Living through this pandemic, what are we most looking forward to about getting back to in-person church services on Sunday morning? Some may be relieved to see their pastor still has legs, after months of seeing only head and shoulders… (ha!). Those I speak to say they are most keen to experience simply being together. We want to once again have the hubbub of talk and laughter in our ears, to see smiling friendly faces, to again engage in natural conversation. Our number one reason for wanting to get back to church is not the programme.
Don’t get me wrong, the programme is as necessary to church as organising a party is to helping friends have good time. The event and the promise it holds brings people together with glad expectation. But what if the party was all speeches with no time to hang, talk, connect? That wouldn’t be a great party. In fact, it would be a lot like ‘regular’ church!
‘Regular’ Sunday church has never done a great job of connecting us to each other. It promises much, yet greatly under-delivers. We may use the language of family, but that does not make it our experience. Rather, what most experience is a hushed, hurried ‘hello’ as they join our row, followed by an hour or more of singing and listening to a sermon during which it is rude to talk; and then, at the end, a few minutes of chit-chat in the foyer over a cup of tea before leaving. For this typical person, relationships (with such little time spent together) can only be skin-deep. They are not known or loved, and their giftings and potential contribution to the body go unrecognised. They keep coming back because something is better than nothing, but they are living on fumes.
Yes, some of our people get much more than this. They belong to teams and to small groups where there is much more time for interaction. However, this is only true for a fraction of our congregation. Research in the USA suggests there is a ceiling of around 35% of those who will engage through the week.1 What about the rest?
Here are three knock-out reasons why we must rethink the Sunday morning church service to include much more time for talking.
1. Talking is essential for adult learning
We remember only a small part of what we hear when we only listen. Throw in some PowerPoint slides and we do a tiny bit better. However, passively receiving information is a poor way to learn. Socrates would shake his head at the way we do ‘regular’ church. Jesus, who himself artfully employed the Socratic method of asking good questions to help his listeners uncover their own underlying values, beliefs and attitudes, would too.
We don’t want our people to just be hearers of the Word, but doers too. Wrestling with the message by talking it through with others makes it far more likely it will be remembered and applied, which is the whole point. And because we spoke about it last Sunday, this Sunday I can ask you how you got on with that thing. Whoop! Suddenly accountability can be built right in. If we are going to talk about it every Sunday, it can become a journey of discipleship.
2. Talking is essential for body life
God has gifted every person in the room with something that someone else in the room needs. We should be ministering to each other when we gather. This is the biblical view of how body life in the church is supposed to work. However, in ‘regular’ Sunday church only a handful of people get to exercise their giftings, with everyone else an observer.
We are not a family in any true sense of the word if we are not talking to each other. We need some unhurried time to get to know each other, or we will never see effective body life happen. Three minutes in the service to ‘turn to the person next to you and talk about…’ just doesn’t cut it. Honestly, what do we think can be achieved in three minutes, especially between relative strangers? The time allocated for conversation is so token, it is easier to just wait for the annoying interlude to be over. Many folk fold their arms and refuse to participate.
At church@onetwosix (a Baptist church in Point Chevalier) we want to be a redemptive family. We want everyone in church to have a role in God’s redemptive work both inside and outside our church and experience being a family on a mission. This is why we make conversation the centerpiece of our time together. In normal times our service lasts two hours, and an hour and a half of that is given to guided conversation in one form or another. On Zoom, our service lasts an hour, and half of that time is interaction. As a result, we know each other and what our giftings are. Ministry is natural and organic.
3. Talking is essential for fostering redemptive relationships
Many of us love the Alpha course. What makes it work? As outsiders come and experience our hospitality and conversation and hear the gospel in bite-sized chunks over time, many come to see life and faith from our side of the fence and make the decision to become one of us. They join the family of God.
This is what church looks like for us every Sunday. An invitation to church is just like inviting someone to Alpha. Our guests will experience the four F’s—fun, food, fellowship and food-for-thought. As they become known they will be steered towards those of our congregation who have the giftings to meet their needs. We know who our evangelists and our encouragers and our helpers are. In the process we are wooing our guests closer to Jesus. We are on mission together.
Here is a simple yet radical thought. If we are making time for conversation in church we can invite outsiders to join us. We can be on mission on Sunday. Mission doesn’t have to be my lonely individual burden through the week; it can be something we as a church family joyfully share together. I can invite my friend to meet the family, knowing they will be warmly received and that I can trust them to the natural body life of the family.
I have made it sound so easy, but I understand that touching the existing culture of any church is difficult. Making time for conversation in our Sunday service means taking something else out. Our seating arrangements will need to change. Whenever we introduce change, someone won’t like it.
But I wonder if we face greater risks by not changing. This is perhaps a God-given opportunity to make changes that have been long overdue. We should talk about it!
Contributor: Howard Webb
Howard Webb is a leader of church@onetwosix, the Baptist church in Pt. Chevalier, Auckland. He is also author of Redemptive Family: How church as a family rooted in a place lies at the heart of God’s mission. Find the book at loveyourneighbour.nz. Talk to him: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Joseph R. Myers, The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003).