Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sermon for June 27th: Introducing Back to Church Sunday

(NOTE: FIRST SECTION, IN ITALICS, MAY BE REPLACED BY INTERVIEWS WITH MEMBERS OF CONGREGATION).

During my ministry I’ve had the pleasure of doing a number of adult baptisms, and they have usually been very special occasions; there’s something really moving about an adult coming to the point in his or her life where they want to make a public commitment to Jesus Christ, and doing it in the ancient Christian way, by being baptized. I once had the privilege of baptizing a seventeen-year-old girl in the Edmonton Young Offender Centre; she had come to faith in Christ through the ministry of the chaplain, and was now bravely stepping out and identifying herself as a Christian in a place where I knew she would definitely suffer for it. It was an honour and a joy to be a part of that very special day.

I baptized my friend Terry when he was in his late forties. He’d definitely had a Christian element in his upbringing, but had not been baptized and had not been a churchgoer for many years. However, he had a good friend who was a Christian and went to our church, and from time to time they had conversations about the Christian faith. Then Terry went through a very difficult patch in his life, including the loss of a very well-paying job and the breakup of his marriage. He thought of the conversations he’d had with his friend, and one day, out of the blue, he showed up at the door of our church on a Sunday morning. The sermon that day just happened to be on the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and as Terry said to me later, he felt just like the lost sheep returning home. Thus began a chain of events that eventually led to the day when he committed his life to Christ in baptism.

Of course, I had a part in that chain – Terry and I had many conversations about the Christian faith and what it was all about – but none of it would have happened if it had not been for the fact that he had a friend who went to our church. Churches can be scary places for people who aren’t used to them; the general population is less and less familiar with what we do from Sunday to Sunday, and it’s amazing how difficult it can be to step across the threshold of a church if you haven’t been for years, or maybe have never been a tall. But if you’ve got a friend there, a friend who has invited you to come along with them, that can make all the difference.

Many of us are familiar with the stories of Peter, the fisherman who became a great apostle and leader of the early church. But we often forget that Peter would never have become a follower of Jesus if it had not been for his brother Andrew. Andrew met Jesus before Peter did; he had been a disciple of John the Baptist, and John was the one who told him to go and become a follower of Jesus. So Andrew spent a day with Jesus and was obviously very impressed with what he saw and heard. John’s Gospel tells us that after he left Jesus, the first thing he did was to go and find his brother Simon Peter; he took him to meet Jesus, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The same chapter of John’s Gospel tells the story of Philip, who became a follower of Jesus and then went and told his friend Nathanael about him.

‘He said, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth”. Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see”’. (John 1:45-46).

So Nathanael went along with Philip, and ended up staying and becoming a disciple of Jesus too.

This story has been repeated over and over again in the history of Christianity. There have been many famous evangelists who have travelled thousands of mile and preached impressive sermons to enormous crowds, but the most successful method by far of bringing new people to faith in Christ is person to person: the invitation of a friend who says, ‘Come and see’. Some of you in this church today are churchgoers because someone invited you. Some of you have become followers of Jesus as a result of a process that began when someone said to you, ‘Would you like to come to church with me?’ And, like Peter, some people who have responded to this simple invitation have gone on to become influential Christian leaders. Archbishop Michael Peers, who was the leader of our Canadian Anglican Church until a few years ago, often told the story of how his Christian life began when he was a student in Ottawa, when a fellow-student invited him to go to church with him.

And that’s what ‘Back to Church Sunday’ is all about. ‘Back to Church Sunday’ is an initiative that began in one corner of the Church of England less than ten years ago. It is based on a very simple concept: one Christian inviting a friend who is not a churchgoer to come to church with them. There’s no big media campaign and no bells and whistles. None of the advertising is aimed at bringing strangers into church; it’s all aimed at convincing nervous Christians to be brave, step out in faith and make the invitation. In just a few years Back to Church Sunday, on the last Sunday of September each year, has become a regular part of the life of the Church of England, and now it has come to Canada. Last year the Diocese of Toronto did it; reports say that the number of guests who came to participating congregations varied from one to one hundred. In one parish, Christ Church Campbellford, thirty guests came, and fifteen of them are still attending regularly. This year we’re going to try it in the Diocese of Edmonton, and our vestry has agreed that St. Margaret’s will participate; on Sunday September 26th, we will join with many other churches in our diocese in celebrating ‘Back to Church Sunday’.

If you like what some people disparagingly call ‘the numbers game’, this concept should appeal to you. I’m not one to disparage the numbers game myself; the author of the Book of Acts often tells us how many people responded to the Christian message, starting on the Day of Pentecost when he tells us about the three thousand people who heard Peter’s sermon and decided to become followers of Jesus. A friend of mine used to say, ‘We count people because people count!’ And just imagine this concept: if every one of us invited a friend to come to church with us on Back to Church Sunday, and every friend accepted the invitation and came, we’d double the size of our congregation on that day! You think it’s impossible? Well, if you think it’s impossible, it probably is, because if you think it’s impossible you probably won’t try it. But if you step out in faith and try it, God might just surprise you.

But maybe the numbers game doesn’t appeal to you. If not, think about these two questions my friend Harold Percy used to ask people: ‘Do you have a faith worth sharing?’ and ‘Do you have a friend worth sharing it with?’ Many of us have dear friends who we love very much but who do not share our Christian faith. Perhaps we’ve seen them going through crises in their lives, and wondered how on earth they manage to get through them without having God as their rock. Perhaps from time to time we’ve had conversations with them about Christian faith. Well, here’s an opportunity for those conversations to move to the next step: invitation. As Philip said to Nathanael, “Come and see!”

But we might get a little nervous about inviting people to ‘come and see’; maybe we’re not altogether sure they’ll like what they see! And so as we prepare for ‘Back to Church Sunday’, we’ll need to think together about whether our church is really as welcoming and accessible as we think it is. This involves us thinking about stuff that we often don’t notice. For instance, my friend Harold Percy used to talk about church signs written in insider code. He had once seen a sign outside an Anglican Church that said, ‘Services at 10.30 a.m. 1 & 3: HC, 2 & 4:MP’. Do you know what that means? It means that on the first and third Sundays of the month the service was Holy Communion, and on the second and fourth it was Morning Prayer. But it didn’t exactly communicate a message of welcome to people who didn’t know the code, did it?

So as we go through the summer I’ll be putting little ‘welcome notes’ in the bulletin; things for us to think about so that we can improve the quality of our welcome. They all involve a change in mindset for some of us. We’re used to thinking of ourselves as the guests in this church, but Back to Church Sunday challenges us to think of ourselves as the hosts instead, and to do our best to welcome the guests that Jesus will bring our way on that day.

But how should we go about this? What’s the process by which we decide who we should invite, and then go on to actually make the invitation? Let me suggest this simple process, which you’ll find on the insert in your bulletin today:

First, ask yourself the question, “What do I value about my church that would motivate me to want to invite others to join it?” After all, people are enormously talented about creating new and excruciating forms of misery for themselves; they don’t need our help, and if church is a miserable experience for you, you really shouldn’t try to inflict it on anyone else! So what is it that keeps you coming? How does it enrich your life? How does it help you connect with God and other people? How does it motivate you to live a different sort of life? If you can identify what it is that you value about St. Margaret’s, you’ll be more confident in inviting someone else to join you.

Second, ask yourself another question: Who in my life might God have been preparing for me to invite to Back to Church Sunday? Reflect on this – pray about it and ask God to guide you. As names come to mind over a few weeks, consider which of them might be the one you invite. You see, there’s an assumption here that God is already at work in people’s lives. It’s not our business to do all the work ourselves. It’s our business to try to be obedient to God and to follow his leading. So who might be the one we might invite? Ask God to guide you about this.

Third, pray for the person you invite – long before you invite them! And not just that: pray also for everyone else in our church as they invite their friends too. Pray for the services on that day, that they will be really helpful for people who are new to churchgoing and new to Christian faith. Pray for those who will lead the services, and for everyone else in the congregation who joins in welcoming our guests. This is God’s work, and it won’t go anywhere unless we pray.

Fourth – and this is the simple, crucial step: make the invitation to your friend. You can practice it if you like: it’s only about thirteen words long. It goes like this: ‘Would you like to come to church with me on September 26th?’ I know that some of you here have asked much more threatening questions than that – “Will you vote for me in the upcoming civic election?’ for instance, or even “Will you marry me?” So why not break the sound barrier and give this simple question a try?

Fifth, if your friend says yes, offer to pick them up and drive them to church on September 26th. That way there’s none of that anxious waiting at the door, wondering if they’ve forgotten or if they’ve backed out at the last minute. Also, that way you can introduce them to the greeters on the way in, and they’ll already have made one or two new acquaintances before the service has even started. And you can sit with them during the service, help them find their way around the bulletin, and help them with any other books they might need for the service.

Sixth, after the service, introduce them to your friends over coffee and include them in the conversation. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen new people come down to coffee hour after church and watched about three quarters of the regular churchgoers totally ignoring them! It’s true that there are a few people in our church who are very good at welcoming newcomers, but many of us could stand to learn a little more hospitality toward the guests of Jesus! But once again, it will be so much easier for your friend if you bring them down to coffee hour yourself and introduce them to a few people.

Lastly, assume they’ll be coming back. Ask them afterwards, “Shall I pick you up again next week? Would you like to go to lunch together afterwards?” Don’t assume that they hated the whole experience! Over the past few years I’ve invited friends to come to church with me for ‘Bring a Friend’ services on a number of occasions, and they’ve always told me afterwards that they enjoyed the experience.

So – this is our simple plan of outreach for September 26th. We’ll be joining with millions of Christians in different parts of the world in this effort to share the gospel with people. I myself plan to invite a friend to join me on that day, and I’m already thinking and praying about who that friend might be. Mind you, it might be a little more difficult for me to sit with my friend during the service and help them find their way – I might have to ask for your help in that!

What about you? Does this excite you? Scare you? Challenge you? Sounds like many of the positive experiences we have in our lives! Why not step out in faith and participate in this outreach project? Do you have a faith worth sharing? Do you have a friend worth sharing it with? Well, here’s a simple way to share your faith with your friend. Why not give it a try?

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