On the closing of churches for onsite services and meetings

When I hear that the Alberta Government is allowing churches to hold onsite worship services with 1/3 capacity, I realize that I live in a different world from many other Alberta Christians. Let me explain. Warning: this will not be short.

On Saturday March 14th, early in the morning, I and all my Anglican Diocese of Edmonton clergy colleagues received an email from our Bishop, Jane Alexander, announcing her decision to suspend on-site worship services in the Diocese of Edmonton until further notice because of rising Covid-19 infections. Note: this was before the Government of Alberta shut down on-site services.

I already had my Sunday prep finished and was looking forward to a quiet day at home, but that went out of the window. I knew nothing about Facebook Live and Zoom, but I quickly posted a text version of the Sunday liturgy on our website, recorded YouTube videos of my sermon and the children’s talk, and taught myself how to post them.

The next week we live streamed a service from the church using Facebook Live, as well as continuing to post resources to the website as we had done the previous week. It took us about eight weeks to figure out that the reason our live stream from the church was so choppy was nothing to do with our equipment and everything to do with the crappy internet service to the church from Telus. In order to have a good livestream you need about 4 or 5 kbps upload speeds – ours were about 0.8!!! This meant that the livestream was difficult to watch, but nonetheless, our people supported it enthusiastically. I encouraged them to chat with each other in the comments, and it was obvious that they were enjoying not only the content but also the contact with each other.

Eventually we moved the livestream to our house where the internet service is better. This meant we could not have other leaders from the church join in the livestream as it was not a good idea to invite lots of people into our home. But our live streamed services and the materials we post on our website continue to be popular. Between the two platforms I think we reach between 80-100 people a Sunday. Our average on site Sunday attendance last year was 75, so that’s not too shabby.

I must emphasize that I wasn’t trained to do any of this. Every single technological solution we tried, I had to teach myself to do it. And it all took far longer to prepare for. Normally, to prepare for a Sunday service is about six hours’ work for me. Doing it online, it’s more like ten.

In late spring and early summer it became possible for us to hold on-site services again. However, people were nervous and most were in no hurry (and I must point out that ours is a very community-oriented church and people really miss meeting each other!). We did a few outdoor services while the weather was warm (first time I’d received Holy Communion in months!!!), and then in October began meeting inside again on Sunday afternoons, while continuing our live streaming on Sunday mornings. Normally our capacity is about 150. However, with two metre social distancing between family groups we could fit at most about 30 people. Not that we ever had that many; most people didn’t feel safe, despite all our Covid protocols. The biggest service we had was about 15 people.

We also have several midweek study groups – one on Thursday morning, one on Friday morning, one on Tuesday evening. Since March these have all moved online, using Zoom. Our attendance has actually been better since we took this decision. I have done most of my parish visiting and pastoral counselling by phone, or by Zoom or Facetime or Facebook Messenger video chats. During the summer I was able to do some outdoor one on one pastoral visits, but now it’s all indoors again and online. St. Margaret’s is currently using a bedroom in my house rent free as my pastoral office!

As Fall progressed, we all watched with increasing unease as the Covid numbers climbed dramatically. Finally, about ten days ago Bishop Jane announced that in order to do what we could to decrease risk of community transmission, she would once again close the churches for onsite worship. Note: for the second time, she was ahead of the Alberta Government, which STILL has not closed the churches.

I am completely on board with what my bishop has done. There is huge risk of community transmission and this is a deadly virus. By now we all know people who have gone down with it, and many of us know people who have died from it. Yes, we know that getting together for worship is a huge comfort for us, giving us a sense of connection with God and each other (and the mental health benefits of churchgoing have been documented). But what if someone dies because of it? How is that loving our neighbour?

So I get very uneasy when I see Christians fighting rigorously for their rights to ignore common sense public health regulations in the name of freedom of worship. My freedom to worship is not restricted! I meet every Sunday with 80-100 people online, and in daily prayers during the week with about 15-20. But even if I was restricted, the restriction is justified because of the danger to people’s health. Our God of love does not demand that people worship him at the cost of transmitting a deadly virus to their grandparents!

But I also get uneasy when I see people yelling about how ‘churches are getting it easy’ under these new government regs. I suspect that we Anglicans aren’t the only ones who haven’t waited around while the Alberta Government sat on its hands and did nothing. I suspect other mainline denominations have done the same thing as us. But I don’t know, because we mainliners don’t tend to be pushy people who make a big noise about what we’re doing. So it may come as a surprise to some of you non-church people to know that we’ve already gone far beyond what the government has required of us.

The royal law Jesus laid down in scripture was to love God and love our neighbour. It’s often been observed that one of the best ways to love God IS to love our neighbour. We Alberta Anglicans are doing that by staying out of our buildings right now, even though we really, really miss each other and ache to be able to have a proper service, with hugs and hymns and coffee hour and all the rest. But this is what we need to do right now. Please, people, don’t wait for the Alberta Government; they’ve already demonstrated that they’ll stall for as long as they can. As I saw on ‘Unvirtuous Abbey’ a couple of days ago (to slightly paraphrase the words of Joshua 24.15), “As for me and my house, we are staying put!”

Rant over.

Let It Be Soon

I’m off to bed on this Easter Eve night, looking forward to leading Easter Sunday worship tomorrow. But let me leave you with this rather long and rambling thought.

In some Anglican circles on the Internet, prophets of doom are foretelling the end of churchgoing. All this streaming of services, they say, will show people that they don’t need to go to church. They can stay home and watch it in their pajamas.

Well, if your church is a spectator activity, I guess that may be true. But mine is not, and neither are most churches I know. They are communities of friends who love each other. We love hearing each other’s voices when we sing and pray. We shake hands and hug when the services begin and end. We get together for Bible study and for lunch groups. We build and paint and fix and work together to make life better for the people around us.

Let’s make no mistake about this. Right now we’re doing what we have to do—staying away from each other. But we’re not doing it because we want to. We long for that day when we can stand together again around the altar and share communion with our sisters and brothers. We long for the sound of each other’s voices and the feeling of each other’s hugs. We miss the gentle conversation, the jokes, the smell of the candles, the warmth of the sun streaming through the church windows. We miss each other. And we long, we ache, to be together again.

The end of churchgoing? I think not. I’ve had email after email from parishioners thanking me for all the work we’ve put into making online church work. But every single one of them is longing for the day when it won’t be necessary any more. And so am I. I’m a preacher, not a broadcaster. My sermons are preached in front of groups of people, people I know and love. I can sense when they’re with me. I can tell by their faces when they’re finding the message exciting, or challenging, or captivating, or boring, or too long! I live for that sense of connection I get when I’m standing up before a real live flesh-and-blood congregation of people I know and love.

Christ is Risen, and I know it, so I’m not without hope. I know God will bring us through this time. It’s been well said that at the moment we have to stay apart, so that when we come together again, no one will be missing. I get that. But that day when I can throw open the church doors and welcome the family home again will be the high point of this year for me. I know that day is probably some months away yet, but I can’t help the fact that, in my heart of hearts, I’m longing and crying out, “Please God, let it be soon!”

The Power of the Cross

I want to speak to you today about our epistle reading, from 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, and I want to begin by acknowledging how difficult it can be for us to read a letter like this and think ourselves back into the situation of the people who first heard it. Let me quickly name some of the differences between them and us.

First, we aren’t the first Christians in Edmonton. Christian churches have been active in this area for at least a hundred and fifty years, and many of us come from families that have been Christian for much longer than that. But this was not true of the people who first heard 1 Corinthians. They were the first Christians in Corinth.

Sometime in the late forties A.D. a short, unimpressive-looking wandering preacher named Paul arrived in one of the busiest and most prosperous cities of the ancient world, the city of Corinth, capital of the Roman province of Achaia. In Paul’s day it was a multicultural city, more Roman than Greek, with a good number of rich people and tens of thousands of slaves, and more gods than you can even begin to imagine.

When Paul arrived in Corinth he soon met a Jewish couple who were in the same business as him: tent-making. Their names were Aquilla and Priscilla, and they had recently arrived from Rome. It’s not clear whether they were already Christian when Paul met them, but if not, they became Christian very quickly. Paul moved in with them and they became business partners, and in his spare time, Paul went to the Jewish synagogue and tried to convince people there that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. They put up with him for a while, but eventually they’d had enough, and he left them and moved his activities next door, to the house of a man named Titius Justus. He was probably one of Paul’s first converts in Corinth, and so was a Jew called Crispus, a member of the synagogue. Things took off from there, and before long there were probably several thriving house-churches in the city of Corinth.

So, with the possible exception of Aquilla and Priscilla, these first Corinthian churchgoers were all brand new Christians. They could remember a day when they had never heard of Jesus, they could remember when Paul first preached the Gospel to them, and they could remember their decision to become Christians. Their baptism was an adult, believer’s baptism. Their conversion was a darkness to light, ‘was blind but now I see’ kind of experience. That’s the first difference between them and us.

Second, their church life was very different from ours. Our church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. We meet in a very nice building set aside for the worship and life of our congregation. We have an administrative framework, a full-time, paid parish priest, a governance structure, and centuries of traditions. We have written Bibles we can hold in our hands and a defined theological tradition to help us interpret them. We come together to worship using a liturgy with roots that go back almost two thousand years.

The Corinthians had none of that. Their churches had no paid professional leaders. They met in people’s homes and had no written order of service. They had no Bibles to read from, unless some of the Jewish members had been able to copy out by hand a few of the most important passages from what we call the Old Testament. If there were Bible readings, they were probably delivered from memory, and the New Testament didn’t even exist yet, so stories of Jesus were like gold dust, and if you knew a few of them, you were always busy sharing them! As far as we can tell their communion service was more like a pot luck supper, and some people were actually getting drunk at it! There was no international church structure that defined Christian doctrine, and not much of a process to discuss issues when they came up.

Third, their Christian experience was far more vivid and egalitarian than ours. In 1 Corinthians we read that when they came together, their services were more like a free-for-all. I imagine them sitting in the round, facing each other in their small house churches. When they were praying, it was normal for someone in the group to receive a message from God to pass on to the people, which would be done, and people would listen and weigh what was said. Sometimes a member would suddenly break out in an unknown language—‘speaking in tongues’, it was called—and when they were finished, someone else would speak in Greek (everyone’s common language), the Holy Spirit giving them the interpretation. Different people exercised gifts of healing and miracles, or received revelations from God about things they couldn’t have known by their own natural abilities. It was all very exciting and supernatural; there was nothing boring or predictable about it.

We know from the book of Acts that Paul stayed in Corinth for about a year and a half, and then he moved on to share the Gospel in other communities, taking Priscilla and Aquilla with him as far as Ephesus. We presume that when he left, he had appointed teams of elders to lead the house churches, but they weren’t priests or ministers the way we understand them; at best, they were a cross between lay readers and vestry members. We can imagine what powerful figures Paul and Priscilla and Aquilla had been when they were living there, and how much the people missed them after they left. And after a while, troubles began.

Apollos was a powerful, charismatic preacher who encountered Priscilla and Aquilla in Ephesus. John the Baptist had set him on the way to faith, but he hadn’t yet been baptized as a Christian. Priscilla and Aquilla helped put him on the right track, and before long he was full of enthusiasm to share the Gospel in Corinth, so off he went. Paul, by his own confession, wasn’t much of an orator, but Apollos was amazing, and he held the crowds spellbound. Some people started making comparisons in their mind. “Wow—Paul wasn’t really anything to write home about compared to this guy!” So he began to attract quite a following in Corinth.

And there was another party too. We know from the New Testament that some of the more traditional Jewish Christians weren’t very happy with Paul. He was telling the Gentiles that it wasn’t necessary for them to be circumcised and keep the Jewish laws; all they needed was to believe in Jesus, be baptized, and walk the way of love as Jesus had commanded. This made no sense to the Jewish Christians: God had promised to send the Messiah to Israel, so in order to benefit from the Messiah, you had to be Jewish! So Gentiles who wanted to become Christian had to be circumcised (if they were male) and take on the whole Law of Moses.

Paul was constantly trying to fight off the verbal attacks of these people, and we can make a very good guess as to what the strongest one was. “Well, you know, Paul did a very good job in his own way, but he’s not a real apostle! He didn’t actually follow Jesus around Galilee and listen to him preach, so it’s not surprising that he got a few things wrong, is it? And now we need to set you straight about those things.” We don’t know for sure whether Peter was ever involved in those disputes, but we do know that those Jewish Christians claimed his authority. “Peter was the one Jesus actually appointed as our leader, you know, not Paul!”

So that’s what’s going on in our reading for today. Some messengers had come to Paul to tell him the Christian community in Corinth was splitting up into opposing groups. “Apollos is the best!” “No, no—we’re loyal to Paul!” “No—Peter is the original leader, so we’ll follow him!” And perhaps worst of all, a fourth group was saying, “None of you lot are real Christians—we’re the only ones who really follow Christ!”

Now, on this point, we might find it easy to identify with our ancient Corinthian sisters and brothers! Because of course, since the earliest time, we Christians have found it very hard to stay united around Jesus. Apollos and Peter and Paul are long dead, but others since their time have been influential leaders, and those leaders have attracted their loyal followers. Presbyterians and Reformed Christians around the world look to John Calvin. Lutherans look to Martin Luther. Mennonites look to Menno Simons. Twentieth century evangelicals might have looked to Billy Graham. Very few Anglicans are actually great admirers of Henry VIII, but we do like Thomas Cranmer, who wrote the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549!

Today we see how some TV evangelists are strong preachers with great communication skills and all the wonders of modern technology to help them reach their audience. Modern Corinthians might say, “I follow Joel Osteen!” or “I follow Paula White!” or “I follow Kay Arthur!” But let’s not get too smug about this; it’s not only evangelicals and Pentecostals who get easily wowed by strong leadership. I watch the way people treat the Pope sometimes, with crowds of hundreds of thousands flocking to meet him as if he was Jesus Christ himself. And, even closer to home, I have sometimes been told that I’m a real follower of C.S. Lewis!

What’s wrong with all this? What’s wrong is, first, that it distracts people from following Jesus, and second, that it emphasizes human strength rather than human weakness.

In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul makes a radical statement: God’s power is made perfect in weakness. And the Christian gospel glories in weaknesses. In the passage just after our reading for today, Paul says, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1.22-24). Let’s stop for a minute to notice the shocking nature of that statement. ‘Christ’ is the Greek word for ‘Messiah’. The Messiah was supposed to be a king who God was going to send to defeat Israel’s enemies and set them free. ‘Christ crucified’? What a nonsensical statement! ‘We proclaim the king who was defeated by the Romans’? How is that good news? How can that help us?

But we know that Christ crucified is the heart of the Gospel. This is the power of God—that when he came among us in Jesus and we rejected him and killed him, he didn’t destroy us in rage but forgave us in love. This is what the Cross tells us. The Cross shows us how truly sinful we are: when pure love incarnate came among us, we rejected him and killed him. But it also shows us how full of grace and love God is: when we rejected him, he did not reject us. His love was never defeated. His love was victorious. And if we were missing the point, the resurrection underlined it gloriously for us.

So ‘Christ crucified’ would be an embarrassment to Jews and to Gentiles, but Paul refused to be embarrassed by it; he made it the centre of his message. And he made sure the Corinthians knew that they were called to walk in the way of the Cross too. Let me close by reminding you what that means for us today.

First, walking in the way of the Cross means that love is always the centre of what we do. Not flashy communication techniques. Not powerful speakers or great preachers. Not the world’s most impressive church building. No: a love that is so stubborn that it refuses to give up, even though it’s rejected over and over again. That’s God’s love for us: a love you don’t have to earn or deserve, that comes to you as a free gift from God, because God is love. But it also comes to us with a challenge: love as you have been loved. Leaders aren’t meant to impress us; they’re meant to love us, and lead us in love and service to one another.

Second, walking in the way of the Cross means suffering is inevitable. Powerful people didn’t like Jesus, so they crucified him. Powerful people always have the most to lose from a gospel that tells them they are not god; only God is God! If we follow Jesus consistently, he’s going to challenge our allegiance to wealth and power, and challenge others through us, and we can expect to suffer for that.

But we can also expect to suffer because of love itself. If we give ourselves in love to others, there will be a price to pay. It’s so much easier to do what we want all the time and let others look after themselves. To enter into a relationship with someone is to open yourself up to pain, because when they suffer, you suffer with them. That’s what Jesus did when he became one of us and eventually died our death. And now he tells us to take up our Cross and follow him. What did we think that meant, if it’s not suffering?

So walking in the way of the Cross means love is at the centre, and suffering is inevitable. But finally, walking in the way of the Cross means looking to the Resurrection. If Jesus had been crucified and stayed dead, no one would have taken any notice, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. But when his followers began to see him alive again, and began to get it through their heads that God had raised him from the dead, that changed everything! God had vindicated everything Jesus had said and done. He was the Messiah, he was the Son of God, he had given his life a ransom for many—and now he was exalted to God’s right hand as Lord of all. So there was no need to fear. What’s the worst our enemies can do to us? Kill us! Well, they killed Jesus, didn’t they? And look what happened to him! And one day, we’re promised that it will happen to us, too!

Paul says, ‘The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know that it is the very power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1.18 NLT) Far more powerful than the preaching of Apollos or the signs and wonders done by charismatic preachers. Far more powerful than all the Greek philosophers in all their wisdom. Far more powerful than any politician or celebrity or CEO or self-help guru. In the Cross of Christ, the indestructible love of God meets all our human failure and despair, and gives us fresh hope and new life. So let’s glory in the Cross of Christ, and not be ashamed to make it the centre of our message and the centre of our lives. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fellow-workers

Our church is at the end of a week-long Day Camp, ‘Kids’ Kapers’, that we run in co-operation with another local congregation, Crosslife Church. All week long volunteers and kids have been having fun exploring the story of Jonah together. I’m only marginally involved – I lead a ‘circle prayer’ at the end of opening devotions every day – but I’m mightily impressed by all the work the volunteers are putting in. Clearing the chairs out of the sanctuary to make room for the program. Preparing stories and songs and materials and food. Being at the church for hours and hours every day. Dealing with joyful kids and difficult kids. I’m privileged to be with these ‘fellow-workers’ in Christ.

I was struck again this week in my daily Bible reading by Paul’s sense of fellowship with those who share in the work of the gospel. The Letter to the Romans concludes with one of his longest ever ‘greetings’ section, quoted here in the New Living Translation:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.

Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home.

Greet my dear friend Epenetus. He was the first person from the province of Asia to become a follower of Christ. Give my greetings to Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.

Greet Apelles, a good man whom Christ approves. And give my greetings to the believers from the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet the Lord’s people from the household of Narcissus. Give my greetings to Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers, and to dear Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord. Greet Rufus, whom the Lord picked out to be his very own; and also his dear mother, who has been a mother to me.

Give my greetings to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who meet with them. Give my greetings to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and to Olympas and all the believers who meet with them. Greet each other with a sacred kiss. All the churches of Christ send you their greetings.

A couple of things strike me about this passage. First, Paul had never visited the church in Rome, but he knew so many people there! In those days there was no Facebook or Twitter, no telephone and not even a reliable mail service! And yet Christians across the Mediterranean world knew each other; they knew each other’s names, they obviously travelled and had fellowship with each other, and they shared warm affectionate for each other as they cooperated in the work of Christ.

And that leads me to the second thing. There’s very little mention of official titles in this passage, beyond the brief note that Andronicus and Junia were ‘highly respected among the apostles’. We know that the early churches did have a simple structure: a team of elders to give oversight and care to the congregation. They probably weren’t paid and they certainly weren’t ‘lone wolves’. But the word ‘presbyter’ (elder) is never mentioned here. The most common word is simply ‘worker’ or ‘fellow-worker’. ‘Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers’ (and I love the fact that they have a church meeting in their home!). ‘Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit’. ‘Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ’. ‘…Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers’. ‘Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord’.

I think ‘fellow-worker’ is one of Paul’s favourite terms for his fellow-Christians. There’s no mention of priest or laity, educated or uneducated. All are members of the Body of Christ. All can share in the work of Christ. Yes, elders provide care and leadership, but they are also simply ‘fellow-workers’.

In the modern church there are often debates about ordination, what constitutes a valid ordination, how we raise the money to pay these full-time ordained people and so on. I don’t see these debates in the early church. If you are a baptized Christian, filled with the Holy Spirit, then you are a fellow-worker with Paul and the others. Christ has a job for you to do, and you’ll find your greatest joy in doing it. It might be as simple as making the coffee and treats. It might be to share your faith story with others, or to be a listening ear for those who need it, or to guide children as they grow in Christ, or to give careful attention to the stewardship of the church’s finances.

No matter how big or small the job, we are workers together in Christ. In the end, hierarchical titles aren’t that important. The important thing is that we listen to the call of Jesus, and follow him joyfully together.

‘Small Church Essentials’ by Karl Vaters: Introduction

41qsejNasDL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve really enjoyed reading Karl Vaters’ new book ‘Small Church Essentials’. You can find out a lot about Karl by reading his blog ‘Pivot‘ at ‘Christianity Today’ or checking out his website New Small Church.

I need to work my way through the book again and start implementing some of the many ideas I haven’t begun to practice yet. I thought blogging my way through it might help with that. So here’s the first post, on the Introduction (pp.9-13).

In the Intro Karl makes three statements about what small churches need in order to become great (hint: in Karl’s language, ‘Great’ does not automatically mean ‘bigger’):

  1. They have to believe they can be great.
  2. They have to see what a great small church looks like.
  3. They need resources designed for great small churches.

As I reflected on these questions I saw immediately that for me, as a small church pastor, point 2 is crucial. Church growth literature and denominational authorities tend to peddle visions of what a great large church looks like, but that’s not helpful for us small church pastors. We are the ones who believe that it is more than possible to have the kind of church life described in the letters of Paul in a small church than a large church. After all, for the first two or three Christian centuries the ‘house church’ was the norm – so everything essential to church life must be doable in a large living room!

My own pastoral vision is crucial here. Do I have a vision of what a great small church looks like? In this book Karl constantly comes back to the Great Commandments (‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’) and the Great Commission (‘Go and make disciples of all nations…baptize them…teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’). I would add as foundational the Great Confession that Peter makes in the Gospels (‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’). Our vision for small church greatness must focus on these essentials:

  1. Jesus is the Messiah (i.e. the king who sets us free), the Son of God.
  2. Jesus calls us to be his disciples, to make new disciples and to teach them to put his teaching and example into practice in daily life.
  3. Jesus calls us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Small churches don’t have excess time, volunteer hours, and money. We need to focus on the things Jesus is calling us to do and not get distracted.

******

A bit further on in the introduction Karl talks about the stereotypes people have of small churches: they are…

  • Inward-focussed
  • Threatened by change
  • Filled with petty infighting and jealousies
  • Not reaching their communities
  • Poorly managed
  • Settling for less

His comment is ‘That’s not a description of a small church; it’s a description of an unhealthy church’. There are plenty of small churches that are:

  • Friendly
  • Outward-looking
  • Missional
  • Innovative
  • Generous
  • Worshipful

As I reflected on these two lists, it came to me once again that it’s probably a case of ‘as pastor, so church’. Which of these lists best describes me? Am I inward-focussed, threatened by change, absorbed by petty infighting and jealousies, not reaching my community, poor at time management, with a tendency to settle for less? Or am I friendly, outward-looking, missional, innovative, generous, and worshipful?

When I look at the first list, it’s the last two that convict me. I’m not a good time manager – I know it’s one of my greatest ministry weaknesses – and I really need to work on that, while not getting sucked into time management tools that work better for large churches (later in the book Karl outlines as very helpful ‘321’ planning system that works really well in small churches). And also I do tend to settle for less – ‘good enough’ – in myself and in church life – rather than pushing myself to be better and inspiring the church to be better too.

So my take-away work from the intro is:

  1. Have a clear picture of what greatness looks like in a small church (hint: it probably centres on the Great Confession, the Great Commission and the Great Commandments) and share this with others.
  2. Work on my time-management and planning skills.
  3. Instead of ‘settling for less’, develop a regular (weekly, monthly, yearly) discipline of asking ‘How could we do this better?’ (or, alternatively. ‘What could we do that would be better than this?’).

 

Finding the Rhythms

As a much younger minister I spent seven years in two different parishes in the Diocese of the Arctic: All Saints’, Aklavik (1984-88) and Church of the Resurrection, Holman (now Ulukhaktok) (1988-91).

One of the things I learned there was to find and take advantage of the natural rhythms of the life of the community and the parish. For instance, in both those communities a lot of people went out on the land for the summer – to fish camps, mainly. And those who stayed in town were busy. The Arctic summer is short, and if you need to get some outdoor work done, the window for that is short too. People don’t want to be bothered by the minister at those times.

So I learned to slow down in the summer, but I also learned to do what everyone else was doing – build a new skidoo shed, or fix some broken windows, or repair a damaged roof. Summer was a good time for fixing buildings and other practical projects. That was the rhythm of life.

Now I live in Edmonton and there’s a rhythm here too. Many of my friends assume that Christmas is my busiest time of year, and they’re surprised when I tell them Easter is a lot busier! But they also don’t get the basic structure of church life in Alberta: really busy (with short lulls) from mid-September until the end of April, then mainly quiet for the four months of May to August. Our winters are long, and once the weather warms up people don’t want to be bothered with meetings and study groups – they want to get out and enjoy God’s creation.

So I run with that, and I enjoy it. Early May to mid-September is time to take a bit of holiday, to read more, to visit and spend time with individuals and to do a bit of planning. The rest of my year goes better if I do those things in the four months of Spring and Summer.

There are little lulls in the winter, too. For instance, things kick into high gear in mid-September: we start small groups and courses and study activities, and these generally run until the end of November. But we don’t do much in December; people are cruising into Christmas and their lives are taken up with that. So I’ve discovered that late November/early December is a wonderful time for me to take a week’s holiday. I get back in time to start the run-up to Christmas, but I’m refreshed from a week of rest. Christmas goes better for me if I do that.

That’s what I’m up to this week. My day off is Monday so I’m actually taking eight days’ holiday, from Monday to Monday. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we’re taking off to see old friends in Saskatchewan for a few days. Looks like the weather will be fairly mild (always a factor at this time of year), so driving will be okay. I’m looking forward to some good friend times, and I know I’ll come back in a better frame of mind.

Things will then get busy again: Our Christmas variety concert – planning for special events – home communions – Christmas services in nursing homes – a ‘When Christmas Hurts’ service – a ‘Lessons and Carols’ and ‘Bring a Friend’ service – and then the special services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

After Christmas there’s a slow down (unless there’s a pastoral emergency; I say that because for the past four years I’ve had deaths in the parish during or just after Christmas). January is steady but not frantic. What many people don’t know is that in church offices this is ‘Annual Meeting season’; we’re busy getting reports prepared and doing other preparation work for the Annual General Meeting (which in our parish takes place in mid-February).

And then comes Lent. Usually we do some extra programming, so things kick into high gear again. Holy Week (between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) is extremely busy. But by the time Easter comes we’re near the end of April, and people give a great collective sigh of relief and start going out to the lake on weekends. Church life slows down to a leisurely crawl. If clergy and leaders are wise, they don’t try to fight that. We need that time of rest and renewal.

Rhythms of life. It’s good to find them and good to take advantage of them. Life goes better if we do.

Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

Making a Commitment to Welcome (‘Helping My Church to Grow’ sermon series #3)

I want to start this morning by telling you a true story that happened to my family and me. Years ago before we moved to Edmonton, while we were still living in northern Alberta, I happened to have a weekend off and we came down to the city with our family. On Sunday morning we went to one of the larger Anglican churches in the city where a friend of mine was rector. During the service, my friend solemnly reminded his congregation of their Christian duty to welcome guests as if they were the guests of Jesus. However, after the service not a single person spoke to us, although they were very warm and friendly to each other.

My friend Harold Percy has often led workshops about church growth and evangelism. I’ve heard him say several times that whenever he asks congregations what their strengths are, they almost always say, “We’re a friendly church”. His reply is, “Who told you so? Because if it’s just someone inside the church saying that, it doesn’t count. If visitors and guests tell you you’re a friendly church, then you’re getting an objective view from outside, so it means a lot more”.

I think a lot of churches think that they’re friendly. A lot of church members think they’re friendly people. They don’t come to church with the express intention of ignoring visitors or being malicious. But they just do what comes naturally; when they see their friends, they talk to them first, and by the time they’re done, visitors have concluded that this is not a welcoming congregation, and they’ve left.

Genuinely friendly churches are rare, and they don’t happen by accident. Our default position is to talk to our friends; we have to make an intentional decision to get out of our comfort zone and talk to newcomers, and this rarely happens unless there’s a culture in the congregation encouraging it. Also, genuinely friendly churches are magnetic. Many people visit a church for the first time because a friend invited them. Most of the ones who come back for a second and third and fourth time do so because they made friends there.

Why am I talking about this today? Well, we’re in the middle of a series of sermons about what all of us can do to help our church grow. We’re talking about what I call church growth with integrity. This includes numerical growth, but it also includes our personal spiritual growth, as we each grow as a disciple of Jesus. It includes our growth as a genuine community of love, caring for each other and serving each other. And it includes our growth in influence on the world around us for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

So what are some things all of us can do to help that happen? I’ve identified five things: we can make a commitment to our own spiritual growth, a commitment to welcome, a commitment to ministry, a commitment to generosity, and a commitment to invitation. Last week we talked about making a commitment to our own spiritual growth, to growing as disciples of Jesus. This week I want to go on to the idea of making a commitment to welcome, to helping our congregation be a genuinely welcoming community.

Are there some principles that we can find in the Bible to encourage us to be a more welcoming community – and to encourage each one of us to get more involved in the welcoming process? Yes, there are.

The first is the principle of hospitality, and this runs through the Bible. In Genesis chapter 18 Abraham is sitting outside his tent in the middle of the day when three strangers appear on the scene. Hospitality being a major cultural value at the time, he immediately jumps up and urges them to stay for a meal. Apparently the visit is prolonged, because he kills a calf to prepare for the meal, and his wife Sarah bakes some fresh bread! Eventually the meal takes place, and then as the story unfolds in the rest of the chapter, it turns out that these aren’t just three ordinary human beings. They’re three angels on a mission from God; in fact, there are hints in the chapter that one of them is God himself.

This story has a strong influence throughout the Bible. In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews the author says, ‘Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13:1-2). That’s where we get the phrase ‘entertaining angels unawares’ (from the King James Version).

But applying this principle of hospitality to our Sunday church services requires a shift in thinking for most of us. Most of us start coming to church thinking of ourselves as the guests, or even the customers; we’re not coming to do something for others, we’re coming for our own sake. That’s not wrong, but Jesus calls us to go beyond that. He calls us also to start thinking ourselves as the staff, the hosts, the members of God’s hospitality team. The responsibility for making sure that our church is hospitable to guests and first-time visitors belongs to every single one of us, not just the leaders.

The second biblical principle that applies to this issue is the principle of love and care for others, expressed in the second great commandment and the golden rule. Jesus says that the two greatest commandments in the law are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Also, in the Sermon on the Mount he sums up the law with the words: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

So then, if we were strangers visiting a church for the first time, what sort of welcome would we want? We probably wouldn’t want to be overwhelmed – after all, we are shy, introverted Anglicans, or many of us are! But we wouldn’t want to be ignored, either. We’d probably appreciate a kind word, a few people introducing themselves and taking a genuine interest in us. Respect, warmth, a sense that people are glad to see us: there’s nothing complicated about that, and most of us know instinctively how to make it happen. But it does require us to move out of our comfort zone and serve others. Well, that is, after all, a Christian value!

So there’s the principle of hospitality, and the principle of love and care for others. A third biblical principle is the principle of the value of each individual. God doesn’t just see us as a herd or a flock or a conglomerate; Jesus says the good shepherd ‘calls his own sheep by name and leads them out’ (John 10:3). Jesus also tells the story of the shepherd who has a hundred sheep and loses one of them; he ‘leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes after the one that is lost until he finds it’ (Luke 15:4).

The idea of calling people by their name is particularly important. I’m not especially good at remembering names; I’ve tried to come up with all sorts of little memory devices to help me, but still I struggle sometimes. But I keep trying because I think it’s really important. I’m reminded of the reason we have name tags in this congregation; Dave Fost asked us to do it! Dave was a member of this parish for several years, and he had Alzheimer’s. One Sunday he said to us, “I’d like to call you all by your names, but I can’t remember your names from week to week; can we please have name tags?” We’d been humming and hah-ing about it for months, but that settled it!

There’s a power in learning people’s names and using them; it tells them that they are important to us as individuals, not just as a statistic. We do it because we’re conscious that every person who comes to our church for the first time comes as a guest of Jesus. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus are called to welcome his guests in his name and treat them as he would treat them. I’m called to do that. You’re called to do that too – each one of you.

So we’ve identified three biblical principles or values that bear on this subject of welcome: the value of hospitality, the value of love and care for one’s neighbour and treating them as we would wish them to treat us, and the value of recognizing that each individual is significant to God. Now, what are some things we can do to apply these values and make our church a more welcoming place?

Some of you will know that in recent months I’ve been learning a lot from the writings of Karl Vaters, a small church pastor from the Silicon Valley in California. His small church practices what they call the ‘GIFT’ principle. Each week he asks his church leaders and members, ‘Who did you gift this week?’ The word ‘GIFT’ is an acronym they use to remember four important guidelines for welcoming people.

G stands for ‘Greet’. Greet someone you’ve never met before, at the beginning of the service, or afterwards, or during the sharing of the peace. We all like to greet our friends, but what if we made a decision that before we do that, we’ll intentionally look for someone we don’t know, or whose name we don’t know?

Some people are afraid to do that. They’ve said to me, “But what if I go up to someone and ask them if they’re new, and they say, “No, I’ve been coming here for a few weeks or months now”. Well, I’m sorry, but if we’re going to learn hospitality we’re going to have to get over our fear of being embarrassed! I’m sure there are many of you here who have heard me say, “I have a terrible memory for names: have we met before?” That’s a phrase we can all use – it can even inject a bit of welcome humour into the situation. So greet someone you don’t know, learn their name, discover something about them. If they’re alone, you might even ask them if they’d like you to sit with them through the service.

I stands for ‘Introduce’. Introduce people to each other. After meeting them and learning something about them, ask yourself “Is there someone else here today who they might be interested to meet? Someone with a similar life situation or set of interests to them? Some friends of mine that I’d like them to meet?” Of course this would require that we get to know some of the current church members in a more than superficial way, but that’s not a bad thing, is it?

By the way, another thing my friend Harold Percy used to say is that one difference between a growing church and a shrinking church is this: in a shrinking church, the pastor introduces newcomers to some of the long time church members. In a growing church, some of the long time church members introduce the newcomers to the pastor!

So ‘G’ stands for ‘Greet’, ‘I’ stands for ‘Introduce’, and ‘F’ stands for ‘Follow up’. Follow up on that person you met recently. Find the person you met a week or two ago. Say hi to them again. Call them by name, or apologize for forgetting it and ask them to repeat it for you! Then engage them in further conversation. Ask them if they’re feeling at home in the church, and if there are any questions they need help with. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answers to those questions; that would be your perfect opportunity to introduce them to a warden or vestry member, or the priest, who might know the answer! Maybe you can take time and invite them out for a coffee after the service.

Here’s the thing: when people try out a new church, they tend to stay if they make friends. And everyone in the church is called by Jesus to help make this happen. It’s not just my responsibility as the pastor, or the wardens or other church leaders. All of us are followers of Jesus; all of us are called to help make people welcome.

So ‘G’ stands for ‘Greet’, ‘I’ stands for ‘Introduce’, ‘F’ stands for ‘Follow-up’, and ‘T’ stands for ‘Thank’. Thank someone in the church who did something you appreciate. Every church has volunteers who work very hard to make things happen week by week. Often it’s a small group; in fact, research has shown that the larger a church gets, the smaller percentage of the members are actually involved in any active volunteer ministry in the church! Volunteers often feel tired and underappreciated, and a little kindness can go a long way toward addressing that issue. The lay administrants who serve us communion each week. The altar guild members who set up for the service. The greeters who get here early to make sure there’s a warm welcome for all who come. The Sunday School teachers, the musicians, the readers and intercessors, the building and grounds maintenance people – they are all volunteers. They don’t have to be here doing these things. They do them because they care. Do you care enough to thank them for that?

So we’ve got the word ‘GIFT’ – Greet someone, Introduce someone, Follow-up with someone, Thank someone. What do you think? Is that something you can start to be more intentional about? As you listen today, do you find yourself thinking, “Well, it will require me to get out of my comfort zone, but I can see that it’s important, so I’m going to do it”? I hope so.

Before I conclude, let me mention one more practical thing. If you’re coming to a church for the first time, the last thing you want to find is that all the seats at the back are full, and you have to march down in front of everyone else and sit close to the front, where everyone can see that you don’t know when to stand up, sit down and so on. So it’s good for us regular members to leave the back rows empty, on both sides. We’re not going to put a sign up on them, but I want there to be a sign in your mind: the back couple of rows on both sides are left empty, so that first time visitors can sit there if they want to. Once again, this requires us to think of other people’s comfort before our own, but it’s important.

Let me conclude by saying this. No one shows up in church these days by accident. Everyone has a story that’s brought them here. They might think it’s a boring story, but God doesn’t write boring stories. God is interested in their story. Are you?

You see, many first-time visitors to a church haven’t found a personal connection with God yet. Some have, but many haven’t. So they don’t know how to experience that truth for themselves – the truth that God cares about their stories. But they are the guests of Jesus, and you and I are called by the name of Jesus: we are Christians, Christ-followers. So how are we going to communicate to Jesus’ guests that they matter to us? That their stories are important to us? How are we going to treat them, so that they get the message that the good shepherd is absolutely over the moon about the fact that they came to his sheepfold this morning?

Over to you.

Four Ways a Church Can Grow (‘Helping my Church Grow’ Series, #1) (a sermon for Sept. 18th)

Years ago I saw a cartoon in a Christian magazine. It was the inside of one of those huge mega-churches with an auditorium that seated thousands of people. But there weren’t thousands of people in it. There were just a few, a tiny handful, huddled together front and centre, with the pastor standing at the podium preaching the sermon. And the words he was saying were “Jesus wants his church to grow. The bank that owns our mortgage thinks it’s a good idea too!”

Well, we can laugh, but there are times when we wonder why churches want to grow. Is this a competition? Are pastors just indulging their egos, playing a game of one-upmanship against the pastor of the next church down the road? Are we empire-building? What’s wrong with the size the church already is? And anyway, everyone of good taste is already an Anglican, aren’t they? Another one of those cartoons has the old lady at the back of the church shaking hands with the rector and saying “I don’t understand why you’re making such a big deal about evangelism; surely everyone in this town who should be an Anglican already is!”

Is it really all about money? Members are getting older, young families are getting busier, budgets are getting more and more strained. This year at St. Margaret’s we’re certainly experiencing some of that. The question is no longer ‘Will we have a deficit at the end of the year’, but ‘How big will the deficit be?’ So is that our motivation for wanting to grow: paying the bills? Is it true what they say, ‘those churches are just after your money?’

I hope not. I hope we’re motivated by the love of Christ, as St. Paul was when he travelled all over the Mediterranean world and endured unbelievable sufferings and hardships because he believed the gospel message and he believed that God wanted everyone to hear it. I hope that we have a vision for growth with integrity, growth as followers of Jesus, growth in community, growth in our influence for good in the world around us, as well as numerical growth as more people become disciples through our witness. This morning I want to set out that vision for you, and then in the next few weeks I want to explore things each of us can do to help our church to grow.

So this morning I want to share with you four different ways churches can grow. Numerical growth is not possible for all churches. For example, some churches are situated in dying communities; it’s not likely that they’re going to see substantial growth. But all churches can grow in other ways, and hopefully many of them can grow numerically as well. So let me share with you these four ways of growth: numerical growth, growth as disciples of Jesus, growth in community, and growth in our influence in the world around us, near and far.

First, numerical growth. This isn’t hard to figure out – or is it? You might think it was a matter of simple math. What was the average attendance last year? What’s the average attendance this year? Has it gone down or up? That’s how we know whether we’ve grown or shrunk.

Well, maybe not. There are different reasons average attendance can go down. Some older folk go through periods of illness, they’re in hospital for long periods of time, or maybe they move into long term care and can’t get out any more. But they still consider this their church, and we still think of them as members of our congregation. Also, for better or for worse, younger people don’t come to church as often now as they did when I was young. When I was a teenager, regular attendance meant probably three times a month, and some people came more than once on a Sunday. Nowadays, not so. I’m not saying this is a good thing; I’m saying it’s the way things are. So average attendance can go down without us actually having lost any people.

But why are we trying to reach more people anyway? Our epistle for today gives us the answer. St. Paul is encouraging us to pray for our leaders so that we can enjoy peace and safety; he then goes on to say,

‘This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2:3-6a).

There it is. God wants all people to be saved from evil and sin, from the things that chain us and keep us from living the fully human life we were created to live. In order for that to happen, he has come among us as one of us in Jesus. Jesus has given himself to ransom us – to set us free – and he is the means by which our eyes can be opened to the truth about God. God is real, God is love, and God is like Jesus. And God wants everyone to know that, to experience it for themselves.

That’s why we want the church to grow numerically. It’s not to win attendance competitions. It’s not to pay the bills. It’s because each person is important to God, and God wants each person to come to know and love him. That’s what the church is here for: to help people learn to love God and follow Jesus.

Note carefully what I just said: the church is here to help people love God and follow Jesus. So our job is not done when they become regular church attenders. That’s a start, but it’s only a start. That’s why the people who complain about our fixation with numbers have a point. What good is a church full of people, if the people in it aren’t learning to pray, never read the Bible for themselves, don’t try to put the way of Jesus into practice in their daily lives, and don’t help Jesus share the love of God with the whole world? If church is just an hour on Sundays and nothing else, what good is that doing?

That’s where the second kind of growth comes in. Churches can grow in numbers, but we can also grow as disciples, as followers of Jesus.

Honestly, a lot of people don’t even know this kind of growth is on the table. They say “I don’t really know the Bible very well, and I don’t understand it when I try to read it”, but then they make no effort to grow in their understanding. Or they say, “I know I’m supposed to forgive my enemies, but I can never forgive her for what she did to me” – and then they leave it at that, as if Jesus’ command to forgive is something we can just take a pass on, rather than asking for help so that we can begin to learn a different way. Or they say, “I really don’t know how to pray”, and then make no attempt to learn.

This Christian life is meant to be something you grow in. At the end of his second letter in the New Testament, St. Peter says, ‘But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. St. Paul talks about growing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives – ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23). He calls these things ‘fruit’, and fruit doesn’t grow instantly. You provide it with water and food and sunlight, and there’s a process the plants go through. The same is true for us as Christian disciples.

How have you grown as a disciple since this time last year? How is your understanding of the Bible better than it was a year ago? How are your prayers more meaningful to you? How are you growing in patience, in unselfishness, in your ability to go through hardship without getting upset and irritable? How are you growing in your ability to share your Christian faith with friends – to explain it to them in a way that helps them rather than turning them off?

These are all things that are meant to be on the agenda for us as disciples of Jesus. Of course we can’t do them all at once. Marathoners don’t start by running marathons. They start with shorter distances, and as they get stronger, they lengthen their training runs. It’s the same with discipleship. When it comes to forgiving your enemies, don’t start with ISIS terrorists; start with the person at work who knows exactly how to annoy you and does it on a regular basis! Or if you’re learning to pray, don’t start with half an hour a day; start with five minutes, and lengthen it as you get more comfortable in it. But let’s never, ever, ever be satisfied with where we are as disciples of Jesus! This Christian living is meant to be a journey; you don’t stand still till you’re dead!

So churches can grow numerically, and they can grow as their members grow as followers of Jesus. Thirdly, churches can grow in community.

It’s interesting to read the New Testament and notice how many times the words ‘one another’ appear. Love one another. Forgive one another. Bear with one another in love. Encourage one another. Admonish one another. Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another. The list goes on and on.

Is the New Testament vision of church a loosely-connected group of individuals who meet on Sundays once or twice a month and go their own way the rest of the time? Not at all. Let’s remember that most of those early Christian congregations probably met in houses. Everything essential to church is doable in a living room! And the New Testament writers obviously assumed that Christians would know each other, offend each other, ask for help from each other, notice each other’s weaknesses and so on.

Let me tell you a story that used to happen to me in my first few years here at St. Margaret’s; it hasn’t happened for a while, but it was fairly common in my early years. Someone would come up to me after church, someone who had attended St. Margaret’s for longer than me. They would then point subtly toward someone else on the other side of the room – someone who had also been at St. Margaret’s for longer than me. And they would ask me “Who is that? What’s her name?”

Do you think there’s room for us to grow in community? I think there’s lots of room! The New Testament vision for Christian community is that of a family of love, where we can comfort and encourage each other, pray for each other and support each other in hard times. But nowadays in churches, people often refuse to even let their fellow Christians know that they’re going through hard times. How can we help each other if we refuse to admit to each other that we need help?

This is seriously damaging our missional credibility in the world. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). He obviously wasn’t talking about feelings; there’s no way the world around us can know what we feel about other people. He’s obviously talking about observable actions: supporting poorer members, visiting the sick, caring for the needy and so on. A community of people who love each other in these visible ways is tremendously attractive. If we don’t do it, we’re weakening our case before the watching world. So this is not an optional extra for those who have time for that sort of thing. This is a biblical essential of church life. And there’s not a church on the planet that doesn’t have room to grow in this kind of community.

So we can grow numerically, we can grow individually as disciples, as followers of Jesus, and we can grow as a genuine community of love. The fourth way we can grow is in our influence on the world around us.

In the eighteenth century John Wesley rode the length and breadth of England on horseback, preaching the gospel in the open air. Sometimes he preached several times a day to crowds of many thousands of people. It’s no exaggeration to say that in his lifetime hundreds of thousands probably heard the gospel message from him, and many people’s faith came alive in a new and fresh way. People were set free from addictions and given new hope. They were brought together into little discipleship classes where they were accountable to one another for their Christian growth. This was the beginning of what soon came to be called the Methodist movement. A highly influential British historian once said that the reason England didn’t descend into violent revolution was because of the work of John Wesley. He had a tremendous influence on the world around him.

But not only Wesley, of course. He was the leader, but many thousands followed his lead. He told them this: “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, for all the people you can, as long as ever you can”. And they did. They spread the gospel and led others to Christ, but they also cared for the poor and needy and worked to make their communities better places to live.

Jesus told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). Salt in those days was used to preserve meat and keep it from going bad. Obviously it had to be different from the meat, but it also had to be in contact with it. Keeping the salt in the saltshaker wouldn’t do any good! It had to be sprinkled on the meat so it could have an influence.

In the same way, we’re called to have an influence on the world around us. We’re called to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and then we’re called to be part of the answer to that prayer, doing what we can to spread the values of the kingdom of God by working for compassion and justice and peace, and working to spread the gospel of Jesus.

Please note: we don’t have to be in charge of the world for this to happen. Throughout history a lot of Christians have made this mistake; they’ve thought that influencing the world means taking over the government so we can change its laws. But the early Christians were in no position to do that, and neither was John Wesley in the eighteenth century. They didn’t work from the top down; they worked from the bottom up, among the poor and the marginalized. And the result was transformation.

This is what we mean by church growth with integrity. It’s not just about bums on pews and money in the collection plate. It’s about human beings who matter to God, and about them coming to know Christ and follow him as part of the Christian community. It’s about you and me growing daily as followers of Jesus, so that we’re further along in our Christian life today than we were this time last year. It’s about our church growing as a genuine community of love, so that we aren’t strangers to each other, but brothers and sisters who know each other and support each other. And it’s about us acting like the salt of the earth, having an influence on the world around us for the Kingdom of God.

Does this excite you? I hope it does. And every one of us has a part to play in this. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring with you the different ways each of us can help this to happen. Each week I’ll be preaching a sermon on the theme, and after church I’ll be making myself available for a question and discussion time for any who want to explore it further. And I’ll also be posting the sermon online and inviting questions and comments. Next week, our theme will be ‘Helping our church to grow by growing ourselves as followers of Jesus’. I hope you’ll be able to participate in that conversation!

I would like to acknowledge the help and influence of my friend Harold Percy on the ideas presented in this sermon.