Part 5 of a series – What are we doing?
In part 3 of this series, ‘Like a waterfall’, I shared a vision and some words from the Spirit about how the water in a river is constrained by the banks and bed of the river, and how a waterfall allows complete freedom for the water to respond to the attractive force of gravity. In this post I’d like to share some thoughts about church services and how they affect church life.
Pretty well all denominations hold regular services, usually on Sunday mornings and often Sunday evenings and a weekday evening as well. They are called services because they serve someone. You could argue that their function is to serve the Father and/or Jesus through corporate worship and praise, or you could take the view that they are occasions where a minister serves teaching and guidance to the congregation who act as a (mostly) passive audience. Services follow set patterns, from a loosely defined prayer/hymn sandwich, to a set of rituals, and traditional and familiar practices like preaching or singing, prayer from the front and so forth. But if we turn to the New Testament we find nothing like this.
It’s true that Jesus and his disciples met together a lot, they travelled the road as a group with many other followers and hangers on, and they ate together and talked a good deal. Sometimes Jesus spoke with the inner twelve alone – often asking them questions, so it was conversational teaching. At other times he spoke to larger crowds. He provided wine when it ran out at an embarrassing moment, he healed sick people, spoke to people, sometimes he touched people physically, and yes – occasionally he went to the Synagogue. But there’s very little here that looks like a 21st century church service.
There are more clues in Acts and Paul’s letters. People did meet together, but the descriptions we get are of participatory meetings with no particular person making decisions about timing and no discernable programme. Certainly, if there was a visitor like Paul present, he might share news or even teach, but this seems to have been done on an ad-hoc basis as and when it seemed useful. We read of people praying, prophesying, teaching, singing, worshipping, speaking in unintelligible languages, interpreting what was said, praising, giving way to one another and so forth. There’s nothing here we’d recognise as a service. People were sharing whatever the Holy Spirit urged them to say at that moment.
So let’s think about the benefits and issues of church services on the one hand, and on the other, meetings with no agenda where people listen to the Spirit and share freely whatever he provides. Which seems most like a waterfall? Which seems most like a fixed channel? If the Spirit urged you to pray, or share a vision, or begin a song, or start to teach – which kind of meeting would offer the most comfortable opportunity? Paul wrote that we should do things decently and not in disorder. But he didn’t write that we should decide the pattern, sequence, songs and speaker beforehand! Somewhere between 100 AD and the Middle Ages, dynamic church life in the Spirit was replaced with restrictive and pre-set formats and traditions. The waterfall became a river!
What are the benefits of a ‘waterfall’ meeting? Simply this: a meeting that is not managed by us has the opportunity of being managed by the Holy Spirit. I say ‘opportunity’ because it’s also possible for us to have an unruly free-for-all in which we all do what we think best without waiting for the Spirit to guide us. Paul warns against this. But if a group of his people agree to be silent together and listen and then express whatever they are given, there will be a sharing of spiritual life with a focus and purpose that is astonishing. We have to trust one another to act gently and kindly, to see, hear and share what we are given moment by moment, to give way to one another, to wait for one another, and to focus on the Master, not on ourselves. And then there is the potential for a meeting in which he speaks and we listen in awe and amazement. Pictures and words, Bible verses and songs, unknown languages and their interpretation, prayer, prophetic words and teaching, worship and praise will merge as he leads us and guides us. We will know when he has finished, the end of the meeting will come naturally and with a sense of fulfillment and purpose. All of us will know that something special has happened and we will go away deeply encouraged, with a sense of direction, and the knowledge that this was another special time in the presence of the King. And yes, it will have been a ‘service’ in the deepest sense of that word, for he has served us and we have served him and his presence was clearly evident and amazing.
Will this fruitful kind of meeting come easily? No it won’t. It will take practice, and it may be difficult at first. GK Chesterton famously said, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried’. The same might be said of ‘waterfall’ meetings – we need to be willing to try and try again until we learn how to let the Spirit lead us together in this way; but we do need to try! The benefits will far outweigh the difficulties. I’ve been in many meetings of this kind over the years, from tiny groups of just two or three people, up to gatherings of more than a hundred.
Here are a few hints that may help if you want to try this with friends.
- Don’t sit in rows, sit in a circle; if there are many people you might need several concentric circles, but you need to see one another. Don’t have a ‘front’, have a centre.
- Give Jesus your full attention, and examine the things that just pop into your mind – thoughts, words and phrases, emotions, images.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. Use these times to focus on Jesus and his presence in the meeting.
- Give way to one another. Many short contributions will be better than one or two long ones.
- Don’t have a leader. Somebody might begin with a welcome and to point out the emergency exits or share other important practical details, but then they should sit down and become part of the corporate process, listening and sharing like everyone else.
- Allow plenty of space, have a gap in the circle so people can come and go – several gaps if the circle is large. Have space for people to stand, walk about a little, or dance.
- If possible, don’t set a time to end the meeting. Everyone will know when it’s finished.
- Allow time at the beginning for people to mingle and chat. Consider eating and drinking together, anything from tea and coffee to a pot luck meal. And allow time to mingle and chat again at the end if you can.
- There is no ‘right’ format. The purpose of meeting is to be one in Christ, to hear from his Spirit, and to share what each is hearing or seeing. Be open, be flexible.
- If you haven’t met like this before, it may be best to begin with smaller numbers, perhaps twelve to fifteen at most.
- Don’t prepare what to do or say in advance. Instead come with nothing and be prepared to see and hear and share moment by moment while you are together.