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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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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Gentleness takes courage and strength

You are precious to me, every single one of you. So live as if you believe that you are precious! Stand tall in the world. The things I want to see grow in you are not hard or complicated.

RiverOuse
River Ouse, St Neots

Last Sunday morning I was sitting in a lobby area in the community centre in Eaton Ford, part of the market town of St Neots between Bedford and Cambridge. River Church meets here and I was visiting, staying with a friend who plays in the church’s worship band. The band was setting up and getting themselves ready for the meeting, so I had half an hour to spare before people would be arriving. I sat, stilled my mind, and spent some time listening to what the Holy Spirit might say to me.

And this is what I received:

Speak out, but look up. Look out and speak up. See with your eyes, hear with your ears, speak with your mouth, but always let the Spirit live in your heart.

Welcome my Spirit and bear fruit in your lives; are you not my people? Let my love, joy and peace rise up. Don’t follow one another, but follow me. Don’t follow convention, but follow Truth. Don’t follow directions but follow the Way. You are precious to me, every single one of you. So live as if you believe that you are precious! Stand tall in the world. The things I want to see grow in you are not hard or complicated, they are the simplest of things – gentleness towards the people in your lives – peace in your hearts – gracious and loving attitudes – a deep hope rooted in my presence, not in your circumstances – a humbleness that shuns position and fame – joyful hearts dancing freely in my presence – relentless patience – kindness that looks for no reward – innocent hearts.

Become empty of what you are and do and I will inhabit you. Haven’t you heard me knocking? I don’t want your abilities – I want you!

Thinking about this afterwards, I was intrigued that what had started out feeling like a word to me alone had, very quickly, become something spoken to others too. I wondered if these were words I should share during the meeting. I have many friends at River Church and some of them might need to hear this message. And as people began to arrive for the meeting and greet one another and find their seats I carried that idea with me as I joined them. But though I was ready and willing to share, and there were opportunities, it didn’t seem the right time.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that these words are for all my friends, near and far. That I should share them here and those that need to see them will  be guided to read them. So that’s what I’m doing.

If these words bless you in some way that would be great. But I think there is also a challenge in the words. I believe Papa is calling me to move ever more gently through this world; and perhaps he’s calling you to do that too. Don’t be misled into thinking that gentle is the same as weak: it is not! Sometimes it takes enormous courage and strength to be gentle. Sometimes the only way to reach a person is through gentleness, humility, and patience.

But if you have read as far as this, please ask yourself how you should respond. Is the Spirit speaking to you also through the words he gave me?

Watch the video below to see how Jorge Pina ‘operates from a place of rest’ in meeting people. There’s real wisdom here.

Dry bones in the valley

Before Ezekiel sees the bones or even goes to the valley, Yahweh’s hand is on him. This is the touch that says, ‘I am going to use you’.

Part 2 of a series – ‘The valley of dry bones’

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This time we’re going to take a look at the first verse of Ezekiel 37; the start of the section on the valley of dry bones. Let’s see what Father has for us in this verse.

‘Yahweh’s hand was on me and he brought me out by the Spirit of Yahweh and set me in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones.’ (Ezekiel 37:1)

We can’t tell whether Ezekiel visited a real valley or whether the entire section from verse one to verse fourteen is a vision. Perhaps it’s most likely to have been a vision. But it doesn’t really matter, it’s far from being the most important thing.

A desert scene
A dry and dusty desert (Image from Wikipedia – original and copyright details)

‘Yahweh’s hand was on me…’ – That’s what Ezekiel says. And this is always Papa’s heart toward us; unless his hand is on us we cannot move except by our own efforts. This is fundamental to everything the Almighty does. He speaks, he moves, he demonstrates, he heals, he forgives – and in all these ways he touches us.

Have you noticed how often Jesus touched people? He touched their eyes and mouths and ears when he healed. He touched what was ritually unclean – a leper, a dead girl. The most intimate thing we can do is to touch someone. Touch brings us closer than words ever can. What do we do when a child is afraid, or anxious, or hurt? We pick them up or hug them or kiss them better. We need to touch and be touched. So Yahweh’s hand was on Ezekiel.

And notice that this is the first thing that happens, before Ezekiel sees the bones or even goes to the valley, Yahweh’s hand is on him. This is the touch that says, ‘I am going to use you’. The Almighty lays hold of us because we are his instruments and he plans to use us in some way.

Have you felt his hand on you in your life? I hope so! But if not, pray that he will touch you and use you in whatever way he chooses. If he knows you are truly willing he will use you. That’s what he longs to do with all his people. He has chosen to use us to do his work in this world today. We are to go in his name (Matthew 28:18-20); we are his body; we are his hands, his feet, his eyes and ears and mouth (1 Corinthians 12). Isn’t that extraordinary?

‘…and he brought me out by the Spirit of Yahweh…’ – He brings us out and he does it by his own Spirit. Out from what? Out from the place where we currently are! See how he is one with himself in doing this? It’s explicit in the Hebrew, the name is used twice. Yahweh uses the Spirit of Yahweh. He chooses what he wants us to do, and then he uses his own Spirit (the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ) to guide us. If necessary he will nudge us.

Sometimes we get stuck in a place. I don’t mean physically, I mean a place in our lives from which we are unable or unwilling to move on. Sometimes we are simply waiting for direction. It might be something we’re doing or a thought pattern we return to or just that he has finished using us in one situation and now wants us in a different one. Whether we are stuck or not – he brings us out, he draws us on, he sends his own Spirit to lead us into the next thing, the next place. For an example read about Roy Godwin. If you want the full story you can buy his book.

And notice this, if Ezekiel had not moved he would not have come to the valley. We have a propensity to cling to what we know and to keep doing what is already familiar. But we need to be ready to allow the Spirit to move us at any time so that we can receive something new, Father’s next thing for you, for me.

‘…and set me in the middle of a valley.’ – And so Yahweh sets Ezekiel in the valley. Now a valley is a low point and must be surrounded by higher ground. Ezekiel is placed ‘in the middle’ of this valley, right at the lowest point. He is as far from the surrounding hills and mountains as it is possible to be.

We know this feeling don’t we? Life is hard and promising to get harder yet. There are low points in our lives and there are also low points in the life of the church. Such valleys are places of defeat where there seems no hope or joy or victory; these are assuredly not ‘mountain-top’ experiences. We’ve all been there. Ezekiel was aware of the state of Israel in captivity under Babylon, but Yahweh’s Spirit brought him here so there must surely be a reason for it. Does it sometimes seem as if church is in a valley? A slough of despond? At times like these we need to remember that Papa has something in mind to show us. Jesus didn’t just come to redeem people, he came to redeem situations too.

‘It was full of bones.’ – What do bones usually signify to you? Are they always just the dusty remnants following final and permanent defeat? Or might they suggest that what was once alive might yet be restored? More on this next time.

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