What you’ll find: One connection-sensitive church has a prominent ’How to find us’ website page offering clear explanations and an image of what you will see from the entrance on the right – exactly what a newcomer needs.
Post-Christendom Britain – church can be a hard place to visit
Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple is often quoted as saying: "The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members."
It’s amazing how much we have made an art form out of creating the opposite.
I have quite a collection of stories about visiting churches (therefore not as a member) and jumping through the hoops that were presented.
Churches held in schools, where there is an initiative test to find the right building in the right part of the school and the right way in – no embarrassment there…
A church where I arrived a bit on the early side and took a seat quite near the front. Apparently shunned by other attenders, I ended up the only person anywhere near the front.
And my pet hate – churches where ‘the fellowship’ hug each other enthusiastically in the entrance area and ignore others. How to make an outsider feel like an outsider!
These things have not caused me emotional damage – I am a church professional. I’m used to cranky people and arcane customs and even have tolerance for a certain amount of cliqueyness.
But supposing (winding the clock back) that God had woken me up in the night, after decades of independence and selfish living, and I knew I had to find my way to a gathering of believers and try to get right with Him. I wanted, perhaps desperately, to hear the truth explained simply and experience the unconditional love that is talked about. What then? What would be the message I would receive?
In post-Christian, post-modern Britain we don’t realise what a set of hurdles we erect for people to leap over. Some are more agile than others. There was a time when people had an innate belief in God, when occasional churchgoing was fairly usual and people generally knew which tradition they ‘belonged’ to. Now, all of those factors have changed. Post-moderns want to believe everything, which makes it difficult for them to trust anything in particular. Going to a church is counter-cultural. No one has spiritual roots to go back to.
That's why 'new churches' – the Vineyards and Pioneers and Newfrontiers and more – which have been good at appearing counter-cultural and which have ditched traditions and spiritual roots, have done well; they now account for at least as many attenders as all the Baptist churches put together. They are also more disposed to be relational and to help people to connect. To share life in a ‘life group’ is a given. They have also been better at taking an eternal Biblical message, often a more definite and sometimes confrontational message than their more liberal uncles and aunts in buildings with pulpits, and giving it a thoroughly contemporary application, earthed in reality.
Where the innovators are now
However the new churches are now ageing and getting snared by their own traditions. Now the historic ones are often the innovators. As I write this, many tens of thousands, of all ages, will be occupying the considerable acreage of Bath and West Showground for one of the August weeks of New Wine or Soul Survivor and being challenged on contemporary and difficult issues, threaded through devotional, worship and teaching engagements that come directly out of the Bible. The great majority of these campers come from churches with historic names. They are evidence of the Holy Spirit’s turning inside-out work in this season.
Jesus’s disciples did not know what a comfort zone was, but He sent them out anyway with the expectation that they would feel vulnerable and look like rookies – because this was the way to be non-threatening and make connections.
People were healed, demons submitted to them and the kingdom of God was extended. On many occasions crowds gathered around Jesus and the number of followers fluctuated – but following Pentecost, the believers in Jerusalem numbered thousands with more being added daily. Where had they all come from? No doubt some of those relationships were established earlier. The missions of Luke 9 and Luke 10 covered a lot of ground as they proclaimed the message of the kingdom ‘everywhere’ [Luke 9:6].
God’s ‘turning out’ strategy Deut. 32:11 can be seen again after the large and growing Jerusalem church found itself persecuted and forced to propagate elsewhere – for example, in Antioch, where believers were first known as ‘Christians’ Acts 11:26 and then then further afield following the initiatives of Paul and Barnabas and others.
What does this tell us? We gather as church (congregation sized or home sized) to be fed and strengthened spiritually, and then to be sent out to bring light to the world: in particular, OUR world, wherever our mission field (workplace and neighbourhood) has placed us.
Going out is a state of mind as well as finding the exit
This is both a physical going out from the place of gathering and worshipping together, and a mental going out: returning to worshipping and using our gifts in life generally – with an outward focus. It’s not so much where we’re going but where our focus is. A church event which is intentionally invitational and has its focus on those who come from outside the fellowship is a form to ‘going’ to where they are. So in a more obvious way is one held at the local Costa Coffee or a presence at the garden club – in this case infiltration, not invitation.
I have a greater affinity with Celtic Christianity than with the Roman variety, but the roots of our faith and practice are ancient, however you want to play it. The idea of being gathered to be sanctified, to be sent out, is embodied in the earliest Holy Communion liturgy – the word ‘mass’ comes from the concluding words in Latin, “Ite Missa est”: literally “Go, it is dismissed”. The presence of Jesus is imparted, for us to show Jesus to the world.
Both the Twelve and the Seventy Two were told to proclaim the kingdom – words of truth and faith which are in themselves instrumental in bringing God’s order. This is blessing, and the customary (but emphasised) “Peace to this house!” declaration is a blessing on the house and family and by extension, its location.
What can we learn from this? The intention is not that we go with hardly a return, or that we keep on being sanctified, hardly ever going out. Neither is that we focus out and neglect the core relationships which are our accountability. Or claim that we are highly relational when in fact we are a closed club. Whatever neighbourhood, people group or occupation God puts before us, there is a balance to be achieved.
How do we get balance? I call it prayer, practicalities and priorities (or prayer, practicalities and programme – same thing. We have to work out what the priorities are, whether to gather or to go, and to have an idea of the practicalities of how we go about it. We do the working out and have the ideas in the place of prayer. Or atlas, bring the imagined priorities and ideas for God’s confirmation or otherwise.
We see practicalities and priorities in Luke 9 and Luke 10. It was an intentional exercise, and there were specifics about how they went out (travelling light, staying where they found hospitality). Jesus gave it priority at that time – and, we would say, was setting a marker for subsequent practice. There’s a little sticking point here: they didn’t pray, as we would understand it. However – and let’s not pass over this point without registering it — Jesus did tell them to go, where to go, how to go and what to expect on going.
So that’s how it works. The process, for us, is worked out a little differently but the principles are exactly the same.
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More on this topic here: Ian's Greig's stuff