Our Changed Context John 17:6-19 (13 May 2018)

Things have changed. Back in the 1950’s when the current St Martins church building was built the vision was that there would be a Presbyterian Church within 15-20 minutes walk of everyone in Christchurch. Congregations were neighbourhood churches, serving the needs of the people of the suburb they were in. St Martins Presbyterian church was to serve the people of St Martins suburb. St Peter’s in Ferry Road served Woolston, St David’s served Sydenham, St James served Spreydon. A key function of the parish church was to provide a worship event to which people would come to worship and nurture faith, to teach children about Jesus and the Christian faith, and to provide pastoral care in the parish, the neighbourhood near to the church. People learned the basics of faith and how to be good people and citizens in Sunday School and the faithful then received regular top ups at weekly worship..

This model is now no longer operative. More than two thirds of us here live outside the St Martins suburb. Most of us now drive a vehicle to worship. The area we now draw from includes Woolston, Opawa, Waltham, Spreydon, Somerfield, Sydenham, Beckenham, Hoon Hay, and further afield to Lyttelton, Westmorland etc. The reality is that we are a gathered church that happens to have our focal building and base in the suburb of St Martins. We are clearly no longer the parish church of St Martins although of course our church building is located in St Martins.

But there are other changes too. We no longer have a thriving Sunday School and our means of growing new disciples in faith are broken. Actually they’ve been broken a long time. The wider community now places little value in our pastoral care. If you have a crisis in your life it’s not a minister you’ll think of seeing but a counsellor, and with all due respect to my older ministerial colleagues that’s actually not a bad thing. Many funerals, weddings, and naming of children are now secular affairs and the church is seen to be largely irrelevant in offering meaning and ritual to mark key transitions in life. The Christian worldview is now one of many with the dominant religion now consumerism or materialism. Christian ethics and morals are often considered outdated and the church’s voice on questions and issues facing society outmoded. Christians are a dwindling small minority group. Sociologists tell us we now live in a post Christian world. Things have changed. Our context has changed.

I believe we have something of great value to offer. I believe God’s mission to bring true life into the world is as valid as ever. Last week I defined this in a sentence. Our church community exists to discern, model, and teach what makes for true aliveness.

One of the exercises our Mission Discernment Group engaged in is to prayerfully discern what we notice in the neighbourhoods we represent. What might God be saying to us about this patch of city we live in. It will come as no surprise to you that one thing we noticed was lonely people. Mums walking by the church. Donald an older fellow who is an alcoholic. Older folk walking by a number of times a day heading to the local shopping mall. Fences and empty streets apart from cars. A lack of human chatter. The lack of the sound of play on the streets.
There are lots of cars moving about but where is the genuine human interaction. There are some warm spots in local cafes and other places.

I asked the question last week what is one thing you really want our congregation to be known for. Our responses were thoughtful. A clear response is that we want this congregation to be known for its inclusive caring friendliness and compassion. We didn’t have time to unpack that but I take that to mean we want to be known for the quality of human connection. Genuine community is important to us. We know that genuine community brings life. In study after study genuine community is shown to have positive health effects, and provides a seedbed for individuals to flourish. I hear stories here of how important small groups are here like the walking group, homeshare, the foot clinic team, or fireside. We start to really get to know each other and care for each other when we go walking together each week and we have honest conversations. I came across a quote this week: God’s basic method of communicating God’s self is not the saved individual, but the journey and bonding process that God initiates through community. Connecting in a smaller group does take time but literally it gives life. One of the questions is how to keep growing these sort of groups because invariably each small group reaches a maximum size. We need small groups of all sorts, we need people to step up and initiate small groups that become places of human interaction, caring, learning and serving. In the new context small groups are going to be vital, especially groups as the MDG has discovered that try and nurture a spiritual component along with the outward service to others component.

What has also become critical in our new context is the importance of the teaching ministry that will take the Christian message into the community. Jesus spent most of his time teaching because people need to catch hold on different ideas and different ways of seeing. Traditional teaching was coming to church on Sunday to listen to the minister, but we have to experiment with new ways. In the new context people don’t come to church and people don’t sit passively and listen to learn. Gathered times of teaching and nurturing are really important but they need to be interactive and visual. Learning by experimenting and reflecting together is better learning. Conversations, questions, and sharing experience. I’ve said before and I’ll say again church of the future is circles not straight lines, and while we have begun this journey we have a way to go. But there is something more. Just like the early church we are reliant on members taking Christian messages out into their little sphere of influence, their workplace, their rotary club, their friendship circle. Our traditional church has not equipped its members to do this and instead has relied heavily on the minister as the teacher. Our church culture needs to change. Like the early church we now live in a society that knows very little about the Christian faith and church members need to be equipped and encouraged to have conversations about their faith in the real world in which they live. If Jesus is going to have a voice in our wider community we need to be that voice. Why is it important to treat others with respect? Why is greed not a good basis for community? Why is it important to forgive? Why is poverty such a disaster and a lack of equality in resources so evil? If we want to grow the influence of Jesus it has to happen in conversations out there as well as in here.

There is something else about our new context that we need to understand. I was talking to someone this week about the use of our refurbished church building. We were actually standing inside our church talking about the need for the building to be inconstant use and not sitting idle. How the building serve our aim to bring aliveness into our community. An obvious answer is that it becomes a community connecting point. A place that is a spiritual connecting point but also a place a human connection. The person I was talking to was raised a good Catholic, but no longer practices. He told me as I talked about possible activities we could bring into the building that there was something I needed to understand. I didn’t really understand how difficult it is for non churched people to connect with church. There is a large group of people who are turned off by church. Some remember going to church in days gone by and it was boring and over their head. Others have been hurt by churches.. They’ve seen hypocrisy, they have heard Christians pontificate in judgmental ways that appal them, they have felt judged. I’m sorry Mr Folau but I wish you would keep your twitters to yourself. There is a deep distrust of institutions. You and I may experience church as a safe place of warmth and friendship, but for many church doesn’t feel a good place or a safe place. I pondered. I know there are places I don’t feel comfortable in. Walk into a country pub where everyone knows each other and the place goes quiet as heads turn to look at you. I remember wandering into a TAB shop and feeling completely at sea. What do you do, how do you even place a bet. I had no idea. I do know that when they began a new style of church called BATCH (Breakfast at The Coronation Hall) in the Maori Hill parish they actually chose to hire the community hall over the road from the church because it was neutral ground and not contaminated by images and memories of traditional institutional church. And it worked…Strange eh?…

People have to build a relationship of trust before they’ll set foot inside a church. They have to get to know a human face and feel they will be honoured and listened to and not seen as another recruit for the envelope system before they’ll dare risk coming through a door.

The context has changed.
Circles instead of lines.
Conversations instead of monologues.
A focus on what makes for aliveness.
Church will be different!

Dugald Wilson 13 May 2018

What would be the focus of a small group you would like to be involved with at church?
What hinders you from inviting a friend to participate in an activity of the St Martins Presbyterian Church?