Baby Steps: Start slowly. Don’t try to have fully participatory meetings all at once. All during the week, when you hear a brother sharing about something the Lord has taught him, ask him to give a short (7 minute or less) sharing about it next Sunday in church. Work with him to make sure it is short and application oriented. Coach him to be sure the point is clear. A person who tells about a witnessing experience can serve to motivate the more timid to evangelism. A testimony about answered prayer or a need met in God’s timing and providence can encourage others going through hard times. A person involved in a jail ministry can tell about good results among inmates and induce others to get involved. Real life stories — with a spiritual emphasis — are tremendously uplifting. Each week schedule a few brothers in advance to share something short in the meeting. This will get the congregation accustomed to more participation and also model the type of sharing that is expected and edifying. As the congregation grows accustomed to it, the time allotted for sharing can increase and more liberty extended to those moved by the Spirit to get up and share without having been scheduled.
Cultural Resistance: It is counter cultural to have participatory worship instead of performance styled worship led from the front. Many will find participatory worship uncomfortable. One Baptist church that experimented with participatory worship Sunday nights suffered a dramatic decline in attendance at that service. (People said that they did not want to hear amateurs’ opinions; they wanted to hear polished presentations by professional pastors). It takes time, teaching, training and equipping by the leadership to ready God’s people for participatory worship. The typical church member is a not professional speakers and the potential is always there for imperfect presentations. However, “love bears all things” (1Co 13:7). If participatory worship is truly Christ’s desire, then it does not matter how strange it seems in our culture. Like the pearl of great price, the benefit is worth the cost. People will become more open to participatory meetings as they are taught obedience to God’s Word and understand that it is a scriptural concept.
Pew Potatoes: Most Christians, after years of passively attending services, are conditioned to sit silently in church as if watching television. It takes encouragement and patience to overcome this. Meaningful participation will seem awkward to people at first. Continual prompting and encouraging by the leadership may be necessary until the sound barrier is broken. Elders should work behind the scene during the week encouraging the brethren to share. Asking various men to lead in a weekly prayer or public reading of Scripture can help them to overcome being timid.
Open participation does not preclude prior private preparation. Every brother should be coached to consider in advance how the Lord might have him to edify the church. If a string were stretched across a stream at water level, various things would become attached to it as the day passed, things that otherwise would have floated on past. Similarly, thinking all week long about what to bring to the next meeting helps greatly. If no one brought food to a family reunion, there would not be much of a feast. If no one comes to participatory worship prepared to contribute, there will not be much sharing.
Ask the brothers, Is there a testimony the Lord would have you to bring? Could you purpose to begin a time of conversational prayer? Is there a song that would edify the church? Is there some subject or passage of Scripture to teach on? What has the Lord shown you this week in your time with Him?
The worse cause for lack of participation is lack of anything spiritual to share. Many Christians are not walking with the Lord and not living Spirit-filled lives. They may be as straight as a gun barrel theologically, but are just as empty. Such spiritually dull believers will have little worthwhile to share on Sunday. Worst yet, if they do get up to speak, it will likely cause vexation. Edifying participatory worship only happens when church members are abiding in Jesus. Too often liturgy and dominance by clergy becomes a necessary cover for congregational carnality. Genuine heart-felt sharing and confession in the meeting can cause those living lives of hypocrisy to come under conviction and repent of their sin. Obedience is contagious!
Unedifying Remarks: Sometimes after folks do start sharing, they get too casual. Things said off the top of the head often don’t edify the assembly. Just because it is an open meeting does not mean people can say anything they want to say. Leaders need to remind the church that anything said in the meeting must be designed to build up the body and to encourage everyone else. Sometimes merely requiring speakers to rise and stand behind a pulpit, lectern or music stand at the front will effectively squelch unedifying casual remarks. The elders must coach each person to remember Proverbs 25:11, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”
Church meetings must not become therapy sessions for the wounded, with everything focused on needy persons. If allowed to do so, spiritual black holes can suck the life out of the meeting. Though such people do need counseling, it should be done at a time other than during public worship. Edification is the prime directive.
It is the elders’ responsibility to help people understand what is and is not edifying and to coach people in private about making only edifying comments. Brothers should be trained to tell what time it is, not how to build a clock. Like a pencil, every message should have a point. Those who share should also be taught to keep it down to only one point. The words spoken must have a punch, an exhortation.
There is to be a certain degree of decorum. As Peter said, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God” (1Pe 4:10-11). Participatory worship should not be interactive. It is generally not edifying when someone in the audience tries to interact with the person who was burdened to get up and share. The church should not be subjected to having to listen to a public conversation. During the worship time, people should present verbal offerings to edify the church with the same attitude that Old Testament saints brought offerings. Discourage others from piling on or adding to something that has been offered (we call it dieseling).
Aberrant Theology: The lure of a participatory meeting may draw in those looking to promote some eccentric doctrine. This again is where elders are needed. Timothy, temporarily functioning as an elder, was to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1Ti 1:3). Scripture also tells us that one qualification for an elder is that he must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit 1:9). Similarly, Titus was told to “exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Tit 2:15). John warned about a known deceiver: “do not receive him into your house” (2Jn 1:10). The prevention and correction of error is one reason elders are needed.
One way to filter out those promoting doctrinal error is for the church to have an official statement of faith. Anything said in the church meeting must be consistent with the belief statement. Only allow brothers to speak who are intimately involved with and in good standing with the church. Those with non-heretical but just plain odd beliefs must not be free to publicly express these either. The elders are gates through which would be speakers must pass.
Pooled Ignorance: A Christian radio broadcaster, during an interview on participatory worship, astutely asked, “How do you keep the guy who knows the least from saying the most?” Rather than considering in advance how to encourage the church, some will come to the meeting totally unprepared. Without the Spirit’s leading they will make impromptu, rambling speeches that would be better left unsaid. It is the elders’ job to know the congregation so well that they know who is likely to do excessive and inappropriate sharing. They must work with him to be informed, concise and judicious in how often he speaks.
Disruptive Visitors: Uninformed guests can easily vex the church with unedifying remarks. Self-centered visitors may want to dominate the meeting. The mentally unstable will seek to speak loudly and often, to the chagrin of the assembly. Critics may publically attack what the church does or believes in the meeting. Traveling heretics will view the participatory meeting as a chance to promote errant theology. Leaders are needed in such cases to keep the peace and restore order with wisdom and patience. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It would be wise to allow only church members or specially invited guests the opportunity to speak. God’s flock must be protected from unnecessary vexation.
Church Attendance: Meetings that are either too big (hundreds) or too small (less than thirty) create their own set of hindrances to participatory gatherings. Too many people present will intimidate the shy and work against open sharing, accountability and intimacy. Only a tiny fraction of those present in a big meeting would be able to share anyway (even if they had the nerve). Too few people and the meeting can seem dull; diversity of spiritual gifts will be lacking. The typical first century church, meeting in a wealthy person’s villa, would hold some 65-70 people. There were 120 in the upper room. Early church meetings were made up of scores of people, not hundreds and certainly not thousands.
Late Comers: Suppose a brother is earnestly sharing something from his heart when suddenly in bursts a family arriving late. All eyes will naturally turn to see who is entering. As they climb over people already seated and chairs are shuffled and coats removed, what impact do you suppose it will have on the message that was being shared? It will be disrupted and the Spirit quenched. Ask those arriving late to wait quietly outside, not entering the meeting area until a song is being sung or there has been a break in the speaking.
It has frequently happened in participatory worship that a person arriving late will request a song that has already been sung. Worse yet, a late brother will bring an exhortation relative to some current event that the church already spent ten minutes considering before he arrived. The church might adopt a policy asking anyone coming late to refrain from speaking in that meeting since he would have no idea what transpired prior to his arrival.
So Little Time: If you are limited to a one hour service it will be difficult to pack in music, participatory sharing and an in-depth lesson. You will have to carefully watch the time designed for each phase of the meeting (singing, sharing, teaching), limit the number who can share and shorten the time allotted to each. A one and a half or two hour meeting would be more ideal, but even then the clock must be carefully watched. A sample schedule/bulletin is at the end of this appendix.
A limit of 7 to 10 minutes might be put on anything said. This will help keep any one person from dominating the meeting and free up air time for multiple people to share. It will be necessary for the leadership to occasionally interrupt long winded speakers after the 10 minute mark is passed.
Charismatic Gifts: Churches that practice charismatic gifts must be sure the guidelines of 1 Corinthians 14:26-32 are followed closely. Tongues are not to be allowed unless interpreted. There is to be a limit of three who speak in tongues. Only one at a time should speak. Prophecies are also to be limited to three speakers. Anyone who prophesies must realize that his words will be weighed carefully and judged. Dealing with this can be messy and frustrating since the overly-emotional and unstable often imagine they have such gifts. Perhaps that is why the Thessalonians had to be told, “do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1Th 5:20-22). In the midst these supernatural utterances there must be order: “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of the prophets. God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1Co 14:33a). Here again elders play a key role in helping everything that goes on to be done in a “fitting and orderly way” (1Co 14:40). The elders are the quality control men.
Women’s Roles: Participatory worship obviously does not mean anything goes. Everything said has to edify the church. There are limits on how many could speak in tongues or prophesy. Only one at a time can speak. Tongues speakers must be silent if there is no interpreter; prophets must be silent if interrupted. There is to be a holding back for the greater good. Since 1 Timothy 2:12 reveals that women are not to teach or have authority over men, sisters are not free to bring the lesson mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:26. Also, 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 further limits the sister’s participation in some way. It appears the sisters are to refrain from using their verbal gifts in the plenary church meeting. It is a dynamic silence, a holding back so as to encourage the men to lead out. An in depth article on this topic can be found at NTRF.org.
Children: The New Testament indicates that children were present with their parents in the meeting. For example, Paul intended some of his letters to be read aloud to the entire church (Col 4:16); had children not been present in the meeting they would not have heard Paul’s instruction to them (Ep 6:1-3; see also Mt 19:13-15, Lk 2:41-50, Acts 21:5). It is generally best for children to remain with their parents in worship, rather than being segregated in a children’s church.
A very young child who begins crying loudly in the meeting should be removed from the meeting by a parent until he is quieted. It is good to have a dedicated room to go to for this purpose. Some parents will be oblivious to this need and in such cases the leadership must speak to the parents in private to enlist their cooperation in controlling their children. Older children should be taught to sit still or play silently on the floor so as not to disrupt the meeting.
False Expectations: Some new people will invariably come to participatory worship with preconceived notions of what the meeting should be like. Some, for instance, will want a moving worship experience or to sing only the great hymns of the faith; others will associate praise songs exclusively with heartfelt worship, or expect dramatic healings to take place, or some emotional presentation of the gospel. When their expectations are not met, disappointment and discontentment are the result. Church leaders need to be aware of this and take steps to help people to have biblical expectations of the meetings and to have the same goals that our Lord does. To help overcome false expectations, a description of a typical church meeting could be put on the church web site, a bulletin stating what to expect could be handed out to each visitor or a brief statement made in each service about how the church meeting will be conducted.
In-depth Teachings: Teaching should be an integral part of each Sunday church meeting. This is the “lesson” listed in 1 Corinthians 14:23. Our Lord instructed the apostles to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything He had commanded (Mt 28:20). Accordingly, we learn from Acts 2:42 that the Jerusalem church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Further, teaching is listed as a spiritual gift in both Romans 12:7 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. Moreover, one of the requirements of an elder is that he be able to teach (1Ti 3:2). Elders who work hard at teaching are declared worthy of double honor (financial support, 1Ti 5:17-18). All this taken together demands of us an appreciation for the importance of those called to teaching ministries. The ideal is a steady diet of the systematic exposition of Scripture on the Lord’s Day with topical messages only tossed in occasionally.
Our Gathering Together
10:15 – 10:30 ~ Arrive & Settle In
- Meet people, enjoy a cup of coffee and find a seat.
10:30 – 11:15 ~ Participatory Worship
- First century church meetings were characterized by “each one has” (1Co 14:26). Accordingly, brothers in good standing with the church are free to use their spiritual gifts to build up the gathered saints through song, short testimony, Scripture reading, exhortation or praise.
11:15 – 11:30 ~ Short Break
- Stand up, stretch your legs, refresh your coffee and greet someone.
11:30 – 12:15 ~ Teaching
- An integral part of our participatory worship is the in depth teaching of God’s Word, brought by an elder or brother with the gift of teaching.
12:30 – 2:30 ~ Lords’ Supper / Agapé Feast
- The early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper weekly as an actual meal. This holy meal is a wonderful time of edification through fellowship. Central to all is the bread and wine, reminders of Jesus’ death on the cross to pay for our sins. The one cup and one loaf symbolize unity. It all reminds Jesus, like an enacted prayer, of His promise to come back and eat it again with us at the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb.
Come, Lord Jesus!
 Hebrews 10:25.
 John’s instructions were especially relevant in churches with participatory meetings.
 Graydon Synder, Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1991), p. 70.
 Acts 1:15 may not reflect a normal church meeting, but it does show how many could assemble in a first century room.
 “Women: Silent in Church?”