Church attendees should be seen and not heard…not!

In one of the only glimpses we have of an early church meeting, Paul observed: “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26). We would not say that 100% of the people always stood to lead the worship, but it certainly gives the impression that a broad percentage might. [1]

This verse was heavy in my mind when I wrote on Romans 16:

Today’s American church has become professionalized, and only a handful are allowed anywhere near the microphone. By contrast, the early believers did not meet as a megachurch, but as a network of house churches of fewer than 100 people. When Paul describes a meeting, he envisions a worship service where everyone had the chance to participate, not just by singing and giving money, but by teaching, leading a song, or giving a supernatural message.

Some indigenous tribes have used an object called a “talking stick”; in meetings, it was passed from hand to hand – whoever had the stick had the right to speak his mind.

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Traditional talking stick

Today’s church microphone has become the “talking stick” that is the domain of a few pros, usually men. Although in the first-century synagogue the women were generally not allowed to lead, still, a higher proportion of male attendees participated in leading the meetings than do Christian men today. The fact that an Old Covenant model beats out today’s New Covenant one should give us pause.

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Modern talking stick: “Look with your eyes, lay people, not with your hands!”

There are groups that try to bend the church back to its first-century practices. The Plymouth Brethren with whom I have worked are partly successful, and the house church movement also might lay claim to some achievement in this area. But my quest is not a particular model of church, but a dynamic that any church ought to have.

I have recently seen a striking example of multiple participation in leadership. Let me take you to Cuba, to a tiny church hidden away on a back road, and let’s see if they have anything to teach us.

It’s June 2018. We have taken a bone-rattling ride to a small building tucked away from the road. The pastor and his wife and other members were all exceedingly friendly and grateful that I had come to visit – I told them politely that No, no, el placer is mío. No, no the pleasure is mine!

The sanctuary is a small cinderblock structure; it could seat about 50. It has a platform; a curtain across the front; a hand-made wooden cross of about 2 meters height.

They had about 30 adults in attendance – 24 women, 6 men – plus 10 kids of various ages. No keyboard, but big speakers and a projector. There are two sections of five metal or wood pews. The service starts at 10am, but even before we enter there is recorded music with a video being played. After I take a seat, a street dog comes in and makes himself at home under my pew. As is typical in Latin America, the dog is not petted or paid attention.

THE SERVICE

We sing a chorus

Next, a laywoman gets up for a “testimonio” about what God is doing in her life. She reads it off of a pad and then sits. This will become a running motif throughout the 2-hour service.

Next, the pastor’s wife leads in song.

But what’s this? Another sister gives a testimony. It’s now clear that someone has arranged all these people beforehand, since almost everyone gets up without being prompted. That is, the worship, while thickly peopled, is not out of control.

Someone leads us in singing from a dilapidated hymnal that is held together with tape and as fragile as an ancient manuscript. But this time the dog has wandered off.

Then a third devotional, by a man, this time reading Psalm 121.

Then a video presentation; I have seen it before, it’s the one about an auction with a painting that no-one buys, then a poor old man gives everything he has because his dead son had painted it.

Someone leads two more choruses.

A man gets up to ask for other testimonies; there are four people who rise to speak one after another.

A rooster crows outside.

Yet another woman with a devotional.

Then another leads in prayer.

Then another leads a chorus with guitar – this is the only live music of the morning, and as with the other songs someone played the maracas.

Another chorus.

Then 5 kids get up to sing and lead us in a song.

Then a baby dedication. The pastor reads a number of passages and he invites his co-pastor and myself to lay hands on the child, a boy of maybe 3 months. A dog (the same dog?) barks out front.

Finally, I am invited to come up to preach. They are a very nice audience to talk to, although there is a regular rustling – animals outside, people getting called to see to a child in Sunday School. I speak for maybe 45 minutes on the New Covenant and they seem quite pleased to hear it. The pastor gets up to give a few words at the end, to reinforce what I had said, then we sing and went out.

I remarked to the pastor that I was happy to see how so many people participated in leading worship. He was pleased that I noticed: “This is precisely what we are trying to accomplish!” he said.

The final tally? My best guess is:

  • out of 30 adults, 18 took to their feet to lead worship
  • out of 10 children, 5 did so
  • I, the visiting guest speaker, was leading for a bit more than a third of the time

That is: The majority of the worshipers at this service were not just onlookers, audience, singers-along-with-the-band, or tithers. They contributed in some specific way. Women and men stood up to lead in rough proportion to their numbers. [2]

Let’s contrast that with this image, where I will guess that far less than 1% of the congregation “leads” the worship.

The next Sunday, I preached at another Cuban church in the same denomination; they clearly are following the policy of their sister church. The participation was even more dense – maybe 20 people out of 35 in attendance led the worship at some point.

I do not believe in tricks, magic, models, gimmicks, or formulae to make our church experience perfect. But I do believe that any Christian meeting should arise from the many who are gifted, not just the few, and not just the one. And that there are many ways to implement Paul’s observation that “When you come together, each of you has…”

NOTE

[1] Importantly, D. A. Carson points out, “We have no detailed first-century evidence of an entire Christian service.” See Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), p. 21. The earliest detailed description is probably that of Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, from around 155, that is, a fully century after 1 Corinthians. The description strikes me as a service that is much more formal, ordered, and focused on a few leaders than that which 1 Corinthians implies. See his full statement here: http://silouanthompson.net/2008/05/justin-martyr-describes-christian-worship-c150-ad/

[2] My Plymouth Brethren friends will be immediately aware of how these churches are applying 1 Cor 14:26 across the sexes, which is what Paul implied would happen in 1 Cor 11:5, “every woman who prays or prophesies.”

“Church attendees should be seen and not heard…not!” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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Paul had the Bible memorized!

It is common knowledge that the apostle knew by heart the entire text of the Hebrew Scriptures. He also was able to cite another version at will: the Greek version of the Bible known as the Septuagint. This is the version he almost always quote in his letters to Greek-speaking Christians.

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Page of the Septuagint, 2nd century

Thus: when he quoted from the Scriptures, he didn’t have to look it up.

Just ran across this tradition concerning the rabbi Shammai, the important theologian who lived in the first century BC, that is, a couple of generations before Paul. He affirmed that in effect he owned two copies of the Bible:

There was the incident of a certain gentile who came before Shammai. He said to him, “How many Torahs do you have?” [Shammai] said to him, “Two, one in writing, one memorized.” [b. Shabbat 31A, Babylonian Talmud, Neusner edition, 2:127]

Two copies of the Bible, true for Shammai, true for Paul. How true is this for us?

“Paul had the Bible memorized!” by Gary S. Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

My month with the Book of Mormon – May 2017

To download the article as a document, take a picture here:

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The Bible is really, incredibly old! The Old and New Testaments were copied by hand for centuries, if not millennia! And to interpret the Bible correctly, an expert ought to be well aware of the original languages! At least, that’s how it is with my Bible.

All the more striking, then, that the Book of Mormon (BofM) was the first scripture I have read that was originally composed in – or, according to Joseph Smith, miraculously and infallibly translated into – my own language. That is, it is the English text of the BofM that is considered divinely authoritative, beyond which version there is no further appeal.[1]

The BofM is one of the principal books of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) popularly known as the Mormons, and other related groups.[2] It is not the only one considered as new revelation; the LDS later added “Doctrine and Covenants” and “Pearl of Great Price” to their canon.

We live in an age of people giving reviews of books they have never read. The Bible is probably the most-reviewed and least-read book of our age (more…)

My Favorite 5 New Testament Archaeology Discoveries in Recent Years!

To download the full article with all images and notes, click here: Shogren_Archaeology of the New Testament

Usually it’s the Old Testament that garners all the publicity for archaeological finds, and for good reasons: the Israelites inhabited the land for centuries and left behind all kinds of artifacts. Jesus and the apostles did not erect buildings or put up inscriptions or make special clay pots.

Nevertheless, New Testament archaeology has yielded some excellent and surprising finds. My criteria here are: finds from the last few years; finds that reveal some sort of physical evidence for the New Testament story; and frankly, things that I find cool. Consult an expert for rankings of findings in order of scholarly importance.[i]

#5. The Pool of Bethesda. The Pool of Siloam (John 9) was discovered in 2005, and it fit very neatly with the biblical description of the place where the blind man washed and was healed. The Pool of Bethesda, by contrast, was discovered long ago but positively identified only recently.[ii] It lay just north of the Temple, by the Sheep Gate, as John states.

In John 5, Jesus visits Bethesda and sees the lame man who had been waiting for years. John describes the structure as a pool “surrounded by five covered colonnades.” Now, a five-sided structure would have been rare indeed, and some skeptics used to dismiss John’s description and other elements of his gospel as a myth. But sure enough, the ruin of Bethesda shows that it definitely did have five colonnades and porticos, just as John describes it – and its architectural oddness is probably the reason why he mentioned it in the first place! It appears that the pool was a mikveh, that is, a place where people would bathe to purify themselves before entering the temple.[iii] The Pool of Bethesda backs up what John says, and suggests that he had reliable information about its details.

The Pool of Bethesda

#4. The Magdala Synagogue. We remember Magdala principally because it gave Mary her nickname, Mary Magdalene (more…)

Will it Kill your Pastor if he Visits You? A Response to Thom S. Rainer

Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and has a very popular blog on church life. Having read with approval a number of his other articles, I was surprised to find one that I roundly disagreed with.

It is titled “FIFTEEN REASONS WHY YOUR PASTOR SHOULD NOT VISIT MUCH”

And he is serious. He is really not happy with churches which expect to see their pastor in their home any time soon. Unless it’s an emergency. A big one.

So with all due respect, I responded to him on his blog, and will offer much the same thoughts here. (Here is another, very useful, response, by Andrew Roy Croft, who offers a positive argument for pastoral visitation).

To begin with, I thought this was one of those stealth articles that start off, “10 Reasons to Vote the Socialist Ticket,” but turn out to be pro-Republican. But no, I read it through a number of times, and it’s not ironic.

His point is that pastoral visitation a newfangled idea, that there’s altogether too much visitation going on, and it should be slimmed down and (perhaps) limited only to extreme situations. Otherwise pastor visitation is the Zika virus that will kill your church, leave your pastor burned (out) beyond recognition, and make him/her leave! Oh yes he will!!

Don't answer the door! It might be the pastor, and it will lead to him burning out, quitting, and destruction for your church!

Don’t answer the door! It might be the pastor, and it will lead to him burning out, quitting, and apocalyptic destruction for your church!

Pastor Rainer has 15 objections to pastoral visitation, many of which are, upon closer examination, the same reason stated differently. To quote:

  1. It’s unbiblical. 2. It deprives members of their roles and opportunities. 3. It fosters a country club mentality. 4. It turns a church inwardly. 5. It takes away from sermon preparation. 6. It takes away from the pastor’s outward focus (the same as #4, right?) 7. It takes away vital leadership from the pastor. 8. It fosters unhealthy comparisons among the members. 9. It is never enough. 10. It leads to pastoral burnout (see #9). 11. It leads to high pastoral turnover (see #9, 10). 12. It puts a lid on Great Commission growth of the church (see #4, 6). 13. It leads pastors to get their affirmation from the wrong source. 14. It causes biblical church members to leave. 15. It is a sign that the church is dying (see #14). And then later: It’s a key sign of [church] sickness. It’s a clear step toward [congregational] death.

So, it is no exaggeration that his message is that pastoral visitation may even now be killing your church!

Let’s define “pastoral visitation” as, where one or more of the leaders of the church go to where their people are, traditionally but not necessarily in the home, hospital, or long-term care facility, in order to spend time with them and to conduct pastoral ministry (exhortation, encouragement, correction).

Here is part of the response that I wrote on his website, that there were three weaknesses to the argument; I address the author as “you.”

First, the historical. You write that “‘Visitation of the members’ became a common job description of pastors about a century ago.” You imply that it is a recent innovation.

While it may have become more conventional these days to write the thing out in a job description, visitation of the members has been part of the pastoral task since the beginning. In fact, it was a vital aspect (more…)

The Emperor Constantine the Great – a villain or a hero, or something in-between?

Download the article as a pdf: Shogren_The Emperor Constantine the Great – a villain or a hero, or something in-between

To many, the Emperor Constantine was a saint: in the Orthodox church he is one of the “Equal-to-Apostles” (isapóstolos) a title given to people (such as Patrick, Cyril the evangelist of Russia and others) who were especially effective in establishing the gospel.

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To others, Constantine is Great was a tool of evil, a corrupter of the church.

The attacks against Constantine come from several quarters. Some Messianic believers imagine that he turned the church into a Gentile movement. Others charge him with introducing pagan practices into the church. Seventh-Day Adventists credit him (or some pope) with changing the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.[1] Jehovah’s Witnesses think he turned Jesus into God, made the cross a symbol of Christianity, and established Easter and Christmas. All of these parties tend to gang up and use the same materials as the basis for their attacks – for example, many anti-Constantine groups hale back to Babylon Mystery Religion – Ancient and Modern, by Ralph Woodrow (1966). And they and Woodrow borrow much of their “information” from Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons (1858), another sketchy attempt to connect Catholicism with Babylonian religion.[2] More on this later.

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Who was Constantine? (more…)

“Oh, before I conclude let me just say…” 1 Thess 5:12-28 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 15]

These are notes of a sermon outline, not a full message.

This is an exciting epistle, full of joy and energy. Despite all the persecution they have experienced, the Thessalonian church is thriving and growing and reaching out with the gospel. Sure, Paul has to remind them about the resurrection of the dead when Jesus returns; and he also wants to remind them to work hard, to keep pure, to be alert for Jesus’s coming, but in general things are fine.

So as he concludes, it’s upbeat and encouraging.

This is common with Paul and other letter-writers of his day, to conclude a letter with a brief list of commands or exhortations. “Time is running out, just a little more space on the page, Do this, don’t do that, don’t forget this! (more…)

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Read the Hebrew Torah in 2015-2016!

Some friends and I are going to read through the books of Moses over the next year. We will be follow the liturgical cycle of the synagogue for the Jewish year 5776, with a set portion or parashah every week. This breaks down to a chapter-plus per day.

I will be using Logos 6 with Stuttgartensia as my base text with the BDB lexicon.

Our reading will be exegetical and reflective rather than mystical or kabbalistic.

For those who wish to, we will be using Facebook to post our observations.

Please, this is for people who already are readers of Biblical Hebrew. I need to bring my level up, and so will others of the group, but this is not a course in Hebrew! You can study Hebrew online from many seminaries, and in Spanish from Seminario ESEPA, from May-December every year, online.

The liturgical year begins with Simchat Torah, on the evening of October 5, 2015. Will you join us?

We will follow the full kriyah calendar from Hebcal.com, the Diaspora version.

In addition, here is a full list of the 613 commandments or mitvot of the Torah, as compiled by Maimonides; it is a widely-accepted tabulation.

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“Imitating other Believers in Judea” – 1 Thess 2:13-16 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 8]

(13) And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. (14) For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews (15) who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone (16) in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

Paul here goes back once again to the major theme in 1:2, in his thanksgiving: You Thessalonians didn’t just hear the message, but you accepted it.  When he says word of God in 2:13 he is not speaking of “the Bible” – in this case the Old Testament – but the gospel message.

They accepted it “not as a human word”, in the sense of “not as something that people made up”, but as what it is, the message God spoke. See how he keeps repeating the word “God” (we have underlined it above).

And the gospel message works in them, transforming them from the inside out. This reminds us of a key text from Isa 55:11:

…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

And now these new believers were responsible to pray for those who were even then hearing the gospel for the first time in Achaia, as we see in Paul’s next letter:

As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. (2 Thess 3:1)

So, the Thessalonians imitated Paul, the Lord Jesus (1:6) and also other churches, especially the churches in Judea. It is interesting that the bulk of new believers in Thessalonica came from paganism (1:9-10), but most Jews did not receive the gospel in that city, nor in Jerusalem and Judea.

Like the Jewish Christians, these Gentile disciples suffer at the hands of their own people, their neighbors, and their local government. Thessalonians suffer at the hands of Thessalonians, while the churches in “Judea” (2:14a) are persecuted by Judeans. When Jews or Gentiles receive Christ, they find themselves cut off from their former people and persecuted by them. The underlying premise is that, if the people of the covenant act this way when their fellow Jews receive Christ, then imagine the reaction of the Gentiles among whom you live.

Some people point to this paragraph, which has very strong language, and they ask whether Paul is anti-Jew, anti-Semitic. But we need to keep in mind that Paul is not speculating about race but is responding to a concrete historical situation: the synagogue wielded great power in Judea and enough power in Macedonia to cause serious persecution to the Christians there.

Ruins of the Ostia synagogue, outside the city of Rome

Ruins of the Ostia synagogue, outside the city of Rome

(more…)

“Come over here and help us!” [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 1]

Note: this sermon outline is based on my volume in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament; readers might want to acquire that commentary if they wish to see the exegetical work behind these talks. These  posts are Sermon Notes, not polished messages.

Introduction

A few years ago I went to a reunion; there were people I hadn’t seen in decades. There are only one or two believers in my class. Most of them know I am a missionary, and some of them cannot understand why I would want to waste my time doing that. On the other hand, I heard from a few people: “Gary, your work must be so fulfilling.” The value these people were expressing is, It doesn’t matter if you don’t have money or success; if you feel personally fulfilled, then what you’re doing is right and admirable.

Now, I can assure you that I do feel fulfilled. But what we have there is a partial truth, since it isn’t the same as what the Bible tells us. By the same token, people might imagine that Mother Theresa worked with the lepers because it made her feel really good about herself. No.

I believe that all who are Christians are called to serve God, not just pastors or missionaries. That means that if you are a disciple of Jesus, he has called you too, period. From that point on, it’s just a matter of finding out how and where.

However, if you serve the Lord because it is fulfilling, that program will only take you so far, and will sooner or later end in disillusionment and defeat. And God may at some point make us confront another truth, a deeper one: that God’s call is true even on the days we feel like victims, disappointed, stressed, confused, cheated, failures.

We know this, because this is what the apostle Paul experienced when he went to Thessalonica (more…)