A sermon for Cliburn parish church. 4.7.10
given by David Jones.

Planning for Back-to-Church Sunday Trinity 5

As I said at the beginning of this service, in a couple of months' time we will be observing Back-to-Church Sunday. The idea of this is to encourage those who used to come regularly to return to those ways.

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Why do you come to church? Do you choose Eucharistic services or non-Eucharistic? Why? Are you just coming here to keep Cliburn church open? Is this just a cosy club? Do you come only for a good sing? Or is that the worst part of the service? Do you come only for the gossip afterwards? Do you come only to support the churchwardens who work so hard to keep the place going?

All these things matter, and we ought to be able to answer the questions to ourselves even if we keep the answers to ourselves. When I was planning this service, I thought to dive into 'Hymns for Today' to see what it offers, as a change from the usual AMR. I was soon swamped with ideas. There are so many good hymns in it which speak of what I'm trying to say today that it almost got to the stage of sticking a pin in a list.

I was particularly torn over the Gradual hymn, the one that takes us from the Epistle to the Gospel. In the end, I stuck the pin in No.39, which calls on 'my heart, my mind, my soul' and finally 'my all' to 'have faith in God' so that we can truly receive Grace. But have a look now at No.40:

Help us, O Lord, to learn
the truths thy word imparts:
to study that thy laws may be
inscribed upon our hearts.

Help us, O Lord, to live
the faith which we proclaim,
that all our thoughts and words and deeds
may glorify thy name.

Help us, O Lord, to teach
the beauty of thy ways,
that yearning souls may find the Christ,
and sing aloud his praise.

This has a huge amount to say to us. There is a yearning, I do believe. How do we tap into it?

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It has so often been said that we are all stuck at the Sunday School stage. We know the stories of Jesus as we were told them there (or I hope we do). But I fear that too many of us have never grown up beyond that stage.

Our Gospel reading was about those who were sent out, the '72 others', to preach and teach. We, all of us, you and me, are the successors of the 72. How can we 'preach and teach' if we have not got beyond the Sunday School stage. 'Me? I can't preach. I've lived in this village all my life and I couldn't suddenly get up in the Village Hall car park on my soapbox and start doing a Lord Soper.' Of course not. Anybody who feels that they can and must do that has probably already done it. If they have, I've not noticed.

But you see, you are preaching, with every step of your life. People here know where you go on a Sunday morning and I suspect will be very quick to cry 'hypocrite' or otherwise throw eggs if they see you doing something, or saying something, that doesn't fit with their image of what we should be like.

So I need to draw a little on what I was saying last week at Morland and Bolton, that Jesus is never recorded as having said that He was the Messiah, or God, or God's Son. He left that for us to work out from everything that He did and said. He left it for us to work it out for ourselves and for our time. St Paul, of course, was the great theologian, the one who first tried to do this working-out. He had never met Jesus as a man, as far as we know, but he certainly met Him on the Damascus Road.

So we can't sit back and rest on our Sunday School laurels. I still have my Authorised Version that I was given in 1950. 'First Prize for Attendance.' Perhaps you'd better not ask whether I've yet read it all.

If we don't go on studying and learning and praying, every day of our lives, how can we then go on to verse 2, and 'live the faith which we proclaim'? How can 'all our thoughts and words and deeds' glorify His name?

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On Back-to-Church Sunday we are encouraged to invite our friends and neighbours who used to come to church to come along with us. Perhaps there are those who have a longing to come back, but somehow feel slightly embarrassed, perhaps even ashamed and find it difficult to come. It is up to us to make it as easy as possible.

But why did they drift away in the first place. No doubt there are 1001 reasons for this. Many will be personal or family-related. I suspect that we can all think of people who were regular members of a church in one particular place, who, when they move house, somehow don't find the same link with the new local church.

Perhaps in their previous church, there was a strong sense of it being a sort of club, a group of people who got on well and who enjoyed being together. Perhaps they'd been brought up there from their childhood. Somehow, digging up those roots and planting them somewhere else has proved difficult. Perhaps, if the truth be told, they had never got beyond the Sunday School stage at their old church. They'd accepted the certainties offered there without really thinking about them. They'd not built up any personal relationship with Jesus. He'd just become somebody in a history book called the New Testament. And don't we all know the importance of personal relationships? Don't we all know how we have to go on working them out all our lives? Don't we all know how easy it is to drift away from friends, family, even husbands and wives?

A previous Vicar here once put me firmly in my place when I referred to the church as a 'club'. I thought then and I think now that he was wrong. It is a club. It's a group of people who have something in common, who get on with each other because of that shared interest/enthusiasm. Where that vicar was right, of course, was in that if that club was just that, an inward-looking group, then the church should most certainly not be that. We are here, and we've no choice in this, to share our interest, our enthusiasm, our faith with anybody who will listen. How we do that, of course, depends on the occasion and the person. If we have a faith, which means a personal relationship, a personal understanding, then the Holy Spirit will give us the words.

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If we were to ask the direct question: 'Why do you not come to church?' (which we almost certainly would never do: the opportunity would almost certainly never be presented), what answers might we get?

Boring
Irrelevant
'I live a Christian life and don't need church'
I was put off by x, y and z
Our church at home was quite different
The church is always going on about sin, and I'm not a sinner.
There's a little clique that does everything. My offer of help was ignored.
I only need the church for hatch, match and despatch.

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Let's go through some of those.

Boring and irrelevant. Some will say that the old-fashioned language puts people off. Others will say that it is the old certainties that keep them coming. Perhaps both are right and both are wrong. There are those who would argue that every service should be immediately accessible and understandable to whoever walks in off the street, even if they come from Mars. I can't agree with that. That would imply Lowest Common Denominator and absolutely no cultural background. It would mean dull repetition of the simplest inanities. We'd soon all drift away from that.

It behoves us to prepare ourselves for a service. Ideally, we ought to know in advance what the lessons are. I fear that very few do. We ought to know what the service is about, what type of service it is. Perhaps a few more of us could say, 'Yes, we know that.' If we come here in a state of some readiness, then we could help any visitor, but even that should be done sensitively. I do have experience of visiting churches and of having the page in the service book thrust at me. It would have taken only the tiniest bit of sensitivity to spot that I actually knew the service.

So a service can be interesting and relevant if those who are familiar with it can guide those who aren't. It would also help if there was a good welcome to new faces. Being as useless as I am at faces and names, I'm quite capable of giving offence by treating some well-known face as a newcomer. The pitfalls are many, but we must try (sensitively). Here, I would creep up to Margaret or Joan and ask, 'Who's that?' before putting my foot in it. Margaret and Joan know me well enough to understand!

And I don't exclude the sermon slot from the problem of 'interesting and relevant'. There can be a problem of understanding and of length. As some of you know, when we have a Service of the Word, I like to break up the sermon into bits, taking one of the lessons and then thinking about it before going on to the next. I hope that makes it more digestible.

If, between us, we can get visitors and occasional attenders to start asking questions, we have made a start. We must be sure to have intelligent answers ready. If we are worrying about the dinner burning in the oven at home, I'm sorry, but it might for once have to burn.

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'I live a Christian life and don't need church'

We all know people who lead generous and unselfish lives, who help whenever it is needed, who care for their neighbours, etc., etc. Ever since the Emperor Constantine in effect made Christianity the state religion, there has been the problem that Christianity is there in the background and could easily go unnoticed. All our laws and culture have it in the background.

Can we persuade these good people that they do need Jesus? Or should I say, 'How can we persuade........'? Perhaps we have to wait until there's a crisis in their lives, so that we can offer our help and our faith. We can only try. Some will always refuse the offer. A friend of mine finished up taking his own life because, however much he was willing to help others, he could not accept it for himself.

Perhaps examples like that might just make people stop and think. There'll be many failures. We are not going to convert the whole world all at once. We can only chip away one at a time.

A subset of this one is: 'The church is always going on about sin, and I'm not a sinner.'

I see this as the Sunday School problem again. At that level, 'sin' means what mummy tells me is 'naughty'. And that means doing something that mummy has told me not to. She probably hasn't even suggested a reason why I should not do it, other than 'I'm your mother!'

I hope that we all know that that is not what 'sin' is. Lest there be any doubt, sin is anything that cuts us off from the love of God. And it is we who do the cutting off, not God. We could start by running our eye over the 10 Commandments. If we have offended against any of those, we have, to that extent, cut ourselves off from the love of God. I doubt whether many of us could claim to have stuck to all 10 all our lives.

But we and they have to want the love of God before we can be aware of being cut off from it. Only we, you and I, can show others that it matters.

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I was put off by x, y and z
Our church at home was quite different
There's a little clique that does everything. My offer of help was ignored.

We can see this picture easily enough. Personal animosities and relationships matter. If we can be aware that somebody has a problem with another who is a known churchgoer, then we can make some attempt to get close to them and perhaps even heal the rift.

And if 'our church at home was different', perhaps that is because we were involved and did jobs, however small, and there's no apparent need for two more hands at this church. I'm sure this point does not need labouring. 'I've always done it this way.' Well, never mind, perhaps there's a better way. Get them involved. Give them a job. That way there's a foot in the door and a chance to share faith, a chance to share Jesus.

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And finally, (you'll be glad to hear), there's the hatch, match and despatch brigade. In village communities, this is very important. We can get huge crowds to farmers' funerals, for example. We must regard this as an opportunity, not a chore. We must make people welcome without overwhelming them. We must look at the recent examples of Great Strickland and of Crosby Ravensworth and see that there is a huge fund of goodwill for the church building in all our villages (not to mention the tarmac path here). Somehow, it's our job to turn that into a fund of goodwill for the church, the worshipping body of people.

Baptisms are a particular problem. Parents still bring their children to be 'done'. Some clergy refuse unless there's some sort of certainty about faith and about a Christian upbringing. I can only say that it is a contact, and any contact is an opportunity, any contact is good. Let's start where people are and try to take them along with us.

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So here's to Back-to-Church Sunday. It'll work if we all do something about it now!

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