I’ve been thinking a bit about mission recently. But nothing I have ever read, and no one I have ever heard speak about mission, has ever advised insulting people as a means of bringing them to faith. But John the Baptist was anything but conventional. Possibly the only exponent to the ‘treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen’ school of evangelism, he greeted those who had come to him with a tirade of abuse. “You brood of vipers!” he yelled at them.
We might be a little surprised that they stuck around. Would you? I’m not sure that I would have. But stick around they did. And more than that. They engaged. They asked for more. In particular they asked, “What should we do?”
The crowds asked, “What should we do?” And John the Baptist told them to share their surplus clothes and share their surplus food. Basic stuff. Some tax collectors asked, “What should we do?” and he told them not to defraud people. Some soldiers asked, “What should we do?” and John the Baptist told them not to extort money by threats, not to abuse their power. His words had such a profound effect that they wondered if this man, who began by insulting them, could perhaps be the Messiah, the one who would save them.
It seems to me that, in the context of mission, while calling people a ‘brood of vipers’ is, to say the least, inadvisable, asking the question, “What should we do?” is, in fact, probably the best place to start.
The context for my thinking about mission has been, most recently, the discussion about and the decision to unite the two services. This has been a difficult time, and testing times lie ahead. People have said they might leave. I hope they won’t. I believe that this is a time for saying not, “Give me what I want,” but for asking, “What should we do?”
- What should we do to build and strengthen the Church?
- What should we do to deepen our commitment to Christ and to one another, his people?
- What should we do to communicate the message of the gospel more clearly, more joyfully and more lovingly to this town and parish?
- What should we do to serve the children, and the young people, and the young adults and the middle aged people and the elderly people better?
- What should we do to make clear to each other and to the world that we are a family of God’s people, and a family which is eager to welcome new people in, and to love them as we who are here already love one another?
- What should we do to be ready to welcome the changes which will happen if God sends new people to be a part of his family in this Church?
These are some of the questions which are before us.
The Session came to the decision to unite the services for a variety of reasons but basically, it became persuaded that the church is called to unity. While we discussed a lot of matters to do with music and discussion groups, the underlying theological imperative to unity, to model in our place and in our lives the answer to Christ’s prayer in John 17, that all his people might be one, was clear.
For over a hundred years, ever since the ecumenical movement was born in Edinburgh in 1910, churches have been on a pilgrimage towards full visible unity. We’ve not got there yet but we’ve come an astonishingly long way. I was at a conference on Thursday of the Joint Commission of Doctrine, which is a joint Church of Scotland and Roman Catholic Church in Scotland body. The affection and sense of shared identity and common purpose between archbishops and moderators, between priests and ministers, between church employees and laity of both denominations, was palpable. But church unity is not just about good relationships between denominations at an institutional level. It is founded upon unity within denominations, and that in turn is built upon unity with congregations.
Does this mean we all have to agree? Of course not. Where there is uniform agreement, you have a sect, not a church, and most often someone wielding power abusively. Does it mean that we all have to like the same things? Of course not. Does that mean that we have to respect the tastes and opinions of others? Absolutely; and each of us has the right to expect our tastes and opinions to be respected too, in return. None of us has the right to demand that our tastes and opinions will prevail. That means that there has to be a willingness to compromise, a degree of give and take, and it is love that makes that possible.
There will be changes, and I have always been clear that things will continue to evolve. Whatever happens on 10th January, when we inaugurate the united service with a service of rededication and commitment, will not be how the service will always be. There will be variety and development. Things won’t remain static. None of us wants the church to stagnate. We all know what happens in stagnant water. Things putrefy and you get a nasty niff. Like water, a congregation’s life has to flow to keep fresh and to share its goodness.
So what are the changes we can expect? The Session decided, as a sign that we are making a new start, that the time of the united service should be 10.30 a.m. This seemed like a good compromise between those who prefer an earlier and those who prefer a later start time. If anyone has difficultly with this, perhaps because the bus times do not coincide with the new service time, then speak to me or Margaret Hood. We’ve already got a good system going with taxis, and could easily add more to it.
Though the service will be no less dignified, no less grounded in Scripture, no less true to the heritage of the Church of Scotland, we’re also going to see some changes in worship. The united service will have traditional hymns and, normally, one worship song. They’ll all be chosen to fit the theme of the service. We’ll all have the opportunity to experience and learn some different hymns. Sometimes the sermon will be presented in a different way. Sometimes there will be different voices leading prayers. We might try reading Scripture differently, or using responses more creatively.
There will be opportunities for discussion too. Before the service, there will be an informal discussion around the readings for the day for anyone who would like to take part. There will also be study courses, open to everyone, at different times during the week. These will look at different topics and use a variety of resources. We’ll experiment to find the best time. Again, they’ll be open to everyone, the idea that the learning we engage in through gathering together round the Word, read and preached on a Sunday morning, and the learning we engage in through study and discussion, should complement and enhance one another.
We’re also working hard on providing something meaningful for children. It is my hope that there will be a spread of ages at the united service. We are a family of God’s people, and families include the very youngest right through to the very oldest. No one should feel excluded. So there might be a bit more noise and disturbance, but we’re not going to wince, or look round disapprovingly, or allow ourselves to be distracted. Instead, we’re going to welcome children and their parents and support them and those who will be providing the crèche and the Junior Church.
“What should we do?” the people asked John the Baptist. That’s a question for all people of faith. What should we do to be the best we can be for God in this place? Uniting the services was never intended to be an end in itself. It is about recommitting ourselves to God and to one another in Christian Unity. But even unity is not an end in itself. Christian unity is vital for mission. Christian disunity inhibits effective mission. So we are laying down old forms, which have served well in the past but are not so effective now, and making space for new things. We are bringing all our resources of faith together so that, in communion with one another and with Christ, we may better engage in God’s mission to the world; that we may, because we are visibly united and because we are stronger together, point more clearly to Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and proclaim the good news to the people.