All posts by Matthew

Older People’s Ministry: A Church or an Act of Service

Community was at the heart of NYNO’s original vision. That which is true spiritually should also be found, falteringly, in our daily human relationships. Our understanding was that the reality of our spiritual union with Christ, and therefore our union with each other, meant that the Church should seek to be a community of mutual service and dependence.

This general ideal for church community had particular consequences when we applied it to our work amongst older people. We had observed that ministry amongst older people followed the patterns of traditional ministry. While such ministry was widely accepted and appreciated, it presented a problem for a future where professional ministry resources will be scarce. In its place, NYNO wanted to encourage the agency and participation of older people in the life of their churches. We wanted to see church communities grow, located in places that were accessible to older people (practically speaking, this meant meeting in communal areas of sheltered accommodation) and whose participants had a diverse age range. At the outset of our project we were anxious to develop relationships between the generations where members of each generation would bring blessings and be served by all the other generations. Each individual would bring different giftings; each individual would have different needs.

We were therefore very aware whenever we heard a member of the younger generations speak about wanting to be involved with a NYNO group and ‘serve’ the older members. On the face of it, this was a noble request. For NYNO this was precisely what we didn’t want. We didn’t want older members to be viewed as primarily the recipients of the ministry of younger people. We wanted younger folk to recognize what they could receive from friendship with older folk before they began to serve. The alternative, it seemed to us, would be the patronization of older people as passive recipients of the good works of younger people. We were also very aware that people who came to us would generally be coming from another church community to which they would already have a loyalty and personal relationships. It is only natural for a NYNO group to have difficulty commanding such loyalty from people. Instead, it becomes a place for service. This is, its way, admirable, but is a genuine hurdle to be overcome if the aim is to develop a new worshipping community.

The result of all of this was that we asked folks wanting to join us to come and be part of the community first, before thinking about what they could do. In doing this, the intention was that folks would appreciate the position of our less physically able members and would develop the real peer relationships that would prevent any future service – which would be needed and natural – becoming one-sided. I’m not sure this worked.

I don’t think we understood how difficult it would be for folks to simply come and develop friendships. Nor, at the moment, do I know what that difficulty was. But, as it has turned out, folks who have come and been encouraged to not immediately serve, have not stuck with the group.

There could be any number of reasons for this happening, including the personal and the clarity with which this vision of church has been consistently explained. There may also be issues with the form of worship we offer not meeting people’s expectations. Even so, the question at least has to be asked whether we have to be more tolerant and patient of people’s expectations that they are engaging with NYNO in order to serve. What this means practically is inviting new folk to come and in offering them a role as a means of finding a foothold in the community.

When NYNO started, when we were a young and vulnerable project only just finding our feet and trying to insist on our alternative approach in the face of the universal expectations surrounding older people’s ministry, perhaps then we were justified on insisting on community first and service second. Perhaps now we can afford to let people find their way in their own time.

A Maundy Thursday Communion Liturgy

You can find here a Maundy Thursday liturgy. This was put together by Ian Aitken last year. For once the service is not built around a common meal, although the words draw heavily on our liturgies that are.

This service has tended to operate as quite and solemn evening meeting for adults. Unlike our other meetings we haven’t gone out of away to make the meeting comfortable for the young.

You are welcome to use the sheet . It would certainly be interesting to hear from you if you do so (you can use the contact page on this website), whether you follow our practice or adapt things for your context.

On Children in Church

Sometime after his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called a child to him and “he put him in the midst of them.” Then Jesus said, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:1-4).

The disciples (church) continued to argue over greatness. Even after the Sermon on the Mount, in which all our categories are flipped on their heads and everything is turned upside down, they were arguing over greatness. Even after Jesus had blessed the poor, the hungry and the persecuted, the disciples were still fixated on greatness. Worldiness is a hard habit to break.

In response, Jesus called to himself a child – the essence of one who is powerless, dependent, needy, little, and poor. He placed the child “in the midst of them,” as a concrete visible sacrament of how the Kingdom looks. Jesus’ act with the child is interesting. In many of our modern, sophisticated congregations, children are often viewed as distractions. We tolerate children only to the extent that they become “adults” like us. Adult members sometimes complain that they cannot pay attention to the sermon, they cannot listen to the beautiful music, when fidgety children are beside them in the pews. “Send them away,” many adults say. Create “Children’s Church” so these distracting children can be removed in order that we adults can pay attention.

Interestingly, Jesus put a child in the center of his disciples, “in the midst of them,” in order to help them pay attention. The child, in Jesus’ mind, was not an annoying distraction. The child was a last-ditch effort by God to help the disciples pay attention to the odd nature of God’s kingdom. Few acts of Jesus are more countercultural, than his blessing of children.

Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville, Abingdon: 1989), pp. 95-96.

Without eschatology …

… we are left with only a baffling residue of strange commands, which seem utterly impractical and ominous. We ignore the commands on divorce and lash out at our people on peace. The ethic of Jesus thus appears to be either utterly impractical or utterly burdensome unless it is set within its proper context – an eschatological, messianic community, which knows something the world does not and structures its life accordingly.

Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville, Abingdon: 1989), p. 90.

There is much to be enthused about in chapter four, which is entitled ‘Life in the Colony: The Church as Basis for Christian Ethics’. The idea of a church as primarily a community whose worships and witnesses through their corporate Christian identity and character, offers both political relevance and an escape from party tribalism. Being faithful to Christ cannot effectively be reduced to a left or right position, but has its greatest significance to the world in its uniqueness.

At the same time, the treatment of the Sermon of the Mount is still not quite satisfying here. I agree with the eschatological context for the sermon that is emphasized. The kingdom is coming, and for this we still pray. Perhaps my frustration lies in the question of where and how that kingdom is being realized – made real – in the present. H & M seem to argue that an individualist approach to ethics and to the commands in the sermon is doomed to failure, but that a Church communitarian approach is actually what is being proposed in the text and, further, is able to (much as in yesterday’s quote) help us to live this kingdom life. Again, I think there are some really quite important things being expressed here. But, I don’t think this proposal manages to escape the accusations of being absurd and naive that they acknowledge can be levelled at the sermon when applied to individuals. On the one hand, I want to agree that the church is essential to our discipleship, worship and witness. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that Christ’s words defeat the best efforts of Christians living in community, just as easily as individualist Christians. This is acknowledged in the concluding remarks in the chapter about forgiveness. Perhaps my frustration might have been calmed if these concluding remarks were rather more central to the chapter. The quotation from Barth on p. 83 hints at a way forward as it speaks of the Church setting up a sign for the world but how this sign might come to be, how it might differ from the reality to which it points, is not spelt out.

From an exegetical point of view, it is not obvious from the text that the Church is able to or commanded to play this positive role in perfecting our discipleship. That Christ is commanding us is obvious. That life in Christian community enables us to obey and ‘be perfect’ is less clear. This last comment is perhaps a strange point to make, given that I do think that the Christian life is a churchly life at every point, given that I do think that life lived in the Church and can make a difference to how we live. I suppose my thoughts are that unless we have a realistic sense of the Church’s limitations and frailties, at the same time as a belief that God is working in us and in our dependence on his work, we will find ourselves disillusioned and doubting. The Church – of which am I part of course – is so bad at keeping these words, to propose that by being in community we could keep Christ’s words just isn’t plausible. This isn’t because I lack faith (!) but rather because central to the sermon is the demand for perfection. This demand allows us to imagine the impossible and unexpected but it also completely crushes us and our expectations of moral adequacy … if we are honest.

I suppose what needs to be fleshed out here is a discussion of the realization of the kingdom – its primary presence in the life of Christ – and so our individual and communal connection to him in life of the Spirit. This allows us to speak of the kingdom in absolute terms – not molding it into something ‘possible’ that we can imagine keeping – and allows us to expect and to try the humanly speaking absurd or impossible. It allows us to imagine that older people might be placed first in the kingdom, that the diversity of the church might make the sacrifice of moving to the most vulnerable and excluded. It does this while recognizing the difficulties involved, our fears and doubts – our need for faith.

When the only contemporary means of self-transcendence is orgasm …

Christian ethics depends upon the Christian story. Christian ethics makes no sense apart from the recognition that we are also on an adventuresome journey which requires a peculiar set of virtues. For example, when Christians discuss sex, it often sounds as if we are somehow “against sex.” What we fail to make clear is that sexual passion (the good gifts of God’s creation) is now subservient to the demanding business of maintaining a revolutionary community in a world that often uses sex as a means of momentarily anesthetizing or distracting people from the basic vacuity of their lives. When the only contemporary means of self-transcendence is orgasm, we Christians are going to have a tough time convincing people that it would be nicer if they were not promiscuous. … We believe that it is only when our attentions are directed toward a demanding and exciting account of life that we have any way of handling something so powerful, so distracting, so creative, and so deadly as sex.

Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville, Abingdon: 1989) pp. 63-64.

Comment: What has this to do with NYNO?

NYNO aims to help people envisage and embark on building new church communities in unconventional places that just happen to be particularly accessible to older people. One of the challenges we face is changing the assumptions (often fearful) that younger generations will often have about what such churches might be like. What we are trying to say is that there is far more freedom for you in such a church, far more possibilities, far more joy and satisfaction than you probably imagine. Being part of such a witnessing community is not meant to be a chore, but an exploration, a discovery of who you are in fact – a discovery that can only be made in the context of God’s community. Strange to say, but being involved with a NYNO community with others of a variety of ages (according to H and W ) can help us deal with lots of desires that pull us one way or another and that we struggle to know how to deal with. Put simply, it may be that our faith and Church community provides us with a vision for the whole of life (a larger story into which ours fits) that allows our desires to be a affirmed and ordered sensibly, rather than to float without anchor, forever vying for supremacy with our good intentions.

A Shortened Liturgy for this Sunday

We’re going to try a slightly shorter order this Sunday.

I’ll continue to offer a short very reflection on the Lord’s Prayer as the opening act, before everyone gathers around the table for our meal.

I’ve worked through the grace prayer a little, but the biggest change is removal of the Creed. My thinking is that the sermon and the creed can make for a formidable number of words. We’ll see how it goes.

Agape Meal (6) – Shortened

Edit: Mon. 20 Jul. 2015.

It went fine I think. However, I forgot the offering in the liturgy. Surely a good sign when people remind you that you’ve missed it!

Agape Meal (6) – Shortened – offering

Short Sermon: Serving and Being Served

The following sermon was given in February before the meal liturgy.

Reading: Philippians 2:1-11

The notion of service, of servant hood, is very important in Scripture and and also as a metaphor that directs the Christian life.

The Israelites were held as slaves – or servants, the terms are often interchangeable – in Egypt and redeemed by God to live as his free people. As Christians, as we have read, we find a model for our attitudes and actions in the life of Christ who did not strive after equality with God but rather took the form of a servant.

We are to be like servants. We are made free by God, from slavery to sin, that we might use our freedom the service of God and others.

On this basis, you might be forgiven for assuming that self-sacrificial service is in every case an unalloyed good. Curiously enough, I have come to the conclusion of late that it is not.

It is possible to serve, to be a servant of others, out of a sense of duty, and yet not love.

It is possible to serve for the sake of pride and ego, because in the context of a church service can be much admired.

The notion of servant-hood and service is not enough. There is something that must precede it.

Let me point you again to our celebration of communion. It is in this act, given to us by Christ, that so much of who we are and how we are to live is laid out for us to see. If we think about servant-hood in the context of communion it appears differently to us, as if in a new light. It does so in two ways.

Firstly, here we are taught that before we ever serve, Christ must serve us. The matter is made so clear by Christ’s words recorded in John 13, where Christ washes the feet of the disciples. Simon Peter exclaimed:

John 13:6-9 “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” 9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Christians must receive from Christ before ever they serve him or serve others. Without this we will speak without love, like a clanging cymbal. We will act without love and we will be and gain nothing.

Before ever we serve, Christ must serve us.

Secondly, Christ also teaches us here in communion that as we receive from him so do others. To participate in Christ is to be made one with others. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians. (10:17) 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

Before ever we strike out to serve others, we must recognise that others are called to the same task, called to serve others and called to serve us.

Our community in Christ lies underneath and behind our servant-hood. We are members of this community, we belong, we participate in Christ and one another before we ever strike out to offer our gifts to others.

All must give, but all must also receive.

There is a blessing, not often recognized, that we can offer to others. It is to allow other people to serve us. There is a sin, not often recognized. It is to be so proud of our service, that we refuse to allow others to give to us.

Let us remember, that in Christ we are made a community where all must give and all must receive. The Church is therefore more important than service.

Optimism and Realism

The following is a new section of orientation material from the NYNO booklet that is slowly taking shape.

The NYNO project was begun with an optimism that had sprung from a fresh – for us – reading of Scripture. We felt that we had seen, as though for the first time, something of what it meant to be the Church and that we had before us a place and a people in which that understanding of Church could be lived out as though we were a city on a hill. This meant that we went forward to start the project with a confidence that God could and would provide.

We knew that what we were proposing to do would not immediately appeal to many in the wider church. This was not because anyone would deny the importance of what we were trying – its basis in Scripture, its nature as a missionary action – but rather because we all find ourselves committed to our current congregations and it can be hard to embark on something new. There are lots of valid reasons for this. One the one hand, many Christians feel embattled and defensive in the face of increased secularism and gathering together in larger churches full of peers helps alleviate some of that stress, helps give confidence in mission. In contrast, NYNO appears to offer the prospect of commitment to a small congregation, full of older people: not immediately appealing. On the other hand, many existing congregations in the historic denominations are struggling to meet their financial commitments and require all the help they can draw on. Placing your attention on a new initiative may well be seen as a betrayal, leaving the burden of maintenance for the existing congregation on an ever fewer number.

Despite all of this, or perhaps even because of it, we want to insist that the Church can exist in ways that are faithful to God and so constantly surprising to us and to the world. If God is with us, who could be against us? We knew we were seeking to answer a question, the answer to which was not obvious. But we also knew that Christ was raised from the dead and therefore the Church must not simply live according to rules defined by the expectation of success. Christ would never have died for us had he followed those rules. What we are seeking is the fullness of life of the kingdom of God. The figure of Zacchaeus springs to mind. Here was a man who gave up his wealth and yet … rejoiced. We know that NYNO offers a challenge to many of us, particularly to the younger generations, but we do not believe the Gospel calls us to selfless misery. There is joy to be had in a NYNO congregation. It seems to us, as it must have done to Zacchaeus, that though this way offers challenge, it also offers something better.


An optimism founded in the new reality of the Spirit of Christ, who died and rose again, is a necessary characteristic of the Church. Such an attitude will always receive accusations of naivety. All such criticisms cannot simply be dismissed. A criticism of our optimism that stemmed from a cynicism and lack of faith would have to be resisted. This would be a criticism that failed to recognize the reality of the kingdom of God as the constitutive basis of our Church. This is not, however, the only criticism possible. A criticism based on a failure to observe the reality of the world is also possible and it is here where we are most at risk of rightly being called naïve.

Starting a NYNO congregation presents lots of challenges. There are personal challenges for the individuals who try to start it, there are challenges for the church community as it forms itself, changes and continues while its members grow frail and die. NYNO pioneers need to know what they are getting into. To use the Zacchaeus example, they need to know how much money they have before the full significance of giving it up can be experienced. We need to know that people may not flock to join us, they they may have many other claims on their time and energy. We need to know there is no set pattern of success that can easily be followed to achieve a ‘thriving’ congregation – that we ourselves will need to go into our situation in faith and with prayer, seeking answers for our own situation.

To return to the language of the kingdom, it is helpful to remember that the fullness of the kingdom will not be known until Christ returns. The challenge and task of the Church is to live in and according to the reality of the kingdom, to live in the Spirit, in a world that does not yet know the newness of the kingdom or the refreshing life of the Spirit. This is not achieved by closing our eyes and humming a hymn, but by knowing full well the challenges that are ahead and yet nonetheless believing that God looks with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

Praying in Silence, Participation in Public

The following is a first draft of a new section from the NYNO booklet, which is slowly taking shape, currently titled: Beginning a New Church …

Our practice of praying in public has changed over time. Originally, before NYNO started, we used the ‘chaplaincy’ model of conducting a service in which the minister figure led the prayers. We feel there are limitations to this form of worship. To recapitulate: when the minister leads all of the worship the congregation can begin to think of themselves as passive recipients of a spiritual good. When this happens, spiritual community can be assumed to be an additional and non-essential aspect of church. It is possible that this is exacerbated in our case, where the congregation consists of older people who have become accustomed to their role and contributions being peripheral to the life of their churches.

With respect to prayers, there are different ways of addressing this problem. An obvious solution is to invite members of the congregation to contribute to different parts of the service and, in this case, to lead the prayers. This is a sensible way forward in that it encourages a wider public participation and yet acknowledges the diverse giftings of the congregation: for whatever reason not all have the confidence or aptitude to take a public role.

In our own situation we felt that increasing the number of public contributors while keeping the same model of service was not the best way forward. We thought this for a number of reasons. Firstly, even if we encouraged some people to lead prayers and succeeded in getting them to do this, the majority of people would still not be doing so. We would still have in place a model of worship in which community could be seen as peripheral to church. We would still have a congregation who through their age and living situation have become less than central to the life of a church centred on a parish building. What we hoped for instead was to find ways to emphasize the importance of each member and the value of his or her contributions, whatever they were. Inevitably, when a service is led or conducted this leading role will be especially esteemed, to the detriment of valuation of the contributions of everyone else.

Secondly, in our particular situation we felt that it was particularly difficult to be seen to be ‘raising’ people into church leadership. The problem lies in part in the way Church of Scotland ministers, and no-doubt those of other denominations, are viewed in society generally and perhaps especially amongst the older generations. It would be difficult for any individual to be seen to taking on that role in such a small church that largely existed within a relatively small housing complex. All manner of attractive and unpleasant power dynamics would be possible if a resident were to take a role as a church leader for a church that largely consisted of residents. Of course, leading prayers or even taking a public role in worship does not entail church leadership, but it does imply it to some degree with a led service model and where few people are willing to contribute publicly.

Lastly, we recognized that we might be unsuccessful in finding people who would want to contribute to the service. We simply might not have such people. Our congregation might be too frail or too intimidated, for reasons discussed above. It had to be possible to find a form of worship that could be embraced and enjoyed even when the giftings of public speaking were not available.

For these reasons, we turned to a form of silent prayer in which the prayers of all the saints are recognized to be significant and there is no necessity for anyone to be understood to be praying on behalf of the whole congregation. Everyone can and must pray, is called to do so, and this is reflected in how prayer is conducted in the liturgy.

Our current liturgies are largely composed of prayers and statements of faith and the congregation says these prayers and statements together, to God and to each other. When we come to intercession, we recognize that we are responding directly to the differing situations of our lives and so there is the need for words that respond to this. Simply put, this section of the service begins and closes with set prayers (when we are not celebrating communion, we close with the Lord’s Prayer) that remind us of the reason why we can and should pray. In between these prayers pieces of paper are distributed and people are asked to write down topics for which we can all pray. These are collected in and then one person has the task of collating these topics and simply saying ‘Let us pray for …’ before a period of silence and concluding the silence of prayer with the responsive prayer, ‘Lord in your mercy,’ to which the congregation responds ‘Hear our prayer’.

There are undoubtedly limitations to this approach. It’s advantage is that it is simple and requires relatively little preparation and so can be used by anyone. At the same time, this simplicity and silence means that we are not teaching people to pray in any particular way. Well structured and thoughtfully composed prayers, teach us to pray according to what God has revealed of himself. Such prayers teach us to pray with faith, hope and love. It is possible that a selection of collects could be used to accompany these prayers, but there will always remain a balancing act: the richer and more varied we make our liturgy, the more demanding it is to prepare the service. Perhaps the way forward is to keep a simple basic form of liturgy, but to allow individuals to enrich it as they have the time, energy and inclination to do so.