A Lover’s Quarrel: Renewed Assemblies

Garrett’s eleventh wish for the Churches of Christ is –

Let there be renewal in our assemblies.

We must find ways to make our assemblies more exciting and fulfilling. …

Our preaching often lacks passion and a sense of urgency, and even when it is soundly biblical, it may be neither relevant nor interesting. ..

We don’t take the public reading of the scriptures seriously enough, and we don’t do it well enough. …

It is not all that different with our public prayers. It’s not just anyone who can take a congregation before God’s throne in prayer. …

[I]f we do not get with it in our singing, we will be left behind. This might call for special music, which challenges one more of our sacred cows. …

[The Lord's Supper] is not a call for repentance and forgiveness, but of fellowship and celebration. …

Finally, the assembly must somehow be rescued from the predominance of the professional minister … .

It’s a longer quotation than usual because there are so many ideas in Garrett’s book. Most would be familiar to anyone familiar with trends among the progressive churches, but Garrett wrote 7 years ago. Let me just add a few points.

I’ve heard scriptures read very well and very badly. The ratio is about 5% to 95%. Good reading requires practice and an understanding of what’s being said. And an emotional attachment, not only to the fact that God is speaking, but the fact that this passage matters to this church right now.

Sadly, it’s done well so rarely that few of us have any concept of how well it could be done.

Some time ago, for Easter, I believe, we gave microphones to men and women to read the resurrection passages, with women voicing the women’s parts and men the men’s parts. The participants practiced — and they were chosen for their voices. It was riveting (and no one complained that women were speaking in the assembly, but then, they were sitting and facing the front).

Practice. Choose people with the right voices who respect the scriptures.

Similar thoughts go for public prayers. Here are the rules –

* Be brief. Jesus condemned long prayers and vain repetitions. God isn’t stupid. Say it once and move on. Keep it short.

* Don’t preach. Don’t quote scriptures (God knows them already.)

* You get two “Lord”‘s per prayer. If you have to say “Lord” every time you catch a breath, you can’t lead a public prayer  (unless you’re 18 or younger).

* Don’t ask for your sins to be forgiven more than once per service. Besides, they were forgiven when you were baptized. Don’t dare ask for forgiveness before each element of communion and the contribution. I mean, just how much do we sin during communion? And why doesn’t the prayer at the end of the service handle that? (Imagine having a houseguest who asks for forgiveness between each course of each meal. You’d worry about their mental health!)

* Be specific. If someone asked for prayers, mention them by name.

* Don’t spend much prayer time in praise unless you’re in a special praise service. Contrary to much teaching, Jesus didn’t begin the Lord’s Prayer with praise. “Hallowed be thy name” is a prayer that the world hallow (revere as holy) God’s name. It’s parallel with “Thy Kingdom come.” There’s nothing wrong with praise, but we have this annoying tendency to think we have to butter up God before asking for something, and that’s just so wrong. He loves us. He wants our prayers. We should approach his throne with confidence.

* No King James English. No “Thee,” “Thou,” or “Thy.” When we talk like that, we act as though God wants us to speak in code. The New Testament is written in koine (common) Greek, not classical Greek. Classical Greek was to the First Century as Jacobean English is to us. And never end a verb with “-eth.” No one gets it right. It just sound affected — and ignorant. Speak in simple, contemporary English.

* Don’t try to sound eloquent. Very few of us are. You won’t fool anyone. Besides, simplicity and brevity are essential elements of eloquence.

I’ve mentioned my ideas on how to improve our music service before. I’m proud to say that my thinking is very similar to Garrett’s.

After our singing, our communion practice is likely the area where we could stand the most improvement. Again, I’ve written on this subject at length before. I wrote this one two years ago when I had a readership of one. It’s still among my most widely read posts, and I have to figure it’s because we really do a bad job with communion. And, again, my pet peeves closely match Garrett’s.

Not necessarily preacher focused

Finally, Garrett, like many of my readers, is concerned about the professionalization of church. He wishes there was a way to get away from professional preachers. I don’t entirely agree. Really.

You see, I’m spoiled. We have a great preacher. And I’ve heard other great preachers at lectureships and on the internet. I can’t imagine denying our churches the blessing of hearing such Godly, talented men.

On the other hand, I’ve heard some pretty awful preaching, too. And I’ve seen churches ruined by small-minded, caustic preachers. But the problem isn’t the choice to have professional ministers. I mean, those churches that have no preacher almost always wish they had one. The problem is bad preachers. Better no preacher than a bad one.

But I agree that it’s not necessary to center the service on the preacher. In fact, for its first 1,500 years, the church did not. The service was centered on communion until the Reformation. But the great Reformers saw the very real need for the people to be better instructed, and so the sermon grew in prominence. Now that we have classes twice a week, at least, in additional to the assembly, the sermon doesn’t carry the urgency it did when Calvin was preaching (for hours!) in Geneva.

In the 19th Century, the great frontier missionaries, such as Charles Finney and Barton W. Stone, preached in a style called Frontier Revivalism, all designed to bring people to the front in repentance. This was the beginning of the “invitation” and “responses.” There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not apostolic. And it’s not required.

Therefore, it’s quite okay to do things in a different way.

For example, we might preach first and aim the sermon and the song service toward the communion, which would be at the end.

We might move the contribution to another time of the service (to bring greater emphasis to communion).

We might focus an assembly on prayer, with very brief messages reminding us of, for example, the persecution that our missionaries and converts are suffering in other lands, and then having someone lead a prayer for just that one thing. And then pick up several other issues of importance.

In the right facility, we might even ask our members to break up into prayer circles and pray among themselves.

We might set up prayer stations where people can meet with a minister or elder for private prayer.

We might have a time of sharing, where people come forward and tell the congregation what God means to them. Or you might have a time of “cardboard testimonies” –

YouTube Preview Image

This video has had nearly 2,000,000 hits on YouTube. Why? Because it’s the sort of thing people are hungry for.

You might show inspirational videos — in between or during songs or in the sermon. We live in a visual age. People love these, and many large churches produce them and make them available for free.

You could have a missionary lead communion by internet feed — live. Or much better, have a new convert from a foreign land do it. (It’s easy to do nowadays.)

Have testimonies. Let the members tell their stories. Sometimes it helps to videotape them and show them on screen, especially if you have multiple services, if the member has trouble speaking before a crowd, or is  a woman (some churches are fine with a woman speaking on tape but not live) (sharing what God has done in your life is not teaching or leading. It’s what Anna did in the temple courts and the women did when they found the empty tomb and what the Samaritan woman did when she met Jesus).

Or focus the service on the contribution. We do this on what we call “Missions Sunday” when we have an offering for missions. The contribution is last and everything points toward it and why we do it.

Don’t push people to do things they think are wrong, but neither should you be scared of your shadow or that one obnoxious members who complains about all change of any kind.

Be sure you have the elders on board first — insist that they back you afterward as much as before.

Introduce new elements slowly, and once you’ve made the leap and done it, do it again and again. Don’t make people deal with change only to never repeat the experience.

And go and have yourself some renewal.

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3 Responses to A Lover’s Quarrel: Renewed Assemblies

  1. xray342 says:

    These are great suggestions. I've only been to a handful of a capella-style worship services, but a lot of what you pointed out about the homogeneity of the style of worship is true.

    Praise God from 3:52-3:57 in the video!!! ;-)

    (And was the guy genuinely surprised at 6:50 or was he just playing along?)

  2. Jay Guin says:

    If that was the first he'd learned about the pregnancy, he'd have been a LOT more surprised — with an adoption in process. At least, I would have been. I'd have fainted dead away.

  3. Alan says:

    I wonder how many churches today would put up with Paul as their preacher — whose "speaking amounts to nothing." The most important ingredients of a great minister are his life and his convictions, not his eloquence — although admittedly it's great to have that too. I would trade an eloquent speaker for a spirit-filled one in a heartbeat.

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