On Tuesday evening last week, a dozen or so of the Kirk Session, not a bad number considering all the meetings we have had recently, sat around a table with members of the Presbytery of Lothian’s Congregational Development Team. They were with us to follow up on the meeting back in February which many of you attended and contributed to.
As I think about that meeting last week, I find I could think two quite contradictory things about it. I could, on the one hand, feel that it was quite a depressing, dispiriting meeting. The Presbytery team said they couldn’t really discern a clear sense of direction within the congregation. They were right about that, I think. I was dreading them saying that we had to develop this or that new project, because that’s what Local Church Review teams tend to do, and I was dreading it because I don’t think we have the capacity or the energy to do big new things. We sat round the table and listed the things we have put a lot of energy into in recent years – Messy Church, a holiday club, the Stewardship campaign, Back to Church Sunday, Give Church a Go – none of which brought a return anything like commensurate with the effort put into them. Over the last few years, it seems that if there was a brick wall anywhere around, we’ve gone and banged our heads off it.
So, I could feel depressed and dispirited. Maybe others who were there did. But, at the same time, I also came away feeling relieved, liberated. The Local Church Review team recognised that we have been trying hard, and that we are doing good things, but they helped me to see that these big projects were not for us. They may not have been successes, but they weren’t failures either. It was right to try them, because we have learned from them. And perhaps what we have learned is to be content with and to enjoy what we have and who we are – a smallish, gradually declining, gradually ageing congregation which none-the-less finds Jesus to be a vital part of our lives, both as individuals and as a community. We are a group of people who are committed to the church and that commitment finds its best expression in our commitment to each other, for we are the church in this place. We certainly have a short term future, probably a medium term future, but maybe not a long term future, at least not in the form we have always imagined church to have – with a lot of people of all ages, doing all the things that churches traditionally did. The messages I heard most clearly on Tuesday night are that it is not all about legacy, ensuring institutional survival, passing on the kind of church we have inherited to another generation. What is going on now, in the present, is much more important. The future, whatever it is, is in God’s hands. And we have to stop beating ourselves up about perceived failures. We are not failing, just because the church of the near future will not look like the church of our childhoods. God may just be nudging us in a different direction.
The team on Tuesday reminded us about the experiences and practices of the early church. It wasn’t a big institution. It didn’t put on big events or try time and energy and money consuming initiatives. It had a life in many ways very different from our own, yet it grew.
We catch a glimpse of that life in the story from Acts. What may not be immediately apparent is what difficulties Paul had encountered before this point. We picked up the story with his dream of a man from Macedonia, calling Paul in a vision, to cross over into what is now Europe, to bring the Gospel. Prior to that, Paul had been travelling around Asia Minor where, and Acts is quite explicit about this, the Holy Spirit had forbidden, yes, forbidden him from speaking about Jesus.
What must this have been like? We can only imagine. Paul had all this good news, yet he was unable to share it. How frustrating. How disappointing. How dispiriting. And he had no idea why he had been forbidden, not by earthly authorities, but by the Holy Spirit herself, from speaking about Jesus. But, to my ears, there is an echo in this of our experience, an echo of the sincere desire to tell the Good News here and the experience of our efforts being thwarted for reasons unknown. God was directing Paul elsewhere. Perhaps our experiences as a congregation over the last few years are God’s way of nudging us in a different direction.
Paul took the hint, his dream being the final confirmation. He set off to a new place, a place he didn’t know.
In Philippi, on the Sabbath, he went down to the river. This is intriguing. Why might he suppose there to be a place of prayer there? Perhaps this might be the reason. Women would have gone to the river every day to wash clothes. To Gentiles, for whom the Sabbath was no different from any other day, a gathering of women by the river would not have seemed remarkable at all. For those who wanted to meet and pray, therefore, this was a perfect cover, hiding in plain sight. And of course, it would just be women.
So Paul meets people, most of whom would have had little status, in the place of their ordinary work. It’s not a special gathering, just coming alongside people in the ordinary course of life.
But there was one among them who was a bit different. Lydia was a businesswoman, something that was probably quite unusual, a woman of independent financial means, but equally someone who was at home among the women by the river. She probably washed her clothes there too. She was also a worshipper of God, not a Jew, but a Gentile who worshipped the Jewish God. Through she was successful in life, she was looking for something more. She found it in the words she heard from Paul, and so became the first European convert we know by name. She received baptism, along with her household, and placed her home at Paul’s disposal, as a base for evangelism.
What can we learn from her? Well, she was already looking for a deeper spiritual meaning in life. If the church now is to reach people, perhaps these are the kind of people we need to seek out and find, those whose minds are already open, who are looking. And we’re probably more likely to find these people in the ordinary course of life, rather than hoping they’ll somehow come to us. Arguably, that’s what Jesus did. As he walked through Galilee, he passed dozens of people, but only picked a dozen, people he sensed were open to what he had to say, and even he got it wrong with Judas.
The visiting team on Tuesday emphasised this. They argued that our efforts need to go into making disciples, deepening faith rather than trying to get bums on seats. They told us that there are three things which are essential for the life, health and witness of any congregation, two of which we are already quite good at, and all of which appear in or around the story we have been thinking about.
One is to work to meet social needs and to bring about change so that justice may prevail. We do that through Bethany, Christian Aid, Storehouse and MidAid. There’s a wee example just after the story of Lydia when Paul rescued an exploited child.
Second is creating Christian community which worships God in spirit and in truth. That’s what we hear of Lydia and her household and the women by the river doing, and we do it too, on Sunday mornings, at lunches and other social occasions, as members visit and care for one another, and in the Coffee Shop.
But what we do less well is the third thing – encouraging people to become disciples and enabling people to deepen their faith. I hope that that is what the Kirk Session may start to work on, but it is not just the work of the Kirk Session. The ideas, suggestions and commitment of all will be welcome.
I feel we are being nudged in the direction of small things, unspectacular things, things that maybe few will notice any time soon, but things which may, if blessed by God, have a profound effect on the life of this wee community of people who are trying to follow Jesus. Let’s see what happens. After all, it was just a conversation by a river in Philippi which sowed the seed for the eventual evangelisation of our whole continent.