Every Sunday morning, lots of people head out their door to “go to church”, or as some people put it, to attend a “church service”. The vast majority of these services will have a remarkable similarity, no matter what brand, denomination, or non-denomination the church is. Everyone will sit shoulder-to-shoulder, facing a stage on which a select few people will be actively involved in “ministering” to everyone else. There will probably be a greeting, a time of singing, some form of announcements, a sermon, and possibly an altar call. The style may vary to some degree but the format will be pretty much the same in every church; so much so that you would think there must be some place in the Bible that clearly outlines this particular format that everyone is following. But the reality is that nowhere in the scriptures does the Bible give any kind of support for an order of service at all, much less the particular order of service that most churches follow so religiously.
If you challenge a church leader on the standard order of service that most churches follow, you will commonly hear something like this, “The Bible allows for a lot of latitude in how church services are structured”. What I find so puzzling about this line of thinking is that this claimed sense of latitude seems to always end up with the same results; following the standardized, rigid order of service that everyone else is following. Many church leaders rationalize that since the Bible doesn’t specify an exact structure for church meetings, then they are free to choose whatever structure they are most comfortable with. But they seem to be missing the obvious; the Bible doesn’t present a specific structure for meetings because God doesn’t want meetings to be structured. That last statement probably caused some of you to start hyperventilating, but please hear me out. The Bible teaches that there should be order in church meetings, but having guidelines that promote things being done in an orderly way is vastly different from having a predetermined structure that stifles Spirit-led spontaneity.
Consider 1 Corinthians chapter 14. The entire chapter is focused on bringing order to the various spiritual activities that were taking place when the church at Corinth came together. Paul’s solution does not involve adopting a highly structured approach to their meetings. Instead, he gives some simple guidelines to help the activities keep operating in an orderly manner. In no way does he try to suppress the free-flowing, Spirit-led, everyone-participating atmosphere that flourished in the church at Corinth. It’s important to recognize the difference between Biblical guidelines that promote activity in an orderly way, versus man-made structure that inhibits activity. And while the Bible encourages order, what many church leaders actually want is control, and the fear of losing control leads to rigid structure. Under the guise of maintaining order, most churches have adopted a structure that leaves little room for any kind of mutual participation or spontaneity within their meetings.
While the Bible may be silent regarding any kind of set structure for gatherings, it actually has a lot to say about the prevailing atmosphere and activities that should occur in these gatherings. New Testament scriptures give a vivid picture of church gatherings that are Spirit-led, spontaneous, and open to everyone participating.
When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. (1 Cor 14:26)
And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. (1 Cor 14:30)
My brothers, be eager to prophesy… (1 Cor 14:39)
For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. (1 Cor 14:31)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom… (Col 3:16)
I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. (Rom 15:14)
I find it concerning that most church leaders embrace a rigid structure that virtually ensures none of the things prescribed above will actually happen in their meetings.
Scripture tells us that the church is the body of Christ (Col 1:18, Eph 5:23). This is not just an analogy but is a spiritual reality (1 Cor 12:12). This is a profound truth about the church and reveals much about its nature and how it should function. A body is a living organism, not a structured organization, and as such it should function in an organic way, not in a structured way.
The Bible says that like a natural body, the spiritual body of Christ is made up of many different parts that are enabled by God to perform many different types of ministry. The main message of 1 Corinthians chapter 12, is the body of Christ and how it functions. The spiritual gifts are included in this chapter to illustrate the importance of the different parts of the body and how they work together for the common good.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. (vs 7)
All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. (vs 11)
If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. (vs 19)
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (vs 27)
The body of Christ is more than just a philosophical concept, it is designed by God to be a living, functioning thing. But this design becomes reality only when each part is active and operating as God intended it to. New Testament scripture teaches that the greatest source of ministry to the body of Christ, is the body of Christ.
What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. (1 Cor 14:26)
For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, (1 Cor 14:31)
…the one who prophesies builds up the church. (1 Cor 14:4)
we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph 4:15-16)
Some people think of spiritual activity as just a matter of style, and that leaders in each church can chose what style they want to adopt. However, highly structured meetings that reduce the body of Christ to an audience, and promote a passive consumer mentality is not a “style” you can find in the scriptures. While Spirit-led, every-member-functioning, Christ-centered expressions of the body of Christ, is a “style” that is clearly presented in the scriptures.
The positive impact of body ministry goes far beyond the meeting itself. The Bible states clearly that when each part of the body is functioning as it should, it makes the body grow, and the body builds itself up (Eph 4:16). This is why this matters so much. It’s about the expansive results, not just the meeting itself.
Here are some major benefits the church experiences when the body of Christ is functioning as God designed.
- People receive diverse ministry from many sources.
- People’s faith is built up when they experience God working through them to minister to others. Jesus said “it’s more blessed to give than to receive”.
- The interaction of spiritual fellowship teaches people to value one another.
- People’s hearts are knit together as they minister to one another.
- All of this results in a healthy body that is growing and being built up.
The body of Christ is intended by God to function as a vibrant, living organism that is attuned to the head, Jesus Christ. So when most churches come together, why do they settle for something that is altogether different than this? I wouldn’t presume to understand all of the challenges, but here are a few.
Philosophy Of Ministry
Most churches embrace a clear distinction between clergy and laity. Although you may never hear these actual terms, this gap is very prevalent in most churches. Week after week, ministry is dominated by a select few (clergy), and everyone else (laity) is reduced to an audience that has nothing to contribute. Although God has richly distributed gifts throughout the body of Christ, these riches are not released or utilized. Most believers have little understanding of spiritual gifts in general, and even less understanding of their specific gifts and how to function in them. They are not taught, encouraged, or given opportunity.
Many churches will enthusiastically promote the value of their members serving and being involved in ministry. Yet, when most members are plugged into “ministry”, it is only to perform physical tasks, which leaves a select few, usually ordained and on staff, that are considered competent to perform spiritual ministry. People are led to believe they are involved in ministry since the physical tasks they perform are labeled as such; coffee ministry, greeter’s ministry, etc.
Even if a church embraces the philosophy of active body ministry, if they function in a traditional structure, that structure will act as a barrier to this taking place. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, looking at the back of other people’s heads is not conducive to participation or interaction. While some churches may occasionally experience someone giving a prophecy or a word of knowledge, this is just scratching the surface and doesn’t come close to fulfilling the diverse interaction that should be prevalent in church gatherings. In a traditional church structure, ministry takes place from the stage, not within the body itself.
Another deterrent to body ministry is the sheer numbers that comprise most church services. A gathering larger than 30 people makes it very difficult for the body to function in the way the Bible prescribes, even if the desire is there. The primary way the early church gathered was in homes (Rom 16:5, Col 4:15, Acts 5:42). These smaller gatherings allow body ministry to flourish.
Reluctance To Be Responsible
I’ve mentioned church leaders several times, but the truth is that many believers do not want this kind of responsibility, involvement, or exposure. They prefer the anonymity of being part of an audience and don’t want to step out of their comfort zone and actually participate in spiritual activities. They believe it is the pastor’s job to be spiritual and to minister to everyone else, and they’re content to leave it that way.
While there will always be those who prefer anonymity, there are also many believers who long to see the body of Christ awaken and begin to function the way God has designed it to. They long to be more involved, and to personally and spiritually interact with God and with others.
If this view of the church and how it should function seems radical, it’s because it is. This is not a tweak to the system, it is a major change, and on that basis alone many will be tempted to reject these principles outright. However, please take a moment to ask yourself a simple question. Am I esteeming the traditional way of doing church as sacred, when in fact it’s only a tradition? 1 It’s amazing how powerful long-standing traditions can be. The traditional structure that most churches function in is so deeply ingrained in most believers’ minds that it is incredibly hard to even start to venture outside of that box. However, Jesus warned us that by holding to our tradition, we nullify the word of God. (Mark 7:13). God has something amazing that He wants to release, but little tweaks will not see this fulfilled. It will take letting go of tradition and embracing the vision of a fully functioning body as seen in the word of God.
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph 1:22-23)
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1. Click link to read: DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN SACRED and TRADITION