Sermon: Worship and the Gifts of the Spirit

Continuing our sermon series on worship:

1 Corinthians 14:26-33

Nancy Duarte is something of a hero to me. She married her husband Mark at eighteen, and they planned to go Bible college and then find a church to pastor. Instead, Mark bought a computer, and set up a business which Nancy now heads. They design visual presentations for major international clients such as Apple. Their most famous work was to design the visuals for Al Gore’s film about the environmental crisis, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Nancy is a pastor, though – to her staff.

One of the key themes Nancy Duarte teaches about designing engaging presentations is that they must resonate with the hearers. There must be an empathy, a deep inward ‘Yes!’ to what the speaker is saying.

My problem with today’s passage was that initially I thought it might be difficult to get it to resonate with a good number of you. Some of you will struggle might be troubled by the references to speaking in tongues and prophecy. But it isn’t just that: Paul has a completely different conception of what a typical gathering for worship looks like from traditional twenty-first century Christian worshippers. We are used to most or all things being led from the front, but he assumes that everyone has a contribution. Not for him is the content all down to a trained expert.

So how are we going to appreciate what Paul says here about the common use of spiritual gifts in Christian worship? Well, one thing I need to do immediately is to take you out of the pews. In fact, not just out of the pews, but out of the church building. Because Paul was not writing to a congregation that had its own special religious space like us. The notion of church buildings is so ingrained into us, but it distorts what Paul is saying.

To put it more specifically, I once heard Professor Jimmy Dunn say that when we read that the early church met in homes, we can probably assume that they met in the homes of the wealthier members. Archaeological evidence of large homes in the Roman Empire suggests that we are talking about a space that could accommodate thirty, or at most forty people. It is neither like typical Sunday services as we know them, nor is it like the house groups of our experience.

But it does provide a context that makes sense of so much of what Paul teaches about worship in 1 Corinthians. For example, if you bridle at his command that women should keep silent, remember first of all that they are being allowed to learn in the early church (unlike other religions), but that they are probably saying, “What does that mean?” every now and again to their husbands in a confined space where that will be disruptive. Hence they are to keep their questions until they get home for the sake of good order. It also makes sense of the chaotic scenes at the Lord’s Supper in Corinth, if you read chapter 11.

And I suggest to you as well that a gathering for worship in a large home makes sense of Paul’s teaching here. See if some of what Paul says resonates more with you if I can ask you to imagine thirty or forty people crammed together in a large reception room. They are not all sitting on chairs; many are cross-legged on the floor, and others are reclining. For me, it means recalling a holiday I had with friends many years ago where we hired a villa on the Algarve. Imagine something similar – but definitely delete the pews and the church building from your thoughts this morning.

So – if you can picture this different style of gathering – let us ask three questions of the text to help us understand the place of spiritual gifts in Christian worship. Those three questions are ‘Who?’, ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’

Firstly, we ask ‘Who?’ The answer to this is, ‘Everyone’.

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. (Verse 26, italics mine)

It’s just the way of things in the early church. Paul doesn’t need to command ‘each of [them]’ to bring a contribution to worship: they do, anyway. This statement is indicative of the existing situation, and Paul doesn’t have any problems with it. After all, when he began his teaching about spiritual gifts in chapter 12, he soon used his image of the Body of Christ, where every member plays a part.

You may have heard some preachers say that church is often like going to a football match, where twenty-two thousand people in need of exercise watch twenty-two people in need of a rest. Over the centuries, we have deified forms of worship led by the experts – whether it is the more Catholic insistence on the need for a priest who can lead us into the presence of God, or the more Protestant emphasis on a sermon like this that makes teaching the Word of God more like a lecture. That, of course, comes complete with rows of seating. And as we sit in rows (whether in pews or on chairs), we reduce our sense of community and the congregation becomes passive, listening to the minister.

Now once you get beyond the numbers that were in a typical early church meeting, then the group dynamics change, and they certainly do if you go for a more formalised structure. But that is to beg the question of what to do when you grow – maybe instead of getting bigger a church should divide into two.

Of this I am sure: we have disabled many members of Christ’s Body from being able to contribute in worship. It is not to say that everybody has to lead from the front – Paul doesn’t assume that here – but it is to say that we have squashed people’s gifts. Sometimes we ministers don’t want the contributions of others. Sometimes congregations want to stay passive. Christians judge a church or a preacher by whether they were ‘fed’, but shepherds don’t merely feed the sheep, they also teach the sheep where to feed for themselves.

Hence, I want to announce something this morning that I have been thinking about ever since I came. Just as I have made a modest increase in worship participation at the communion services by involving our Youth Church, so I now want to increase adult participation, and I shall do that in the non-sacramental services. I am introducing a feature that runs in a number of churches, called ‘This Time Tomorrow’. The aim is to make the link between 10 am on Sunday and 10 am on Monday. I would like people who are willing to share (perhaps by being interviewed) what they do in the week away from church, how they approach it as a Christian, and what challenges they face for which they would like prayer. You can be in paid work, you can be retired or unemployed, you can be doing something voluntary in the community. If you would like to do this, please speak with me after the service, but I am on the lookout and will have a sign-up sheet available, too! The key is to connect our worship more clearly with every member, and through every member to the world in mission.

Our second question is ‘What?’ That is, what is every member bringing to worship?

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. (Verse 26, italics mine)

Here is why we can’t allow the rule of experts to disable the ministry of all God’s people. It’s because God has equipped not only the leaders but all of his followers. There is a wide range of gifts here. At one end are gifts that traditional Christians would easily recognise, such as ‘a hymn, or a word of instruction.’ At the other end are the gifts that unnerve some Christians, because they seem so far away from everyday life and conventional behaviour – ‘a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.’ Yet all good gifts are from God and are to be welcomed in a spirit of trust.

We shouldn’t trivialise this. The thought that someone can bring ‘a hymn’ should not be reduced to some kind of community hymn-singing, or just an opportunity to sing someone’s favourite hymn. It is all about the contribution that can be made to the overall act of worship. I would not be picking a hymn for myself, but for the sake of the gathered body of disciples. ‘A word of instruction’ is not the chance for someone to inflict their hobbyhorse on the congregation, but the prospect of someone who has been close to God in prayer and the Scriptures bringing a word that has the aroma of heaven. Likewise, the more spectacular gifts of ‘a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation’ are not occasions for Christians to show off some supposed spiritual prowess, but an opening to use something precious from God to bless his people.

But here’s where our disparity from the way the early church gathered makes it difficult for us to take this on board. Once you get beyond a certain size, only particular types of people are willing to speak up and ask for their contributions to be included. Sitting in rows doesn’t help, either. It has to be done in more intimate, flexible gatherings we have such as the house groups.

In public worship in our culture it would have to happen in a more controlled way, because we require that someone takes responsibility for ensuring that the content of worship is consistent with the Christian faith as the Methodist Church has received it. That person is the preacher appointed to take the service. But there is no reason why members cannot approach the preacher (in good time, of course!) and say they have something which they think could be of benefit to the congregation. Heaven knows, there are few Local Preachers and ministers who are highly skilled in every aspect of worship. That means the church as a whole is missing out if others do not come forward with their gifts and offerings.  I want to encourage you to break through the barriers that our current practices create, so that we can all be enriched by what God has given you. If that means you having a word with me to tell me you have something that could be a gift for our worship together, then I want to urge you to speak with me.

Our third and final question is ‘Why?’ Come back again to verse 26:

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. (Verse 26, italics mine)

So that the church may be built up. That’s why Paul goes on to give some instructions about how many people should speak, how what is said should be weighed, how some speakers should give way to others, and how generally those who offer their gifts should exercise self-control and demonstrate peace and good order. The gifts of the Spirit in worship are not about manufacturing religious superstars or launching careers in the Church: they are to be used with one motive in mind only, the building up of Christ’s church.

Or let’s see it this way. Never mind those who harbour the vain ambition to be big fish in the small pond of the church, we would probably all agree that the building up of the church is a noble goal for worship. But presently we leave that task of building up largely to one person – the preacher. Paul clearly believed that it took the actions of the whole Body to build itself up. There’s nothing particularly contentious among Christians about a goal to build up the church. But the idea that such a goal requires more than the diligence of the preacher is resisted in places. In one church it was said, “Why buy a dog and then wag your own tail?” Even in churches where there is a lot of participation in various areas of its life, there can still be a disturbing division. The minister is expected to do the ‘spiritual’ work, while the congregation does the ‘practical’ stuff.

Of course, some will ask, “How can I contribute to the edification of the church? I haven’t got anything worthwhile to offer.” To that I would reply in two ways. Firstly, either you already have some latent spiritual gifts you can offer that you haven’t noticed, or you could ask God to give you spiritual gifts that you can use for the benefit of the church. And the second thing I would say is to quote the Apostle Peter:

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

In other words, nurture your spiritual life and you will find that something grows in you that you can share. I talked last week about some of the opportunities we offer in KMC and which we have offered to help you grow in the life of the Spirit. The nub of the matter is that if you share in the view that worship should build us all up, then that implicates you in playing a part that contributes towards that goal.

Where does all this leave us? It gives us a radical view of Christian worship that departs from our traditions in some significant ways. But really it’s our traditions that have departed from the apostolic testimony. When the Holy Spirit is at work, that will happen in an apostolic way, not a traditional way, and if we are not careful we shall find that the new wine of the Spirit is poured into the brittle old wineskins of our traditionalism.

Ironically, that’s why I’ve ended up speaking for a little longer than usual this morning. It has been an attempt to lay out a more thoroughly New Testament vision for worship, one that depends on us all using our spiritual gifts for the maturing of the church.

Friends, we might have to choose between our cherished traditions and the growth of the church.

One comment

  1. A very Good Message.In our Church Leaders,Youth Leaders can take Services.We also have visiting Speakers.Bill Hybels took a Leaders Conference.Anyone can go to the Front and give a Testimoney or something that has happened to them that God spoke through.We started one Week with 3 People being Prayed for.One of them has Cancer,we all Pray at 12 pm so his Tumour is smaller.We used to go to a Methodist Church so do know what you mean.We now go to Bristol Christian Fellowship (which started in Homes) called Resound.Someone asked us what that Name meant at our Church and Fun Day in the Park.It means Echo.We had about a Thousand People from surrouding area came.


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