Several years ago, I watched a contestant on a Christian music awards show sing a song about putting all attention on Jesus. However, while she sang, her voice inflections, style of dress, and movements all sent an obvious “look-at-me-perform-this-song” message. As I watched, I couldn’t help but notice the contradiction. It seemed pretty ironic to me. The words of the song said one thing, but her method of singing it said another. In the sixties (I’m giving away my age) a philosopher named Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” (28). Though I admit I’m taking it out of its original context, I believe McLuhan’s phrase can be applied to this incident. While that female performer may have sincerely wanted to convey the song’s message of putting all eyes on Christ, the medium she used sent a different message. I see similar irony in many aspects of the way most protestant evangelicals “do church” in the traditional sense.
I Cor. 12:7 states, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (NIV) Many a sermon has been preached using this passage (as well as similar passages) to teach that God desires to use, speak to, and speak through, each member of His body. Yet, too often, the very ones who hear those sermons get the idea that God only speaks through super anointed ministers, or through educated experts of Biblical interpretation. Many feel deficient in their ability to decipher the deep mysteries of scripture, and incapable of discerning God’s voice. Others believe that God wants to use them, but feel stifled and restrained. There should be no secret as to why. Although the spoken message says one thing, the medium used to send that message says quite another.
For example, church members are encouraged to come once, twice, or three times a week to gather together and sit in an auditorium in order to listen to a professional explain what God is saying through the Bible and how it should be applied. In essence, the “stage and audience” style setting conveys the following message: “Regular Christians are to sit and listen to special Christians tell them what God is saying; and the regular Christians are to limit their participation to note-taking and amen-shouting.” While members of the church are told that God speaks to all of them, and wants to use each and every one of them, they are shown something quite different. The medium becomes the message.
So, my question is this: “Can a church institution effectively teach the principles found in I Cor. 12:7, while it organizes itself around a weekly gathering which limits the use of its central stage and microphones to a select few?” I personally don’t see how. How are all of these other “manifestations of the Spirit” supposed to add to the “common good” if the majority of those present are passive spectators? The teaching, no matter how articulately or how powerfully it is communicated, will be contradicted by the medium through which it is presented. Again, the medium becomes the message.
Before I go too far, let me assure you that I am not opposed to lecture style instruction, nor am I suggesting that we ignore the orations of experts or anointed teachers. I believe God uses gifted speakers and it is one of the ways He communicates with us. I love to listen to good sermons, and I have learned a great deal from them. I am not saying we should discourage people from listening for God to speak through sermons. What I am saying is that we should encourage people to listen for God to speak to and through each other. I believe the wrong message is sent by the level of importance we place on the professional minister’s Sunday sermon. I also believe the wrong message is sent by the lack of opportunity we give each member to share what God is speaking to them. Simply put I believe God’s desire to speak through a professional minister is extremely overrated, and His desire to speak through every member of the church body is not valued enough.
Many church institutions recognize this deficiency and try to correct the problem with “small groups” (also referred to as cell-groups, community-groups, or other names) which meet during the week. Smaller gatherings allow for more participation, therefore every member of the body can contribute at these meetings. The problem with this solution for most churches is that the message of importance stays the same. Most churches I’ve experienced consider the weekly small group meetings secondary to the main gathering on Sunday mornings. I recall one minister stating that the problem with home group meetings is that they provide an excuse for members to “miss church” on Sunday. When that minister was asked if he defined “church” as the Sunday morning meeting, he didn’t know what to say. I’ve even heard of small groups meeting to discuss the previous Sunday’s sermon, not to critique it, but to make sure everyone understood it correctly. Unless the small group meetings are considered more important than the large gatherings on Sunday morning, the message remains the same: “The important things of God are to be done by a select few.”
I honestly believe if we, the church, begin to place a higher level of importance on the smaller meetings in an effort to allow every member to manifest the Spirit of God for the common good, we will be a stronger, healthier body. The group of which I am a part has addressed this issue by identifying with the organic/simple church movement. We only occasionally participate in large assemblies. Our main focus is on the smaller group gatherings where everyone participates. I am not saying that everyone should follow this course of action. I believe traditional church groups (who can’t bear the thought of going organic) can “revalue” their meetings and begin to function as the body of Christ was intended. This can only happen, in my opinion, if the church is willing to have the large Sunday morning meeting relinquish its place of honor and have the smaller gatherings advance to a much higher place of importance. It will take a strong move of the Spirit to have that happen in most institutional settings, but I believe it is possible. In fact, I actually believe I know of some churches which are already headed in that direction.
For the sake of the health of the church, we must make room for the Spirit to use every member of Christ’s body here on earth. We must do it intentionally or we will miss what God is trying to do and say through those who may not be outgoing or charismatic. In his book, Follow Me To Freedom, Shane Claiborne writes, “We cannot just listen to the hype and to the loudest voices. Some of God’s most precious saints are quiet people, gentle prophets, secret saints that live in the shadows” (76). There is definitely a place for a public address to a large gathering, but the church suffers when the gifts of the few are overemphasized and the “manifestations” given to “each one” are neglected.
Claiborne, Shane, and John M. Perkins. FOLLOW ME TO FREEDOM: Leading and Following as an Ordinary Radical. Ventura, CA: Regal, 2009.
McLuhan, Marshall. UNDERSTANDING MEDIA: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.