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.


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.


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.


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…”


[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:

[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


How do you pick out a thank-you gift for Someone who (literally) has everything?

schoolcolorsblackJust before the end of 2012, the Lord helped me to complete two multi-year writing projects (1000 pages in all) plus two other big papers. It was a major answer to prayer.

Now, I’m a believer in divine grace, and  fully appreciate that I can’t repay or earn his goodness toward me. Nor can my actions please him beyond the total acceptance I already have in the Beloved, [1] so anything I give him will by definition be “re-gifting”: “All things come of thee, O Lord; and of thy own have we given thee.”

Still: I wanted to give God a special thank-offering. (more…)

the Parable of the Little Toe

Once upon a time there was a church, a body of Christ.

On the platform stood various members. One man led the worship and read a Psalm aloud. A woman was the main singer; she too held a microphone. Two other women and a man were backup singers. There was a guitarist who played the chords; a drummer who provided the rhythm; a man with a trumpet, another with a bass guitar. Each member of one body, each one with his or her special contribution.

But what is this? What’s the hold-up? The worship leader asks that the church sing louder, with more joy and enthusiasm, but the people don’t follow his lead. Are they, as he suggests none too subtly, unspiritual? Well, it’s not their fault: they’d like to sing with more energy, but something is holding them back. They don’t know the words of this song, and the screen is blank!

Because up in a little control-room in back of the church, there’s a member of the body who handles the technology: the projector and the PowerPoint in order to show the lyrics. But he seems to be dreaming and his attention is wandering. He answers his phone, he chats with his girlfriend, he sends a text, he updates his Facebook.

The people want to sing with all their might, but without this one member, the hymn doesn’t fly.

“Just look,” he complains, instead of doing his job. “I can’t sing like her, I can’t play an instrument like they do. No wonder I skip rehearsal, since my part in the ‘show’ hardly matters. I’m not important, my part in this is tiny. In the body of the Lord, I’m just a little toe!”

Now you see the point of my little story: Everybody has their gift, whether they’re an elbow, a hand or an ear. And if one member doesn’t work, the body doesn’t function; when one little toe is missing in action, the whole body ceases to worship.

All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be…On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. 1 Cor 12:11-12, 15-19, 22

“The Parable of the Little Toe” was written in Spanish for a Latin American context and is here presented in English. By Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica. Visit us at

What kind of music is “Christian”?

I just read a blog about music in the Latin American church. He noted that there is a strong tendency to emphasize the music over the text of the song; that the lyrics are often shallow and repetitive; that the sound system tends to drown out the congregation; that the worship leaders seem to be putting on a show more than directing worship. With much of this I was in agreement, and I plan to blog on contemporary Christian music. He continued on, and argued that much of the style we hear in the Latin church is by nature carnal. He criticizes salsa, jazz and rock rhythms, and he cites John MacArthur as his authority. And so I responded with the following:

Nevertheless, I must take strong objection to the point made by John MacArthur, which you in turn quoted with approval: “The pulsating rhythms of native African music mimics the restless, superstitious passions of their culture and religion.” [1]

I do not know how many times we’ve heard repeated from the pulpit the “urban legend” about African music: one person reports that, when the children of missionaries played rock music, the Africans exclaimed “Hey, that’s the music that we use to summon up the demons!” Other Africans supposedly say, “We know that kind of music – it’s the kind that homosexuals use!” No-one has ever given me details of who this happened to or where, it’s always something vague like “a friend of a friend said so, and he’s very reliable” or “everyone knows that it really happened.”

John MacArthur might be a famous expositor, but he has no expertise in the area of music (and I less so). And it saddens me to hear that he is repeating pseudo-scientific charges that have circulated in the United States for years and years. They’ve denounced the African is by nature sensual, degenerate, superstitious, full of lust, a fount of cultural and spiritual corruption. One preacher on the web declares that rock music is the equivalent of apostasy, since it comes from the people of Ham, who was supposedly put under God’s curse (see Gen 9:25 for a reminder that Noah never cursed Ham).

May I suggest that it is no coincidence that one fundamental argument against jazz or rock is precisely this connection with Africa? When they speak of the African culture, they are speaking of the African or African-American people. Racism is the original sin of the USA, and it has always manifested itself in the marginalization of the African and his/her music. The question of what kind of music is appropriate in the worship service is indeed one worthy of consideration; nevertheless, we should not exclude one genre or another, simply because of its African roots.

MacArthur cites the story about how plants exposed to rock music withered and died. So far as I can tell, he refers to the experiment from Dorothy Retallack in 1973 ( Unfortunately for the anti-rock argument, modern classical music also seems to have dismayed the plants, where they most liked Indian music – the very Asian music MacArthur regards as un-Christian.

Update: google “John MacArthur”, “rock music” and “apostasy” and you´ll get an eyeful. Irony of ironies: it turns out that many people are now attacking MacArthur for compromising with Satanic music and other worldly practices.


[1] This is taken from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians (Chicago: Moody, 1986), p. 260. In other sources, MacArthur is quote as saying “some African music”; in the commentary he clearly states that all African music is inherently so. He also says that rock music by its nature “creates pride in the musician rather than humility.” I suppose it can, and does, although I’ve known some traditional organists and pianists who rate high on the pride scale, not to mention folk singers.

Related posts:

For the urban legend about the African missionary:

Christian urban legends

Christians and myths

“What kind of music is Christian?” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica