Is church too complicated?

In common with many churches, we run something of a ‘skeleton operation’ over the school summer holidays.  Many of the congregation are on holiday, and so some of what we normally do becomes unnecessary or not possible.  That has been compounded this year by a move to a new venue for Sunday worship, and we have been gradually finding our feet.

Things have been different over the summer, but in some ways they haven’t.  We haven’t had a Sunday school, our music group has been smaller, for a couple of weeks we had no hot drinks after the service etc.  But we have still met together, we have still worshipped God, we have talked, we have prayed, we have loved one another.

All of which increases my growing sense that we make church too complicated.  How many of our congregation are there on a Sunday morning because they are on a rota?  How many do what they do because they feel they must, rather than because they want to?  How many of us spend more time during the week preparing for our Sunday worship than we spend actually worshipping?

It has become almost a truism that church can’t function without rotas, but I wonder if the opposite is the case.  What would a church look like where everyone was guided in our contributions by the Holy Spirit rather than a piece of paper?  Where if I feel inspired to bake biscuits for the post-service coffee I can do so, rather than instead forcing myself to do a flower arrangement because that’s what the rota says.

Yes, this might lead to church that is a little more spontaneous and a little less ‘polished’.  But surely that is a price worth paying for a church where people genuinely enjoy their contribution.  And it could be a good way to discover what people really value about the church community, and what is being done simply because we feel it should be.

Some examples of how this might work:

  • Get rid of the flower rota and encourage people to bring flowers as they feel inspired.  Some weeks there will be none (and some people may need encouraging that this is okay, and they don’t have to bring some just in case no-one else does). Other weeks the church may look like the Chelsea flower show, and even those who never normally notice the flowers will be inspired to glory in God’s creation.
  • No tea and coffee rota.  Not, I hasten to clarify, no tea and coffee!  In the church where I grew up the first person into the kitchen after the service put on the kettle, someone would throw some teabags into a pot, and if you wanted a drink you went through and made yourself one.  I recognise that was a congregation of only about 40, and yes we did keep a pot of powdered milk for the occasional week when no-one had realised that the people who usually brought fresh were on holiday, but by and large it worked – and there was always someone who had brought some biscuits.
  • And we don’t need to stop at practicalities such as flowers and coffee.  Even key parts of our service could be handled this way.  What if we encouraged everyone musical to turn up whenever possible with their instrument, or ready to sing in the worship group?  Depending on how your church structures worship you may need to still rota a leader for each week, and there is the risk that occasionally they may end up playing alone, but some churches may find musicians who they didn’t know they had.
  • And if we want to go all the way, why not dispense with a preaching rota, at least on occasions, and encourage everyone to reflect on the passage for the week and bring their Spirit inspired thoughts.  That of course is nothing new, it’s how the Brethren have often done things, and 1 Corinthians 14:26 would suggest it was familiar to the New Testament church.  But how many churches do it often these days?

Every congregation is different, and depending on the available gifts there may always need to be some rotas to ensure that essential areas are covered.  But I think there is a sound principle behind all this.  How do we do church in a way which means that people are coming joyfully to offer themselves in service in a ministry to which they feel called, and in a way which uses their gifts, rather than just to fill a gap on a rota for something which may not actually be necessary?

 

 

 

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Taking the Christ out of Easter

Every Easter the news carries stories of complaints about the religious significance of Easter being pushed out by chocolate, bunnies, and flowers.  This year the issue seems to have gained particular momentum, helped by the alleged omission of the word “Easter” from advertising for a National Trust egg hunt, and the decision of the Prime Minister to speak out in response.

I’ll be honest, I’ve read few of the stories about this, but the ones I have followed predictable lines.  Well meaning Christian voices protesting that Jesus is the real meaning of Easter, being driven out by a secular agenda.

I would, of course, affirm completely that the central meaning of Easter is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But I disagree that this is being pushed out by other celebrations.  Jesus has long since been pushed out, past tense.  Easter for the vast majority of people is a secular holiday involving time with the family and lots of chocolate, on which these Christians do keep trying to impose a religious story.

As just one example of this, I occasionally complete online surveys, and four times this year I have been asked how I will celebrate Easter.  Of the tick-box options given, not one of those surveys included an option for attending church.

So how do we respond?  I would suggest that the answer is to stop trying to pretend that our religious remembrance and the secular chocolate-fest are one and the same.  They are two distinct events that happen to share a common date.  (Incidentally, I would suggest a similar approach for Christmas, but that’s another blog post).

What does that look like?  Well it doesn’t look like retreating into our church buildings to hold our religious observance hidden from the world.  But it does look like making our faith in the events of Easter known in a way that recognises that the Jesus story of Easter is completely alien to most people, and completely ‘other’ to everything they associate with the word Easter.  It looks like letting people celebrate Easter according to their understanding of what it means, without moaning that they haven’t recognised our understanding.  It looks like telling our own story, and celebrating our own events in a way which doesn’t try to pretend they are the same thing.  And it is important that we do tell our story, and continue to celebrate our faith in a public way, as the Christian story of Easter still has the power to transform lives.

Tomorrow I, along with others from my church and other churches in our town, will stand in the main shopping street and hand out free Easter eggs.  Each of these has a sticker saying, “Easter shows that God loves you” with a picture of a cross.  At first glance this could seem to contradict some of what I am saying here.  But for me it is important that this isn’t an attempt to browbeat others into seeing Easter our way, or to claim that they have got it wrong.  Rather, it is a means for us to communicate what for us as Christian people is central to our understanding of Easter, and the fact that we can do so in a way that recognises the other meaning of Easter simply makes it all the more powerful.

How important is the Bible, really?

God has been challenging me about the place of the Bible in my life, and particularly in the worshipping life of the church community.  Though we don’t use the label, Beverley Baptist Church comes from the tradition known as Evangelical.  The word means different things to different people, but common to all definitions would be a high place for the Bible as the Word of God.

And yet, look at our average Sunday service, and the Biblical content is often just a few short verses.  Contrast this with the “Catholic” tradition – in which I include Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, and Orthodox in all its forms.  In all of these the Bible would be held alongside church traditions which are in some way or other also seen as authoritative.  So on paper the Bible is less important than in the Evangelical church, yet in a Catholic service of worship there will be four readings – Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel.  And alongside this a written liturgy that is packed with Biblical quotes, imagery and allusions.  Which tradition seems to place more importance on the Bible?

To which the Evangelical might respond that we spend a substantial amount of time each week unpacking, interpreting, and seeking to apply the few verses that we have read.  This is broadly true, and shows perhaps a differing understanding of the purpose of reading the scriptures – the Evangelical church reads a passage from the Bible in order to preach from it, and to hear God speaking through the preacher; the Catholic church reads the Bible because it is valuable to hear in its own right as “The Word of the Lord”.  That is perhaps an oversimplification, but one I think with some truth in it.

But I have a niggling feeling that the above is a convenient excuse to cover up the decreasing importance placed on the Bible in Evangelical churches.  Is it really our “supreme authority on matters of faith and doctrine”, to use an oft quoted phrase.  This was really brought home to me recently during my studies.  One of our modules is “Missional Leadership” and as part of this we have occasional guest lecturers.  Most of these come from Evangelicalism, broadly defined, and they have brought us ideas from various books, personal experience, secular management practice, etc.  Last week our guest lecturer was the Venerable John Day, an Anglo-Catholic.  And he turned us to the Bible, to the story of the Emmaus Road, and over the course of an hour ably expounded leadership based on what Jesus did in that story.

So, how important is the Bible to us, really?

God is at work

God is at work among us.  I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said to me there was something special about our last two Sunday morning gatherings.  The presence of God was very real, and he spoke clearly to many.  I believe this is the latest stage in a movement of the Spirit which has been building since the summer.  Our Sunday morning series on Ephesians has been a catalyst for this: inspiring us, challenging us, and changing us. 

A month ago now we heard a rallying call from Steph preaching on the first part of Ephesians 2, reminding us of our high calling as a community who are here-and-now seated with Christ in the presence of the Father.  The next week we considered how the church is the temple of God, that he dwells among us as we meet to worship, with the challenge to consider how we prepare for Sunday mornings as a result.  And this has borne fruit as there has been a change in the atmosphere of Sunday morning in subsequent weeks. 

Then Peter reminded us from Ephesians 3:12 that we may “approach God with freedom and confidence,” and asked the question why so few felt able and willing to pray during times of open prayer in worship.  Service leaders have picked up on this, and encouraged us, and new life has been breathed into our prayer together.  Building on our successful Day of Prayer last month we are beginning to grow in this vital but struggling area of our life together.

Last week God moved many of us powerfully as we reflected on the sheer unimaginable scale of God’s love for us, and simply scratched the surface of what that means.  A very special service where God’s presence was felt in everything that was said and done.  There is always a sense of nervousness after such an occasion, as the next week can feel quite flat by comparison.  But this morning’s service too was special, and used powerfully by God in many ways, not least the challenge to humility towards one another as we make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.

And it hasn’t just been about Sunday mornings.  One recent week seemed to be particularly hard for many in the congregation.  But it was really encouraging to see how readily people rallied round to help those in need, and the love and support of the church community – a very tangible outworking of that unity of the Sprit. The doors that seem to be opening to work more closely with the Cherry Tree Centre and through them to the community of Swinemoor are another example of God at work.  And I’ve already mentioned the Day of Prayer.

All of which leads me to say God is at work among us.  I don’t know the fullness of the plans which he has for this stage of the life of our church.  But I do know that if we continue to seek and expect his presence with us in worship, to spend time before him in prayer, and to live out our unity in loving compassion for one another and the world, there is much more that he can and will do in us and through us.

“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 1:6

Faith and Works

While getting our boys ready this morning we were flicking through the Children’s Bible and came across the parable of the two sons, in Matthew 21.

There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

God challenged me directly through this about an area of my life in which I have been saying to God and people involved, “I will do this,” and meaning that, but in practice have not done so.

But then he led  me on from there to reflect wider about what this says about people’s response to God.  This is a little crude, because in reality there are scales and degrees, but I wonder if we can basically group people into 4 categories: those who say they will and do; those who say they will and don’t; those who say they won’t but do; and those who say they won’t and don’t.

The question is, how does God respond to these groups, and particularly the middle two.  The Protestant emphasis on salvation by faith not by our good works has tended to favour those who say over those who do.  But I don’t think that is correct.  In this parable, those who outwardly reject God but still do what he says, are seen as being in the right, whereas those who profess to follow God but their lives do not reflect this, are in the wrong.

And I would suggest the rest of the Bible backs this up.  To give just a couple of examples from the mouth of Jesus: Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven”; and against that the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:37-40 where the righteous are presented as having been oblivious to the fact they were encountering Jesus through their works, but the works are the reason they are welcomed into his presence.

In probably every church in the world there are people who profess to follow Jesus but whose lives consistently fail to bear that out.  Please note I am not talking about there being occasions where we don’t do the right thing – none of us are perfect – but where the whole basis and direction of the life is contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

And there are also those whose lives are lived in accordance with the love of God, even though they would not claim his name, or even actively reject him.  The Bible suggests this latter group are more in accordance with God’s will, but they are by definition not in our churches.  It is challenging to think that there are those outside the congregation who are closer to the kingdom of heaven than some of those inside.

Obviously my aim for myself, and my prayer for each one, is to be in the group of those who say we will follow Jesus and then live according to that desire.  But if I had to choose, I’d rather be outside the church doing God’s will, than inside but refusing to follow his call.

 

 

 

 

 

First year over

Today I received the marks for my last essay of the academic year, and so I have now officially finished the first year of my degree.

And what a year it has been.  I’ve been taught Old Testament by a vicar whose pioneering work with those on the margins gives real insight to issues of suffering and lament; New Testament by a man who manages to be super intelligent and teach us so much yet at the same time be genuinely excited by new insights from us students; Mission and Evangelism by another vicar whose years of experience gave perspective on how to (and how not to) put theory into practice.  I’ve grasped a (very) little New Testament Greek, and I’ve studied Church History at the rate of 200 years an hour!

In the course of the 33 Mondays at college I’ve also drunk well over 100 cups of coffee, and consumed similar number of slices of cake.  I’ve encountered God in times of joyful worship, and deep questioning.  I’ve had many conversations with people who will be friends and colleagues for life, and learnt much from their wisdom and experience.

Most of all I’ve had fun, and I’m looking forward to another 3 years!

 

 

 

Easter

Firstly, apologies for ages with no posts.  On top of the busy-ness of church and study, we have moved house, so life has been a bit hectic!  But I hope to get back to blogging again now, and by way of a start here is my latest contribution to the Beverley Guardian.

This weekend we celebrate Easter, when Christians remember the death of Jesus Christ.  It is one of two Christian festivals which are observed in some way by people outside the church: shops will shut, time will be taken off work, and lots of chocolate will be eaten.

The other festival is of course Christmas, which is the larger occasion for most people, but for the church it is, or should be, Easter which is the main festival.  It has been argued that you can’t have Easter without Christmas – Jesus couldn’t die unless he was first born.  But I would suggest that without Easter there is no need for Christmas.  If he wasn’t going to die there would be no point in Jesus having been born.

The events in the life of Jesus which took place over the first Easter weekend make for unpleasant reading.  An innocent man stripped of his dignity, betrayed, tortured, beaten, subjected to a mock trial and condemned to death in a miscarriage of justice that would not look out of place in the most corrupt of dictatorships.  There is nothing uncommon about political executions or people dying for their religious beliefs.  It has happened in our own country in the past and sadly still occurs almost daily around the world today.  But we don’t remember the names of most of the victims even two years later, never mind 2000.  So what makes Jesus different?

For Christians, the answer is that the death of Jesus was not just the result of a plot between authoritarian religious leaders and the occupying Roman political power.  It was the willing act of a man who claimed that he was God and that his death would achieve something.  On the first Good Friday, Jesus died the death that was due to each of us, as rebels and outcasts, so that we no longer have to die in that way.  The story doesn’t end on Good Friday, and Jesus coming back to life on Easter Sunday shows the new life which is now available to each of us through what he has done.

This is why the events of Easter are the biggest festival in the Christian calendar.  They were the most important events in the life of Jesus, and indeed in the history of the world.  In one weekend God did everything that was necessary to deal with evil, suffering, and death, and offer a new way of life lived in him and through him.  So yes, Christmas is important, but for me Easter will always be the most meaningful weekend of the year.