Let’s Stop Spectating! Let’s Start Participating!

July 25, 2022

“I hope that We Make the Road by Walking will facilitate the spontaneous formation of grassroots learning circles that can bring together people who don’t feel welcome or wanted in conventional churches. I would discourage these self-organizing groups from using the word church to describe what they’re doing—at least initially. A lot of unintended pressure, baggage, expectation, criticism, and complications can come along with that word” (McLaren, xxi).

“In the spiritual life, as in all of life, it’s better to have the substance without the label than the label without the substance” (McLaren, xxii).

“If you’re a long-term Christian whose current form of Christianity has stopped working and may even be causing you and others harm, here you’ll find a reorientation from a fresh and healthy perspective. If your faith seems to be a lot of talk without much practice, I hope this book will help you translate your faith to action” (McLaren, xxii).

I truly believe that if we could transport some of the earliest Jesus followers from the mid-first century CE through time to be present at what we call “church” today, they would have no idea what they were observing; and vice versa. What we call church involves most of us sitting in the pews (or on the chairs) spectating while a few of the more talented musicians, singers, speakers, etc., “lead us in worship.” In my denomination, almost every Sunday, the person who welcomes says something like, “We’ve got a great worship service planned for you today.” These few, well-intentioned people, plan for everyone else what songs we’ll sing to each other (or have sung to us), what sermon we’ll hear, what prayers will be lead, while we sit back and consume. Spectating in what modern worship is mostly about.

No so with the earliest Christians. They met together in small groups (in houses). They shared together, ate together, encouraged one another, spoke to one another in songs, hymns, and spiritual songs, and spurred one another on toward love and good deeds (Acts 2:42-46; Eph 5:19-20; Heb 10:24-25; etc.). How did they accomplish that? According to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church” (14:26). According to the author of Hebrews, the Christians came together having considered “how to spur one another on…”. It doesn’t seem that just a few individuals “planned a great worship service for them” but that each one came prepared to actually participate. …

But that’s not how we do things today, is it? In our consumer culture, most church members are simply consumers, observers, and evaluators of what the few (most often those deemed as “leaders” or “clergy” or “ministry staff”) serve on a platter before them. But this is not simply the fault of the members or of the culture in which we live. It is the fault of the leaders. We are reaping what we have sown. The “pastor” model of leadership infantizes the church members, while at the same time calling them to mature. The “pastor” model keeps members dependent on the decisions and direction of their leaders. The “pastor” model is not an equipping model, but a control model. I’m not saying that all pastors have evil hearts and seek control. Most, are good hearted, serving people, but they, too, are prisoners of a co-dependent leadership model. They, too, are harmed spiritually, emotionally and even physically by the demands place upon them to do, or at least lead, almost anything that happens in the congregation. Burn out, even to the point of losing one’s faith, is a far too frequent consequence of good people striving to fulfill the unrealistic expectations of the “pastor” model.

There are no quick or easy answers. What is required is total paradigm shift, where participation is the norm for all church members, in various ways at various times for various purposes. If we’re not top notch, elite athletes, we spectate rather than participate. In the church there should be no such spiritual equivalent of top notch, elite Christians. From the youngest to the oldest; from the weakest to the strongest; from the most novice to the most mature, etc., the apostle said, every member is “indispensable” (1 Cor 12:12-31). When we truly believe that every member is indispensable because every member has contributions to make, then we will find the conviction to dispense with the “pastor” model and find ways and means to truly implement “one another” mutuality and engagement. To put it another way, we must believe that “We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.”

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