Sunday December 7th @ St Barnabas and St Michael’s
There are times when you feel the Lord speaking and you have to rip up the script. This is what happened this particular Sunday, and what follows is only a rough sketch after the event of what I said. I also adapted this same talk for St Barnabas where the question is not what we do with our new building, but where we go now that the new building has been open for 5 years? We have grown from about 20 to 30 adults on a Sunday morning, but that growth has plateaued. Where, then, do we go from here? The readings set for the day were Romans 12:1-3 and Luke 1:5-25
The importance of vision
Just occasionally I have one of those weeks when no matter how much I try, the sermon just doesn’t seem to come. And last week was one such week. Indeed by Friday I wondered if I was going to have anything meaningful at all to say on Sunday. And then on Friday afternoon I went to an event organised by Churches Together in Plymouth which was all about how we gain a vision for Plymouth and how we realise it through prayer. The speaker was Jane Holloway from the World Prayer Centre and it was attended by about 25 church leaders across the city. And as I walked home from the event, I realised that many of things that she had talked about were things I needed to share this morning.
Because if the diocese have a vision for the churches in Devon, and if Churches Together in Plymouth are working towards a vision for the city then the question: what is our vision for St Michael’s at this time? If you read the book of Proverbs in the King James Version you will come across this phrase: For want of a vision the people perish. Now modern translations express this verse rather differently, because it’s apparently not an accurate translation of the Hebrew, but it still remains a valid point that For want of a vision the people perish. Vision is good; vision gives us goals and aims; vision shows us what the Lord is calling us to be.
And it is particularly important that we have a vision at St Michael’s at this time. In a few months time we will have a new building, but it is important we know how this building is going to be used as a tool for mission, for outreach, for serving the people of Stoke and Devonport. If the building is simply going to be used on a Sunday morning, and for a few community activities through the week, then it will not have fulfilled its purpose.
So where do we get a vision from? Well, I believe that the goal the diocese has set is not a bad one – 25% growth by 2013. Now I know that sounds rather a big figure, but if you think about it, really it is only one new person for every four existing members of the congregation. In fact, if you put it like that, I would say that it is the minimum target of growth that we should set ourselves for the new building. And, by the way, it is also worth pointing out that our Sunday congregation would grow by more than 25% if everyone was able to turn up every week, as the empty chairs here this morning testify!
And whatever the precise vision, it is important that we test it against Scripture, so that we know it really is of the Lord. That’s why I shared last week the picture of the early church where they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. It’s also why we have been going through the basics of our Christian faith through our course “Building on the Rock” so that we can root our vision in Scripture.
And it’s also important that the vision does not simply come from one person, but it is discussed and developed, so that we start to see what the vision might look like in practice. For example, on Friday afternoon I shared with leaders from other churches in the area my vision of the new St Michael’s being a place of prayer during the week. With the exception of the Methodists, other churches – the Baptist, the house churches, the community church do not have a place of their own during the week. And these leaders I was talking to were very positive about the idea of St Michael’s being a place of prayer. But I think that is only part of the whole picture, and I am not here to tell you this morning what should be our vision for the new St Michael’s. We need to talk and pray about it together.
And once we have the vision, how do we put it into practice? Well, some of you may know the acronym PUSH – Pray Until Something Happens. I am going to suggest a different acronym – PULL – Prayer, Unity, Leadership, Labour. Let me explain what I mean by these.
First of all, prayer. And of course prayer is important. Hopefully every activity and every meeting of the church is covered and undergirded by prayer. But what I mean here is prayer specifically for the church and for the vision. I’ve noticed over the past few months when I have asked for prayer for the church, people have named individuals in need of healing. Now that’s good, and there is of course nothing wrong in doing this. But prayer has to be more than this, and maybe we could learn something from the prayers of Paul. For when Paul prays, he prays for doors to be opened, the hearts and minds of unbelievers to be illuminated with the light of Christ, for the church to grow in faith and love and hope, and I believe that’s the sort of prayer we should also be praying.
And we also need to be specific in our prayers. It’s very easy to pray for something like 25% growth in 5 years, but we need to make our prayers more focused than that, to share the names of people we have been praying for, maybe for years, to pray that each step of the vision is realised. I can’t remember if any folk from St Michael’s were there when Phil B gave his testimony, but what was so striking was the story of how he came to faith. At the time four women whose husbands were not believers came together to pray for them by name. Over the years two of the four converted, including Phil. It was because Phil was prayed for by name that he came to know Jesus Christ for himself. And that strikes me as the sort of thing we should be doing.
And prayer should be an activity for everyone. When we have these kinds of talks and meetings, it always seems to be with the grown-ups. But our young people too have a prayer ministry, and there is much we can gain from their enthusiasm and their drive. The danger is that many of us have probably been praying for our church and for our growth for many years, and maybe have become rather discouraged and disillusioned. And if we’re not careful we can end up like Zechariah in our second reading who did not believe the Lord when He spoke. We need the energy and enthusiasm of our young people.
Secondly, we also need unity? What do I mean by that? Well, as a small church it is important that we direct our resources towards the one or two goals we set ourselves. For example, we might deicide that the Lord is calling us to share hospitality and to open up the church to visitors. And then someone suggests that we hold, say, an exhibition of modern Christian art. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with such an exhibition, and it may be right in a few years time, but if our goal is to provide hospitality, then we need stay focused on that goal. The danger in a small church is that we try to do many things, rather than the few things we do well, and fail to be united behind our common vision.
Unity also involves good communication. One of the problems behind the bishop’s idea of reading a letter on a given Sunday is that it will only reach 50% or maybe 2/3 of the whole congregation. For a whole variety of reasons, not everyone will be there on a given Sunday. So it’s important we communicate clearly our vision to those who are not there, and make sure those who are there have correctly understood what is being communicated.
So, to realise our vision we need Prayer. We need Unity. We also need Leadership. What I need by leadership is not the Anglican model of a bishop writing a letter or a dog collar standing up at the front. Leadership as our reading from Romans makes clear is about each and every person fulfilling their gifts and responsibilities, of people discovering their ministries and putting them to use. When I arrived at St Michael’s six years ago, there was a lot of this leadership, and maybe this is something we have lost over time.
And leadership doesn’t mean the same old people always doing the same old thing. Those who have been in leadership for a long time need opportunities to stand back, to be refreshed, renewed. So, for example, it is right that our Junior Church leaders who have led the work so faithfully and so well over many years have a chance to step back, and for others to take their place.
And one sign that the vision we choose is of the Lord’s is that He will give us the gifts and the resources to fulfil it. I firmly believe that if the Lord calls us to do something He will provide. Equally if we do not have the gifts and resources maybe He is calling to do something else.
And the second L of the acronym is Labour. Because once we have a vision, it will not all be plain sailing. Jesus talked about the narrow way, about carrying our cross. What again is striking about Paul’s letters is how much effort it cost him to set up churches and keep them going on the right way. And if we are faithful to the Lord’s vision, then there will be discouragements, disappointments on the way. That’s why we need to keep on having fellowship, and, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it not give up meeting as some are in the habit of doing (Hebrews 10:25). We need to keep on with our Sunday services, and with our GIFT groups, and with whatever meetings we attend. But again I guess it is the empty chairs here this morning who need to hear this most!
Vision and worship
And underpinning all that we do has to be worship. And this brings me on to our reading this morning – Romans 12:1-2. Now we think of worship we think of liturgies and music and services, and they are of course important. But they are not the whole story. Worship as Paul makes here is a response to God’s mercy, a realisation that because Jesus gave up everything me, then I am called to give up everything for Him. It’s about offering our bodies and our brains, of giving to the Lord our situations wherever we are and whatever we do – whether in the home, or in the street, at work, or when we’re with neighbours. It’s about not being conformed to the world’s values but being transformed daily by an experience of the Holy Spirit.
And worship is what keeps vision alive. Where the worship of a church is dull and flat, it tends to lose its vision. And as the vision fades, so the worship becomes duller and flatter, and then in turn the vision fades a little bit more. It’s really all a bit of a downward spiral and I reckon St Michael’s has been on that spiral over the past few years, with the loss of the old building, the move into the school, the ups and downs of the redevelopment project. But if we can gain a fresh vision, then this will impact upon our worship, which will in turn feed into vision, and we will once more be upon an upward spiral. It is as we grow in worship that we pray, that we become united, that leaders are raised up, that we encourage on another in labour.
The challenge to us
So what is your vision for St Michael’s at this time? Let’s spend the next few months talking to another, listening, praying and above all, being renewed in our worship so that together, as Paul says here we discover God’s will – his good, pleasing and perfect will (Rom 12:2).