Sunday, April 25, 2010

A church where everyone participates

A sermon preached at Highbury's Gift Day

Giving is right at the heart of our church life at Highbury. On two occasions in the year we have a special focus on giving. One is at Harvest when we share our giving between mission at Highbury and our commitment to the wider mission of the church, usually a mission partnership we are involved in in another part of the world.

Our focus at Gift Day is on the mission of the church here at Highbury, and very specifically again this year, funding the post of Pastoral Assistant.

We do not have any other sources of funding. We are who we are, we do what we do together, and we can afford what we can collectively afford together. All of us are invited to plan our giving through our giving scheme. That ensures a basic, you could call it, biblical, fairness. Each of us is encouraged to give as we are able. “Each of us must give as we have made up our minds, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide us with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything you may share abundantly in every good work.”

At Gift Day our giving involves a financial commitment. But giving at church is much broader and deeper than that. It is about giving of ourselves to another, to the wider world, and most importantly of all to God.

In my sequence of sermons prompted by John Pritchard’s book, Going to Church – a user’s guide, at the eighth thing he would go to the stake for in any church.

A church where everybody participates.

“There’s a church in Nebraska,” he writes, “which has only one resident. Elsie Eiler is in her seventies and is the town’s registered mayor, clerk, treasurer, librarian and licensee. She collects taxes from herself, grants her own alcohol licence,and single-handedly repairs the town’s roads. She says: “Some day this town will just be memories, but I like it here.”

“Some churches seem to be heading the same way, because there’s only one person who matters – the vicar, or the churchwarden, or the organist.

“The old do-it-all-yourself, command-and-control model of church life ought to be dead and buried.”

That is something I want to say a big AMEN to.

It is something that goes right to the heart of church life here at Highbury.

It is what we are about.

Everyone counts in the church family. Everyone has something to do.

A year ago we came up with a new way of working that has meant that each Tuesday morning we have a ‘team meeting’. Becky and I meet first for half an hour, and then we are joined by Sue, our Church Secretary, Roger, the Treasurer, Felicity with whom I share so much two of our Pastoral care team, Peter who does the room bookings – we just review the week.

Yesterday our Deacons met reflecting on the ideas more than fifty of us came up with at our Annual Meeting.

On Thursday evening we had Morton Brown room full of people who share in our visiting scheme.

Children’s work … in so many ways ours is a church where everybody participates.

But let’s just check ourselves for a moment.

I want to come back to John Pritchard’s book, It spoke to me not simply because it rang a chord. I also found it a challenge. All the way through. The kind of book that makes you take stock of where you are. And maybe think through where you are over again.

In ‘a church where everybody participates … ‘The old do-it-all-yourself, command-and-control model of church life ought to be dead and buried.”

I say a big AMEN to that.

But I then read on to the next sentence.

“It is, however, one of the aspects of church life most prone to resurrection.”

That was the sentence that caught my eye this week.

I hear in those words a warning note.

Felicity and I have been here nearly 19 years. The continuity that is reflected in that period of time was seen at the three churches day when our deacons met with the PCC’s of St Michael’s and St Luke’s as a strength. It is encouraging to hear that that’s the way it is perceived.

But alongside that sense of continuity is a danger we must all be aware of.

It is now more than two years since Becky joined us. She is entering into her third year. That’s great – we have benefited so much.

And on this Gift Day we reflect our commitment not just to Becky personally but to the concept of the shared ministry that is reflected in the appointment of a Pastoral Assistant.

But there is a danger. We have paid employees who will do that. We can leave it to them.

It is a question that we need to pose ourselves – do we leave too much to those who are paid in ministry? It is a question we need to pose ourselves.

And I believe it is a danger we need to avoid.

Let me take one specific example we need to give thought to. Becky has been appointed to focus on work with children and family. The work she has done in that area is immense. One major project is to enable a transition for those older ones in Junior Church so that we can extend and develop and also to reach out to others in the wider community. She has helped us work through that issue immensely. One key element has been Transformers. We share the work with St Luke’s. Effectively its leadership has been shared between the two paid employees – Wes the youth and children’s worker at St Luke’s, and Becky, our Pastoral Assistant.

It is wonderful that Wes’s wife, Becca, has been accepted to train for the Anglican ministry and they are therefore moving to Bristol to take up that training from September. That means Wes won’t be around. How do we support Becky in developing that work? That is an important and pressing question for us.

It relates to this wonderful vision of a church where everyone participates.

For me one of the great passages in the Bible that prompts our thinking along these lines is in Ephesians 4.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

I hear that appeal from Paul reaching out through the Ephesian church, down through the century to us. He begs each of us to be the people we are called to be.

As we explore this theme there should be no pressure.

Above all, there should be no sense of pushing square pegs into round holes. We are each of us to lead the life to which we have been called.

I love those characteristics – these are the characteristics of the kind of leadership, the kind of belonging that we all need to share – humility, gentleness, patience, love – the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

As each of us takes these words seriously, in whatever position we are in, then our church has the makings of a church where everyone participates.

This is, as John Pritchard suggests, not something for discussion. It is something that is the very essence of what ‘church’ is. This kind of unity, these character marks are not up for discussion as far as Paul is concerned. This is the very essence of church.

4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

That’s the basis for a church where everyone participates.

But. And there is a But.

Each of needs to recognize we are the people God made us to be.

7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

Who we are will shape what we do as we recognize what we are passionate about, what gifts we have, and what kind of a personality we have.

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,

At this point Paul homes in on one set of four gifts. On other occasions he enumerates many more gifts. We need to be aware of the great variety of gifts there are.

I guess this is one of my favourite passages because it includes the description that I have always felt describes best my gifts. As a pastor and teacher. The passage is a favourite ... and I come back to it today.

But interesting it contains within this passage the very challenge posed by John Pritchard’s comment.

Let’s see again what Paul goes on to say …

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,

12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Even at that very moment that Paul celebrates the very thing I feel called to I am challenged to return to the notion that no matter what our gift is everyone of us needs then to be concerned to share it for equipping everyone for ministry, for building up the body of Christ.

There has to be that empowering dimension to the kind of ministry I am called to that works towards involving everyone.

This is how John Pritchard puts it …

Leadership will be dispersed throughout the church’s life, although it will have a clear focus in the leadership team and the one who has been given final responsibility.

The bottom line for John Pritchard is this. I believe it needs to be the bottom line for us as a church too and for me in the ministry I share.

God is present in the wisdom and gifts of all God’s people, and the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.

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