‘Confessions of a blind pastor’ or ‘A new view from the pew’. These were potential titles for this post. You see, I’ve started to observe church a little differently over the past year or so. Instead of being up front nearly every week, viewing all that happens through my leadership glasses, I’ve gained a clearer perspective on how things look as part of the congregation.
If you’d ask me whether church should be an opportunity to speak, I’d have said yes. If you’d asked me whether church should involve interactive and two-way communication, I’d have said yes. If you’d asked me if people were getting an opportunity to speak using their own words during church, I’d have said yes. I’d have said yes, because I believed these things should be happening in church. And I’d have said yes, because I got to speak my own words in church just about every week. I was seeing things from my perspective as preacher or service leader, not as a member of the congregation. In fact, I think the answer is commonly no.
Let me illustrate. A few weeks back I went to church and sat down. We started singing and there were three or four songs in a row. During this time someone I didn’t know came in and sat beside me. The songs ran into each other, so I didn’t get an opportunity to speak. The leader then welcomed people and introduced church. We moved from singing, to praying, to having the Bible read, to listening to a sermon, then singing. I’d been consciously waiting for a break in what was happening up front so that I could at least say g’day and introduce myself to the person beside me. There wasn’t one provided and all I could manage was a very quick “Hi, I’m Dave!” while the musicians played an intro to a song. Church came to a finish, the leader wrapped things up, and then invited us to continue our conversations over supper.
That’s when it hit me. “Continue our conversations!?” We hadn’t even begun. We didn’t have a chance. There was no space. And it wasn’t on the run sheet.
The church I go to is independent. We have no traditional liturgy or forms of words. We’re supposed to be, almost by definition, relaxed and informal. And yet that night there was no space even to greet the person sitting next to me. I’d expect that more traditional churches with their formalities and fixed liturgies might be guilty of this, but not us! We’re supposed to be more relational. I’ve come to realise that independent and informal churches need to pay attention to this issue just as much as denominational and more formal churches.
Now there are some counter-arguments, and I’ve used them. People do get to speak up during church. Every time we sing, people are involved using their voices. When someone leads in prayer, we are invited to say amen. More formal liturgies often involve scripted call and response readings, corporate prayers, reciting of creeds together, and sometimes a break where people are instructed to walk around and ‘pass the peace’. This goes something like ‘Peace be with you’ followed by the reply ‘And also with you.’ Isn’t this evidence of people’s involvement in speaking during church?
It’s speaking, yes. But it’s not voluntary speech using our own words. It’s not natural conversation. It’s following a script. Scripted words can have an important place, but they’re not the ideal way to build relationships between people. Sometimes I’ve visited churches that have invited us to pass the peace to one another. A complete stranger comes up to me and says, ‘Peace be with you’. I find myself replying, ‘G’day. I’m Dave. Sorry, what’s your name?’ I crave an opportunity to relate to people, not to perform a ritual set of words.
So why do I think voluntary, natural, two-way personal communication is important in church? There are many reasons. Here’s a few:
- The experience of church should be very different to attending a concert, school speech night, watching a movie, or listening to a lecture. It should be the gathering of a community for the purpose of mutual edification. However amazing the sermon, songs, prayers, readings, videos, dramas, or up front interviews may be… they are all communication from the front.
- We shouldn’t force newcomers, guests, or visitors to sit among strangers for 75+ minutes before anyone speaks to them. (Unless they choose to.) It will simply make the people in church look extremely unfriendly. If we create space for a friendly ‘hello’ early on, then people will be more comfortable during church, and more likely to stay afterwards.
- Talking together during church can help us to engage more with what’s going on. If we are talking, even for a minute or so, on issues related to the sermon, we’re likely to be listening more attentively.
- As we hear God’s word it calls for our response. If we want to promote discussion and mutual edification after church, it’s much more likely to happen if we get it going during church.
- We should be helping people get to know one another at church. While the potential for this is limited in a large congregation, and we may rely heavily on small groups, we should look for ways for people to connect during church also.
- It’s helpful for people to be able to share what God has been doing in their lives, or issues they are dealing with. Of course, there are limitations on how much we can do this in a large gathering, but we could at least give it some thought.
So how and when can we get this interaction happening? Here are a few suggestions to get us thinking. You may like to add your own.
- Encourage friendly conversations in your auditorium or church building before things officially kick off. During this time, look out for people sitting on their own, and make sure they are welcomed.
- The service leader, after welcoming people from the front, can allow 3-5 minutes for people to say g’day to those around them. The kids and youth head out to their own programs in our morning congregation. During this time people are encouraged to be friendly and talk together. Our evening congregation doesn’t have this opportunity, so we have to create one.
- The leader could also raise an issue for people to talk about for a minute or so. This could lead people into a Bible reading or the sermon. For example, if the passage deals with issues of suffering, we could get people sharing the questions they have about suffering. The leader could then invite a few responses from the congregation.
- While we can all add our amen to up front prayers, it is helpful to encourage people to make their own response in prayer. This can happen by allowing a time of silence for people to pray. In some cases we can invite people to pray with those seated around them (so long as no one feels uncomfortable or pressured to speak out loud).
- Questions and comments after the sermon are a helpful way to engage the congregation further in thinking and working through their understanding and application of the passage. If there’s no time for this, perhaps we could trim a little off the talk to allow it. I think people are more likely to discuss the message afterwards if they’ve already been doing it in church.
- People could be invited to share something of what God has been doing in their lives with the congregation. This is probably best arranged in advance, so as to give people time to think about what they want to say.
On the question of open sharing times during church we need to consider the logistics. In larger congregations like ours with 300+ people. If everyone spoke for 30 seconds with no breaks between, then it would take 2.5 hours just to get through everyone each week! If we gave everyone 5 minutes to speak and only had one person a week, you would get an opportunity to do this once every 6 years. Maybe this is feasible in a house church, but we have to be more selective in a larger congregation. But, if we allowed 3 minutes for each person to share something with the person beside them, then in 6 minutes everyone would have the opportunity to share something every time we met! Food for thought!