Directed versus Participatory Church: A Dialog

A friend of my mom who is a very dear, older sister in the Lord:

“How are you doing, Jim?”


“Good. I just got back from being in the jail this morning. I was with about fifty men from one of the housing units.” (She knows I often “minister” in the jail.)


“Oh, did you teach?” (Years ago, I had a very successful traditional teaching ministry in one of the larger churches in the county, and she was always one of my most eager and engaged students.)


“No. These days, I mainly let them teach and minister to each other. Sometimes I may say something, but not always and I keep it really short so they can take the lead among themselves.

So NOT church!

“Today various men shared verses, testimonies, songs, teachings and we even had some great, improvised Christian rap by two of the brothers.

“One man shared, with tears of joy, about how the Lord had given him peace over the uncertainty of his upcoming trial, and I asked if he would pray for other men facing the same anxiety. He did a beautiful job as a half dozen men gathering around him in a circle, arms round each other’s shoulders, and he imparted to those struggling with the same issue some of the grace God had given him. He had never done that kind of thing before. I didn’t pray for them, but stayed in my seat, because that other brother who was an inmate had the grace needed and I didn’t.

“That’s how it works. We’ve gotten away from directed meetings were a worship team ‘does’ worship for everyone and a pastor ‘does’ a monologue teaching and everyone passively sits there – other than following along with the music and maybe an ‘amen’ or two. We just don’t see how that matches up with what the New Testament says about being the church: the multi-member Body of Christ where every part contributes.

“Instead, I have learned to sit back so they can learn to express what the Lord is doing in them and it always seems to meet the needs of those present. Sometimes I have something to share, usually along the lines of helping to create a framework for them to come forth. This morning, however, like most of the times I join with them, I said a few words as just one of the guys then sat down as they ministered to each other for an hour and half. Like usual, they also ministered to me.”


Silence, then, “Oh, so you are there to make sure they don’t get off track?”


“No, they’ve learned to do a really good job of that themselves. I just go to enjoy their fellowship every now and then and be an encouragement to them or maybe add some foundational input.”


Silence, then “Oh. ”

More silence, then, “So they get together every week or so when you go in?”


“No, actually, they are their own church. They meet as smaller churches every day after their evening meal. I may see them only every week or two, but they do fine on their own and don’t much need me. We encourage them to be the church, rather than trying to ‘do’ church for them or importing church. That way, they learn to minister to each other and grow up in the Lord.”


A very, very long silence, then finally, “Nice weather we’re having, huh Jim?”


Sigh. It’s just about impossible for people to break out of their traditional concept of “church” and to get their mind – and spirit – around the New Testament idea of participatory fellowship rather than directed meetings.

Some day, some day. In the meantime, I just continue to sow seeds as the Lord directs …

~ Jim Wright


21 responses

  1. It is so wonderful to see the Holy Spirit flow in a group of people and actively direct their time together. I can’t understand why everybody doesn’t want church meetings to be like that. It’s the difference between personally spending time with a famous person, verses having someone give you a lecture about the same famous person. I’ll take the direct experience over the lecture any day.


  2. First of all, I’m a huge fan of what you’re doing. More people need to be ministering in the prisons.

    I just want to ask a little clarifying question. Are you referring to the mindset of weekly Covenant Renewal service, or Christian fellowship in general?


    • Sorry, but I don’t understand the question. Likely you are using terms that legitimately mean something in your sphere of influence, but are not part of my own vocabulary. What is a “weekly Covenant Renewal service” as opposed to “Christian fellowship in general”?


      • When I say weekly Covenant Renewal, I’m speaking of a service built around acknowledging the covenant between us and God, and renewing it each week, based on Scriptural principles. This is something that’s been lost in most modern churches, sadly.

        When I say “Christian fellowship” I mean all those gatherings of the Body that are not related to the renewal of the Covenant. Bible studies, prayer groups, hymn and psalm sings, etc.


        • Thanks for the clarification. I believe that the Body of Christ will often look different in different cultures and settings, and so I do not think others need to express Christ in all the same ways. Your question likely comes from another framework than mine, which is OK. But unless there’s something more to the distinction you make than I’m aware of, for me and the network of fellowships in our area, we would have a hard time seeing how those are separate things.

          I suspect there’s more to your comment, and I hope I am not giving it short shrift, but for me all of those “Christian fellowship” attributes you list are rooted in our covenant with God, and that covenant is reflected in those other attributes – including also the Lord’s supper. I’m not sure how we separate the covenant and it’s affirmation into different gatherings or expressions of the Body of Christ.

          The main point in my blog is that our gatherings as the Body of Christ – no matter what the culture or tradition – should be participatory as we all minister one to another. 1 Cor. 14 paints a very vivid picture of what that should look like, as does Eph. 4 where every part of the Body of Christ contributes.

          Reducing our gatherings to directed “services” does not, I submit, match up with anything we see in the NT about how we are to function as a community of believers. Yes, there is stability and security that comes from the presences and input of mature believers (called “elders” in the NT), so it is not a free for all, but neither is it the typically passive experience that comes from podium-directed and controlled worship, sermons and prayer.

          I’m not sure if I answered your question, and if not, I apologize.


          • Yes, thanks! I agree. We should not only have our Covenant Renewal (traditional service) and then completely cease to minister to one another. Our duty as members of the Body is to pray without ceasing for one another, and act out our love constantly.

            Really enjoy your posts, thanks!


  3. This is great! I love this idea. I have been wondering which direction the church would be going, since the current model seems to be dying. We have poured so much money into buildings and programs and all the trimmings and still the current model is dying! I think that the future will be completely different when it comes to ‘church’. There are many other countries where Christians suffer dramatically and yet they have more joy; there’s no official buildings, no official programs and the people are happier in their supposed ‘suffering’ than many of us have ever seen here in the U.S.A.


  4. Hey Jim,
    This is such a breath of fresh air from what is calling itself church these days. Truly a 1Cor.14:26 meeting. Such meeting are what “life in the Spirit” really are all about. We had such a meeting at our mutual friend’s home (Steve C.) just this past weekend. Just a time of gathering together for mutual building up of one another. Rich, rich time; and so goes life in the Spirit.


  5. Breath of fresh air indeed! My question would be (being a sister that brings the GOOD NEWS to my ladies incarcerated in county jail)…how do you (and Holy Spirit of course ;)..make that “shift” from them being “ministered to”…(which they seem to love) to getting them to see that it is okay to participate. In county the turn over is so fast that sometimes I could have a room full of “newbies”..some who have known the Lord for years and just been “deceieved”…and they are so eager.,,.to those that have no relationship at all with Papa.?
    But yes Jim I am in total agreement with what Holy Spirit has shown you…


    • Jane, give me a call and I’ll be thrilled to share how we did that transition and the lessons we learned and how some of what we learned may be relevant for you.

      We’ve been focusing on letting them be a functional fellowship within the jail for over three years now, after nearly a decade of doing the more traditional “ministering to” focus.

      We also have lots of turn over, but have seen continuity nonetheless and learned how to encourage that. When you call, we talk about that too.

      Here’s my contact information:

      Seriously, call me. If I can’t take the call, leave a message and I will get right back to you.


  6. This is a beautiful blog… I love what you are doing. This is my third blog entry I’ve read of yours, and I love the last two. Funny, i think we are much more on the same page than I realized before. Maybe you and I aren’t hearing each other correctly in the blog about the Tree of Life.


    • Josh, thanks for the comment. I am a man of mystery! 😉

      The traditional church folks can’t quite get their minds around me because I embrace a more organic/simple approach to being the church.

      The organic/simple church folks can’t quite get their minds around me because I remain rooted in the historic, orthodox doctrines of the faith.

      I guess that’s a good place to be – not in anyone’s little box.


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