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Reading: John 4:21 – 24

We’re continuing our series on reimagining church for the 21st century, and today we’re thinking again about worship. We did spend June and July looking at a range of issues to do with worship – music in worship, worship without music, using our bodies, the focus of our worship – but today I want to think particularly about some of the challenges to do with worship in our current, secular 21st century, and how we might address them…and all this is in the context of asking the bigger question: how do we do church in 2016 in a way which is meaningful and relevant?

Beyond the doors of the church building, apart from those people who are committed followers of other faiths, there are three groups of people who’ve become known in academic circles as the cultural Christians, the dones and the nones: cultural Christians are people for whom commitment and discipleship don’t necessarily mean very much but who like the idea of church so they can be married there and have some nice photos then they can have their babies christened there, and they can go to a midnight service on Christmas Eve and sing some well-known carols…now I’m not being cynical: they’re quite sincere people in their own way, but they’ve never grasped – or perhaps never actually been taught – about discipleship and commitment to following Jesus. 

The dones are people who’ve had some experience of church however minimal and have rejected it now for a range of reasons: the most common reasons are that church is irrelevant to their lives, it’s boring and dull, they’ve been deeply hurt by other Christians, it’s misogynistic and homophobic in a 21st century society, and there are so many different churches, who knows which is right, so they give up on them all.

The nones are people who have had no experience of church at all; what they know about Christianity may be no more than what they learnt in school RE lessons where Christianity is just one religion amongst several which they learn about in a very objective way; and if you don’t think there are any of them let me tell you a true incident from just a fortnight ago. A lady came up to me after Trudi’s funeral to say thank you for a lovely service. Later in the afternoon, whilst we were having refreshments at the Legion, Julie Harvey saw the same lady there, and went to have a conversation with her because she knew her as someone who had been a cleaner for Trudi, and in the course of their conversation, she commented how lovely and friendly it had been in Riverside, then she said, “I’ve never been to church before.” Now I want you to let that sink into your mind: my guess is that the lady was around 40 years old and she’d never been to church before. For those of us for whom church has been a part of our lives possibly since childhood – I started to go to Sunday School when I was four and it’s been a part of my life ever since – it’s hard to believe that for perhaps a significant number of people today in the UK, what we do on a Sunday morning is completely alien. After all, in a rationalist, scientific age, how can you possibly believe that someone was born of a virgin; that someone who’d been crucified and speared and put in a tomb for three days could possibly walk out alive; that there’s some place called heaven when the Hubble telescope has reached further into the universe than ever before and there’s no sign of any life so far; or that God can actually live inside a human being in the form of his Holy Spirit?

So, we face an incredible challenge as we seek to fulfil Jesus’s commission to us to go into our community, our world, and make disciples. What’s the answer? Here are some very tentative thoughts, first from our reading this morning:

  • Worship in spirit

Remember that worship is about both what we do together here on a Sunday morning but it’s also about the whole of our lives, and perhaps our first requirement is to go on being so filled by the Holy Spirit that we allow ourselves to be led by him. How open are we to letting God’s Spirit lead us: in our workplaces, in our family relationships, in our contacts with neighbours, and in our worship together on a Sunday morning? It’s not always easy to discern the Spirit’s leading: sometimes it’s through a word we read in the Bible, sometimes it’s through something a fellow-Christian says to us, sometimes it’s a feeling or an awareness that God seems to be prompting us directly to do something; very, very rarely it’s an actual voice speaking to us. Let me tell you something I was told just a couple of weeks ago: a Christian I know was sitting in the waiting room at Grantham station to come back to Sleaford. There was a woman sitting opposite her, and she felt God tell her that she had to go and speak to her. Well, she thought, I can’t do that, God! So she said to herself, if she gets on the same train as me, I will talk to her. So the train arrived and she got on, and so did the other woman, who sat near her and began a conversation. My friend decided that, as God had prompted her to speak, she should share her faith with her and, by the time they got to Sleaford, she’d led this woman to Christ! If she hadn’t responded to a prompting from God, that woman may never have been presented with the gospel. I wonder whether I would have done that? Would you?

  • Worship in truth

I believe above everything that God wants you and me to be authentic and truthful, not just in what we say but also in who we are. A fellow minister once told me that he never had any doubts, that he lived with certainties, and that was how he would always preach to his congregation: he was certain about everything to do with his Christian faith. Well, I have to tell you that I would not be being authentic with you if I were to say that my faith is just made up of certainties. You’ll be relieved to know that my bottom line is a conviction that God exists, because the idea that this amazing universe has come into existence out of nothing just by chance is far more unbelievable than that God exists. I don’t take the Bible literally, and I struggle with many parts of the Old Testament, especially the violence of Joshua and Judges. There are times that I’m angry with God; there are times I just don’t get him; there are many questions to which the only answer I can give is, “I don’t know” and to which I choose not to try and give trite answers. Some ministers feel that they should always be able to give an answer to difficult questions, but we need to acknowledge more honestly that God is far bigger than us and we have nothing we can say. Paul called on the people to whom he wrote to be imitators of him as he was of Christ. I wish I could say that, but I can’t. We must be authentic and honest or we’ll be seen as little better than double glazing salesmen when the gospel is infinitely more important than home improvements!

  • Be prepared to change

Much of what I’ve said so far is about whole life living, but I want to think for a few moments now about Sunday worship, and I want to give you just two minutes to talk to one or two people around you. If you could have an hour and a quarter on a Sunday morning exactly how you’d like it, what would our worship look like?

(Two minutes discussion)

I’m afraid we don’t actually have time to take feedback, but, if we did, I suspect we would hear some or all of the following:

o   Carry on just as we are

o   Some more traditional hymns

o   A longer/shorter sermon

o   Longer/shorter periods of sung worship

o   Playing the organ

o   No sermon, or a very short introduction leading to more discussion

o   Exercising charismatic gifts: prophecy and speaking in tongues

o   More times of silence

o   More open prayer

o   More all-age worship to include the children

Now let me say that every one of those points – and any which I might have missed – are perfectly valid, because there are no right and wrong answers to the question. In the end, how we put together the service is inevitably going to be a compromise which can’t possibly please everybody. However, the question that I think is most important is, which groups of people do we hope to reach with our Sunday worship? Well, I’ll tell you who we reach at the moment: other Christians! Our growth as a local church over the last eight years has been essentially what’s known as transfer growth: people who were already Christians who were looking for a reasonably contemporary Bible preaching fellowship with a warm welcome.

So what about the groups I mentioned at the start cultural Christians, dones and nones?

Cultural Christians will almost inevitably look to the Church of England – that’s why so many people call themselves C of E when asked about their religion. The dones left institutional church for a variety of reasons, so they’re unlikely to just come back to the very thing which they left – which is why Back to Church Sunday has had very little success. The questions we have to ask for these people are: is our worship still dull and boring? Is our preaching and teaching practical and relevant? Do we still project an image of misogyny and homophobia? If we’ve moved on in those areas, maybe, just maybe, ex-churchgoers might be persuaded to come back.

So our greatest challenge is to reach those who have no connection with church at all and see it as of no relevance to them at all. The first secret of how to reach them is in the very first word of Jesus’s Great Commission: “GO!” What he doesn’t say is, “Stay where you are and get them to come to you.” Fifty-five years ago, the little church I went to up in Bolton held an evangelistic service every Sunday evening, and strangers would come in off the streets quite often. Fifty-five years on, that isn’t true anymore. We have to go out to them if we ever hope for them to come in here…and we have to start where they are, not where we think they might be. We have to build relationships, and we have to share our own stories of what Jesus means to us: we can’t launch straight into preaching at them, and we have to be patient.

Let me tell you about just one of the activities which CreateLincs have set up: it’s a monthly walking group where they meet for lunch then enjoy an afternoon walk together. It’s the kind of thing to which you could invite anyone. Almost every month that they’ve been meeting, there’ve been people who don’t profess to be Christians but who enjoy walking. They haven’t been converted yet, but we’re building relationships, we’re getting to know each other, and they’re discovering that a group of Christians can actually be quite nice and can enjoy themselves…and that’s a good start. Evangelism today is not a sprint, but a marathon. George Muller, the founder of the famous children’s homes, prayed daily for a friend of his for 36 years before he became a Christian.

So what about Sunday morning? Well, apart from, of course, doing all we can to glorify God, our worship has to be two things: it has to be worship with which you and I can genuinely engage, and which enables us to meet with God; but it also has to look outwards so that it’s attractive to any stranger who should happen to cross our threshold, and, if we need to change, then we must. There’s a quotation which I heard some years ago and which should perhaps be a motto for the contemporary church: “This building is not a museum, it is a maternity ward.” We’re here, not to preserve the past but to bring to birth a new generation of Christians. Let’s do all we can to build relationships, share our own stories and in time – and it may not be quick – see growth not simply through transfer but through new folk coming to faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

  • 2 Corinthians 10:17-18

    “But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”

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