My Ideal Church Service

August 26th, 2011 · by Tom Stuart · Church History, Holy Spirit Aha's, Stats & Trends

When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you.  1 Corinthians14:26 (NLT)

Seasoned church attenders can hold their own with any other Monday morning quarterback when it comes to critiquing how the worship, preaching and other special teams did.  People who have attended church for any length of time know what they like and don’t like about church services.  The problem is most pastors, like coaches, don’t listen to church talk radio where their loyal fans vent their frustrations and dispense their advice – so things seldom change.

The church services in the traditional, the liturgical and even the evangelical church worlds are basically all the same and have not changed for centuries.  They follow a predictable order and format.  Corporate participation is limited to the recitation of prescribed song lyrics, scripture texts and/or prayers.  Individual expressions are assigned to trained and rehearsed worship leaders, service leaders and pastors, who typically are clergy professionals.  Fellowship, before or after the service, and the 7th inning greeting are the only really unscripted parts of the gathering.

The game plan for most church services goes like this.  They open with worship, have announcements, take an offering accompanied by special music, preach a message and close with prayer and/or a benediction.  Communion and other special elements are inserted typically between worship and the message, as the particular week or season of the year require.  Some churches alter that order and the time allotted for each, but basically that is the typical weekend service across America and the world. 

As a pastor, veteran of thousands of church services and secret listener to church talk radio I have given much thought to this predicament. 

At the crux of the problem are two challenges.  First, how do we make room in our services for the unscripted, unpredictable leading of the Holy Spirit?  And secondly, how do we make our services more participatory and give greater expression to the priesthood of every believer. 

Unfortunately the church, like most institutions, finds comfort in the predictable and is slow to change.  The reformer Martin Luther’s message of the priesthood of the believer has somehow been morphed like the message of his great hymn into “like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God, brothers we are treading where we’ve always trod.”  Sadly as Jesus said, we resist new wine change because the old wine always seem better. (Luke 5:39) 

It is remarkable however that many people and pastors alike long for change in our church services.  More people than we realize feel that there should be more space created in the service for the Holy Spirit to move and the Body of Christ to minister to one another.  We’ve found that to be true in the church were I pastor.  We did a poll several months ago and were surprised to find that a majority of the people admitted to wanting a greater emphasis on being Spirit led as well as more freedom than order in our services.  Why then don’t we see more churches, ours included, making some changes in how church services are structured?  Refer to the paragraph immediately preceding this one.

My ideal church service would be like the one Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:26 without of course, the unruly craziness.  It would be a miracle service where everyone comes to the service with something to share and yet would do it in a “fitting and orderly way.” (1 Corinthians 14:40)  Those with musical giftings would play and sing.  Those with teaching gifts would teach from the scriptures.  Those with a revelation (scripture, insight, word of knowledge, prophecy or testimony of God’s work in their lives etc.) would share.  And even those inspired to give a tongue with interpretation would be welcome.  What a church service that would be!  We used to call that kind of service a “hatha” meeting – taken from the old King James version of the verse:  “one hath a psalm, one hath a doctrine…”

Truth be told, I think the biggest reason churches don’t follow this format is that it everyone involved to be the change they want to see.  Making this kind of a shift would require all of us, clergy and congregation alike, to change and that is scary.   Pastors have thrown the Spirit-led, participatory baby out with the charismania bath water.  Bottom line they are not only uncomfortable but essentially unprepared to lead such services.  And these “hatha” services don’t fit neatly into our hour and fifteen minute time slot.  In addition most people come to church wanting to be spectators more than participators.  The fear of sharing anything publicly is also a hindrance to many and timidity commonly reigns.  For some even the greeting time is stressful.

What is the answer?  How do begin to transform the real into the ideal?  I’d be interested in your thoughts on this topic.

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2 Responses to “My Ideal Church Service”

  1. In 1981 I stumbled into a store front Christian group. They had a Friday Night meeting called a “Hatha Meeting” which I thought sounded strange. The leader of this group was an ordinary many who worked a full time job as a school bus driver and did not collect income from the Christian group. He and two other men were the “elders”

    He as well as others played guitar and one of the elders played piano (by ear). There were long uncomfortable stretches of silence that soon became normal to me as they would wait on the Holy Spirit for guidance in the way of a song, tongue, prophecy from ANYONE in the meeting not just one of the elders. Participation was not mandatory but it did seem like everyone did.

    At a certain point the teaching elder would feel led to put his guitar down, get out the Bible and black board and teach. It worked very well and eventually the Teaching Time and Hatha Meeting were separated into two different nights

  2. Thanks William for your comments. When it comes right down to it, the “Hatha Meeting” out of 1 Corinthians 14, just might be the closest thing to an ideal church service. Good stuff!

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