I can’t help it. I still feel that most church corporate worship services are more like being in a theatre or lecture. They usually occur in halls where the people are seated in rows all facing forward. At the front, raised or otherwise, is a stage where some people will be leading in the worship service. If it is a liturgical church the folks on duty up front wear special clothing, usually robes, and some of them will be allowed to do things that the regular member is not allowed to do. If it is a more charismatic/Pentecostal church, it is understood that the folks up front are more anointed than the regular saints and can do things, like prophesying and healing, at a level that the regular saint can’t. If it is a church that puts a heavy emphasis on teaching, the main guy would be the teacher/preacher who is gifted in expounding the word.
Whatever the flavour of the church, the majority of the people will be sitting in the pews, participating minimally in what is happening, and there to receive ministry. Yes, the people in the pews do pray, sing, and give, but clearly their level of participation in the worship service is nothing like the participation of those up front. The worshippers in the pews are, by and large, passive.
Compare this state of affairs with the following summary statement of worship from the book of 1st Corinthians:
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (1 Corinthians 14:26 NIV)
Paul expects that everyone (“each of you”) will be contributing to the church gathering. We don’t see here a division of folks into the ones up front and the ones in the pews. I need to point out that this is not a description of a cell-group meeting. He was talking about the main gathering of the church. That means when people showed up for such meetings, they came with the expectation that they would be participating fully in the gathering. They were not coming as passive observers and recipients of the ministry of a few. As Robert & Julia Banks remind us:
Paul’s approach to church also recognised its participatory style. All members had something to contribute to the church when gathered, for all were given one or more gifts from the Spirit for the others’ benefit. (Robert and Julia Banks, The Church Comes Home [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009], 35.)
We need to bear in mind that the early church didn’t meet in auditoriums. In fact, buildings designated for church use did not exist till the third century. In Paul’s time, churches consisted of 30–40 people meeting in a house. And they met over a meal, an actual meal that also included the Lord’s supper.
We do not want to idealise the first Christians. The New Testament epistles testify to the many problems the early church struggled with. Neither do we want to blindly argue for a return to house churches. We want to raise the question of how we do church so that all members understand that they are responsible for the life and ministry of the church, and that this ministry is not primarily on the shoulders of a few. We want to respect the fact that Pentecost (Acts 2) was a major game changer. In the Old Covenant the Spirit came on a few special people, like kings and prophets, who were called to do special things. The fact that the Spirit has now been poured out on all of God’s people means that from then on all of God’s people have been anointed for ministry and are expected to minister.
The Covid period when we couldn’t meet as large groups gave us a window to rethink how we do church. Some churches made small-group gatherings the main expression of the church with sermons streamed live. The small-group gatherings then discussed how to apply the sermon. They broke bread and shared meals as they shared life. This felt much more like church as done by the first Christians. But now that the Covid crisis is over, many churches are returning to big-group gatherings as norm and cell groups as supporting acts.
I made the same points in a recent church camp. I said that on most Sundays in most churches there are about 20 people who are sweating and concerned for how the worship that Sunday will turn out — the worship leader, the worship team, the audio-visual team, the ushers, and the speaker. The rest of the congregation come to enjoy the worship. The church members at the camp caught the point. One of them said that in worship and indeed in the life of the church, everyone should be sweating.