Our churches are changing, you must have noticed. The Church of England appears to be numerically declining all over the country. Think about St Bartholomew’s and St James on a normal Sunday and how many empty pews there are. Numbers are not the whole story, there is evidence that smaller numbers of people in church can be more faithful, like a concentrate rather than a diluted drink – but with so few people we become spread thin. The mission of the Church becomes harder to do with less people.
There is evidence that other parts of the world are witnessing growth in Christian faith. Where this happens, it seems that it is the ‘life of faith’ which is making the biggest difference. Communities that live as though they really are brothers and sisters of Christ: i.e. liberated by the love of God and joyfully, graciously, generously, sharing this with others.
Like them, you and I are immortal and beloved brothers and sisters in Christ – did you know that?
The future of Christian faith in Marsden and Slaithwaite does not hinge on the Church of England. God is so much bigger than us alone. God doesn’t need us, but importantly, God does want us. Our churches are changing whether we like it or not.
The easiest path is the one where we continue to do what we’ve always done. Faithfully go to Church, hear and receive in Word and Sacrament. On this path, God doesn’t demand anything of us, and we demand nothing of God either. The silence between us and God grows. Yes, we are beloved children of God; one day Christ will draw us to himself and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, amen. But if you’re the last one out, hand in the keys; the soul has left the building.
There is another path though. God doesn’t demand that we follow it, but would honour our hopes and dreams if we did. This second path is a little more narrow, perhaps harder. We may have to change the way we do things, and we may even find that we are changed ourselves. On this path, there is a Church of England community to hand on to future generations to fill these sacred spaces with life.
My heart is for growth, and I’m a Priest of God, in the Church of England. The easy path does not appeal to me. My heart is filled with joy not sadness. I’m stupid, crazy, silly, foolish and I’ll turn myself upside down and inside out to play with God among you. What do you want to do? Will you play with me? It means change; are you okay with that? It means embracing a ‘life of faith’ that involves every breath you take. You will live between two worlds: in this new ‘life of faith’ you will witness the needs of the world to God, just like Mary at Cana. Furthermore, in this new life of faith you will witness Jesus to the world, like his disciples before us.
Today’s Bible readings mark a changing moment too. Did you know that traditionally this is where the church turns from Christmas towards Easter: turns from the manger to the cross.
Mary and Joseph are going to the temple because it is the right thing to do. They have the sacrifices of purification and they must present Jesus, their first born son, as holy and dedicated to God. A good reliable tradition. However, into the routine of tradition come two elderly people. Simeon. Anna. Independently, and after many years of going to the temple, they each suddenly discover Jesus and their lives are transformed.
- Simeon said, “My eyes have seen the salvation. Lord, I can go in peace” and “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many, and will reveal the secrets of the heart.”
- Anna praised God and told everyone about the child Jesus.
An encounter with Jesus in the temple which has utterly changed their lives. Can you imagine someone coming to church and having their lives utterly transformed by an encounter with Jesus?
This year I’ve been getting to know people in our villages who don’t go to church. You already know them, they are your friends and neighbours, they work in shops, cafes, pubs and on farms. Being a Vicar gives me the chance to ask questions and to pray for people. What I’ve discovered is that our community is full of people who basically believe in God, but really don’t want to come to church because it’s boring – among other reasons. This is very different to the experiences of Simeon and Anna.
At this point I have to stop and make a very clear point. Boring is not the opposite of entertaining. We are not here to entertain the community. The answer to this question is not to be more colourful, more fun, sing better songs or have a rock band instead of a Church Organ… although it might be nice and there’s nothing wrong with any of that. However entertaining we are, there will be plenty of people who find even that boring… or worse, shallow.
What is more important is to think about what draws people to Church, and what happens when they get here. Both of these are God related: God speaks into the hearts of the people around us and God transforms people’s lives when they meet Jesus. We can play a part in this too, as God’s children living ‘lives of faith’ which have been transformed by an encounter with Jesus.
I am committed to the path that leads to growth. Will you come with me? As individuals and families, if you want to contribute to the future of St James, Shred, Home Church and St Bartholomew’s, then we need to begin this week. Don’t leave this to others… there are no others. These people who have met through Home Church… there will only be another half a dozen people who may listen to this service online or watch the video if I record it later. We are all there is.
So, here is my to do list for those who want to bring positive change. These are essential to the life of faith:
- Make time to pray every day, even a short Lord’s prayer before bed, and pray that you will grow in the knowledge and love of God. Pray that we will welcome new people into our churches.
- Read the gospels to yourself in your own time. Just do it. This is the single most effective way to get to know Jesus better, through the eyewitness accounts of his friends.
- Practice talking to each other about Jesus. Start with someone who loves you and will support you, ask questions and help you. Why not play the game… 10 things I know about Jesus. Don’t be embarrassed… it is easier with a friend than with a stranger and more importantly, you’ll learn something about Jesus.
- The last one is ‘next level’ homework for those who found the first three too easy… Imagine you had to describe Jesus to someone who’d never met him? Can you write that down and give it to me? I’m going to put your thoughts on the website… yet another way to tell people about Jesus.
And seriously, just start doing this, I urge you. Pray, Read, Talk, Share… change is happening and as God pours his blessings upon you, may they overflow into the world around you.