Enjoying a long weekend here in Tanzania, with public holidays on Friday and Monday. Students now gone but lots of work to do to get ready for next year! And just booked a few days in Pemba for between Christmas and the new year so look forward to telling you more about that soon.
Anyway, continuing the theme of Christian living this week, wanting to cover some basics over the next few blog posts, the first is church membership. As always, do let me know what you think!
In last week's post I was exploring the point that we live as Christians as an outworking of the fact that we are Christians because of what Jesus has already done for us, and why that is both a very straightforward and very difficult thing to do understand.
Understanding the importance of Christian living in this context, I want to spend the next few blog posts looking at some of the basics of Christian living, starting with being a member of a church, what churches are trying to achieve, why we should be members and the implications of being there for reasons beyond our own desires.
What is a church for?
It is worth saying straightaway, I think, that the human authors of the Bible, both Old Testament and New, assumed that worship is first and foremost a corporate activity, and that coming together is of crucial importance. Since the idea that one might be a Christian by oneself, occasionally watching TV programmes such as 'Songs of Praise', was not on the agenda in Biblical times, it is not a point which is explicitly addressed, the closest I can think of is:
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
Basically, we're social creatures, even miserable so and sos like me! We need each other and others need us as we look to live out our faith in a manner honouring to our Almighty God.
So, what is the purpose of a church? The principal answer to that question is, I suggest, to further God's kingdom. And that answer subdivides as below:
- to be a worshipping community, giving praise and worship to God;
- to build up existing Christians in their faith;
- to be a base for telling others about Jesus;
- to provide help and support to the local community;
- to support missions outside of the locality.
If you can think of other purposes a church serves please let me know, this seems to me to be a comprehensive list.
I don't want to go through each of these points exhaustively, but do want to make some further points.
To worship God first and foremost
The idea that we go to church first and foremost to worship God is really important, I think. And if we're serious about this, I suggest that we are going to arrive on time - understanding that for all of us, not least families with young children, things can go wrong at the last minute which means that the choice ends up being to arrive late or abandon going, in which case, go! But if it's much the same people late week after week, then I would be wanting to challenge what is going on here.
I remember vividly being involved in the music for a Muswell Hill Council of Churches joint service, hosted in the local Catholic church, with many members arriving half an hour early to pray before the service. I'm not saying this is a model for everyone to replicate, indeed, those of us who go to churches with back to back services can't really do this anyway, but it really spoke to me of the importance of worship and a right attitude before God.
I would say also that the most effective campaign I've ever seen on this matter was conducted by Pastor Safari Paul of the Dar es Salaam Pentecostal Church who said, "Our Lord is our guest of honour at our services! And you do not arrive after the guest of honour! So services start at 9am and we must be here at least by then if not before!" I offered him a tour of the UK to spread this message further, although didn't get as far as sorting out how his trip would be funded. And I freely forgive him, a couple of months later, for managing to arrive 2 hours late for a Saturday men's lunch, just as the food was being served. I harbour no ill-feeling about this matter AT ALL!!!!!!
I'll return to this point about the centrality of praise to God when talking about prayer, just to note this blog post in which I noted that as persecution was getting going in the early church, the disciples praised God first and foremost and came to their own concerns much lower down the list.
Church is for non-members
Church is there for our Almighty God first, and needs to serve the needs of members. But in an important sense, church is there for non-members. What are the implications of this?
First, let's take advantage of the opportunities there are. Whilst I would consider that the the position of the Anglican Church in the UK as the established church is a mixed blessing, let's concentrate on the positives here! People without a clear faith will come to the church at key times in their lives, as they suffer a bereavement, come to get married and, indeed, want their children baptised. I'm aware the latter of these needs thinking through as baptism is primarily about membership of the church, the point here is that there are opportunities to engage with people as they come to us, not the opposite way round. One of the great strengths of St James's Muswell Hill when I was organist there in the late 1990s was the pastoral care particularly around funerals, also weddings and requests for baptisms, and I came to know a number of people drawn into membership by this route.
I think it's helpful to consider how services are conducted from the perspective of engaging non-members. It's inevitable that if people spend a lot of time together engaged on a particular task together, they will end up saying and doing things which make perfect sense to the insiders but be complete gobbledegook (spelling?) to outsiders. Now, that may be OK for a private hobby club - but even they need new members from time to time! It's not OK if we are looking to have a realistic ministry to people coming in from the outside.
So, few practical points here. Keep changes of posture to a reasonable minimum, both for the benefit of the newcomer who doesn't know what to do, and also for elderly and other people who find changes disproportionately difficult. If you're standing before and after a short prayer, doesn't it make sense to remain standing during it?
Consider the length of the services. I once attended the naming ceremony of the son of a colleague at a synagogue, the service taking 1.5 hours. From a Christian perspective, some bits felt very familiar, but the overall experience was new to me. One hour would have been better, I think, the lack of familiarity and knowing where things were heading meant that time was dragging well before the end. When this happened, I was attending a church which had a superb ministry to homeless and vulnerably housed people. And we would pray that they would come along to the services which in general they didn't. To which my response was: yes, by all means pray, that's a great thing to do, but again at 1.5 hours I think the service is too long to engage people who may (and may not, of course) be in a fragile state of mental health, lots of other things on their minds, unable realistically to concentrate for long periods of time.
On arrival in a church, you can reasonably consider yourself to be a newcomer for, let's say, six months. After that time, consider yourself as a member, as 'the church'. You see somebody you don't recognise? You say hello and introduce yourself. The embarrassment of welcoming somebody who has been a member for the last 40 years is a small price to pay compared to the risk of ignoring people who are new. By all means before and after services talk to people you already know, ensure also you are sensitive to people standing around looking lost. Helpful if the church leadership and ushers (sidespeople) take a lead here, but these are things which we can all be doing.
Find ways of getting people into the building eg for concerts, make sure there are leaflets about the church in the pews and that there is a short welcome on behalf of the church welcoming people back. Welcome school groups into the building for school projects, and then give them a slot to show what they've done on the following Sunday, inviting parents, other family members and friends to come. Consider having an annual service at which you invite people who have been married that year to celebrate together as part of the normal church service. And another for people who have been bereaved. If people are not used to going to church, then stepping into the building itself can be quite an issue, see if there are ways which make it easy for people.
Christmas is a time when people do come to church, so make the most of it! Make sure the music is good, give people the experience they are after with the candles etc, and be ready to preach Christ crucified. Again, have membership materials there on the pews with regular members standing by to speak to people they don't recognise.
Getting involved in the life of the church
After a newcomer period, all Christians should expect to get in the life of the church. Many, many things can be done, whether it be preaching, pastoral visiting, praying, folding the service sheets, welcoming people at the door, children's work, leading the music, and much much more.
Few points here if I may. Who does what should, I think, be a shared decision between the individual and the leadership, not just the choice of the individual. There is the temptation to ask capable, keen people to take more and more on which is fine up to a point but not the way to build a church community. Just as there is a time with young children when they are learning to feed themselves when it would be far easier just to feed them, so we need to welcome more people into the life of the church, even if that is not the easiest course of action at the time.
One specific point, speaking as someone who has been both a paid and unpaid church organist over the years, when is it appropriate to pay people for work they do in the life of the church? The answer, I think, is: when the work they do prevents them from getting other paid employment. So, when I was being paid as an Organist I was a funded PhD student, with part of the terms being that I could work for 10 hours on a paid basis. Had I not been working for the church, I would have been earning money in other ways. Also, I was necessarily in Muswell Hill over the Christmas and Easter periods, which I would not necessarily have been had I been working on a volunteer basis.
I would express the view that I think it's good practice to keep the number of paid people in the life of a church to a reasonable minimum. Whilst there are clear advantages in having people whose job it is to work in the church, so one is not dependent on volunteer good will or the particular times that people can make between other commitments, one can very easily be sending out the message that Christian ministry is something for professionals, quite contrary to the message we would wish to convey.
Some concluding thoughts
To return to the crucial point at the beginning: we live as Christians because we are Christians, as an outworking of our faith. It is not the act of going to church which makes us Christians, we go because we are. This brings with it a freedom - so whilst I am a regular member of the Cathedral congregation, you won't necessarily find me there when I've flown into Dar es Salaam late Saturday evening / early Sunday morning, and you won't normally find me on the organ stall on such days either. We may feel it appropriate to go out with friends from outside the church on the odd occasion, this all seems to me entirely appropriate.
But there is the need to be part of a worshipping community, with God at its centre, looking for our needs to be met whilst we look to contribute in some key way. You find above some of my thoughts on what is important, do let me know what you think!