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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Rethinking the Platform

Okay, this one may be a little elaborate ...
It dawns on me that this blog is a pretty good opportunity to raise crazy notions about the church that might not get aired elsewhere.

Don’t panic, I’m not talking about heresy or even radicalism.

But beyond what the scripture itself says, in this venue we’ve never tried to promote a particular agenda or denominational affiliation. Obviously we have preferences, but we’re not trying to sell people on ‘this brand’ or ‘that brand’ of Christianity, just Christ.

In this space we are trying to talk to a broad spectrum of evangelical Christians about the faith we have in common and to examine how that faith intersects with popular culture, the 21st century mindset and the modern church, among other things.

So here’s something to consider that almost all of us have in common: platform ministry.

What Happens on Sunday Morning?

While most of us take very seriously the responsibility to handle of the word of God in the church, it is my observation that the traditional way in which many groups of believers have gone about discharging that responsibility is often more formula and format than personal conviction or prayerful consideration before God.

And really, most local evangelical churches look pretty similar to each other on Sunday mornings. Despite the many sweeping changes that have impacted the church in the last hundred years, some things have remained unerringly familiar. There are variations, of course, from denomination to denomination and within non-denominational gatherings, but in this area of church practice I suspect our similarities vastly outweigh any of our differences.

A Sunday morning preaching or teaching meeting (variously referred to as “Sunday School”, “Family Bible Hour”, the “Gospel Meeting” or just plain “church”) generally involves an introduction: congregational singing, announcements, opening prayers, maybe a Bible reading, perhaps some special music or a “worship team” (or these days, the occasional wacky liturgical dance number). The intro may last fifteen minutes or thirty, but more often than not it is followed by a single speaker, usually standing on a raised platform, often behind a pulpit with a microphone. In some gatherings the speaker may be at another venue entirely and the congregation takes in the message on a screen rather than in person. The speaker may be a pastor or layperson, local or a visitor, famous or unknown; the service may be an hour or more; it may commence at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. or noon; and so on and so forth.

But other than such minor details, the whole package contains very few surprises and is remarkably consistent from local church to local church.

And it is a “package”, let’s face it. I’m not being flippant. Compared to the simplicity of New Testament gatherings, anything we are currently doing is ritualistic, predictable and frequently far too low on spiritual energy.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that one-man platform ministry is the way to go, not because I believe it to be the most scriptural model, but because it’s what we’re all doing and I see little hope for wholesale change.

If we cannot be brought to reevaluate our entire style of meeting in the light of the New Testament, perhaps we might at least consider a few tweaks to the program in the interest of utility.

Appropriate Attire

This has been an issue at some point or other in most gatherings of Christians that eschewed the clerical collar and robes. Unfortunately many of those who claim the New Testament is authoritative in the church as to faith and practice still have odd notions about clothes. When I was growing up, standing on a platform without a jacket and tie would have had some diehards pulling out their hair. It was thought to be irreverent in the “house of God”.

This is no longer the issue it once was. I’ve listened to speakers in open collars, sweaters or golf shirts on a Sunday morning. We live in a society in which many people have to rent a suit for weddings or funerals and the “Casual Friday” vibe permeates the entire workweek. To my mind this is a welcome change. I’m fairly sure the Lord never broke out the Brooks Brothers and I guarantee the apostle Paul never rocked a leisure suit.

There is no scriptural authority for a platform dress code. None. What is important is that we not create a distraction from the message we are bringing with what we happen to be wearing. A man in an expensive suit and tie preaching to a group of farmers in Levis is as out of place as I was when, in my twenties, I led a Bible study in a Batman t-shirt. Wouldn’t do it today, but neither would I easily sit still for the imposition of extra-scriptural platform dress requirements.

“Turn With Me in Your Bibles …”

If I were to make a list of phrases I’ve heard the most in my life, that one would be right up there. Just this week I read that “It is very important that the congregation reads the scriptures along with you!” (That quote came WITH the exclamation mark.)

But why? For thousands of years nobody had a Bible in their hands when they came to church or synagogue. The availability of cheap, abundant copies of the word of God is an incredibly recent development. There is no magic in staring at words on a page, and it can in fact distract you as often as it serves to reinforce what the speaker is saying. Turning to the passage the speaker is referring to is a habit, nothing more profound than that. In my teens it was a competitive sport: let’s see who can appear most spiritual by paging their way to Habakkuk the quickest!

Many times I have watched as a teacher or preacher derailed all the momentum he had built in his argument and diffused all expectation that he had built in his audience by stopping dead in his tracks to get everyone to turn to a barely relevant passage along with him. Why? What possible spiritual purpose does it serve, and from whence comes the authority of this obsession with following along?

I love the tech-savvy new trend that pops a relevant verse onto a screen at the appropriate moment, rather than wasting time asking believers to page through their Bibles while the speaker moistens his throat. We can’t all arrange this, but it is a welcome development. It also eliminates any confusion caused by reading in different translations from the one used by the speaker.

The power is in the Word itself. It is just as living, active and powerful coming from the mouth of a speaker as staring back at you from a page in your lap.

Slang and “Street Language”

The word of God should be spoken reverently, say those who are rightly concerned about speaking for God in a dignified and unimpeachable way. But it does not necessarily follow that there is never an appropriate moment to speak in the language of the audience.

Now I have heard horrible clunkers from the platform on occasion, usually when a pudgy middle-aged conservative white man tried desperately to be hip and failed spectacularly. That is certainly a pitfall to be avoided.

But for those who come from and naturally relate to their audience, there is nothing particularly spiritual about avoiding an expression that everyone understands for the sake of using a liturgical catchphrase that nobody really grasps. It may have the appearance of gravity and seriousness, but if it fails to communicate, it is a waste of time.

One problem is that reverence is often confused with a stiff and unnatural formality that creates an unnecessary barrier to seekers and young believers. While flippancy should certainly be avoided, obvious affectation can be equally off-putting. Further, if a slang or street term is inappropriate for the platform, it is equally inappropriate in private conversation, and vice versa.

Negativity

Some would insist that we ought to avoid at all times making reference to individuals or churches in a negative way. There is wisdom in presenting what you have to say in a positive light wherever possible, and in avoiding gratuitous one-upmanship. We should never create an “us and them” environment simply for the sake of feeling good about or reinforcing what we are doing. And certainly there are solid reasons to avoid criticizing others for things we might well also be doing. We all ought to beware of hypocrisy.

But to suggest that the servant of God should never speak negatively about the teaching and habits of those who presume to stand in a place of religious authority when they are demonstrably inconsistent with or in violation of the word of God is to ignore the consistent practices of both the Lord and his apostles. I’ll quote a single example but could easily cite a dozen: 
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.”
I’m fairly sure Peter’s face was red for a few minutes after Paul’s public dressing down. But Paul was right, Peter was wrong, and for the sake of believers all over the world, the issue needed to be addressed honestly rather than papered over for the sake of Peter’s dignity.

Negative ministry? Absolutely. But necessary ministry nonetheless. It would have been inappropriate to muzzle Paul in the interests of maintaining a phony appearance of church solidarity on an issue of such importance.

Tweaking the Product

The sort of thinking I’m advocating with respect to platform ministry is such a small step in the right direction as to be almost insignificant, but such changes are often virulently opposed by those who have an emotional investment in the status quo or those who view tradition as carrying equal weight to the word of God.

I would love to see believers consistently evaluate suggested changes to current practice in the light of scripture rather than digging in their heels on the basis of preference or loyalty to valued servants of God who preached and taught in a particular way for reasons related to the circumstances in which they lived.

I have a feeling that if some of those old stalwarts could see what others have made of their memories, they might have a thing or two to say.

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