31/07/12 We have just had the third Church Weekend which was a great success
We have just had the third Church Weekend which was a great success and included sixty people from Sidmouth and Sidford. This year we met in a different venue in Torbay. Brunel Manor offered a great meeting place with a large fully equipped conference room, large public spaces and a talking lift. The theme this year’s was ‘we can’t keep meeting like this’. It gave us time to consider our effectiveness in growing new Christians. I think it’s raised some important issues which I want to share with the rest of the congregation.
We had three sessions on our weekend and at the first one I asked people to consider how they would drum up support for a club to which they belonged. They of course believed their club was brilliant but it was proving hard to recruit members. So what excuses might people make; why were people outside not so keen. Oh, and by the way the club in question was a sky diving club. When we reported back after a break there were some interesting answers.
The club was hard to sell because of fear of heights; fear full stop; cost, people (not our sort); landing, family (they would worry); dying. I couldn’t quite think of anything for height and landing but I pointed out that the other words had quite a few connections to why people don’t come to church. However the worry about dying was actually our great selling point. Christ came that we might have eternal life. If you ever say anything to people about Christianity say this.
We moved on with a quick glance at a tale of two cities. Dickens thoughts of hope and despair were considered. We can look at the Church in two ways. There is a lot to be thankful for and much to make us despair. The western world feels the same, terrorism, finance, politics, and poverty drive the world stage. They fill the media and people don’t think of the church as a place which cares about such issues. Of course the Church has worries of its own with falling numbers, apathy, vested interests etc but it also provides contentment in crisis, spiritual peace and healing. It does these things, but when did we last tell anyone.
Some people see the positive, and can’t understand why something like the church that offers such joy to the world is often self contained and parochial and unwanted by those outside. For people who have something so great to offer, we’re not exactly focused on giving it to people. That’ s true in many churches it’s not just a Sidmouth problem. At a recent Church Council we proved this rather well. We didn’t talk about mission or outreach; we didn’t talk about the Holy Spirit or prayer. We talked about fabric, policy, charity, finance and all the fears it engendered. In the talk about finance we talked of asking for more money from members and reigning in what we did. The obvious, most crass and brutal thing to say was ‘find more people to help pay the bills’. But we didn’t come close to saying that. Church is not about simply paying the bills but it is about finding more people to know Christ.
So the next task was to discuss how do we invite people to draw near in faith. Now I’ll just list what our people said. Modern worship, a worship group occasionally, joy and enthusiasm, leadership, boldness, varied format of services, back to basics, relevance, bacon butties (I am all in favour); witness to light; challenge, laughter, flexible times, pursuit of justice; locality for meetings (events outside of church), outreach.
The engagement from people was amazing and we will meet in a different way if we engage with many of these suggestions. And we need to give things a go. In the New Testament there is much comment on end times and it kept the church focused – for decades the Church has focused on worship, structure, and policy instead of the end of the world - the end of the local outfit has been more the worry. Maintenance ministry, restructuring, managing decline have kept us too busy. If I had spent as much time managing growth as I have had to spend on brewing up the new circuit, it would have been time better spent. The church really must stop meeting like this!
At the next session I invited people to think of something that had become unpopular and forgotten and then had been resurrected and now people couldn’t get enough of it. Come Dancing died a death and no one was the least bit bothered. But then Bruce, a team of critical judges and a host of celebs came into view and Strictly sent the nation racing for their television sets and their dance shoes . We asked ‘Why do you think ballroom dancing went from old hat to super cool?’.
It’s still dancing, but with celebrity, testimony of the struggles; it comes with comment from a panel on the efforts made. Now you can’t apply all that to perk up the Christian Church but you can make something popular again which people have left behind. Strictly is still about dancing but it has shaken off all the dust. Celebs, modern style, all age, fun, a really format, a strong sense of nostalgia and wanting to see people succeed.
So, how do you make tired old church relevant to our families, neighbours and communities once more? Well, it needs to be church- worship, prayer, community, outreach, service are core values that can’t be dispensed with. It needs to have people known for something – known for following and being moved by God. Testimony of struggle and achievement is no bad thing at all. Comment and support in a house group can help. Get people rooting for others like Harry and Aliona. Strictly was there to promote interest and celebrate the joy of dance even if it meant firing Russell Grant from a cannon.
Generally, churches are not geared up for getting new people on board and even when we do something that is geared up few people are sufficiently connected to friends and neighbours that they actually invite people along . Very few Christians speak about their faith to others and it’s the very thing we are supposed to spend our time doing. The promotion and joy of Christ are a challenge for most Christians.
The services we hold; the services I take would not bring someone to faith in a single sitting even if we managed to get new folk through the door. Most churches are the same and it’s been going on a long time. So we must stop meeting like this!
The weekend passed remarkably quickly. At our closing service the reading was Romans 12.1-13 about being living sacrifices. I read a passage about a congregation who watched as their church was demolished. It was a very poignant moment as I reminded people that this was an experience many had actually had over recent years. They really did stop meeting like this.
Maintenance ministry, managing decline, phased closure are all active buzz words in church planning these days and I know why; and I am sympathetic to such pragmatic thought – no use building a new manse next to a church that will close in five years time. But when you plan something to end – it will. It may end if you give it your best shot at keeping it open, but I would rather that than run a closing down sale.
So what of our meetings? Well, all churches major on preaching up commitment; to our marriages, to giving money and time; to our friendships, to Christ and defiantly not least commitment to the Church. But commitment to most things in our age is low. People don’t always shop at the same store, vote for the same party, drive the same make of car, work for one company or go deep with their relationships. It’s getting worse and people now live a long way from where they were brought up, and they may not stay in their present town. In churches we find people who are committed and considered to be committed but may not actually be in church for weeks at a time. There are other things going on in their life. But commitment is still our watchword, that’s the plan, keep tight the community, emphasis commitment and show a fragmented world how great it can be living like a tight knit village in the midst of people who don’t do commitment. Implicit to the Church plan are lots of meetings, to plan things and generally keep commitment high. House groups have given some depth to relationship but they with other things require huge amount of time and those who can’t give that time often feel on the fringe. We even make people feel bad about it. Our modern Christianity has become very complex without us even knowing it.
In more recent times para church organisations have sprouted up, Christian radio, Christian bikers, Christian pilots, Christian choirs etc . All these groups enable people to live their lives and pursue their interests in society rather than their own location or one church. Commitment to place and commitment in general are at rock bottom and these groups are very fluid.
The church has been living in merry England looking for commitment based round a meeting hall. So you are not going to get new people on site as in the old days. We are going to have to meet them out of church . And not be hurt if they don’t want to come in. At this point we find the problem of the age. Many of us have not been here a long time, we have friends but we don’t have the depth with them to speak of big things like faith. Worse, we have been raised to think that such things are private. So we don’t go there and we should. They talk about anything these days, sex (50 shades of grey is the book club chart topper at the moment); earnings, politics, and they will talk faith if someone is around to stir them up.
The great privilege of worshiping together is God’s call to come together, and we mustn’t stop meeting for praise, for communion, for prayer and encouragement. But if it’s a closed order we are doomed and Sidmouth Methodist Church will be an arts centre or rubble in the next twenty years. It is time for a major debate about Church. If they can resurrect Come Dancing I am sure we can renew the Church
We must stop meeting like this because it’s not working and it won’t survive if we don’t address the challenges.