t get done.

Churches can get like this. Some are so taken with getting bigger they grow past the optimum and then spend great strength and resources trying to stay BIG. Some are full of people doing nothing but eating and getting fat on rich food both spiritual and social.

It’s not easy for an eldership to pick the correct size for their district but I believe there is such a number. Once this approaches it is time to plant another church.

Get this size right and the local church is on the way to be as the ads say “trim, taut and terrific”

Atmosphere

Is there any need to consider this at all? There are many thoughts about this.

Are we in the advertising business? Does this require posters, adverts, slogans, maps, coming events scattered about. Probably yes. But is this the best atmosphere for church gathering? I guess it’s a matter of why we are gathering and how we view the space/building in which we gather.

A social club? A temple? A hall? A home? A multi purpose facility.? A mosque? Does it need to be able to change its role? A cathedral?

The Muslims have a very good atmosphere for prayer. No pictures or representation are allowed in a mosque. Decoration is colour, pattern and form. It is very beautiful and no distraction from the inner contemplation of the divine. The Christian church fails dismally in this area. Places of meeting are often flooded with distraction both visual and auditory.

Opening services and ending them

Traditionally services of worship open with prayer and end with a benediction. It’s a good thing I think to do this.

The church meeting needs to have some discipline and orderliness. Worship leaders can’t yell “shut up,” in order to begin but I must say I’ve seen this come close to a reality more times than is comely. Loud music isn’t a very gracious beginning either.

I do think that in Pentecostal churches the people would benefit by entering a space that is deep in prayer. Get the chatter over outside or have patience to leave chitchat till after the meeting.

The moment an Anglican cleric mounted the pulpit and traditionally began with “Dearly beloved Brethren, the Scripture moves us in sundry places …” (BCP) is a singularly moving moment for the people who are usually quietly sitting there. Nothing like this happens in Pentecostal churches and they are the poorer for it.

One possible answer to this dilemma is for an Elder to open all meetings of the church. This positive act will eventually set the tone for the gathering of the people.

Another method of establishing this more orderly beginning is to have all the Elders enter the meeting place together, stand before the people and one of them open with appropriate prayer. If they have come from a time of prayer together so much the better. All would see that the Eldership take the beginning of, and preparation for worship, seriously, and have set aside time for this devotion.

Perhaps a chiming sound could be used to cause the people to all sit and be ready for the Elder’s opening prayer.

Once a routine has been established the members will automatically respond to the given signal, whatever it is, and an orderly beginning may be possible. Good habits are a matter of training and repetition.

Similarly with the “habit” of giving the benediction. Elders have the privilege and I think a duty, to ask a blessing upon the church called and assembled, and to bid them to go in peace is a perfect way to close a gathering graciously.

It certainly beats “well that’s all folks, do have a cup of coffee before you go. This approach is a bit like a Disney cartoon.

(2 Th 1:2 NIV) Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In these matters the Elders have an opportunity both at the beginning and the end of the service to clarify to the church that we are sheep, guided by a shepherd ministry. That all go forth with the blessing and peace of God to do the work He has called each of us to do.

Senior pastor

Quite apart from the point made earlier that “Pastor” is a function not a title, the assuming of “Senior” is again a classical example of man’s ideas about power and titles. If there is a “senior” this says there are “juniors”. Scripture does not mention junior Elders. Senior also speaks to the church that this person is more elevated/wiser/has more authority/is in charge/has some special function/is more spiritual and in fact any other mistaken concept that church members might build up under such titles.

The Scripture has no such concept. Elders are all the same, in the sense that they are to take the oversight together, and as servants who are equal before God in every respect. To project into the community any other view is asking for more of the troubled picture that many denominational groups now present. Pentecostal churches often hold up the governing structure of the Roman church for criticism but if one is critically honest the hierarchy structure is present in every Pentecostal denomination.

It is one thing to respect and honour one another for the abilities and skills God has given and quite another to set up leaders over the local church Eldership. Wise Elders who work together will make way for the ministry each has been given, without the need to label each individual with a title. (Almost routinely now, Pastor, Senior Pastor, Assistant Pastor, Youth Pastor and so on.)

Note having no title does not prevent the allocation to each of a task or function.

e.g. Jim Smith … pastoral elder

Bill Brown … elder in charge of missions.

The “my church”

I find it disturbing that among many groups there is an acceptance and use of language identifying local churches by citing the name of one person called “The Pastor”. Using the form,” That’s Bill Brown’s Church” or similar usage again points up the reason for not using titles and for multiple Eldership being the governing body of the local church. It is common to hear how “Pastor” Tom and Mary went to Wherever and built a great church of hundreds etc.

It would be closer to the Scriptural pattern if such a comment read, Tom and Mary were sent to Wherever, and established a group there. After the ordaining of Elders by the Mother Church, the local church grew under the guidance of the Elders into a great church known as Whenever Local Church.

Tom and Mary may still be there but they are just part of the Eldership, not some uniquely special ministry. Remember that from such a group of Elders there may well arise a Prophet, an Apostle, a Pastor or any of the ascension ministries. If we insist on a hierarchical pattern in the church where does that place Tom & Mary?

Such a local church can never be Tom & Mary’s church and we do them and the church a disservice by speaking and thinking in this manner.

Conferences and such

Part of the tradition & power mentioned above is the holding of Pastors’ conferences. These are for the most part exclusive and this of course enhances the clergy and laity concept. There may be some virtue in an Elders Conference where ideas for improvement of local ministry could be discussed. Careful programs could enhance ministry growth.

But not just for “Pastors” who by inference are senior persons. I have found such meetings for the most part taken up with rules, policy, complaints, constitutions, voting for National leaders, organising unscriptural organisations and the like. Everyone has a great time of fellowship but the result is largely a reinforcement of the status quo. There is little input from the King/Priest ministry of the whole church.

Oblation

I am surprised how often the time of oblation becomes tinted with an almost huckstering atmosphere. This may seem a hard saying but the time of deep spiritual commitment surrounding the individual’s giving to God needs to be enhanced by reverence and profound worship.

To interrupt this by what often becomes a lecture, no matter how sincere, on why one should give to God and the blessing attached, is insensitive at best and insulting at the worst. If the saints do not know about offerings this is NOT the time to teach them.

One of the best approaches I have seen to oblation was a local church that gathered around the communion table literally. As each took from the table the bread and wine they gave their offerings. The reverence and spiritual commitment was deeply significant and many of the saints offered thanks at this time. Gifts of the Spirit were often evident and the closeness of the people of God was enhanced.

A question of attitude

In the world of the 21st century the Christian church is at another of the crossroads of its development. The days when the majority of the church were happy to have a ‘clergy’ to tell them what to do and how to do it are fading away. Sources of information are now vastly richer than previous years. The Internet, libraries, books etc are ready tools in the hands of better-educated and more literate membership. Thinking people are needing, in fact demanding a better answer to their innate spirituality. The need to be part of the search, the need to have hands on participation in the work of spiritual growth, the need to pursue the individual need to create, teach, nurture, guide is all part of the way in which humankind was created. The old ways of church organisation cannot provide for these awakenings. The Royal Priesthood is slowly beginning to need/demand/seek and insist on the liberty and responsibility of the Scriptural pattern.

To move in the spiritual gifts, to seek understanding of the Scriptures, to teach, preach, share understanding and knowledge, to find and save the lost are just a few of the skills and experience required. To the fullness of their abilities all must know how, and desire to live in this manner. If there is failure to empower the church in these ways, what will become of the Body of Christ in the modern world?

The majority of church attenders still repeat the old pattern laid down in the times of the Middle Ages when most were illiterate and only a priest could read and pass on the doctrine. Today a clergy still dominates the people in spiritual matters. The subtle emphasis of “we know best” is ever present and avoids the demand made on ministries by the Holy Spirit to develop/grow/make able every member of the body. Not only in doing, but in thinking about and using their spiritual nature in the ways taught in Scripture. The question “What do we think/feel/consider should be done” is rarely used. The traditional pattern of needing a priest to intercede or explain for us is gone and the people must be taught to speak to and learn, directly from their Father; God.and how to .

The old type hierarchy exists even among the Eldership. As it has been from long ago the eldership still avoids consensus in prayer as a way of governing the church. In nearly all cases there is one person who takes a headship position and title and makes the decisions. The local church stands or falls on his/her ability. like a spinning top the whole structure balances on that one point. Fine while the top is spinning but check the spin and disaster is imminent.

Worship

Perhaps we may have misinterpreted this word. Examine a dictionary and the meaning is given as the activity of worshipping, a feeling of profound love and admiration, to love unquestioningly and uncritically, religious devotion to a deity.

I wonder how Jesus meant us to express love towards God. It needs a rethink. A lot of time is spent in what we think is an act of worship. There is much noise, much repetition, much effort, but is this truly the way? I sometimes think we are often trying hard to convince ourselves we mean what we say. We do seem to say it all loudly and repeat ourselves often.

I’m sure God is neither hard of hearing nor inattentive.