Growing up, I spent time in two quite different circles. Initially, my family were Brethren; latterly, we moved into Grace Baptist circles. Leaving aside the divergence between their respective Dispensational and Covenantal theological views, their differing approaches to worship were most obvious even to the casual observer.
The Brethren landed hard on the priesthood of all believers and the work of the Spirit during the service itself. This led to an (at least theoretical) desire to allow the Spirit to lead by permitting any bloke to decide on a hymn, do a reading, offer a prayer or ‘give a word’. The Grace Baptists, in stark contrast to the Brethren, had one guy (more often than not the pastor) at the front who picked all the hymns, delivered all the prayers, gave the reading and preached afterwards too. Apart from everything else, two more contrasting approaches to the mechanics of a worship service you would struggle to find. There are, inevitably, benefits and drawbacks to each of these approaches.
My current church tries to walk a middle way between these two positions. Whilst there is somebody appointed to lead, taking us through each element of the service, someone else is appointed to preach. At points in the service, we open the floor up to the entire congregation during our time of testimony and prayer. Our time of testimony is intended to give room for our members to share how God has been working in their lives; our time of open prayer is intended to involve the members in the ministry of the church in an active way.
This brings me to my purpose in writing. Inevitably, opening the floor to the entire congregation means you run the risk that you will get the occasional testimony or prayer that is, let’s say, a tad off-beam. These things are especially pronounced, I find, when visitors are in the room. There can be an enormous cringe-factor associated with these things. It seems the nutso stories giving thanks for how the Lord raised the family cat from the dead or the prayers that sound troublingly close to asking the Lord to prosper the likes of ISIS are saved up for such a time as a new family arrive, hoping to find a church in which to settle.
I know, not least because various church leaders have told me, some remove any congregational participation because they cannot bear these cringe-worthy moments. For what it’s worth, I have some sympathy with them. There is a tendency for people to assume everything said within the four walls of a church building, no matter the source from which it emanates nor the credibility of the position itself, is a perfect reflection of the theology of the church and treated as though it were a directive delivered by elders themselves. But I want to suggest that such congregational participation is valuable, even if it means the occasional deviation toward what can only be described as nonsense.
What is interesting is that the less dynastic or institutionalised your church happens to be, the more likely such episodes are to occur. The only churches that can be sure of no such pronouncements are those whose entire congregations have been born and bred within the church itself. If you think you can curtail these things by removing congregational participation, nobody can control the pronouncements of their people outside of the few hours per week you sit together formally.
Even so, I have come to value the time of testimony in our church. It is a practice that existed before I arrived and I had not come across it in any other church. In the last four years, though we provide room for two opportunities for congregational participation in testimony and open prayer every week, I can think of only two or three times I have badly cringed.
Against the removal of these things due to cringe-factor, I would simply appeal to the sovereignty of God and the teaching programmes of the church. God is far bigger than the occasional bit of nonsense. If he can use such crude tools as Baal-worshippers in Judges and a Donkey in Numbers, surely he is capable of handling a periodic bit of foolishness every now and then. What is more, if you have any confidence in the teaching programmes of your church, you must surely hope that the congregation would be sensible enough to filter the odd deviation from the pews.
In favour of the practice, I want to suggest the following. First, times of congregational participation encourage our members to be more than mere consumers. The congregation are more than just an audience receiving from whoever is up front, participation makes clear they are actively involved in an act of worship.
Second, a time of testimony encourages the congregation to be thinking about how God is working in their lives. All too often, 6-days a week are divorced entirely from a one-hour ‘show’ on Sunday. Being asked to consider how the Lord has been working in our lives over the last week forces us to think about how God has been active in our lives outside of our Sunday gathering.
Third, being involved in open prayer involves the entire congregation in the mission of the church. By asking others to pray for the work of the church within a formal meeting, we are encouraging them – including those who are physically unable – to actively participate in the mission given to us by the Lord. We may not all be able to stand in an open air for an hour but we can all pray. When we hear others praying – rather than just those we pay to do it for us – it encourages us and we become genuine partners in the work.
Fourth, hearing the congregation speak to the Lord’s work in their lives and praying for the work of the church makes clear that our faith is a living one. The members and the unbelievers in the congregation are shown that the pronouncements made on a Sunday affect the lives of those making them throughout the week. Those same people can see how the things taught on a Sunday alter the way we live our lives throughout the week. Our faith is seen as more than a mere Sunday affectation and is clearly shown to affect our lives in real ways.
For those reasons, I’d encourage you to endure the occasional misstep and include time for people to share about how the Lord has been at work in their life. Let your people openly pray in the service. Show people that the entire church, not just the ‘professional’ bloke at the front, have been changed by the Lord and that this affects their everyday life. And if you do get the odd off-beam moment, consider it an opportunity to show that you haven’t scripted anything. Let your people express themselves and their love for the Lord, however imperfectly, and trust both your teaching programme and the fact that God is bigger than the periodic sub-optimal theologically inept comment.