Please let us speak

CrossroadsDec2011‘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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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!

11 thoughts on “Please let us speak”

  1. Macca – something we do (pinched from a church army church plant) is have a 1/2 time break to encourage conversations – especially with visitors, dial into the bible talk via a question, get a sugar hit before the bible talk to encourage alert listening. It met some resistance at first, but it’s now part of our culture and keeps people people talking even longer after the formal part of our gathering…

  2. A few weeks ago, the service leader invited to say something religious to the person sitting next to us.
    We had never met the lady before, and instead of doing what we were told (Hope Ted Brush and Matthew Whitfield aren’t reading this), we said Hello and then our fellow pew -warmer told us about the difficult times she had recently been experiencing.
    Before we knew it, the sharing time was over and we hadn’t even started to talk about our faith.

  3. “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!”

    Yet more proof of the suboptimalism of big churches. You can only get to 300 people when 90% of them are pure audience members. If you try to change that you’re going to run into trouble! If you’re ever going to reach the ideals of 1 Cor 14:26 you’re going to have to downsize massively.

    I think many Christians though are very content with being pure audience members. How to get them onboard with 1 Cor 14:26 is not something I know how to do, nor have I heard anyone else give an idea. Is the Trellis & Vine mindset defeatist in its strategy to do a deep work in a few?

    1. Hi Dannii,
      Thanks for your comments. There are many questions with this. How big is big? what works in different sizes? My observation from a practical point of view is that there are strengths and weaknesses of ALL sizes of church. I believe we need to optimalize (is that a word?) what we have. In our case, small groups and smaller groupings of people can provide more opportunity for people sharing together. Also, reading the verses that follow 1 Cor 14:26 indicate that in the early church, not everyone would have had the opportunity to share every time either. Just two or three, so as to keep things orderly.

      1. Maybe you can extrapolate, but the following verses only limit tongues and prophesy. I don’t think that it suggests prayer, bible readings, teachings, encouragements, songs or exhortations should be limited. Even if you’re right, it doesn’t change anything. Aim for a healthy church where everyone contributes. If that means you must split into ten churches, do it! If you can’t afford paid staff, well, it will only help reduce the audience mindset 😉

      2. I think tongues and prophecy are the way Paul is illustrating a broader point – that of doing everything in a way that is edifying. Thus, I see it having relevance to other types of sharing together.

        I agree on the splitting into ten churches. We split into smaller churches every week, with over 40 growth groups, youth C-teams, kingdom kids classes, and others. We also come together in larger congregations. We aim to achieve different things with different meetings. This has, and will I expect, also involve separating off people to begin new congregations that have independence from their parent. We need godly wisdom to work out the best way forward given our circumstances, needs and opportunities.

        We should work hard to reduce audience mindsets regardless of the size of our churches/groups. I’ve been in groups of 6 where there have been ‘passengers’ and I’ve been in groups of 120 where just about everyone has been very active in mutual edification and mission.

        Overall, I agree, the larger the church the more challenging this is. But small churches wont change mindsets on their own accord. People can opt for this simply because it’s more comfortable.

  4. I like the old – preacher asks people to discuss a point or a question – really good for getting people involved and not just being passive =)

  5. My experience over many years and visiting many different churches is firstly that nearly all churches develop a culture which is fine for regulars but can be exclusive of visitors. Also eye contact is to be avoided for most unless someone you know well. I agree that actually relating to others especially newcomers/visitors is so important and it needs to be more than billiard balls colliding and then ricocheting off in another direction.

  6. I went to a different church on Easter Sunday, and the pastor gave us questions to discuss with our pew neighbors. I did not know them from a bar of soap but we had a great chat regardless. He also played us a Paul Kelly song, yay.
    I was just visiting this church, and it was nice to be where people knew I was new rather than have my fellow churchgoers asking “hey are you new here?” when I have been at my current church for ten years, it’s just that nobody knows everybody. That’s kinda embarassing.

  7. Some of the best (though admittedly longest) services at my current church have been when the service leader has invited the congregation to speak in response to a sermon. This was in a congregation of about 100-120. I’ve been the preacher a couple of times. It was humbling. Humbling because some of the stories showed that the congregation was far more godly than I, and understood more deeply the passage and its implications.. Humbling because some of the stories showed that the congregation had entirely missed my point (I must not have been very clear).
    You can’t do it every week. It seems to work best when the sermon calls for corporate repentance or change or action. You also have to have a church culture that isn’t going to squash people if they say something ‘theologically incorrect’ Be warned though. I can’t remember it being done without there being tears. Or with the service going under 1.5 hrs
    What you get is a sense that we are doing this christian life thing together.

    1. “You can’t do it every week.”

      Why not? Ideally everyone would discuss what they have learnt informally after the service. But why couldn’t it be a formal part of every service? You’d have to do it at the expense of other things, but from your experience it sounds like it would definitely be worth it!

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