This year, I crossed the threshold of having worked in ministry for 10 years. (This amazes me. Grateful!) Within that span of time, I’ve had a certain experience many times:
A church is holding a lunch or a potluck dinner together after a worship service. Perhaps I come into that meal about ten minutes late. Maybe I needed to organize some things in my office, or more likely, someone has stopped me after the service to chat. When I’m ready, and I do walk into the space of that meal, someone often says to me,
“Oh, good, you’re here. We can pray now.”
Folks want me to bless the time together and say a prayer over the meal. And they’ve been waiting for me. I say yes, and of course, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be present. But always, always, I feel a bit sad about this. “Do they think I’m the only one who can pray on behalf of this community?” I wonder.
It has to do with my role, of course. It has to do with the fact that I am an ordained clergy person. By the way, this happens even if I’m not the pastor of the specific congregation — even if I’m simply the guest pulpit supply preacher. Folks expect me to lead the community prayers. Or maybe, they’ve gotten used to it being this way.
But is a church diminished if only one person —
or one type of person; in this case, clergy —
speaks, prays, or preaches?
I believe the answer is a resounding yes.
Not only is it possible for multiple people to lead the community. I think it’s better for the community if that is the case. First, the community is enriched with shared leadership and opportunities to hear different voices and perspectives. But also — I believe this is so important — people are enriched and their faith is deepened when their own leadership, spiritual gifts, and voices are empowered.
Last year, I had the chance to meet and befriend Richard Jacobson. He’s written a book with a fun title: Unchurching: Christianity Without Churchianity. He hosts a podcast with the same name. About a year ago, I met him and co-host Gunnar Falk when I was a guest on their podcast, discussing Michigan Nones and Dones. Together, along with thousands of others, they have started a house church movement. They’re not standing against church altogether, but instead, opening a new way (with themes that are connected to an older way) in communities of shared leadership and participation.
Richard Jacobson uses an analogy I find myself thinking about sometimes: Referencing the imagery of scripture, we often say that the Church is the ‘Body of Christ.’ But what happens if we only use some of the muscles? Is it possible that other parts of the body might atrophy a bit?
If we only allow or empower one voice (or one type of voice) to speak, pray, or preach, it’s possible that we encourage passivity in the larger community. I’m certainly not saying all the other Christians I know are passive. Hardly. As a pastor, I have benefited so much from the convictions and wisdom of members of congregations.
But I want everyone to benefit from those voices. What if their storytelling was invited from the pulpit? What if more than one person taught during the time we often call ‘sermon’? What if members were invited to pray over those potluck dinners? Or teach during worship? What if people could display their art? What if people could improvise with music? What if shared decision-making invited more people to speak into those decisions?
This is part of what it means to encourage a horizontal model of church.
Tomorrow, let’s hear about some communities that are doing this.
This post is part of a series this week. Feel free to check out the other pieces as well:
This Week: Horizontal Church
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 1)
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 2)
Horizontal Church: The Priesthood of All Believers and Collective Organizing
Horizontal Church: Accountability
Horizontal Church: Christian Education