Recent events forced me to confront the troubling truth that “church” for the last several decades has been a habitually disappointing part of my spiritual journey. This could be saying more about me than about the state of the church, except that I hear the same lament from many other believers.
For me, rethinking “church” happened in early 2009 as I was forced, in a deeply challenging way, to confront questions regarding proper New Testament leadership.
In late 2008 I began stumbling upon some stunning and wholly unexpected improprieties with one of the founding pastors of New Covenant Fellowship, a small but dying church I had been attending in Manassas, Virginia. Those improprieties included his misappropriation of nearly a million dollars from church funds (while concurrently putting the church into significant debt), a pattern of habitual deception and passive-aggressive bullying, and other ongoing sins rooted in an abusive and predatory spirit of entitlement.
After that pastor rebuffed my efforts over many months to meet with him both privately and then with some of the elders, I finally decide that the mandates of Matt. 18 and 1 Tim. 5:19-21 required that we go public with the facts. The goal was not to hurt him (frankly, I didn’t need the distractions!), but to seek to redeem the situation and, if needed, protect the Body of Christ from further abuses. (See my blog Beware!)
For several months it was rough going and I was daily tempted to throw in the towel. Standing firm and remaining faithful in the resulting cauldron of swirling emotions, accusations and turmoil was one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever endured. But that was the whole point: God used it to see if I was willing to pay the price needed to acquire a new level of grace and authority on the central issue of proper New Testament leadership. Unfortunately, that price eventually included the anguish of broken relationships as some rejected God’s liberating and transforming truths about accountability and proper leadership, and chose the false “peace” of complacency instead.
In his mercy, God used that mess to birth in me a profound commitment to being the kind of engaged, sacrificial and facilitating leader he modeled for us. That, in turn, unleashed a quiet but profound affirmation of simple, but often neglected, New Testament precepts for what “church” should be.
Since then, that former church has been slowly imploding. In my own life, however, amazing things have been happening as I’ve moved forward with the Lord.
New Testament Leadership
Increasingly I’m seeing God challenge existing and emerging leaders to come out of our settled but unbiblical ways of “doing” church. We are being forced to decide if we are willing to pay the price needed to advance his Kingdom rather than our human traditions, unhealthy relationships and unexamined ways of doing things. Some say yes, and find a new level of ministry. Many don’t.
By being willing to stand firm against an abusive pastor, one of the things I “bought” was a new and profoundly personal understanding of a Kingdom principle: Healthy churches give rise to Godly leadership operating on Biblical precepts.
As part of my own journey, I now believe that the prevailing practice of letting “pastors” (either alone or as a team) be the sole proprietors, dominating authority or even the focal point of a local church is grossly unbiblical. The idea of hierarchical “leadership” over a church, rather than seeing respected leaders emerge from among and within a community of believers, also is grossly unbiblical.
As a graduate student of church history back in the 1970’s, and more recently while teaching theology and apologetics at a Christian college, I’ve known that “pastor” – as a noun describing a church leader – is only mentioned once in the entire New Testament. Even then, it is simply one of several leadership positions in the church (see Eph. 4:11-12). Yet over the centuries that single reference has been taken out of context and divorced from the overwhelmingly central role assigned in the New Testament to a collegiality of diverse and engaged elders (plus other leaders).
In Ephesians 4, we also read that the primary role for each of those leaders is to facilitate ministry by others.
Instead of following these Biblical principles of diverse, engaged and serving leadership, we have abused scripture by elevating pastors (sometimes as a one-man show, and other times as a pastoral “team”) into the dominate if not sole leadership, ministry and authority (maybe not in name, but certainly in function) in our churches.
In fact, careful exegesis of the original Greek language in various Biblical passages about local church leaders has caused me to conclude that the sole reference to “pastors and teachers” in Ephesians 4 is just one of several New Testament synonyms for “elders”. Taking that one passage to create a distinct and additional overarching church office causes an injustice to Scripture.
Relegating elders, either officially or functionally, to serve as little more than a detached corporate board of directors for an otherwise controlling “pastor” likewise violates Scripture.
Until my run in with that very abusive and controlling “pastor” earlier this year, I lacked the catalyst needed to face those facts and their ramification for the church today. The sorry truth is that our local churches are rife with dysfunctional pastors and leadership structures, and it should be no wonder that scandal after church scandal keeps popping up. As a result, our culture is becoming more and more cynical about the Lord because of what they disturbingly see and hear on the nightly news as our Christian “leaders” routinely fall into ethical and moral improprieties.
Such cynicism should be no surprise, given how church leadership in general has become untouchable, isolated and unaccountable – both from their own churches and with other leaders.
This blog is not the place to retrace the steady deterioration over the centuries of authentic, Biblical leadership and Biblical church practice and polity. But it’s worth noting that as believers, we have taken the easy road of surrendering to a false “clergy / laity” distinction and given up our Biblical obligation to “be the church”. For example, when did our pastors, for all practical purposes, come to “own” our congregations?
“Church” as it’s come to be is now largely pastor led and podium focused, with professional “ministry” and largely passive pew sitters. We have lost the New Testament pattern of a community of believers served by local elders and other leaders, who function in a collegial framework of diverse gifts to sacrificially equip all believers for works of service as we all minister to each other. See Eph. 4:11-12 & 16. The distinguishing attribute for churches in the New Testament was the participation of all believers in the meetings as each ministered to all according to their unique gifts.
So there’s the challenge of our day: Do we want New Testament leadership that is serving and equipping rather than controlling, elders who are engaged rather than pastor-centric, ministry that is diversified rather than centralized, and meetings that are open and participatory rather than podium focused and professionally directed? Are we willing to take back our churches and once again be the church?
Rather than “podium churches” where pastors and their ministry “teams” orchestrate the front-focused Sunday morning “God show” for rows of passive, pew-bound parishioners, the Biblical pattern is intimate fellowship where each believer can, and does, minister one to another.
If someone can show me any Biblical examples or mandates for our modern pastor-centric “podium churches”, I’m truly interested. But so far, I’ve found none. In fact, I find just the opposite.
The switch to clergy dominated podium churches occurred in the early forth century AD, when Emperor Constantine officially recognized Christianity for the first time as a legitimate religion and ended state sanctioned persecution. He then used Christianity to unify the Roman world through a massive campaign of building “churches” (i.e., buildings) in most Roman cities and consolidating religious authority under official “clergy”. Until then, true “church” had always been participatory and built around authentic community. It had never been a matter of going to church to sit under professional clergy. Instead, it had been about each and every one of us being the church.
The participatory based and community focused model for the first three centuries of church history was firmly rooted in the New Testament, where believers met in each other’s homes to fellowship and partake of communion as a shared meal. Unlike other settings, the home environment fosters participation, hospitality and building relationships. Interestingly, and contrary to our current male dominated “churches” where women are typically excluded from key roles, those home fellowships were often hosted by women such as Mark’s mom in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16:15 & 40), and Priscilla in Ephesus and then Rome (Rom. 16:3-5 and 1 Cor. 16:19).
Jesus himself established this pattern of home-oriented fellowship in Luke 10:1-11. He sent seventy disciples, two by two, to find houses of peace (likely headed by those who were not yet believers) to serve as focal points for bringing the Kingdom of God into a new town or village.
For too long, I wrongly focused in this passage on the disciples. After all, they were the ones sent out by Jesus himself and I thought they were the most important element for advancing God’s Kingdom. In reality, however, the key was those homes of peace, where hospitality and blessing could flow forth and draw people in. Absent such households, the disciples could do nothing and were commanded to shake the dust off their feet as they left for the next town.
We then see Peter, and then Paul, repeatedly using this same model as they planted and grew the church in households of peace and hospitality. (See Acts 2:42 & 46-47 and 16:12-15, 30-34 & 40 as just a few of the many examples of this in the New Testament.)
I don’t think this focus by Jesus, Peter or Paul on using peaceful homes as the foundation for authentic fellowship, discipleship and church growth was an accident. It simply is not possible in larger, podium-focused meetings for people to feel the intimacy and security needed to open up, share with each other, develop their gifts and participate by ministering one to another. Plus, homes of peace are the ideal setting for being the church, because the gift of hospitality naturally draws people in and fosters authentic relationships.
Now let me be clear: There’s nothing particularly magic about “doing” church in a home, and the same objectives can be met in other settings. But if you look at the New Testament pattern and precepts for “being the church” through active, participatory meetings, it is hard to envision how it can be done outside of small, intimate, informal and fellowship-based settings. And it is harder to envision a better (but certainly not exclusive!) setting for that to happen than sitting around a table and sharing a meal in a household of peace.
As I’ve been helping to facilitate the growth of participatory churches over the last year, I’ve learned a few simple principles that seem to be working. I’m still a neophyte, but here’s a summary that I hope encourages others to discover God’s fresh anointing for this “new” old thing and thereby bring God’s presence to an emerging generation of new (and not-yet) believers.
- New Testament churches typically met in homes where people shared communion and fellowship over a meal.
As I’ve begun emulating this pattern, I’ve seen that fellowshipping over a shared meal – not as prelude or after-effect to a church “service” but as a central componentof being the “church” – brings a level of intimacy, participation, transparency and security that’s not possible in large, podium focused meetings.Time and again I’ve seen how God uses the unique dynamics of smaller, table-focused gatherings to unleash his gifts in each of the participants. That’s why I call these “participatory churches”, because a profound level of fellowship and ministry happens as we gather around a table to share a meal and share our lives with each other – whether it be in a home or at a Starbucks or in a housing unit at the local jail (see The Church in D Pod).
A word of caution is in order, however. Don’t try to do a mini-Sunday-morning, traditional church service in your home with centrally-focused ministry (formally open with a prayer, sing a few songs picked and led by the guy with the guitar, do a twenty minute teaching/Bible study with a few questions thrown in to make it “participatory”, ask for prayer requests, then pick someone to formally close with prayer) and think that’s going to work! Too many make that mistake, and it fails. If directed meetings don’t work at facilitating authentic participatory fellowship and community in a formal church building, then they also won’t work in your home!
By the way, that’s why I don’t like “home church” or “cell group” or other such terms, because all too often they simply are attempts to transplant traditional Sunday meetings into a home setting. That’s not the New Testament pattern! Sitting around a table to enjoy a meal tends to facilitate true fellowship, participation and ministry one to another. It just naturally works better – as you’d expect, given that sharing a meal was a routine part of the authentic church experience for New Testament believers.
- When New Testament Christians gathered together, they each were to come with something to contribute so they could participate by ministering one to another.
When everyone comes with the expectation of giving something in ministry to each other, and are given the opportunity to do so, we start functioning as a mature body of believers. It might be a song, a teaching, a revelation about something that God has shown them, a prayer, or some other spiritual gift. SeeActs 2:42, 1 Cor. 14:26 and Eph. 4:16.In addition, to make our spiritual gifts and aptitudes stronger, we must use them. It’s a basic spiritual principle: To receive, we must give.
Is it any wonder that Christians today are so weak and feeble, when our dominate concept of “church” is sitting passively and always being ministered to?
I also tell people in our growing network of participatory churches that sometimes what they bring is a need or a struggle, with the expectation that God will meet them through others (and he does!) as they openly share their issues. As a result, there is transparency and people freely step forth to use their developing gifts to minister to each other. The Holy Spirit then uses that dynamic to lead the group into areas and topics that are timely and truly transforming, and never scripted!
- Smaller, participatory churches are not supplements or tack-on’s for podium churches. If anything, it should be the other way around!
Smaller participatory churches (which may be part of a larger regional or city-wide network) are more authentically New Testament than podium churches, but understanding that fact requires a willingness to fundamentally change our thinking.Some folks in the participatory churches I’m working with still attend podium churches and some don’t. And that’s OK! But to a person, everyone says that they get more out of our time of fellowship around the table – as we share a meal, become engaged in each others lives and minister one to another – then they do with traditional Sunday services.There’s a place, I think, for larger gatherings of believers and even podiums – especially if some special ministry of common interest is in town or there’s some other reason for a regional network of smaller participatory churches to sponsor a joint meeting. But those regional joint meetings are a supplement to the smaller participatory churches, not the other way around!
In addition, meeting places for occasional regional gatherings can be rented, thus avoiding the tremendous inefficiencies and high costs associated with a traditional church building and the other infrastructure expenses of a traditional podium church. In fact, given the very low overhead of a regional network of smaller participatory churches that typically meet in homes, the resources freed up to actually advance the Kingdom of God and to care for those with needs are awesome.
- Jesus told us to go out into the world to gather the harvest, and that’s what New Testament Christians did.
Jesus says that a good shepherd goes out looking for lost lambs. The Great Commission says to goto the nations. Instead, our podium churches and their pastors seem intent on waiting for the world to come to them. They’ve got it all backwards.That’s one of the exciting things about small participatory, as opposed to podium, churches. They provide a fresh opportunity to go where the people are – in their neighborhood, a homeless community, the local Starbucks, the workplace cafeteria, and even in the local jail! – without needing to drag them to a “church” building where they often are uncomfortable (typically for good reasons!).
You see, it’s very simple: Just as Jesus taught in Luke 10, we should be going and being the church in the community or subculture or in the ‘hood or a jail or a homeless tent community or wherever! (See Following God’s Presence.)
Go! Find a household of peace or, if there are no households, then a person of peace – even if they are not yet believers. Bless them by asking what they need Jesus to do for them, then pray for them. If the Lord confirms his blessing by meeting them in their needs, you don’t have to “organize” things. They, instead, will call their friends and neighbors to come and share a meal at their house – or other place of community gathering – to exclaim what the Lord has done for them. They will be excited and God will use their natural gift of hospitality and peace to attract people into the Kingdom.
From there, it’s easy – ask those who come (even if they are not yet Christians!) to share with each other what God is saying to them as he draws them to himself. They just sort of naturally become Christians without needing to be pushed!
In fact, I’m seeing on average about two to three people each week commit their lives to Jesus as they are allowed to share and experience participatory church around open tables. Others in that fellowship will quickly come beside them to help them to find their own gifts, teach them to expect that God will continue to speak to them, and to learn that God will give them whatever is needed to minister one to another. Sometimes I jump in, but mostly I just sit back and watch ’em take off!
- Engaged, sacrificial and facilitating leadership is essential.
Leaders who are disengaged, can’t trust the Holy Spirit to bring us into all truth, or who think it’s all up to them, won’t make this transition towards participatory churches.What I’m seeing is that God confirms, and the people themselves naturally recognize, those who are already functioning – without expectation of title or position – as engaged, sacrificial and serving mentors within our growing network of participatory churches. In fact, we don’t start with leadership. Rather, we let it organically emerge from among and within a functioning community of believers.
It’s interesting that as I help create an environment for them to come forth, I’m seeing more authentic, Biblical leadership emerge within ex-inmates and others who have been society’s “rejects” – but are now on fire for God – than I often see in the so-called “pillars of society” who typically populate the detached elders’ boards of many podium churches. It will be fascinating to see how this all continues to develop.
Although I’m seen as a founding leader within the network of smaller participatory churches I’m helping to plant, often I have nothing to say at our meetings. It’s amazing that when you unleash people to hear God directly, and to share what God is saying and doing in their lives, there’s often not enough time for all of the folks who are eager to contribute. This is real church. This is life!
My role, therefore, is simply to be involved and available in people’s lives, to go to them and serve them, and then from that place of engagement to serve, rather than dominate, as they use their developing gifts to minister to each other. And although I paid a high price for the grace and authority needed to do that, it was worth the price of admission!
So there it is – participatory churches. Non-traditional, but simple. Straightforward, but powerful. Old, but new – and coming soon to a home (or a jail, or a Starbucks, or a table) near you!
~ Jim Wright