Q – I recently started listening to your messages on your website. Now I’m reading your articles. Thank you for making so much teaching available. I’m learning so much that I never knew before. But, I have a question. When I’m listening to you, sometimes people in your congregation interrupt and ask questions or make comments. It caught me off-guard the first time I heard it. I’ve never known a church that allowed that. Why do you do it? I’m not saying I don’t like it; I’m just curious why you let people talk to you while you’re preaching.
Thanks again for all the good teaching.
Jim – Well, I must admit, this is a question that has been a long time coming and I’m honestly surprised that we haven’t heard it up until now. I agree that very few churches allow their congregants any input during the sermon. But, I wish more would. It would make it more difficult for men to promote unbiblical teaching. And, that may be exactly why it’s so uncommon.
So, why do we allow, and in fact encourage, input from our congregants? Well, it just sort of progressed naturally. You may know that I was raised in the Lutheran Church. During high school and college in Livonia, Michigan, I taught a fourth-grade Sunday school class and helped with catechism classes for teens prior to confirmation. Those kids, regardless of age, were interested in the Bible and the things of God. But, the rather staid, complacent attitude of the church kept them from truly interacting with the Word. So, I always encouraged questions and discussion. My classes became popular – but my long hair and leather jackets eventually persuaded the leadership to excuse me from my teaching duties.
One day the pastor, who was prone to very bland sermons with precious little in the way of actual theology, delved into the matter of sin and forgiveness. But, he was less-than-clear on a couple of points. In retrospect, I think he was afraid to offend his flock by actually convincing them of their sinfulness. So anyway, it was his custom to stand at the back door and shake hands as folk left. I waited until the last parishioner had left and I asked him about his mishandling of a text. He answered, and I quote, “Jim, a sermon is not a legal document. You can’t go through it looking for mistakes.”
I was eighteen at the time. But, I never forgot those words. To my way of thinking, even then, when you are discussing people’s ever-living, never-dying souls and their eternal destinies you really ought to strive for accuracy. Let me temper that statement by adding that I do not believe that anyone possesses Biblical expertise. We are all growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But, that pastor’s answer did seem particularly flippant to me. I left the Lutheran Church soon after that, due to a different conflict over money.
Anyway, after moving to Los Angeles and spending several years as a recording and touring musician, I served a four-year internship at a church in Los Angeles where the pastor was completely unapproachable, unquestionable and unassailable. Even among the staff there was no room for intelligent debate or alternate views. At the time, I was comfortable with that arrangement and considered myself primarily a student. But, inasmuch as no one is above error or correction, it became evident that the pastor’s complete insulation from other points-of-view or input allowed those errors to go unchecked. Eventually, due to our departure from Los Angeles and as I gained a greater grasp of Reformed doctrine, I left that church also.
After moving to Middle Tennessee I was part of the teaching staff for a local Sovereign Grace Church. But, as is typical with so many churches, the pastor was once again above criticism or question. And, that’s what really laid the groundwork for our current approach.
When GCA began in our home, one of the principles I was committed to was “raising the bar” of accountability. Normally, when people speak of accountability within a church, they are referring to financial matters; how the money is handled and spent. But, I wanted to go beyond mere financial accountability. The president of GCA handles all the money, finances and accounting. I do not know what most people in the church even give. And, I don’t want to know. I want to teach every person equally without giving thought to their level of commitment or support. I do believe that once people are taught properly, the Word of God will make them joyful givers.
But, I wanted the level of accountability in GCA to go beyond anything I had experienced in my church life. It’s all fine and good that people are accountable with the money, but it’s not the money that people are resting their souls on. It’s the teaching. It’s the doctrine. It’s the Word preached. So, I made the conscious decision that I would allow myself to be questioned at any point in my teaching. After all, I concluded, if I could not prove what I was saying Biblically, then I really had no business saying it.
But, there was another rationale in my thinking as well. Christianity and theology have their own jargon. And if you are not familiar with the terminology, you can easily get sidetracked or lost by the unfamiliar words. I mean, outside of revealed religion, how often do we really speak of “propitiation,” “vicarious suffering,” “predestination” or even “repentance”? These words need to be carefully defined in order for a congregation to come to any doctrinal unity.
I used to do an experiment with groups of people where I would ask them to take a mental snapshot of the first image that came to mind when I spoke a particular word. I would then say, “Dog.” We would go around the room and each person would describe the “dog” they imagined. Of course, there were collies, spaniels, dachshunds, Chihuahuas, Great Danes, you name it. And, that’s how it is when we use Christian jargon. When we say the words “sin” or “kingdom” or “glory,” everyone in the room will have their own reaction and definition for that term. So originally, I insisted that anyone who did not understand any word I used was to raise their hand and ask for clarification. That led naturally to questions about the subject we were teaching and questions that people had “always wanted to ask.” Over time, God has graciously added members to GCA who have backgrounds in theology, Greek, preaching and ministry. It has always been my contention that this is not “the Jim show,” despite my position as pastor. And, oftentimes the comments that are made within the congregation are of such depth, clarity and insight, that I think we are all blessed for having heard them.
So, I never wanted to squelch the Spirit as it moved in our group. I believe that’s the way the First Century church operated, given Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth. And, I believe that the interchange of ideas and views is vital to any body’s growth in Christ. It’s impossible for me to assume that I have all the answers or an unassailable expertise in the Scriptures. And over the years a trust has grown between myself and the members of GCA that I do not believe could have evolved without their knowledge that I am approachable, correctable, teachable and that I truly want their input.
Let me say finally that this method only works because the members of the body have one goal in mind: the edification of the whole group. If we allowed for comment and there were dissension among the ranks, our Sunday messages would turn into debates and arguments. But, the folk at GCA understand that they should think about their questions or comments and decide whether they truly edify the body or if they merely draw attention to the individual and distract from the free flow of the gospel.
And, as you have attested in your very kind and gracious comments, so far it’s working!
Thanks for writing and for the encouragement.
Yours in Him,