So let’s talk about church. You know, that building you go to on a Sunday morning or maybe evening.
We are, possibly, coming out of the worst Covid restrictions, barring another lockdown or a new variant running rampant. Ministers and church councils and stewards and PCCs are tied up on a lot of practical measures based around how they keep these buildings running. Have people drifted away in lockdown and are they coming back? Have too many of the congregation gone to join the Lord over the last couple of years? Have Slimming World or Weight Watchers restarted their rental of the of the church hall? Or, to put it bluntly, have we got the money to keep this place going? That is the current focus for many congregations and understandably so.
As Christians we would love to see people walk in to our buildings off the streets and say “I’ve heard about this Jesus fellow and want to learn more.” In a world of decreasing and aging congregations such a thing is a rarity. Most of what we see, if new people join our churches, is that they are already Christians and just seeking a new church because they’ve moved or they’ve left their old church for some reason or other.
An example, the Anglican group HTB took over St Mary’s church in Southampton. They saw the congregation leap from a couple of dozen to several hundred. Hurrah everyone cried, except for the numerous local churches who lost students and young people and families from their congregation who went to join St Mary’s with their fine coffee, high quality sound system and exciting services.
I don’t know how many of you remember the film “Field of Dreams” with it’s tagline “If you build it, they will come.” It’s an idea that works in a movie or if you build a theme park or open a Lego Store but apply it to church and it’s not a winning proposition.
Our biggest problem, in many ways, is that following Jesus makes so much sense to those of us doing it that we can’t imagine why anyone would choose not to. Jesus makes sense to us. From the inside.
Imagine for a moment though that you’ve never been to church outside of baptisms, weddings and funerals. These ceremonies and what you see on TV and elsewhere is all you know of Christianity. The horror of Magdalene Laundries, Westborough Baptists disrupting the funerals of American Service People, people making a fuss over baking a cake, crackpot pastors claiming to heal people by breaking wind on their faces (yes that’s real), child abuse, the Pope berating couples for having pets rather than children. If this is the face they see of Christianity no wonder people aren’t knocking the chapel doors down to get in.
This isn’t a view of church that will be changed by better coffee or a new music system. This is a vision of church that has to be changed from the ground up by rolling our sleeves up and getting into our communities, making a difference through meaningful acts of service and making sure people understand that when we do these things we are truly following Jesus.
One of my favourite stories in the Bible is Jesus meeting the Samarian woman at the well. I like it for many reasons but the most pertinent right now is where Jesus meets her. She doesn’t wander into the synagogue and hear him. He meets her where she has to go. It’s the equivalent of meeting her on the way to the supermarket or the coffee shop. I think it is also part of what lies behind many churches and denominations reaching beyond their own walls by running Alpha Courses in Costa Coffee and in a broader sense things like Pioneer Ministries and New Places for New People and Fresh Expressions. There is a recognition that for many people church buildings aren’t viewed as safe spaces, whether because of pre-conceived ideas due to press and media or past experience or present experience. If we want to introduce people to Jesus, the Bible and a loving Christianity we need new places to do it. We need to be meeting people where they are.
Wait a minute! Weren’t we talking about church buildings?
Well yes we were but lets just come at it from a slightly different angle.
In the early church followers of Jesus met in each others homes, shared meals and stories about Jesus and probably discussed the meanings of what he taught. Eventually groups got too big to meet in homes so they acquired buildings for it. Time moved on, Gospels and Acts and the Epistles were written down and shared and scripture became the core of meetings. Christianity spread, time moved on and people were meeting in churches all over Europe hearing liturgy in Latin. Things changed again, the Protestant movement got started, Bible in modern languages, services in local languages, still in special buildings. Things moved on again, house groups, secret churches and more. More divisions on theological grounds and more denominations spring up. Wesley meets and preaches in fields. All the denominations settle down into their own chapels and churches. Little splinter groups start and meet in homes over food. Jesus Freaks and home church movement get going, among others. Churches get bigger and we see the rise of the multi campus mega church. On the other side there’s a push towards smaller, community focused churches, house churches start to appear again.
That’s a brief overview from memory of the changes that have affected physical meetings. I’m sure I’ve missed stuff and misrepresented stuff but you get the point. Church has been through change, through many seasons since Jesus’s time. The way we do things now won’t necessarily be the way we do things in 10years time and the way we do things in 10 years time will also pass at some point.
So what’s my point?
My point is, if our eyes are on Jesus we shouldn’t get to attached to buildings and ways of doing things. Our purpose is to demonstrate God’s love to and for the world. If buildings or meeting styles or anything else stop us doing that we need to take a long look at why.
In Luke 17:2 it says “It would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be thrown into the sea than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” I don’t think Jesus was talking just about children. When people meet Jesus they do so with the uncomplicated faith of a child. I think that is what Jesus was talking about. I think it is possible that when we are too focussed on buildings and styles of worship and rotas and all those things we are in danger of putting a millstone around our neck and getting in the way of people forming a relationship with Christ. Is that what we really what we want?