The Next Reformation

    What did the church in Acts 2 have that we donít? Total Participation.

    In the March 3rd edition of Christianity Today Open Church Ministries ran a two page ad for their Interactive Body Life Seminar. Here is how they open their spread:

    "Sorry About Your Church! We hear its closedÖ"

    "Alas, most churches are indeed closed to active participation on Sunday morning. Members are not allowed to speak even when God puts something special on their hearts to say (as He says He will do in I Cor. 14:30)."

    The organizers claim that "weíre seeing the final step in the reformation process that began with Luther but quickly froze in midstream." This is a dramatic claim, and one worth examining. Is God indeed releasing a new reformation in His church?

The First Reformation

    In Lutherís time grace and salvation were understood to come only through an ordained priesthood. Suddenly a biblical understanding was recovered. Salvation was available to all, directly from God, apart from any human mediator. And salvation was by faith, the work being done by God Himself and received as a free gift to all who believe.

    For a time, it looked as though a biblical priesthood was recovered. Sadly, this was not the case, and the difference between cleric (clergy) and layman remained. There were things that the priest/pastor could do that the ordinary Christian could not do, even though these were narrowed to communion and the sermon. The word of the Lord still came through the pastor/priest, and the people of God remained largely inactive in their pews (with the exception of participation in praise, usually restricted to singing).

    Almost three thousand years before the Reformation, Moses had declared, "Would that all Gods people were prophets!" (Nu.11:29) In Acts chapter 2 his dream became reality when the Spirit of God descended on the disciples, and all began to speak forth words given by God. No longer would prophets be a narrow class of people to whom God would speak; all could hear directly from Him and speak out His word. As Jesus had said, "My sheep" (not only shepherds!) "hear My voice" (John 10).

A Prophethood of Believers

    In the churches under Paulís leadership this reality reached expression. Paul is clear that when the people are gathered together everyone should participate. How? Like this:

    When you come together, each one 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. (14:26)

    Does 1 Cor.14 picture an orderly, normal meeting of a New Testament church? Scholars such as Gordon Fee in his recent work, "Paul, the Spirit and the People of God," argue that the Corinthian order of service is typical and that the passage in Colossians 3:16 is a parallel, where the Spirit is active among the gathered people of God. Ministry in the assembly is the responsibility of all.

    The revolutionary truth pictured in the gathering in Corinth in the first century is that the word of God can and will come through every member of the body of Christ. Likely that word will not only sound different, but look different, through every expression.

    For example, a word of encouragement may come through someone quoting Scripture. Someone else may want to sing a song that they have written. Still another may want to deliver a slide show accompanied by a popular song. Another may design and create a banner. Someone else may choreograph a song and deliver it with dance. Still another may deliver a spontaneous sermon around a biblical theme.

    The parallel passage in Colossians begins: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly." What riches are found in the gathering that is His body! How have we lost this vital understanding of every member ministry?

The Leadership Challenge

    First, as leaders we are accustomed to control. If God is in control, what are WE to do? We thought that was OUR job. If anyone can bring a word in our services, where does that leave our sermon? We are accustomed to being valued for our highly visible giftings. Will the church still need us? We need to remind ourselves that our task is not to DO the work, but to equip others to serve. We need to recover Eph.4:16, where the body is built "as each part does its work." Sometimes this means that the preacher will preach!

    Second, we as leaders fear disorder. We might say that it isnít the action of Godís Spirit that we are worried about, but rather the response of His people. What will they do with so much freedom? Many leaders would argue that their people are simply not ready for this. They might say that the people need more training, or more character.

    The problem is that if we wait until everyone is ready and its perfectly safe before releasing people for ministry, Jesus will have returned and the world will still be in darkness. Yet its true that some need training, and all need guidelines. The core task of leadership as seen by Paul in the spontaneous order of I Cor.14 is discernment. Even in the disorder of Corinth he can say, "Do not despise prophesying and do not forbid speaking in tongues."

    Lets face it, most of us prefer an order of service where we know exactly what will happen next. We are creatures of habit. What is familiar feels safe.

    Unfortunately, as the old aphorism points out, "A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for." We need to honestly examine our hearts: do we want the same bread every week, or do we want the Lord?

    Third, professionalism has crept into our churches. "Let the professional do it." Both people and pastors may think think this way. Once we have the training, we feel that we are not honoring God or our people unless we exercise our gifting to bless the body. Where fishermen were preachers and teachers and apostles in the first century, now we must have degrees.

    There are two problems here. First, as David Watson put it, "No man has a spiritual ministry by virtue of his education." Worse, the willingness of the unschooled to teach decreases the more the professionals exercise their gifts. What farmer or mechanic wants to be compared to the professional speaker? The equipping environment, where the message of a fisherman could carry as much weight as the seminary graduate, has been destroyed.

    It is the task of leaders to release and empower the word to come through every member of the body. Think what an impact we will make on the world when we can recognize the preaching anointing on Marge the secretary and George the printer! You have to KNOW they will impact their world.

    Professionalism also means that we insist on looking and sounding respectable. We want the sermon neatly laid out, with logical flow and three points that rhyme. If we insist on this being the highest goal, we will achieve it. We may have wonderful sounding sermons, but will they touch the heart? What will we lose in the process? For one, we lose the ability of the blue collar worker to speak with understanding to those like him.

    Fourth, individualism. We have lost the biblical perspective on the life of the Spirit in the community. Living in our western atomistic and cause/effect world, we have limited the life of the Spirit too much to the individual. Paul would have placed far more emphasis on the Spirit in the Body (cf. I Cor.10:17, 11:29). We need to discern the body. Jesus is no longer an individual; He is the gathered power of the community. We need a new understanding of the corporate presence of Christ. "Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them."

    Fifth, the medium is the message. Steven Clark in Building Christian Communities demonstrated that environmental factors are more basic than organizational factors in Christian growth. Our practice will speak louder than our slogans about "every member ministry." Leaders must work to shape an environment in unity and complementarity so that every member "hears" the message, not "you" but "we." Every member must be honored with clerical status. The church is an organism which grows "as each part does its work."

Dominant Models

    Sixth, the question of dominant models. Our large gatherings tend to occupy 80-90% of our energy and resources. Inevitably, this is reflected in our focus and vision. Apart from continual vigilance and refocus, the large gathering can eventually kill the small group.

    Our setting tends to determine our order of service. We feel that what is appropriate in a small gathering is not appropriate in the larger group. We tend to see the dynamics of the large gathering as the ideal, and the dynamics of the small group as less critical. After all, the large gathering is where the paid professionals function! If this reflects our values, fine. If notÖ..

    I remember some years ago when I was part of a small charismatic Mennonite work in south western British Columbia. The day came when we were ready to shift from the school gym to the new building. We were excited! After all, the Lord had blessed us with wealth and resources and with many conversions. We recognized His provision in a multi-use building in a growing suburb.

    Sadly, something happened in the translation. Spontaneity and vulnerability both seemed to pack their bags and leave. We noticed that the pastor wore a suit more often, as did others. We noticed an influx of young professionals, most of whose experience was in the traditional church setting with its professional model of ministry by the few to the many. Fewer and fewer meetings were marked by participation from the congregation. Eventually those who were most dissatisfied by the changes found other groups to call home. We had moved from the reality of every member ministry to a more centralized and professional model. What happened?

    Church growth theorists warn that breaking the 150 barrier is always tough. A group can easily lose its sense of "family," where everyone feels valued and at home, on the way past the big 150. But is this a function of size, or a function of thinking and vision and focus of energy?

    In our culture certain expectations accompany particular settings. Bright lights, fancy carpeting and a big mortgage call us to act and dress a certain way. Each environment has its own pressures. This is simply a reality of our life in a material world. When at the office, we tend to work and interact in official ways...

    After our move, Sunday meetings became the focus of the week. Where previously we had little money and not much more time invested in our corporate gathering, the shift to our own building and space had an unexpected weight in our psyches. We now had to do it right. We had a mortgage to pay. We needed the professional to speak, and the trained leaders to teach. The medium is the message. We still paid lip service to Every Member Ministry, but the reality had died away.

    In the end, we went from a humble amateur hour where peoples lives and hearts were touched continually and even the farmers in the group could bring an exhortation, to a group focused on pleasing man and appearing respectable in the larger community. Vulnerability waned; after all, we didn't know the person sitting next to us anymore. And besides, having someone share their heart and break down in tears wasn't... well, professional. We gained respect in our community, but we lost the ability to reach to the heart.

    Worse still, we drifted into a program centred model. After all, we needed something to give our lives meaning! Our relationships to God and to one another could no longer fill the need. Our corporate life became focused around greasing the wheels. Ten years later, the life of the Spirit had all but bled out of us.

    In short, the life of the larger gathering tends to be program centered and mechanical and pulls us away from vitality in relationship to one another and to God. In the large gathering, we value the ministry of a few and value predicability.

    The life of the small gathering tends to be dynamic and personal, moving us toward trusting relationships where we allow one another into our lives in ways that are healing. In the small gathering we value spontaneity and participation. As Markus Barth put it, the meaning of Eph.4:16 is that "it is at the point of contact [with one another] that Christ is made known."

    We are in the throes of a new reformation, and it is toward a practical release of the people of God, each of us a priest of the Lord. When God offered to speak to His people in Sinai, they were afraid. They told Moses that they would rather hear Gods words from him. But Godís desire is to have a love relationship with each person: "My sheep hear My voice" (John 10).

Toward A Response

    "You cannot suppress the prophet without creating the priest." James Denney

    How should leaders respond? Preach and teach these things. Give opportunity for those who evidence hearts of servants to preach and teach. Recognize that they won't perform like professionals, but you will be creating an environment where others will then feel free to participate also. Spend time offering feedback and encouragement to the brave souls who will risk up front public ministry.

    Allow time during worship for prophetic ministry to arise from the body. Affirm the words that flow with what God is doing, withhold judgment when uncertain, and bring correction when necessary.

    Encourage creative participation. In our culture we are very information oriented, but words reach only a small part of our being. We desperately need the release of physical movement and the visible word. Encourage dance and drama and banners.

    While the worship team tends to shift the focus of ministry to the front, worship can be restored to all the people by encouraging movement and even giving instruments to gifted people. Tambourines and shakers and flags can be managed by anyone with a decent sense of rhythm. Not only will you be training future worship people, you will be releasing all to respond to God.

    Expect participation. The expectations of leaders are powerful in shaping the response of the people of God. It's a faith dynamic. If you don't expect it, it may not happen.

    Step out and take risks. The parable of the pounds in Luke teaches us that we must invest what God gives us. If we hide it away, fearful of losing what we have, we have already lost it. Churches that stop taking risks slowly wither and die.

    Get a vision for the wholeness of the body. Resist importing popular programs or ideas if they do not have a natural "fit" for the work that God is doing in your midst. Allow ministry and vision to arise from the roots; when people get connected to God they will be given vision for ministry which they will own because God gave it. Vision which comes from the top down absorbs all the energy of the leadership just to maintain.

    Create small groups in the large gathering. As the Spirit leads you, break the large gathering into groups that can minister to one another in prayer. It may seem noisy and chaotic at first, but you can begin to create openness to small group ministry among people who may never yet have experienced it.

    Small groups are the single largest key to releasing all gods people to serve. Here people can risk in a safe place, where any damage from mistakes will also be minimized. People will receive inner healing, discover their gifts, learn how to minister effectively, and learn how to care for one another in the small group setting. It's tough to hide your needs when you are face to face with people in a circle!

    Small groups are by far the most effective method of raising up new leaders; they will be tested and proven in the heat of battle. Any senior leader who does not devote time and energy to raising up small groups has not caught the heart of the vision to see the release of every member ministry among his people.

    Finally, a central task of leadership is to connect each part of the body directly to the Head (Eph.4:15 "into" the Head). In the human body, the arm does not tell the hand to tell the finger what to do: nerves run directly to each finger so that the Head can send com-mands that will instantly be received. The word translated "joints" or "ligaments" in Eph.4:16 has the root meaning of "touch" or "contact." When leaders nurture the connection of individual parts to the Head and to one another, the ministry of Christ will be released to the body and into the world.

    When lay leaders are called on to simply carry out staff initiatives, the expression of their own gifting and creativity is minimized. It's time that leaders quit delegating ministry, and simply plug in the people. When they get turned on, they will receive their marching orders! All leaders need do is to watch what God is doing, bless and equip and release it. When the ordinary person in the pew becomes intimate with Jesus, stuff happens!

I Have a Dream!

    Last year I had a dream. I saw a small staircase, and on the stairs were potted, leafy plants. It began to rain. Water began flowing down the stairs, and then it began to rise, backing up and flowing up the stairs, overflowing the pots. The pots began to crack and break up, and some of the plants began to be carried by the water. The water now had direct access to the roots, and the plants on the top floated down to the same level as the plants below them.

   The staircase, with different levels, represents authority. Those at the top are leaders, and traditionally the word of God has been understood to come through them. They are the ones released to minister: to preach, teach, counsel, marry and bury.

   We need to recover Eph.4:16, where the body is built "as each part does its work." As Markus Barth put it, "It is at the point of connection that Jesus is made known." Apart from this mutual ministry individuals will not experience the healing and release that God desires for them.

As I sought the Lord about this dream I felt him say, "I am going to shuffle the deck." The Lord wants to be in direct contact with His people. No longer will water flow only through leaders to others, and no longer will the word come only through leaders.

    The life was flowing UP from the lower parts, instead of down through a chain of command! The picture is one of mutual ministry, where each part contributes to the life of the whole because each part is directly connected to the Head. "My sheep (and not only shepherds) hear My voice." The leveling effect of the water and its flowing directly to the roots pictures this.

    God desires intimacy with ALL His people: to know, love, and empower them. God is re-creating a prophetic people, an army of warriors, where housewives, mechanics and garbage collectors will hear and speak the words of God.

    Change is often messy, and few of us like change. It is a challenge to all of us to release control and allow new ways of doing and being to arise. Leaders are needed to correct, protect, and direct as the entire people of God are equipped and released. In the first two centuries AD the church grew and spread like wild fire apart from buildings and programs because all Gods people carried the good news. The modern house church movement is attempting to recover the dynamic of that day.

    New wine requires new wineskins, otherwise the skins will burst and the wine is lost. The Lord Himself will bring change to structures. His heart is to see all His people released to serve Him. Get ready for the coming Reformation: the liberation of body life in the power of the Spirit!

Further Resources:

  • B. Donahue, Leading Life-Changing Small Groups
  • G. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God
  • Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge
  • C. Miller, The Empowered Leader
  • R. Neighbor, Where Do We Go From Here?
  • Richards and Martin, A Theology of Personal Ministry
  • R. Paul Stevens, Liberating the Laity

Len Hjalmarson
Summer, 1998

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