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  • Of Houses and Churches

    One of our tasks at the moment is searching for a manse - not an easy task.  We know what we would ideally like, what would be acceptable if less than perfect, and how much we have to spend.  We even know that it is possible, if the right thing pops up, to get ideal and affordable.  In the meantime we look at the possible.  And I am recalling why it is I dislike house-hunting so much!  It is a great gift to be allowed to chose one's own manse, and I am genuinely appreciative, but it has its moments as we are already discovering.  And all of this makes me think about 'selling' church too.  No, I don't mean the buildings per se, I mean the community of faith into which we hope to attract people which is glimsped and judged through the experience of entering a building.

    Yesterday's viewings served as examples of things to think about.

    The first was a new build property that was, shall we say, bijou.  It was trying to be more than it could deliver - having essentially single bedrooms advertised as doubles on the basis that you could, just get a double bed in.  It could have been a lovely two-bedroomed property but instead the developer had gone for three.  I wonder if we do that as churches sometimes?  Not trying to be a big church if we are small (though some do) but trying to be what we simply cannot be effectively? Do we not quite succeed because we don't realise our actual, innate potential?  Are we content to be what are best able to be, trusting that this is actually what God might want?

    The second was an older tenement property that, as it happens was unsuitable, but what was striking was the inability of the vendor to grasp what selling meant!  I was very glad I had someone with me when the door was opened by a young man wearing only a dressing gown (what the BU make of that!!) and things went downhill from there.  The place was untidy, dark, cluttered and smokey.  The viewing lasted about 2 minutes, and that was more from politeness than anything else.  Surely, I thought, people know that when you are selling you need to up early, cleaning, polishing, hiding clutter, making bread and brewing coffee.  But them, what of our churches?  I am a bit of a compulsive hymnbook tidier - a trait I shared with a vicar with whom I worked in Manchester (maybe we were anal, maybe we are 'on the spectrum' or maybe we are right) - but more generally what impression do our churches give?  They don't need to be state of the art everything with whizz-bang technology and professional musicians.  We don't need IKEA or Habitat or Waitrose or whatever it is products.  A place that is tidy enough and clean enough, with a sense of care in how things are done; decent coffee (evidently this is a great evangelism tool!!) in proper cups/mugs, the best we can muster consistent with who we are in terms of music and words and, possibly more essential, welcome.  A tin tab with an ill-assorted selection of wooden chairs can be as beautiful as the finest cathedral if the attitude is right.

    So, the manse hunt continues, and the reminders I'm having about how to do and be church are valuable.  And now I must go and practice what I preach, offering the bestest possible to those who this day will cross the threshold of the Gathering Place.  As I type the decent coffee is being prepared, the worship space adjusted to express what we wish to express and folk going about their allotted tasks in making this a good place to 'view'.

  • Sean the Sheep: Leader of the Flock?

    This is total nonsense, but is prompted by seeing trailers on BBC1 for the new series of Sean the Sheep...

    I was totally bemused on seeing images of happy, smiley, plasticene sheep riding White Helmets style on motorbikes whilst a version of the song 'leader of the pack' was sung.  Do the makers not know what the song is about?  Is Sean the Sheep due to come to a sticky end (I mean, technically as a male sheep he almost certainly would but this is cartoon land)?  And do they know anything about sheep?  My understanding is that the 'leader of the flock' is normally an older ewe (which is an interesting one for churches who consider themselves as flocks is it not?!) so is there something Sean should be admitting?  OK I'm reading this far to literally/seriously but it made me stop for a few moments to work out why it niggled.

  • Church growth, Church shrinkage, Church stasis?

    Yesterday I was talking to someone from my old church, and they were sharing how things were at the moment.  In this little church life is never easy, and one tough year follows hot on the heels of another.  Since I left at the end of September two people have died and one has left for greener (nominally and in name) pastures.  Understandably this is all very demoralising.  At the same time their first Advent lunch of the year had been a roaring success with a bakers dozen gathering in a members' home for reflection, prayer and food.

    Where I am now we have some sense of excitement - congregations are big, visitors and new people seem to be returning week by week, we have folk asking about formal membership and after a painful, loss-filled summer this church is anticipating good things.  Ironically, in roughly the same time time Dibley has lost three members we will have gained three.  All of which made we pause to think how and why we count the sizes of churches.

    I remember once researching the Dibley membership figures for a century, using old Baptist Union handbooks held at NBLC.  Sad, I know, but there you go.  In the early 1960s the reported membership halfed, at around the time BUGB had a per capita fee (long gone), not to remove those who had moved or drifted away but because over 100 dead people were removed.  It made my laugh at the time, but it also made me think about what this whole counting business is really about.

    If we believe that the church is one, then actually a bit of shifting around between 'branches' is ultimately irrelevant, no matter how much it may hurt when someone moves to some where the preacher is better, the music sweeter or the coffee hotter.

    If we believe in the communion of saints - or in the parlance of old hymn books the church 'militant and triumphant' - then those have died are still part of the church, even if not the bit we can see.

    So here's the thing then: although Dibley's reported membership will go down, and although The Gathering Place (where I am now) may be able to report an increase, overall theologically nothing has changed - everyone who has shuffled around or entered eternity is still part of the Church, so there is some sort of stasis, a steady state.  None of that alters the sadness I feel for my friends in Dibley or the excitement I feel about what is emerging up here.  The apostle Paul wrote of the church "if one part suffers, every part suffers with it, if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it" (1 Cor 12:26); similarly "rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15).  So it in the Body of Christ in all times and all places, temporal and eternal.  It is a mystery but it is also somehow reassuring to know that never, ever, ever, is a church (congregation) alone in its pain and a challenge that no church must never, ever, ever gloat in its greatness.  We are all part of one body, one church (and all the other 'ones' of Ephesians 4:4!) and that is mysterious grace indeed.