To what is God calling us?
The problem we face
We, as a church, face what feels like an enormous and difficult task. You don’t need me to explain the daunting issues that face us, so rather than looking backwards, I want us, as the East End Churches, to look forwards. How can we stem and more than that, reverse the haemorrhaging of young people and families from the church? How can we widen the diversity in terms of demographic? How can we deepen our faith and spirituality? And finally, how can we set the church on a path of numerical growth?
The problems we face are the same as they have always been
For those that have worked hard as part of Christ’s church for many years, we might feel like the world is against us: world-wide pandemics, secular culture, and competing interests on a Sunday morning all make our ‘Sunday thing’ more difficult — yet these are not new things. The church has faced them all in the past and yet, we are still here.
The key is partnership
This week I had a powerful dream, and in this dream strangers — non Christians — were walking through the church doors to attend our evening music rehearsal, so many in fact, that I had to scrap our music rehearsal and change the way we did things to meet their needs so that they could meet with God. At the end of the evening I closed my eyes and prayed a blessing over them as they left through the church doors. When I awoke, and pondered what this dream might mean, God reminded me that it is God who brings people to ‘church’. It is the Holy Spirit who stirs hearts and minds to turn to Christ. I was reminded that these people do not belong to us, but to God, however, our role, and the main message of the dream, is to ‘be ready’ and I believe God was saying that to us as a church — be ready. Are we ready and what does being ready mean?
Ministry and Mission is a partnership between us and God
As a church we tread a fine line between two positions. The first is to let go and let God — assuming a position where we do as we have always done, and simply leave everything for God to work out, and if God grows the church then that is up to God. The second position is to do everything in our own strength — outreach programmes, courses, and so on — and carry the weight of responsibility for the lack of church growth as if it solely belongs to us.
We need to both trust in God and bear responsibility. Ministry is a partnership between us and God, and God will hold his side of the bargain – God will stir hearts and minds to turn to Christ — God’s Holy Spirit is out there working — therefore the keys to unlocking the future of the church are in our hands. We have the power or authority to work with God or not work with God.
Our job is to proclaim afresh to this generation
When a minister is ordained or licensed to a new parish we make what is called the Declaration of Assent. It is like the promises we make before our bishop, and in it is this line: “The Anglican Church… professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.” It is that last bit which is the important bit. How do we, as the East End Churches proclaim afresh, the gospel, to this generation?
How do we proclaim afresh?
Firstly, we must do everything possible to make the gospel as accessible as we can to those outside the church. That doesn’t just mean keeping our church doors open. It means appraising everything, from the way we dress, to the words we use, to the songs we sing, and so on. We must do away with anything that might block or hinder someone coming to know Jesus Christ.
We must take a leaf out of the Apostle Paul’s book when he writes in 1 Corinthians 9: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a servant to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law… to those not having the law I became like one not having the law… To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
The blessings of the gospel, of which Paul speaks, are to see folks come to Christ — to know Christ and be known by Christ. There is no greater blessing!
Proclaiming afresh to this generation will certainly mean we need to change the way we do things.
You may well have heard the joke: How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? Change???
As Albert Einstein said, “The definition of ‘insanity’ is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Therefore, as a Church (with a capital C) we will need to do things differently. The biggest obstacle to effective mission and ministry is not God, nor is it the outside world. It is not global pandemics, secular society, or competing activities.
The place to start is with humility and a recognition that we will have to move out of our comfort zones, bend a little in our personal preferences, and be open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God has not given up on the world and is at work, even now, in the lives of those that do not yet know him.
As we, the East End Churches, exist for our non-members, our ministry should be outward looking, and our worship should be inclusive, welcoming, and seeker-friendly. We are in the possession of the best news in the world and true spirituality — a spirituality that really, truly works — and it is ours to give away.
Let us use St. Mark’s as an example…
Over the past three years we, at St. Mark’s, have been working hard to fulfil our mandate under God, and reach those outside the church, by doing things differently. We introduced a range of measures to do our best to stimulate church growth, encourage families and children to choose us as their church family, help us grow deeper with God, and increase diversity.
Now, I realise that numbers are not everything, and let me stress that the growth we have seen is small, but over the past three years our membership (electoral roll) at St. Mark’s has grown — and this is despite the deaths of many of our beloved parishioners. The demographic of our church has changed for the better and we are also a more diverse congregation. We are only one of a handful of churches, let alone Anglican churches, that need a Sunday School — and I know that many of our members have rekindled their faith and grown into a deeper relationship with our Lord. And all our positive achievements are down to this partnership between us and God. God is doing the work. All we have been doing is ‘being ready’ to meet those to whom God would bring us.
It is true to say that the past three years have been a team effort. The faithfulness, willingness, friendliness, inclusivity, and commitment from our church membership has been second-to-none. Not only have we continued to do many of the everyday things that keep a church going, but have thrown ourselves into trying new things, new ways of being and doing, and have done so with good cheer and confidence.
It is God’s work
In Acts Chapter 2, it was God who drew people to Peter who then preached the gospel. Peter was simply obedient in being ready to communicate and minister to the crowds. The Chapter finishes with the sentence, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Not Peter, not the disciples, but ‘the Lord’. It was and is God’s work and we are the humble servants of our Lord Jesus Christ. All we are called to do is be ready.
Dear friends, I don’t know what the future holds for the East End Churches. No doubt the way will be paved with obstacles and difficulties to overcome, but it is my hope that we will not stop persevering in that to which we have been called. We will continue to be the diverse, inclusive, warm, friendly, supportive, connected, humble, and welcoming church families that we are. We have the best news in the world, the best Saviour, the best spirituality, so let’s share it. Amen.