We had a fascinating discussion of the nature of evangelism (sharing the faith with others) and its relationship to the life of our own church at the Potters Bar URC Bible study group last week. Those present reflected on what they would say to others about why they thought it would be good to become part of our church, what it was they really valued about their own membership.
Different churches are different. Ours is predominantly fairly elderly, most of its members are of retirement age, and consists mostly of people who have been members for a long time. There are some newer members but most of these are quite like those who are longer established. There is a small scattering of younger and more recent people but they are very much in the minority.
A key characteristic of our fellowship is the dense and deep network of personal relationships that mark it. These form a cluster of overlapping groups of friends who provide real care and support to one another. This “skeleton” supports the whole rich life of the church and enables it to integrate and absorb newcomers who can fit into this life. When talking about what they would say to people to describe the ways in which joining us would enhance their lives this belonging to a community was very prominent.
My wife and I have become deeply involved in the Nursery School which runs in the church building and as part of the charitable work of the church since we have been here. She chairs its management committee and I sit on it and together with another elder provide a link to the leadership of the church. What has impressed me over the last six months is the extent to which the nursery also functions as a community.
We are blessed to have a significant number of talented and committed people among the parents. These include graphic designers who have designed and produced new publicity material. Musicians who led the children in producing a CD. One of the fathers designed and implemented a new web site using the new logo from one of the graphic designers. Parents have run large and successful craft mornings during the holidays. They sourced a range of impressive prizes for a fund raiser, they have run coffee mornings and put on a massive event with a local children’s entertainer. Our walking float in the town carnival won a prize.
All this has been achieved from the voluntary efforts of those whose children attend the Nursery. Spending time with them it is clear that many of them have become friends through their involvement with us and it seems probable that these friendships will in some cases endure and form part of the network that makes our town such a particularly settled and comfortable place.
All this, it seems to me, has a good deal in common with the shape and life of a particular kind of church. I researched the history of the other church in which I serve last year in order to mount a proper celebration of its 70th anniversary. One thing that struck me was the pattern of the membership figures. The church began in the 1940s as an initiative of two families who had moved to the new village of Brookmans Park from north London, where they had been members of a Congregationalist church. It was centred on a Sunday School and grew consistently until the middle of the 1970s since when there has been steady decline.
The period of its growth, from 1943 to 1973 coincided with the growth of the village. During this period it provided a way for new people both to continue the Christian practice they brought from their former place of residence and to integrate with the life of the community to which they had moved. There were a range of groups, especially for women and young people, which did all sorts of things, from drama and flower arranging, through maintaining the church, to Bible study and exploration of faith.
We are sometimes inclined to be dismissive of the social lives of our churches, to be snobbish about churches that are “clubs” but I’m not at all sure we should be. The church as community has always been important, as any reading of the epistles in the New Testament will reveal. The common life of the people of God is always prominent.
Our difficulty lies in properly integrating that with our theology and our missional vocation, our calling to be Christ’s representatives to the world. At Potters Bar we are doing important community building work through the Nursery but it is unrecognised by and even invisible to much of the congregation. At the same time we may not properly recognise the extent to which the life of our community is both part of our witness and consonant with the gospel.
I am coming to believe that each church needs to recognise that the Spirit has shaped it as the body it actually is and not aspire or desire to be something else (although always ready to be changed by the ongoing work of the Spirit). Our mission cannot be to turn into another church (younger, more modern, bigger) but rather to be what we are called to be as fully as we can be. The more authentically we express the identity we have been given to more likely we are to witness effectively to God’s love. Learning to accept and celebrate our own uniqueness, with all its frailties and failures, is an essential step towards the repentance that enables the Spirit to transform us into the disciples we are intended to be.
For the URC as a whole this means finding what is unique and positive in being an elderly and declining body of disparate churches blessed with an amazing legacy of material and spiritual resources, NOT wishing to be a denomination of a quite different character (younger and bigger, more “progressive”, more “orthodox”, more “Reformed” or whatever it might be). We are who we are and we have our own distinct and unique vocation. We just haven’t discerned it properly yet.