Participation is a key idea for NYNO, something that we feel is essential in any church. In using the word ‘participation’ we understand the church to be a spiritual entity, one that finds its meaning and identity in relation to God: a church is not primarily a club or a voluntary organisation; it is God’s community. We take our place in the Church as God’s children alongside Christ, called by our creator and saviour.
All this means that people matter. All of us come into church needing to receive from God. But the gift of God to us is such that as we receive salvation we are brought into a freedom to live differently. This does not mean living perfectly, but rather life in relation to our Father in heaven through Christ and so with one another.
In short, this is not a small thing. The consequence of this is that we matter. We matter as individuals and our participation in the life of the church matters.
From the start of NYNO, Julie and Matthew have felt it essential for new church communities to hear the honest opinions of its members. The heart of the Christian message militates against authoritarian leadership. We can’t simply dictate ‘from the front.’ The Church lives as it loves all of its members.
Historically, the majority of people who turn up to church week after week, decade upon decade, are rarely asked for their opinions, preferences or ideas. Indeed, this is a pretty frightening idea from the perspective of a leadership that is strategically planning a future. Such conversations could be fraught with tension, disagreement and misunderstanding. And yet, however threatening, maybe this is the only way forward if the majority of a congregation are to be actively engaged and involved – participating – in the communal life of a church.
So, one Sunday morning, we invited our gathering to dream about their idea of the ‘perfect church’. What would it look like? We invited people to remember back to a time when they felt happiest in church, and to reflect on why that was the case.
New International Version (NIV)
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
The Perfect Church?
What would your perfect church look like?
Perhaps ‘perfect’ is asking too much. If so, try approaching this from a different angle: what is your fondest memory of being in church? What made that experience so good? Were you at peace in church, conscious of the closeness of God or perhaps inspired to live and serve?
In so many ways in life, we find we can’t go back. Things have changed: we have, others have. And yet why shouldn’t we indulge in a little daydreaming. And who is to say that we won’t find keys in the past that might unlock the future? We don’t need to be worry about the practicalities of how such a church could come into being, just reflect on times when church has surprised and delighted us.
So, would the perfect church meet in a cathedral, an awe-inspiring space, such as St. Paul’s London, or King’s College Chapel, Cambridge?
Would there be music? Quiet chanting, soaring choirs, orchestral accompaniment, electric guitars or bare voices in unison?
A minister who gives compelling sermons? Who seemed to bring the very words of God to your heart?
Is church to be full of energy and activity, or quiet and reflective?
Would it be full of children, or empty of them?
Would it be the church you grew up in, or in which you brought your children up?
Would be full of friendly people, or people who didn’t bother you?
What would be the perfect church? When has church been a joy to you?
Why the Question Matters
I ask this question aware that to my knowledge it’s not something about which most of us have been invited to give of their opinion. And that troubles me, because your opinions, your thoughts and preferences about church, matter.
In our reading we heard Jesus speak of the lost sheep.
The Pharisees had taken offence at Jesus’ habit of surrounding himself with disreputable tax collectors and sinners. A teacher should live in a manner consistent with his or her words. What kind of teacher offers implicit affirmation to such people by sitting with them at table?
In response, Jesus tells the Pharisees a parable.’Suppose one of you,’ he begins, ‘has a hundred sheep and loses one. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open and go after the lost one. And on finding it, would he not celebrate?’
The whole matter resides on a question of identity and belonging. The Pharisees considered these disreputables as traitors, misleading themselves and others, diluting the purity of God’s people, perhaps dissuading God from blessing and liberating his people. They were to be ostracised in punishment and as a warning to others.
But Jesus looks on these people as lost sheep. The shepherd looks on each animal as precious, valuable. Just so, Jesus has not ceased to care for his people. They may have strayed, but that is all the more reason to chase after them and bring them to safety.
This parable speaks to something that should be at the very heart of any ‘perfect’ church. It reminds us that in the Kingdom of God, we gain our citizenship, our membership and significance, our identity, because it is given us from the depths of the love of Jesus Christ. The waters of baptism do not merely wash the skin but declare to us that with Jesus we now have new life, and those waters operate with no record for our abilities, our competencies, our moral performance. All such things are secondary to this wonderful truth: God views us with love. We may have wandered, but we remain his sheep.
And if Christ cares for us, then we must care for one another. As Jesus said elsewhere:
He who has been forgiven little loves little. (Luke 7:47)
These words must of course be reversed: he who has been forgiven much, loves much. Or consider these words of Jesus to the unforgiving servant:
Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you? (Matthew 18:33)
Think of it another way. If Christ loves you and I love Christ, how can I treat you with indifference?
The upshot of all of this is that a church, as it knows that love of Christ, must seek to be a place where such love is shown between its members. At the very least, I would suggest, that this means listening to one another. At the very least, I would suggest, that this means paying attention to each other’s hopes, dreams, memories and experience.
In our self-appointed task of being a great church, of raising money, of tidying up, or organising music, it is so easy not to consider the person before you. A wonderful being created by God. Broken, as we all are, and yet loved by Christ and a recipient of the hope of eternal life, now called to serve Christ with all that he has given them. A lost sheep, for whom Christ gave his all, and over whom he now rejoices.
Let me summarise. I am concerned that our church are forever in danger of not respecting their members as those loved by Christ, and rarely really listening to their voices, there thoughts and concerns. If the members are so treated will they not become dull, muted, quiet, finding that church does not engage them as a whole person but merely as a means to an end and will the church itself then fester as a community, ceasing to be a place that nurtures and affirms, unattractive to those outside.
All of what I’ve said this morning has been said in all seriousness. Julie and I would like to find ways in which your thoughts, reflections, hopes and fears can contribute to our life together. That can take place entirely informally, as we talk to each other. But we also recognise that talking about faith can be difficult for many reasons and such conversations mustn’t be forced. In your notice sheets, you should have what we’ve called a ‘Thought Form’. This is simply a piece of paper which you can use to tell us things, if there isn’t the opportunity to do so directly, or if you’d prefer to do so through writing.
We will include this form with the notice sheets each time we meet.
What could you use this for? You could say, I really liked that hymn or tune. You could say, I enjoyed that sermon, but I didn’t understand xyz. You could say, I’d like us to have a church outing. You could say, I miss my old church, the people and the building. It probably wouldn’t be a good use of the form to write personal attacks.
When you write something on one of these forms, be aware that it’s something that could be shared with for everyone. We are not seeking to be the sole point through which all conversation must take place. Of course, if you’d prefer it not to be shared, you can indicate that. You’ll see that there’s the opportunity to write your name or to leave it anonymous.
As we began, so shall we conclude. Let me ask you again: What makes the perfect church? Or, what are your fondest, or most profound, memories of church? I’d like to invite you to jot a few things down on your thought forms in answer to the question.
We are all lost sheep. But that means we are all important. Your voice matters.