Participation is God's design!

By Andy O'Connell

Open microphone

If you've ever been to a service in one of our sort of churches, you will know that we value participation. We see gathered worship as a participatory thing, not simply a service to attend passively. Everyone gets to play a part; not just those on the rota for the morning! 

We draw this from the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (1Co), which variously deals with various aspects of worship gatherings, including the Lord's supper (chapters 10-11), spiritual gifts in worship (12-14), preaching (1-2,9,15), baptism (1,10) and offerings (16:1-4).

As we gather, we often quote Paul's famous words: "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." 

That last phrase sums up a strong theme throughout the letter: "Don't please yourself, flaunt your gifts, abuse your rights; rather, love one another, seek unity and use your gift for the common good, to build others up!" (Bear in mind that 1Co was written by the Apostle Paul as a corrective to the rather wild and unruly church at Corinth.)

So as we gather for meetings of the community (we don't gather to '(passively) attend services', rather to '(actively) meet together with God'!) we come ready to share, as the Holy Spirit gives gifts. I may pray out in praise to God. I may bring a prophecy, helping us see how God sees something. I may read a scripture that has encouraged me. I may share a story (testimony) from my week, something God has done in my life. A 'word of knowledge' may help someone respond for prayer. I may share a tongue, and we will wait for the interpretation.

What is the gift of tongues? 1Co says that the tongues is a gift from God, a spiritual language that helps us find 'words' to offer to God (14:2) building up our own spiritual life (14:4), through offering prayers, praise and intercession. Tongues also has a place (when interpreted) in edifying the church (14:5), and even as declaration to unbelievers (e.g. Acts 2:5-11). Tongues can be spoken or sung (14:15).

Good order – but not British order!

1Co 14 also teaches us how to do this in 'good order' (14:33), so that we do not have unruly and unhelpful meetings, but meetings that are mutually beneficial (edifying). We speak in turn (14:31). The gifts are under our control and we are expected to steward them responsibly (14:32). We should limit contributions in order to avoid overload (14:27, 29).

However, I note we come at this text from a British perspective, and tend to highlight the 'good order' aspects I've just listed. I've not mentioned the instruction that one speaker can be interrupted by another (14:30) - that's simply not British! And the idea that church is a 'crowd-sourced, open mic, participatory' experience seems quite counter-cultural (and introvert-insensitive!) for many of us, where we are used to being led in set forms of worship by appointed leaders. 

Well-ordered tongues?

A question often asked is what is the place of tongues in gathered worship? Or, more accusatorily, people ask, why do we allow it? Doesn't Paul teach in 14:28 that uninterpreted tongues should not be used in public?

Well he does seem to say that, but he also goes on to say "do not forbid speaking in tongues" (14:39), "I speak in tongues more than all of you" (14:18) and makes reference to singing in tongues (14:15) (singing is usually a collective activity).

Before we try to make sense of Paul's teaching about tongues and interpretation, we need to note three factors that affect our perspective:

  1. The context of the letter: unruly disorder in Corinth
  2. British culture: reserved and set forms of worship
  3. The controversy that surrounds tongues today: "The gift of tongues … is the most controversial of the all the spiritual gifts we find in the New Testament, and that's saying something. It attracts more extreme comments than any other gift, … Many Pentecostals regard it as the sine qua non of Spirit baptism, and many conservatives regard those who use it (or claim to) as emotionally suggestible, unbiblical, or perhaps even demonic."1

We also note that the references to tongues in 1Co12-14 are the only prolonged discussion in the NT, so we get little help from the rest of the NT as to how to interpret them. The other main reference, in Acts 2, shows the use of tongues in a large public gathering, bringing people to faith (which seems to be at odds with 1Co 14:23!)

So what does this passage teach us about the right use of tongues (and interpretation)?

Paul tells us to not just to speak in tongues!

The Corinthian church seem to overvalue tongues as against other gifts. Paul warns them to act out of love, and utilise the range of gifts God has given.

Paul tells us that spiritual gifts will all seem a bit weird to unbelievers – but, just possibly, that's part of what they're supposed to do!

The bit about thinking like children and about signs is one of the more difficult2 chunks of the passage to understand (14:20-25). It references back to Isaiah 28:11-12, where we see that a sign is something God uses to test people's response to him. In the Isaiah passage, God says he speaks to his people (who he sees as children!) through foreign languages, to help them see that they are behaving foolishly and rebelliously. A sign is an indicator of where our hearts are at.

Jesus makes a similar point about his own parables, which can be misunderstood by some, despite being, at face value, very simple short stories: "They asked him about the parables. He said to them, “The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables. This is so that they can look and see but have no insight, and they can hear but not understand. Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven." (Mark 4:10-12).

Coming back to 1Co 14: It seems that uninterpreted tongues serves as a sign that the unbeliever is unbelieving! The fact (14:23) that they come into our assembly and say "you're out of your mind" may not mean that we need to act differently, but is rather a sign that they don't understand God's ways.

Thirdly, he says think about others – especially guests!

However, 14:13 encourages interpretation of tongues, which fits rather more straightforwardly with Paul's general concern for "using your gift the common good and to build others up".


Perhaps we could summarise this way: Paul wants church worship gatherings to be as inclusive as possible: he expects unbelievers to be present, and he wants things to be done in a way that is as helpful as possible. However, tongues (and the other spiritual gifts for that matter) will always seem weird to unbelievers, and that's OK, as it will provoke them to think about where they are at in their own relationship with God.

Collective tongues?

Lastly, what about tongues when we're all speaking or singing at once? We and many commentators find differentiation between what is said publically (representatively, by an individual) to the assembly, and simply the gathered (collective) act of worship.2

When we come together, and the worship leader says "let's all shout out together and tell God how much we appreciate him", using our English or our mother tongues, or even the gift of tongues, the point is not that we listen to each other but that we all talk to God! We offer prayer and praise in our natural tongue - or in a spiritual tongue.

That is very different from someone who comes to the front, take a mic, and says something in a tongue for the benefit of all of us. This time we're supposed to listen! And our experience is, that as we wait for the interpretation, it often takes us deeper in worship and adoration. The tongue - a spiritual language declaring praise to God - seems more effective in building us up than simply the same thing being said in English! Funnily enough, that's what 1Co 14:5 says.

In practice

So, where does that all leave us in our worship gatherings?

  • We invite people to participate, not spectate
  • We will encourage everyone to grow in gifts that can be used for the common good
  • We encourage people to pray for the gift of tongues - just ask, if you want someone to pray with you!
  • We expect that unbelievers will be present and will, as best we can, help them understand what is happening
  • However, we will not 'dumb down' what the Holy Spirit wants to do among us
  • We share at most 2 or 3 'gift' contributions, and then pause to reflect and summarise what God seems to be saying/wanting/doing
  • We will interpret tongues, where they are intended to be heard by everyone
  • We encourage speaking or singing in tongues as part of collective worship or intercession



2 1Co 14:21-55 are "extraordinarily difficult" verses, seeming to contradict themselves, as respected theologian D A Carson notes, in his Showing the Spirit (a theological exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14), 1987, p.113. For the reader who wants to dig deeper, Carson goes on to summarise seven ways people have exposited this text. Alternatively, Sam Storms summarises well in Understanding Spiritual Gifts, 2020, p.223f.