The good and bad of services

A meeting that is not managed by us has the opportunity of being managed by the Holy Spirit.

Part 5 of a series – What are we doing?

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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.

A photo showing people in a typical church service
A typical church service (image from Wikipedia)

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.

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Message to a friend

It’s hard for passions to stay alive when you’re in a dry and dusty land with the dry bones of church lying all around

Part 4 of a series – What are we doing?

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I recently had a conversation with my friend Steve* who had just read my earlier article about Ezekiel, ‘Dry bones in the valley‘. He sent me an email about his thoughts and I sent a reply. Immediately I’d sent it I felt a strong sense that the Holy Spirit was encouraging me to post my reply to the blog as well; so with Steve’s permission, here it is:

Hi Steve,

Thanks for taking the time and effort to reply with your thoughts and feelings. It’s not work for me, it’s fun, it helps us know one another better, it’s a joy and a pleasure. We write about things we only skim over when we chat because our conversations are newsy and more about catching up – and that’s good too, I always look forward to our chats.

There are two journeys here – your personal journey, and the journey of the church. When I wrote the articles about Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones I was writing to and about the church. I felt at the time and still feel today that the church is sleepwalking and not really listening to what Father is saying. It’s a dry, dusty and fairly lifeless place to be when compared with the early church or with any of the great revivals in the last 2000 years. Church hurts people, disappoints people, dries people up spiritually, channels them into limited thinking and limited behaviour; that’s not what Jesus wants for his people! And it’s mostly because we focus our energies on programs, Bible studies, pre-programmed music, meetings, buildings to own or rent, prayer groups, money raising, mission planning, leadership training. Life is not in those things, real life is in Jesus.

But of course that doesn’t mean that Ezekiel has nothing to say to you personally, Steve. Papa will speak into your life as he does into every follower of Jesus. You feel – understandably – like Ezekiel must have felt by the river, before he had his vision about the valley of bones. I know you identified with the sense of captivity, loss, bleak prospects, endless struggle, and a feeling of hopelessness and no future. And those were the feelings of Ezekiel that the everlasting Father put his hand on. A gentle touch on the shoulder is easily overlooked, you might barely notice it. Yet it speaks volumes because it says, I am here, I am with you, I understand how you feel, I will come with you, have peace in your heart, you are not forgotten, I love you, you are my child, I am your Father and your friend, I haven’t abandoned you, I am here.

And as your brother standing nearby I can see that Papa has his hand on you. I’m a witness that he is touching you, Steve. I’ve seen you change, you are responding to his touch even though it’s not come in quite the way you expect or long for. The trip we made to Siddington was part of his touch, this conversation about the valley of bones is part of it, too. Having your children spend extra time with you is part of it. The practical and brotherly presence of another friend in your life is part of it. The new jobs you’ve been finding are part of it. The changes in your thinking about yourself, and about church, they’re part of it. Andy and Ellie are part of it.

His hand is on you and he will continue to show you stuff and use you. Even though you sometimes might not notice! 🙂

I’ve just been listening to Phil Wickham singing ‘All I am’. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too, it seems relevant.

You wrote, ‘I wish Father was more active and willing to power through for me instead of letting me learn through the journey‘.

Maybe learning through the journey teaches us more deeply, but he does power through as well when we are stuck. I think perhaps Siddington was an example of that.

You wrote, ‘I’m in a position where my passion’s dying due to not knowing if my actions in the church are what God wants for me anymore‘.

I was in that place, too. But the problem is not in you, the problem is in the church. If you were amongst a group of people who all just wanted to hear and respond to Jesus and only Jesus, you would find yourself being used – in your gifting and in a thousand other ways as well. It’s hard for passions to stay alive when you’re in a dry and dusty land with the dry bones of church lying all around. Believe me, Steve, if you were back in the early church you would be thriving and alive and contributing and passionate. And a little bit worried that Roman soldiers might kick the door in and arrest you! Church was alive back then – no buildings, no programs, no leadership training, no worship bands, no money raising – but very much alive and thriving and passionate.

You wrote, ‘I found it easier to walk a fair way out of the mess and sweep it all to the foot of the cross and ask God to deal with it…    but now what?

Ah, yes, now what? You asked him to deal with it, now you have to let him do just that. You can’t, but he can. You didn’t, but he will. And it’s very clear to me that he’s made a start already. I know that’s the truth because I’ve been part of the process.

A roller coaster, not very exciting until it starts moving! (Image licencing)

You may not feel it and you may not see it yet – but the ‘Now what?’ is already under way, Steve 🙂 You are on a journey with Jesus and who knows where he will lead you, but he’ll be right with you all the way. His ways are not our ways though, so expect the unexpected. He is turning the entire world upside down, and that includes your life!

Hang in there bro, hang on tight ‘cos it’s a roller coaster ride. We’re on Jesus’ roller coaster just sitting there thinking, ‘Nothing’s happening, where’s the excitement?’ Wait and see!

* Names have been changed.

See also: Valley of dry bones – Index

Like a waterfall | Index | The good and bad of services >

Like a waterfall

A waterfall breaks the pattern of a river’s flow

Part 3 of a series – What are we doing?

Upside-down? | IndexMessage to a friend >

I’m sharing a vision and message I received recently because, although it was primarily for a small group I meet with weekly, I think it has a much wider application as well. Sometimes Father shows me things when I am not particularly trying to listen to him. But on this occasion I was prompted by something a friend had said and I’d set aside some time to deliberately look and listen to the Spirit. So without more ado, here is what I saw:

Father showed me a waterfall, there was quite a big drop and the water was crashing onto rocks at the bottom. It was not huge like Niagara, but high enough that you wouldn’t want to take a boat over it!

And I sensed the Spirit saying the following words which I wrote down at the time:

A waterfall breaks the pattern of a river’s flow. The water always responds to gravity, but rarely flows freely towards the source of attraction (the centre of the Earth), normally it’s constrained by the river bed and the banks on either side, and only makes very slow progress downwards. But just now and then it gets the chance to flow freely towards the centre of attraction. I am that centre for my people, I want you to flow freely towards me, unrestricted by the channels you normally occupy.

But those channels are comfortable and seem safe, when they are taken away you feel in danger and vulnerable. This is not just true for my people, it’s true for everyone. You can see how the normal and comfortable has been taken away during the current Covid-19 crisis. Jobs, family contacts, high street shopping, watching a film, education, visiting friends – all these things have changed. And the normal patterns of church have changed too. So what remains? Ask yourselves what remains. Ask yourselves what is important.

The water flows differently when there’s no channel and it has complete freedom. That’s true for living water too. The loss of a channel is not a disaster, it’s an opportunity – think about that too.

I called you to be part of my waterfall, not part of a constrained river.

Do you see church as a channel you flow along, something that contains you and controls your flow? Do you see the value of complete freedom to rush headlong towards Jesus like a waterfall, with no channel to contain and direct your flow?

He is our Master, our Teacher, our Shepherd, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. He gave us life by breathing his breath into us, and he has given us new, spiritual life in the same way. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he is Living Water, he is the Light by which we see. He gives us gifts including the gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher. He calls us to follow him, to say what we hear him say, and do what we see him do. Given all of that, how can we possibly allow ourselves to be channelled by anyone or anything else but him?

He said, ‘Ask yourselves what remains [when the normal channels of church have changed]. Ask yourselves what is important’. And he said, ‘The loss of a channel is not a disaster, it’s an opportunity – think about that too.’

Perhaps we should take him at his word. What remains of normal church life? What is important? What are the opportunities?

Should we go back to the old channels as soon as that becomes possible? Should we cling to church, or should we cling to Jesus? Should we follow habit and tradition, or should we follow Jesus? Will we turn to church to disciple us or will we turn to Jesus to do that? Is there a difference? I think there is an enormous difference. What do you think?

Upside-down? | IndexMessage to a friend >