I’ve been writing some on how a local church lives as a community animated by the Holy Spirit. That naturally raises the question of how does this happen and, as I said in another post, that begins with repentance. Yet that is only where a church begins. There is more…
Two Modern Church Practices
Growing up as a child, there were two practices of the church that need mentioning here.
- Men’s Monthly Business Meetings. These meetings were open to any male member of the church and by that, I mean any baptized male. So at age nine, after being baptized, I was considered a man of the church and was asked to attend where I would vote along with the other men on any and all decisions. That’s right.. vote. Each meeting proceeded according to Robert’s Rules of Order because it was a business meeting. Whether the issue was buying a church van, giving support to a missionary, or else, as long as all the details appeared fiscally responsible, then a motion would be made, seconded, and approved by vote — democracy at its best.
- Monthly Congregational Singing. These singings we’re joyous occasions because I liked to sing and there wasn’t any sermon (how ironic now that I’m a preacher). Everyone present would name a hymn request and then the men capable of leading a hymn would take turns leading the requested hymns. Each singing would begin and end with the customary opening and closing prayers, and occasionally someone might read a passage of scripture but the primary reason for gathering was to sing hymns.
Now you are asking yourself, “Rex, what did these business meetings and congregational singings have to do with the church living as a community animated by the Spirit?” My answer is that they didn’t! Yet these practices were highly valued by the church of my youth and still are valued in some churches.
Why does this matter? Because when we read through the book of Acts about the beginning of the church, we don’t find the community of Christians engaged in either such practices. That’s not to say that they never came together to make decisions or to engage in worship through singing hymns… they surely did but the prioritized other practices that have been given very little priority among many churches today.
Two Ancient, Yet Relevant, Practices
There are two practices of the earliest Christians that need mentioning which are vital for churches discovering today how the Spirit seeks to lead them:
- Table Fellowship. This is a smaller gathering of Christians in a home around the table enjoying a meal together where everyone can engage in each other’s life. It is a time and place where deeper and more meaningful conversation about how God is at work in each other’s lives, how the scriptures bear upon each other’s lives, and how each person can lovingly encourage one another to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is one powerful way in which the Holy Spirit, who dwells among each believer, works to reveal what must be done in order to participate in the mission of God.
- Prayer. This practice is rooted in the profound belief that Christians are incapable of embodying the gospel based on their own strength. On their own, fears and temptations will have mastery over them. But by creating space and committing time for prayer — whether it’s for family facing personal challenges, someone having an evangelistic conversation with a co-worker, the church seeking a bold vision for engaging the neighborhood, and so on — the church turns to the Sovereign Lord who, in a mysterious manner, gives power through the Spirit to overcome with faithful witness.
Part of the challenge in recovering these ancient practices is overcoming vulnerability and humility. You see as long as Christians only gather in large assemblies for worship, preaching/teaching, and fellowship better known as potluck meals, there will likely never be any deep engagement of life seeking participation in the mission of God. That’s because such engagement requires vulnerability and that is more likely to happen as believers gather for table fellowship. Similarly, as long as a church thinks it only needs to maintain its current way of life, believers will never come together for a committed time of prayer.
Don’t get me wrong! I’m all for gathering as a collective group for worship where the church can sing, read scripture publicly, here that scripture preached, etc… but that alone is insufficient. It’s very passive and doesn’t require much. Plus, few Christians really want to stand up in such large gatherings and say, by way of example, “I’m struggling to get along with my new neighbors of a different race and religion, what might I be doing wrong? Could you help me and pray for me that I might better love them as my neighbor?”
When we read though Acts, we read of a movement of Jesus followers who were committed to table fellowship and prayer, among other practices. Because they were committed to such practices, they were able to discern the work of the Spirit among them and live a life animated by the Spirit. Such commitments helped them when they had to make decisions such as who should replace Judas (cf. Acts 1:12-26), which seven servants should be appointed to care for the ministry of the widows (cf. Acts 6:1-6), and even when faced with a decision regarding what the gospel requires of Gentile believers (cf. Acts 11). Such commitments drew them immediately into prayer when they realized that the opposition the apostles were facing (cf. Acts 4:23-31). Neither coming together to make a decision or for corporate prayer was the response of democratically human power but the seeking of God at work through his Spirit so that these followers of Jesus might embody the gospel faithfully and continue participating in the mission of God.
A Final Word
Beyond the Sunday gatherings of public worship and fellowship, every local church needs believers who are committed to table fellowship and prayer. That means someone making their home available, inviting a few others over, and taking the lead so that the time is spent purposefully engaged in life and the work of God, where time can be spent in prayer. This is where the Spirit begins cultivating organic change that will undoubtably not only enhance the Sunday gatherings but also lead to organized change as the church discerns how the Spirit is empowering them to live as a faithful yet contextually relevant embodiment of the gospel among the local community.
So what say you?