Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7
Last weekend I was with the next group of churches about to begin their three year journey exploring what it means to be a ‘Missional Church’: you’ll know that title through our engagement with Partnership for Missional Church or PMC. Last week, up in Durham, Ruth Young, the Diocesan Discipleship and Evangelism advisor, gave a short talk entitled ‘ A new Missional era’ and she asked those present to identify what sort of churches they belonged to. To help focus our minds she put four cartoons up on the big screen.
The first showed a group of people stood in a circle within a locked room…or at least the door to the room was shut. This church identified itself as a ‘good church’: it prayed and worshipped well but its focus was inward.
The second cartoon showed a group of people underneath a big ‘hopper’ – by which Ruth meant to show a group of people essentially attending church because it met their needs, it ‘filled them up…like a filling station.
The third cartoon showed a group of people all heading in one direction following an arrow that had, as its target, another group of people. This, said Ruth, was an image of ‘a church with a mission’. Some keen Christians determined to give what they had (be that the gospel or social care) to others.
The final cartoon showed a group of people on the move but portrayed as standing on a broad arrow that also seemed to have text written on it going…we know not where. This last caricature or cartoon was meant to represent a ‘missional church’, based on God’s word and caught up in His leading: wherever that might take them.
Which church are we? I suspect we are a mixture of them all. Yes, we attend to prayer and worship…but I’d like to think these don’t exclude others. Yes, we receive strength and encouragement when we meet together but (I’d like to think) our coming to church is not meant to be ‘all about me’ and my needs but about God.
At times we have been a church with a mission: trying to do our bit whether people want it or not and, whilst we know we need to look outwards and enjoy those words ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’ at the end of our services we are uncertain of how God sends us. But, we are slowly learning how to be a missional church…how to attend to God’s word, how to engage with others with no agenda other than seeing what God might be up to and joining in. All that comes under our strap line of ‘Celebrating God’s Love’ and the ways we have identified that might play out: they are up in the porch and on our website.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah speaks into Ruth’s ‘New Missional Era’ because it spoke, all those years ago, to God’s people who found themselves in a new place – quite literally. Jeremiah’s words were (as we heard) sent by him from Jerusalem (now in ruins) to the exiles dragged off into captivity in Babylon and he gave them some advice as to how to live in this strange new world: ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you and pray to the Lord on its behalf’.
A question Ruth put to the room last Saturday was this: do we live in a Christian country? Most people in the room (there were about 40 of us) said ‘no’. Of course, we qualified that straightaway: there is much within our country that draws on Christian principles – but the essential Christian story is hardly known now. If you grew up in the 1960s you possibly attended Sunday School: 80 % of children did. But the next generation did not, and no amount of RE lessons can make up for the lack of inside experience of what it is to belong to a community of faith or to engage in worship.
Our new missional era sees us living post Christendom. Christendom was that whole system through which western Europe expressed its faith. Church and State were bound together. Mission was something that happened overseas because everyone in this country was ‘Christian’. Christendom still shows itself – look at the church’s involvement in the Queen’s funeral – but it has crumbled. Despite some folk writing CofE on the hospital form those who identify as Christian are now in a minority –census returns report the ‘Nones’ group as being the group that is growing – those with no identifiable faith.
Times have changed and change is disturbing. As far as mission goes, we can give thanks for the past without needing to return to it. If we live in a different era ‘how should we live’ and what does mission mean?
Jeremiah’s advice was for people of faith to commit themselves to the wellbeing of the places where they were set. This was a staggeringly big ask to make of people who had been dragged off as slaves to another land. It was possibly the last thing they wanted to do – to ally themselves with their captors, to compromise with their enemies, the people who had destroyed all that was sacred to them. Far more tempting I’d imagine, for the community to hold dear to the traditions of their faith, to raise the metaphorical barricades against the infidel, to keep themselves to themselves as much as they could and to hold on until something else turned up.
This has been a valid expression of faith not just in Judaism but also within Christian tradition. Benedict took his monks off to Monte Cassino to create a new Christian community away from the corruption around him. The Pilgrim Fathers sailed off to new England because they couldn’t live under the oppression of the monarchy and (dare we say it) the English church. Any number of new denominations come into existence as the desire for purity of faith turns the church inwards and excludes ever more people.
But somehow it must be possible for us to be Deeply Christian and serve the Common Good. That’s a rather nice phrase isn’t it? Deeply Christian, serving the common good. It’s not my phrase: I stole it from the Church of England’s Vision for Education document published in 2016 – you can find it online and it makes for encouraging reading.
That’s what a missional church can be like. Rooted in God’s loving regard -that’s part of our PMC prayer- grounded in knowing who and whose we are, utterly dependant upon God and unapologetically Christian…but committed to the common good. That means that we can work with anyone of good will. It means that we can make common cause with anyone who seeks life in all its fulness: anyone who wants to build up our common life in this town, anyone whose work strengthens all that is good and honest and true.
Last week we partnered for an event across the river in Brightwoods, Deepdale. The weather was good, the volunteers were helpful – there weren’t many of us but together we could celebrate God’s love as we enjoyed God’s creation and understood it a little more and prayed together. We have partnered too with our school recently in the creation of the Richard III musical: celebrating the children’s gifts and offering them an opportunity to perform that might never have come their way. We are partnering with our neighbouring parishes of Gainford and Winston over the promotion of Pilgrimage within our deanery: next month we will be showing a virtual pilgrimage video here in church for those who would have wished to walk the Pilgrim Way but could not or cannot. On your behalf and for the good of the town I have been able to work with the Town Council over the Queen’s death, the proclamation of the new king and the commemoration service. Our musicians’ gifts are being requested by others up and down the dale and the sharing of those gifts brings more and more people through our doors. We continue to collect for the FoodBanks and, again with others on your behalf I’m trying to find out what we can do or enable to help people through this difficult winter.
For we are in a new place as the church of God in this land. The good news is that God is where we are, not where we used to be! One of the greatest lessons that Judaism learned in Babylon was that God was not boxed into the temple in Jerusalem: he is always and everywhere with us. Our task – to discern what He is up to…and to join in.
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