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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The Corona of Christ

He decided to expand His one and only Son into many sons!

Milt Rodriguez has posted a great article with this title on his blog ‘The Rebuilders’. I heartily commend it as it has some useful thoughts on the church and on Christ while focussing especially on the glory of the Almighty.

Milt writes:

God still wanted an expression, an outflowing expression of the love for His Son.  The expression would need to be corporate because God is corporate:  Father, Son, and Spirit and yet one God!

So what did He decide to do?  Well, the answer to that is beyond all logic, theology, and human understanding.

He decided to expand His one and only Son into many sons!  Yes, that’s right.  He decided to make His one and only Son into a corporate Son. 

I encourage you to read Milt’s post in full.

David Bolton’s music

I found his quiet, contemplative, gentle style rather lovely

Earlier this evening I came across a blog article by David Bolton in which he explains his musical journey in terms of composing and singing songs with his own guitar accompaniment.

At the the bottom of the article he has added a playlist. I found his quiet, contemplative, gentle style rather lovely and I’d like to share it with you here. I hope you’ll enjoy listening as much as I do.

That said, the article is worth a read as well; so don’t make a dash for the music without coming back to read about it later. There’s a lot of other good stuff on his blog too, if you have time to explore a bit.

Like a waterfall

A waterfall breaks the pattern of a river’s flow

Part 3 of a series – What are we doing?

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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?

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Church as we know it

The whole point of church is that we are a community of people who follow Jesus

Part 1 of a series – What are we doing?

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The time has come to ask some questions about church as we know it in 2020. What cause lies behind the shrinking attendance at mainstream denominations? Why do we do the things we do? Do our traditions and assumptions match up with church as Jesus wants it to be? If we need to change, how do we go about that? Should we even be asking questions like these?

I believe we should. Not that things are worse than they were ten years ago, or a hundred years ago. But certainly things are not at all as they were at the beginning. Does that matter? If so, why? If not why not? How can we even begin to wrestle with these questions?

I believe we can – and must. But first we need to calibrate our knowledge and understanding and find a measuring system so that we can establish some basic parameters.

The fundamental measure

A steel ruler for measuring length

Let’s take length as an example of a physical quantity. To measure the length of something we need a calibrated tool – a ruler, tape measure, laser rangefinder – whatever form it might take. But the measuring device must be calibrated. A ruler with mm and cm markings on it would be useless if it didn’t agree with other rulers. The basic need here is for a length that never changes that we can use as a standard. Until 1960 the standard was a metal bar in France, and this standard meter was used for calibration; if your ruler didn’t agree with the standard meter in France, it was a bad and misleading ruler. The modern standard is based on the wavelength of a particular kind of light and is far more precise and reliable than the metal bar.

In church life we need a similarly precise and reliable standard concerning our organisation and behaviour. Since the whole point of church is that we are a community of people who follow Jesus, it should be obvious that he is the standard we must use for calibration. If our organisation and behaviour don’t agree with his, we are out of true and some adjustments will be essential to bring us back into line. The life and words of Jesus are the primary source for us. And all the church leaders who have ever arisen since Jesus’ day should agree with his standard. If they do not, they are bad and misleading leaders.

So how does Jesus measure up as a fundamental standard for his followers? Does he ever change? No, he is the same yesterday, today and forever. Can we use him as a standard? Yes, he is knowable in several ways, his words and actions are described in the Bible, he has filled his people with his Spirit as a guide and comforter. Is there anyone else with an equal or better claim to be our fundamental standard? Peter? James? John? Paul? A pope? An archbishop? Your pastor? Arguably, some or all of these might be more or less useful substitutes if the primary standard was unavailable. But Jesus is always available! So no, there is no man or woman who can claim to be a better standard than Jesus himself.

He’s consistent and he’s knowable – and that’s all we need.

Where do we go from here?

In future parts of this series we’ll begin to query what we’ve been doing, individually and corporately. We’ll check the standard of Jesus to see if we need to recalibrate. I’m not here to tell you what to do, but along the way I’ll try to encourage you to look for yourself, to examine Jesus and ask yourself some questions, and to act on what you discover. I’ll revisit this topic from time to time. In the meantime, may your journey be an illuminating one, may you grapple with the challenges, find your own answers, and always keep your eyes on Jesus.

What if you are not following Jesus?

Please note: If your faith is Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, or Hinduism or any other religion, or if you have no faith at all, then the paragraphs above are not aimed at you. They are aimed squarely at anyone who claims to follow Jesus.

But I do encourage you to take a look at the claims Jesus makes about himself, and I encourage you to read about him in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. A good place to begin might be one of the gospels. I suggest reading Luke (and then Acts for the early history of the church). And if you find Jesus is calling you to follow him, then the main part of this article does start to apply to you, as it does to all his people.

If you click those links to Luke and Acts you’ll be able to choose from many Bible translations in a number of modern languages.

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Hand, foot and eye

At a time when the disciples are well aware of Jesus’ glory, power, transcendence, and authority, they ask, ‘Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’

I was reading Matthew 18 this morning, and thought that there are depths in this chapter that can only be grasped when we see things from a kingdom perspective.

In chapter 17, Yahshua reveals his glory to Peter, James and John; deals with the disciples’ lack of faith; speaks of his death and resurrection; and explains that he and his followers are not subject to the demands of religion because they are already part of his holy kingdom. The scene is set, Jesus has demonstrated that he has all the glory, all the power, transcends death, and is subject to no human authority. These factors are all relevant to our understanding of chapter 18, which begins with the words ‘At that time’.

A three-year-old child (Wikipedia)

So, at a time when the disciples are well aware of Jesus’ glory, power, transcendence, and authority, they ask, ‘Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ As he often does, Jesus answers indirectly. He calls over a small child to place amongst them, and tells them clearly that they need to be childlike or they won’t make it into the kingdom of heaven at all. Only the humblest adult can be great in the kingdom, and welcoming such a person is, in reality, welcoming Christ himself.

Furthermore, even being drowned is better for me than putting obstacles in the way of a humble believer; Yahshua isn’t saying I must be put to death, he’s saying I’m already worse than dead! If I cause such stumbling I’m not really one of his followers at all. In verses 8 and 9 Yahshua describes how my hand, my foot, or my eye might cause me to stumble. So it’s what I choose to do, where I decide to go, and what I pay attention to that puts me at risk. There’s a challenge here for all of us: don’t do, go to or look at anything that might cause us to fall. Avoid actions, circumstances and sights that are unhelpful. Stay humble, remain in his presence, and we will share in his glory, power, life and authority. Now that’s good news!