So we need to get a couple of things straight right away.
I’ve just had 3 months’ sabbatical, with lots of chance to rest and no ‘Sunday responsibilities’. And, as I’ve been reminded so many times, I’m a vicar, so I ‘only work one day a week!’ Ho ho ha ha, you got me there.
There, record straight. Which clears the way for a question – wil I see you on Sunday? (you’ve got a choice of 8am, 10.30 am and 6pm!)
Sundays have changed beyond recognition in the last two decades. There are many learned articles and books about this, and we all know it. The main problem for many of us growing up was that Sundays were so boring – nothing to do, nowhere to go, possibly relieved by some decent Sunday night TV like The Professionals.
Now, Sundays are a busy busy day. Sport, shopping, work, family commitments, and of course ‘recovering’ from our increasingly shattering work lives and sometimes social lives too. ‘There was nothing else to do so I thought I’d try church’ (the last resort of the bored and desperate) is not a common way people introduce themselves on a Sunday morning!
What’s the right way into this issue of how we use our Sundays as Christians?
Some would start here: ‘How often do you have to come to church to be a committed Christian?’
There’s loads wrong with that question! It’s leading in a toxic direction – to Christian faith as performance, to earning merit with God, to organising church through guilt, and of course to hypocrisy (I’ve come to church three weeks in a row so I must be a good Christian, now wait there while I kick the cat/text my lover while my wife’s not looking/fiddle my expenses/your hypocrisy here). Let alone the fact that it’s the kind of question that we ask about swede and parsnips when we’re kids, or going out to Great Aunt Jemima’s when we’re teenagers, or going to training courses at work. The presumption is that it’s probably something we have to do, but we don’t enjoy it, see much value in it, and we’d like to negotiate the bare minimum please.
So do we re-phrase the question: What if I don’t feel like going to church this Sunday? ie. What if a better offer has come along? I still don’t think that this is the best place to start. It’s too subjective – there’s lots of things that at any given moment we might or might not want to do – music practice, getting out of bed, going to work or school, writing a difficult letter, making that phone call – trying to judge how we feel about it will only get us so far. And it’s too passive – as though going to church were like going to the cinema or to watch a football match – we arrive as spectators with an appetite to be entertained. If that’s our starting point for going to church, we’re doomed to disappointment and we will not be a blessing to others.
OK, let’s try another: ‘Give me good and acceptable reasons not to be in church this Sunday. You know, beyond being in a coma or lunch with the Archbishop. I want a list of things that are good reasons not to be in church (things that I can tell the vicar and s/he can’t be cross with me!)’ You’ll have spotted this takes us back down the rules path, a familiar short-cut that Jesus always questioned. What if you are required to work on Sunday? The spread of services helps – you could nip in early at 8 am or come later at 6pm. But some of you travel huge distances and so might be in Hong Kong or Delhi! You will have to decide whether work starts to undermine your faith and discipleship, as well as getting creative about how to find Christians on your travels and hook up with other Christians ministries that run midweek or on-line. There are the same issues surrounding sport, though they are bigger than we have time for here! But we do run Friday night and Sunday evening activities for young people if the 10.30 am service isn’t practical from time to time.
We have begun to suspect that some of you decide ‘I’m not on duty this week so I don’t have to be there,’ and this is a worry for us. ‘What are you thinking, Martha?’ One of the truest tests of discipleship is whether we can enter into worship, listen to His Word, pray for each other and the world not because we’re on the rota but because we love God. Being on the rota can be an excellent way to avoid God’s gaze (take it from me, as church leaders struggle considerably with this).
Maybe you feel we’re not getting very far. Let me pose two last questions for you.
First, who loses if I’m not in church on Sunday?
– you, especially if you are often not with us. Our worship and teaching aren’t perfect, obviously. But we need to hear God’s big story, we need to sing His praise, we need to make room for the Spirit’s searching of our hearts. These things can and do happen anywhere but being with God’s people definitely helps.
– the body of Christ here loses. That’s how a body works, or doesn’t work. We need each other, and each other’s ministries.
– visitors will lose out. They need you here – warm, welcoming, able to enthuse about being a Christian and to tell them about children’s work or Senior Fellowship or Foodbank. We need a lovely cross section of the body of Christ here every week to befriend and welcome visitors.
– the momentum of the church loses out. If we only see you occasionally it’s harder to know your pastoral needs, to help you build friendships, to include you in the exciting things that are going on, and for us to take steps forward together as a whole church.
Second, what if I’m not in church this Sunday? (Yes, we will still love you, lots!)
Rather than see it as a ‘morning off’ being a Christian, consider how you can be Jesus’ ambassador where you are, wherever that is. And tell other Christians what you’re up to and how they can pray for you. And remember that we go to a lot of trouble to make sure that missing a Sunday service is not missing out! You’ll always find loads to listen to and read on the website.
There is a lot to discuss here. We’re listening!
1] Does our Sunday worship pattern fit life and work in and around Chesham in 2015?
2] What about children and sport?
And please, we need all of us to develop an instinct for those we haven’t seen at our service for a while. It’s one thing to be welcoming and warm hosts, quite another to become remembering friends, and we all need those!