We've been back in the USA for 90 days now. During this time we have had the opportunity of visiting some wonderful Baptist churches here in Texas. Texas Baptists are some of God's most precious saints on the face of the earth! However, after years of being immersed in simple church values and practices, it has been quite a personal adjustment to re adapt to the way "traditional church" is done with its programs, practices and structures.
After now sitting through three months of worship services and Sunday School classes in half a dozen different churches, what follows are a few observations coming from someone who has long been out of practice of "going to church" as is commonly practiced here in America.
Sunday Morning Sermon. Instead of preaching 30-45 minutes and then everyone going home and promptly forgetting all/most of what has been so conscientiously prepared, why not share a reduced 15-20 minute message and spend the balance of time allowing interaction by the congregation? This personal interaction with the message would bear far more fruit than simply listening to a good man preach. Depending upon the size of the church and seating layout, this could be done in several different ways:
1) The pastor could end with a few key questions that get at the heart of what he was trying to share. As people begin to respond back to the pastor a dialog could ensue amongst all those present. The pastor could facilitate the discussion as several share their wisdom and understanding from their rich experience.
2) People could be encouraged to break up into small groups and share with one another what they sense God is saying to them through what has been shared through the Word.
3) Ask people to share how they intend on applying what they have learned from the Word. What specific actions is the Spirit of God impressing upon them in response to the message? Wouldn't 10-15 minutes praying for one another and applying the message with their individual situations have a more meaningful impact than simply one person doing all the talking?
It is strange that week after week so much effort has gone in to preparing good Biblical messages, only to be concluded with an invitation which usually has nothing to do with what has been preached. Sometimes 2-3 people will go forward during the invitation, but rarely does it have anything to do with the preceding 30-45 minutes. Why is the bulk of time given to one brother speaking week after week while the remaining 99% just sit and listen? Is church primarily about the message preached by the pastor? What happened to the exhortation by the writer of Hebrews, And let us consider one another, to incitement of love and of good works, not forsaking the assembling together of ourselves, as is the custom of some, but exhorting, and by so much more as you see the Day drawing near?
The offering. Instead of passing the plate while soft instrumental music plays in the background, or someone sings a "special", why not have someone testify how money given is actually impacting lives and making a difference in the Kingdom? For example, have the VBS Director come forward and share how the budgeted $1000 was spent and the impact this effort had on the lives of 200 kids. Share a few stories. Let people hear first hand how their giving is actually helping to make a difference in people's lives. Invite a missionary to share for a few minutes during the offering time what God is doing in their country and how the church's giving to missions is actually impacting Peru or wherever.
Sunday School. Instead of the goal being to get through the week's lesson, why not allow the Spirit of God to take us where He wants to lead us? Sunday School is the closest thing in legacy churches (in my opinion) to New Testament ekklesias--or has the potential of being so. Here we have the chance to really minister to one another through the Word in a smaller group setting. Yet, class after class, I have sensed that what matters is getting through the lesson, not on building up--encouraging--one another in the Lord. Sunday School seems more an intellectual, educational pursuit where we learn something from the Bible passage studied. There is nothing wrong with studying the Bible, but it could be so much more if we would allow the Living God to not only stimulate our intellects, but minister those studied truths into one another's lives.
Praise and wroship. Maybe it's just me, but week after week, 75-80% of what is projected onto the overhead screen are songs I am hearing for the first time. I personally find it frustrating that all the songs are chosen ahead of time by the worship leaders and they are the ones calling all the shots from behind their amplified instruments and microphones. My voice is dimmed and unable to compete with the electronic powers that dominate what passes as "worship" to the Lord. I am getting close to thinking that maybe the non-instrumental Church of Christ churches are far closer to the true spirit of worship with their a cappella singing than what passes for today's contemporary worship practices. As I said, maybe it's just me, but this is truly a struggle not being able to interact more with what is sung and hear from others what they are thinking/feeling as they sing to the Lord. Also, what happened to hymns? They've disappeared from the churches! I am not against singing unto the Lord a "new song", but it does bother me that the great hymns of the faith which have sustained God's people for decades (centuries) are being substituted by songs with with far inferior content and lyrics. A possible solution? Un-program the worship times. Give worship back to the people. Yes it would be messy at first and some would not like it--it would be awkward--but after a few weeks of adjustment, worship would gradually return to being worship instead of what, seems to me, a programmed performance where we follow along with whatever is fed to us from up front.
Prayer. Probably the most striking thing I have noticed after years of being away from legacy churches is the almost non-existent place of prayer in the gatherings of believers. Prayer is used more as a way to begin and close meetings, but I have seen little real praying when believers gather. Singing praise and worship songs is certainly a way of addressing our Lord, but there are so many other aspects of our communion with God that are going unaddressed in our gatherings: prayers of repentance/confession, prayers of united intercession and supplication, prayers for laborers (Lk. 10:2), prayers for wisdom/guidance/discernment, spiritual warfare, prayers for healing and for the sick, prayers for those who do not know the Lord, etc. Prayer takes time. I see little time in our gatherings being spent in prayer. Maybe the problem is we have to cram everything in between 11am-12noon. There simply isn't time for prayer when we gather if we are going to sing for 20-minutes and listen to a 30-minute message. But then, is it any wonder we have such little spiritual power in our midst? Maybe we should reschedule church on Sundays from, say, 5-8pm to give us adequate time to deal with truly being the Body of Christ and all that implies.
So, what are some of your thoughts? How can we be the church, be God's people; instead of going to church and doing church?