Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Church that takes the world seriously

What’s church for?

I have just finished getting my contributions ready for Highbury News … and that means sorting through the Annual Reports and adding in my own.

It gives a fascinating glimpse of the life of the church. And I for one am looking forward this year to our Annual Meeting as it gives us an opportunity not only to take stock but also to share in shaping the vision we have for the church here at Highbury for the future.

John Pritchard’s book, Going to Church, made quite an impact on me when I came across it last Autumn. It was one of those rare books that seemed to speak very much into my understanding of what church is about.

He talks of the central calling of the church as ‘being there for God in worship, mission and service.

That’s exactly the snapshot we will be taking of the life of our church in our Annual reports. After key-note reports from the Minister, the Pastoral Assistant and the Church Secretary, we then look at the life of the church under the headings of Worship, Pastoral Care, Mission and Service of the Community.

With the addition of pastoral call it is exactly the central calling of the church that John Pritchard envisages.

As he comes to the end of his book John Pritchard then suggests that there are certain features of a church that anyone looking for a church might reasonably be looking for; indeed, things to go to the stake for.

First, a church that takes God seriously.

It is my conviction that we are a church that does just that. And it is something we must constantly seek to come back to.

Second, a church takes our humanity seriously.

It is my conviction that that is something we take seriously here at Highbury … and it is something I too would go to the stake for.

Today we arrive at the third thing to go to the stake for in any church, and definitely here at Highbury.

Third, a church that takes the world seriously.

John Pritchard goes on to say, “We need churches with open doors and people with open minds.”

To my mind that’s what captures the ethos of Highbury. Open doors – this must be a place where all are welcome. Open minds this is a place where people can be open about their faith, honest about their doubts, and join with people who think about the Christian faith the same way and with people who think very differently about the faith … and all in a spirit of love that binds us together as one people, Christ’s people.

In with the people of God come the concerns of the world they live in 167 hours a week, and out with the people of God goes the love the world craves. Churches are places of compassion and social justice where the dark places of the earth are brought to the table of the Lord to be placed in the light.”

As we seek to do that we do nothing less than follow the mandate laid down by Christ in that very first sermon he preached in the synagogue in Nazareth.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Those words from the prophet Isaiah shaped the ministry Jesus shared. They are the words that shape the ministry Jesus then shared with his disciples and by implication with us.

First, he sent the Twelve, then he sent the 72, and now he sends us.

What it was that Jesus asked of them, he asks of us and it is very telling.

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!”

Notice those last words.

Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!”

The love the world craves is a love that starts in the home.

The Parents’ fair we have planned for Saturday, 27th February, is not just another event on our calendar. It has a specific significance. About a year ago we convened what we called a Community Focus Group to look very specifically at the needs of the community around us.

With Becky’s guidance they have focused on the needs of parents. So it is that we have managed to contact all sorts of different organisations, from the statutory sector right across to all sorts of community groups who will come together to display things that are available to families and parents.

This is taking the love of God into the home, into the house, with that wonderful message, Peace to this House!

It is not something just for parents – it is an opportunity for us to share with others in the community around us … so, we really do need as many people as possible to be involved and to come so that we can be welcoming that day. Do sign up on the rota … and make sure the date is in your diary so that you can come along on the day.

We are a church that takes the world seriously, and that begins in the home with the support we offer to families, to parents, and indeed through our pastoral care network it is a support package from the cradle to the grave.

But that does not stop at the home.

It is fascinating to see there is another dimension to the work of the 72, another dimension to the task Jesus sets us to do.

Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

There is a message for the town … the Kingdom of God has come near to you.

If our message is for the home, Peace to this house. There is also a message for our town … the kingdom of God has come near to you.

We need to address the needs of our town.

Cheltenham is not unlike a hundred other towns and cities up and down the land in having major problems between the hours of 10 and 4 on a Friday and Saturday night. It is because of the success of the initiative that has been taken by churches in a hundred and more towns that the Police welcomed the initiative of the churches with such open arms a year ago.

Street Pastors has made a very real difference, bringing much needed help to the over-stretched police and ambulance services.

But Street Pastors is only the first stage in the vision that the Cheltenham Church Leaders group that I have been a part of has had. The second stage of the vision is to reach out into the day-time needs of our town. Already, the churches offer chaplaincy services into the hospital, GlosColl, the University, the football club and other organisations too. We have invited all the town’s clergy to come together a week on Thursday to share a vision that we could co-ordinate that work more effectively and extend it to meet the day-time needs of the town and the community around us

The purpose is not to proselytise: the purpose is to ensure that in John Pritchard’s words, ‘out with the people of God goes the love the world craves.’

Do remember that work in your prayers.

There are so many points at which we are in the business of taking God’s love into our world and on to our streets. It is why we devote our communion collections usually to a local charity, but this month to the Christian Aid Haiti appeal; it is why we support Christian Aid and through them the Congregational Federation’s partner in the Dominican Republic, Oné Respé; it is why we are active in world mission through our Council for World Mission Partnership, and on the first Friday in March the Women’s World Day of Prayer.

The 72 go out … and then they returned, and Luke tells us they returned with joy!

We are in the business of making a difference … in people’s homes, and in the wor

John Pritchard suggests that there s a rhythm as we come to church bearing the needs of the world, in church we share in the transforming, life-changing, presence of God in Christ, and then we go out from church back into the world to share the transforming love of God for the world around us.

As we seek to be a church that takes the world seriously we seek to be a church where “the dark places of the earth are brought to the table of the Lord to be placed in the light.

“There on that table all of life is taken up and broken open to the transformation of God,

“and then we who have participated in the miracle go out to be agents of change, empowered by an unassailable hope that things can be different.

There can be no getting away from it.

God so loved the world.

“This is God’s world, for which Christ died,

and transforming it is therefore our core business.”

That’s why I too would go to the stake for a church that takes the world seriously.

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