“There’s no commitment anymore, is there?” “These days, people just don’t know how to show commitment to the church”. These are comments we seem to hear all the time, aren’t they? Comments that are often aimed at teenagers or younger people who, it seems to some, just drop in and out of church whenever they want to.
And, of course, behind these comments are a fixed idea of what commitment should look like. For people of this particular persuasion, commitment looks a little like this: regular attendance at church; ideally weekly but certainly more than once a month; regular Financial Giving; ideally a tithe of 10% of net income; participation in the decision-making structures of the church; attendance at midweek groups when these are running. It is these sorts of things that ‘commitment’ has traditionally been measured by.
Now, of course there is value in regular attendance. There is value in Financial Giving: in fact, that is an imperative for spiritual discipline. There is value in participation: we are the Body of Christ and we need to be fully involved. There is value in face-to-face fellowship outside of Sunday worship. But to suggest that these are the only measures of commitment in the 21st-century is not a position that fully engages with cultural shifts in society.
Commitment can still be there – but it can show itself in different ways; ways that take account of the increasing busyness of life, the increasing demands for both parents to be working, the fact that ‘community’ is as much virtual as it is based in a geographic location, the fact that people have so many more responsibilities these days.
There is a call on us as a church – as there is with every church - to find new ways of ‘doing church’, new ways of ‘being church’ that take full account of the social reality in which we now find ourselves. There is no point in any church just harking back to a golden age (that probably never existed in the first place) and saying, “If only we could have church like we did then, then everything would be alright”.
We live in challenging times. We live in an age where society is shifting and changing at an incredible rate and in ways that we could not have dreamt of even 15 years ago. There is a seismic shift in culture and society today and any church that is to survive and thrive must, first and foremost, recognise that in a non-judgmental way and be prepared to work with it in a creative fashion.
A church congregation can sit there with its arms folded and say, “This is who we are, like it or not. And we want you to join us”. That church is doomed to failure and the doors will close very quickly over the coming few decades.
Or a church congregation can take a non-judgemental position and look at the cultural context in which it is set, and say: “Like it or not, this is the world in which we live. We need to find ways to speak the Gospel into this context. So we will find new and creative ways to do that”. That church will not only survive. It will thrive.
It seems to me that the whole point of being a Mission-Shaped Church is that we do not seek to become culturally relevant. If we try to be culturally relevant, we will always be chasing the latest cultural fad and we will always be one step behind society. Instead, it seems to me that a Mission-Shaped Church should seek to be culturally useful. Cultural relevance and cultural usefulness are two very different things. Pursuing cultural relevance will mean that we are always chasing the culture. To be culturally useful means that we have to honestly ask ourselves what kind of church is it that the community of Enfield need: how can we best meet the needs of the community around us? What type of church does God want us to become? How can we best live out the Gospel in our context?
A culturally useful church is a Mission-Shaped Church…
This isn’t a new issue, of course. We look back and we see that the history of the church has been a constant striving to be culturally useful. We look at the early church in Acts, we look at the first few centuries when the Creeds were being developed. We look at the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. We look at the formation of Independent Churches; Baptists and Methodists and so on. We look at the rise of the Charismatic Movement. We think most recently about the Fresh Expressions movement in Britain. All of these have been attempts to answer the question of ‘cultural usefulness’.
But we can look further back, to the time of Jesus himself and see the same issue at play. And that’s exactly what we see in our Gospel reading from Matthew 11 this morning. If you want to follow it with me, it’s on page 12 in the New Testament section of the pew Bible…
Jesus has been speaking to the crowds about the ministry of John the Baptist and he has been praising John’s ministry. And then he comes up with this rather strange saying in verses 16 and 17: “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’.”
We can imagine the scene. The market-place is empty after a day’s trading and the children are using it for a playground. One of the children says, “Let’s play weddings!” so they start that game and someone says, “Oh this is boring, let’s do something else”. So the child says, “OK, let’s play funerals!” so they start the game and someone says, “Oh this is just as boring, let’s do something else”. And the child says, “We do weddings and it’s boring. We do funerals and it’s boring. What do you want then..?” Whatever they play – it’s wrong…
And Jesus says, that this is a description of how some people engage with the spiritual life: they are never happy; they just want to criticise whatever approach is taken: verses 18 and 19: “For John came neither eating or drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”
Some people are never happy, are they? John the Baptist had worked out that a culturally useful way for him to minister was to lead a strict, ascetic lifestyle in which he denied himself constantly - and people criticised him. Jesus had worked out that a culturally useful way for him to minister was to spend time with those on the margins, and to go to parties and hang out with the prostitutes and the oppressed - and people criticised him too.
You just can’t win, can you?
But here’s the sting in the tale for those who moaned about everything, verse 19: “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
I think what Jesus means is this: Both he and John had very different methods, very different ways of pursuing cultural usefulness but they both had one thing in common: they both preached the Gospel; they both pursued the wisdom of God. And so, it doesn’t matter what the methodology, as long as the Gospel is being preached in a culturally useful manner then that is wisdom in practice and it will be vindicated.
We might say that it doesn’t matter if you are High Church or Low Church, Evangelical or Catholic, Charismatic or Traditional, Anglican, Methodist, Independent or Baptist…as long as the Gospel is being preached in a way that is culturally useful and in a way that is true to calling that God has placed upon a church or individual, then that is wisdom in action and will be vindicated
As we seek to become a Mission-Shaped Church, we will be asking ourselves the question: what will it mean for us to be culturally useful as a church in Enfield? How can we be true to the vision of church that God wants us to become? Right now, we don’t know the answer to those questions; we will begin the process of discovery together very soon. But I think, from our Gospel reading today, there are three basic principles that will help to guide us as we prepare to embark specifically on the process of developing our Mission Action Plan.
First, we must be prepared to learn from those we least expect to
Where does spiritual leadership lie in this church? Is it the PCC? Yes, of course. Is it the Wardens? Yes, of course. Is it the Vicar? Yes, of course. The PCC, the Wardens and the Vicar are invested with legal and spiritual authority to lead St. Andrew’s into God’s future.
But that is true only in part.
I think the ministry of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels makes clear to us that spiritual leadership is equally invested in those on the margins, the dispossessed, the weak and the vulnerable. And that is precisely the point Jesus makes in verses 25 and 26: “At that time, Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
There are some things that have been revealed to those considered wise and intelligent: and I hope we would count the spiritual leaders of this church amongst them; the PCC, the Wardens, and me. And it is, of course, crucial that God does reveal his will to those in formal spiritual leadership, otherwise we would never get anything done!
But the truth is – and I need to sit humbly under this word from God as do the PCC and the Wardens…that there are some things that have been hidden from us and revealed to others. And not just others – but those we would least expect God to speak through. In Jesus’ culture, these were the infants, the little children - but in our culture, that might mean something else.
So it becomes clear that, in discovering God’s purpose for our future, it is not something that you can wait for me to pronounce from on high nor for the Wardens to plan for on their own or for the PCC to just come up with some good ideas about. Instead, we need to engage the whole community and expect to hear from God through the least likely of people…
What does that mean in practice?
Well, instead of just asking the PCC to decide what is good about St. Andrew’s, we listen to those who don’t come, or don’t come regularly and we ask the question, “What is it about St. Andrew’s that prevents you from engaging more fully?” God will speak to us through them.
Instead of just me considering how I think the worship should be done here, I should listen to those who come regularly and enjoy what we do and those who don’t come at all because they find it boring and irrelevant. God will speak to us through them.
As we seek God’s future for us, this passage in Matthew’s Gospel suggests that we must expect him to speak to us through the least likely of people and we must be willing to hear him when he speaks…
Second, it is God’s mission, not ours…
In verse 27, we see a clear hierarchy of missional engagement. Jesus says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
There is a clear hierarchy here in terms of revelation. The Father hands all things over to the Sonand the Son chooses to whom he will reveal the knowledge of God. So mission is not something we do, it is not a strategy we devise. Mission is ultimately God’s activity in the world;he will reveal himself to those whom he chooses. Our task is merely to participate in that as best we can.
Of course, to do that effectively, we need to have frameworks and structures that maximise our efforts, we need to have a cohesive course of action that will help us to be efficient, and we need to have a plan of action so that we are all pulling in the same direction. But none of that is to suggest that the Mission of St Andrew’s is ours. It’s not. It’s God’s mission – and he graciously allows us to participate in that…
So first, we must expect God to speak to us through the least likely people. Second, we must remember that it’s God’s mission, not ours.
Third, we must remember that, if we rely on God, the task of mission will be easy.
For some, the prospect of transforming into a Mission-Shaped Church may seem a daunting prospect. We may fear the changes. We may feel a sense of trepidation at the energy such a shift will incur. We may feel comfortable right now, and think that actually, it all sounds like too much hard work. Well, of course, if we were acting in our own strength, all of that would be true. But since this is God’s mission, not ours, we do not need to do this in our own strength but in the strength of God. The more we learn to rely on him, and on his leading, the easier the task will be…
The final verses of this passage are so well-known, and they trip off the tongue so easily, that sometimes we forget the context in which Jesus spoke them. This is a passage, ultimately, about mission and having the ability to respond to God’s call on our lives to be a missionary people. And his first hearers, who were well settled into their comfortable pattern of Jewish faith probably felt as much trepidation as some of us may do today. And it was into that context that Jesus utters this famous phrase: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The truth is – and you know this to be true – for some people, church can just feel like hard work. I don’t need to convince you of that: you have just come out of an interregnum and some of you will probably be feeling exhausted by that period when you had to run the services, organise the rotas, hold the Committees together, keep people enthusiastic, make sure the day-to-day minutiae was being dealt with, and so on…
At any time, especially during an interregnum, church can be an exhausting institution…And if we feel that we are now entering a period where we need to put more energy in, to give more time to church activities, to develop new skills and be more creative then, quite frankly, that prospect probably does not fill some of you with joy.
But that’s not the way of a Mission-Shaped Church.
We will become more streamlined in our structures, so less energy is dissipated. We will develop wider involvement, so we share the load together. We will train new leaders, so people are ministering out of their strengths and skill-bases. We will be speaking words of encouragement to one another, not words that hurt and wound. And crucially, we will be relying on the strength of God in all we do.
And, as we do that, so our heavy burdens will be released from us and we will become increasingly yoked to Christ and his yoke is easy, and he will give us rest. Over the coming years, I will have a lot to say about ‘rest’ as a spiritual principle and about how imperative it is, in the 21st-century more than ever before, to create a church that is a place of rest - which isn’t the same as inactivity or complacency but a place where people can come in the midst of hectic, frantic and stressed lives and enter into the rest of God, which is our ultimate destiny as humans. More about that another day…
But we are all called to a way of living, a way of being church where the burden is light and the yoke is easy; where we come to Jesus who will release us from our weariness and where we will find rest. That is what a Mission-Shaped Church is all about.
So this passage has much to say to us this morning. We are not to be like the Pharisees, always moaning about how the religious institution is. We are to be focused on being culturally useful and proclaim the Gospel in a culturally useful way. And as we begin to consider together what that may look like, we are aware that God will speak to us through the least likely of people, that it is God’s mission, not ours, and that we are to increasingly rely on him so that, together, we may enter a place of deep rest with God.
And that, of course, is our ultimate destiny - as individuals and as a church…