Welcoming Seekers

Who are we talking to when we meet together as the Church? (Just think for a moment how you would answer that question.) Who are we talking to when we meet together as the Church?

The first time that I can remember being really conscious of that question was when I was the sacristan of one of the college chapels in Oxford when I was a student. In that chapel we had three or four services every day. We had morning prayer for 15 minutes at 8.45, we had a Mass at lunchtime, every evening we said evening prayer after dinner, and then on some days we had a late night service of Taize prayer or night prayer, or a second Eucharist. It was a busy place. I remember one of the cleaners within that college community. He was a wonderful, simple man, absolutely devoted to keeping the chapel clean. Each summer, after term had ended, we moved all of the pews to the back of the chapel and he spent a couple of weeks on his own on his hands and knees removing with a razor blade all of the wax and dirt which had become fixed to the tiled floor, and then he would re-varnish the floor so that it was shining by the start of Michaelmas term. The devotion with which he worked in that chapel was just incredible.

Every morning, whilst we were saying morning prayer he would come in with all his cleaning things, his bucket and his vacuum cleaner, and sit on the other side of the glass doors in the foyer waiting for us to finish so that he could do his daily cleaning. And when I was leading those services, and I could see him sitting on the other side of the doors picking his nose, or whatever he was doing, I felt enormous pain, because I longed for what we did, which was so central to our lives, to be relevant to him as well. So that he wouldn’t just sit there waiting, but would come in and worship with us. But what we did in our services in that beautiful chapel, (the building which he loved so much), didn’t interest him at all.

I think of him almost every Wednesday morning here in this church, because there is a woman who regularly comes into our foyer whilst the Mass is taking place, and she puts some food in the Anglicare basket, and watches what we do for a few seconds, and then leaves. I don’t know who she is, and I don’t want to frighten her away by stopping the service and saying “come on in,” and so when I see I her I am left with the wondering question, does she know that she’s welcome here or not? And if she does know that she’s welcome, does she just not come in because she finds the whole thing irrelevant?

Now I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I suspect that she is like the majority of other people in our society who can connect with the Church when we are doing something like Anglicare (our giving out the cup of cold water, as Jesus refers to it in our Gospel this morning), but who find our core business, of witnessing to the love of God, and of worshipping God totally disconnected from their own lives. Which leads me to ask the question again this morning, who are we talking to when we meet together as the Church?

A priest friend of mine is about to take three months study leave from his parish, in order to visit a number of large churches in America to see how they operate, and to bring back some new ideas for his ministry, which is in one of the large Anglican churches in London. And one of the places which he will be visiting is Willow Creek Community Church. Willow Creek is an independent church outside Chicago which grew over a period of 20 years from 125 members to something like 15,000 members, which is quite a contrast from the college chapel that I was involved in in Oxford, and indeed from any of our Anglican churches here in Perth. But the really interesting thing about Willow Creek, which is why people visit it to see what’s going on, is not its size, but the vision which it has of being church. Because the leaders of Willow Creek invented the “Seeker Service” which is right at the heart of its understanding of ministry.

So on Sundays if you turn up there for a service, whether you are on your own, or whether you have been invited by a friend you become a part of a multi-media experience which is both worship but also a dynamic presentation of the basics of the good news that we find in Christ. So whilst the presentation may be different each week, the heart of the message is always the same. Services on Sundays at Willow Creek are not for the benefit of members, although members are there to welcome visitors, these are services for non-members, these are services for seekers. T he most significant thing is that those people who are the hard-core, long term members of the community – people like you and me – meet together for their main time of worship and teaching not on Sundays, but during the week. That is a fundamentally different way of being church from anything that I have ever experienced.

At Willow Creek the shop front of the church, its Sunday worship, is the place where the members of the church welcome visitors and offer worship appropriate to visitors. And the mid-week worship, which isn’t really advertised, is the place where the members of the church have space to worship and pray and learn together.

Who are we talking to when we meet together as the church? Well for Willow Creek, advertised services, like our service this morning, is the place for talking to non-members, and there is another opportunity during the week to talk to the members separately. Now that makes sense doesn’t it? Members of that church focus all of their energy on Sundays not on having their own needs met, but on welcoming others, and presenting a welcoming and clear Christian message to them.

Last Monday I put all of the rough notes of the sermons which I have preached here onto my website, and as I did that I was looking back over the themes which we have been thinking about together. And those themes have all been addressed at those of us who are members of the church already. So on the basis of my sermons at least, when we meet together as the church we are talking to ourselves, in ways that we understand, on the basis of a story that we all know. And we do what we do not to be unwelcoming, but because I think that we assume that either anyone who visits us will know what to do in church (which isn’t the case in our society anymore), or will at least know the basics of the Christian story, which again isn’t always true any longer.

As I think about these things I feel a real tension, because church services are not just for people who are not members of churches, they are for us, the body of Christ as well. We come to church as people in need of refreshment, and in need of teaching, and in need of being together with each other, and to find the strength to live out the message of Christ, and to be signs of hope, and to be people who point to moments when the grace of God breaks through into our lives and the lives of those around us. That’s why when we meet together as the church we have become used to talking to God in prayer, and to each other. To put it very bluntly, we presume that our services are for Christians.

All of this is in the forefront of my mind at the moment because I had dinner this week at the Clergy Conference with Graham Johnston, who is the Senior Pastor of the Church of Christ in Subiaco, down in the City. That church has grown from 85 members when he arrived to over 800 at the current time. And he said to me whilst we were eating together that if we want to grow numerically as a church here in Greenwood one of the keys to growth is that I must start preaching simple and accessible and relevant sermons addressed to visitors and not to members. His argument is much the same as the vision which underlies the work of Willow Creek. When people visit church for the first time they need to be welcomed with a clear and simple presentation of the Christian faith and its relevance to their lives. Advertised services are for preaching to the unconverted, not teaching the converted.

Now of course that strategy only works if two things are happening: firstly, it relies on new people visiting, and that requires a whole strategy in itself. And secondly, it only works if all of us, who are members of the church, are being fed as Christians at some other point. It would be a tragedy if any church followed this vision, and began to grow in numbers, whilst its members ceased to grow in their own journey of faith.

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus says to his disciples, “whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me… And whoever gives a cup of cold water (or hot tea weather permitting) to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Well, one way of measuring our welcome is not just about how nice we are to people who visit here, although that is critically important, one way of measuring our welcome is to ask who we are talking to when we invite people to join us; whether what we say and do here is relevant and accessible and understandable to those who come here for the first time. And if it isn’t then what can we do to make the change?

God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to welcome us back to him in a language which we would understand. And Jesus himself calls us in the words of the Gospel this morning to do the same. What are we willing to change in the life of our church to give that kind of welcome to the people who live around us?