Adopting a posture of ‘sentness’
For many, September marks the start of a new term in their church, perhaps following the pattern of the academic year. While I accept that there is a general tendency to slow down over August as many enjoy holidays, I have been reflecting on whether the analogy of a new term is that helpful. I recently attended an induction service, where the speaker, who previously held a senior position in a theological college, made much of the role of the pastor to teach; it left me with a question around the danger of building a relationship with God principally as an academic exercise, and that the role of the congregation was simply to learn, not that this was what the speaker was saying I hasten to add!
It seems to me that we like to find models in society to which we can overlay onto the church, hence the academic parallel and the reference to ‘academic terms' in many churches. To a degree, I do see education as being an important part of discipleship; however, I would argue that practical outworking needs to be at least as essential as theoretical learning. From my own time at theological college, and from many conversations with other students over the years, it does seem that we communicate, either inadvertently or intentionally, the primary role of a minister is to organise services and meet the needs of those paying the bills. Invariably we use the metrics of 'Sunday morning attendance' and ‘giving' as the way of understanding and measuring church health; on this basis of these metrics, the rural church is often understood to be struggling.
I cannot help but reflect that this needs challenging and that we need to recover our ‘sentness’ as Christians. I am not calling for a raft of new programmes, nor am I rejecting traditionally structured churches, I am merely questioning if we are placing too much emphasis on the pastor or minister to be the one to bring renewal and a missional impact on our communities. Our Anglican sisters and brothers have been wrestling with multi-parish ministry for quite some time, the Methodists and United Reformed church have similarly been working by circuit ministry, and I understand that the Baptists are also exploring this approach. My anecdotal research questions whether this is a viable rural model if we continue with the premise that the minister will primarily be the one who does all the teaching and preaching, while the congregation consumes. It strikes me that this approach apes that of a consumer culture, where retailers try harder and harder to attract people to them.
Now I know I have now mixed my metaphors and moved from school to shopping; however, my gut instinct is that we are merely using the wrong model when it comes to church. I have been reflecting on John 20, that just as God sends his Son into the world, so Jesus sends us to continue His work and share His life*. I would love to see the role of the church to be more of an equipping station, which prepares and then sends people out for works of service where they are; that we become less focussed on consumers and more focussed on sending out, being centrifugal in force. This could be a great opportunity for the rural church to lead the way by showing our ‘sentness.’
So, my challenge as we begin the ‘new term’, is not to think and strategise along the lines of attracting people to our next big event, but instead focus on how we can encourage our church to adopt a posture of sentness, which perhaps begins with those of us who lead.
*Just as the Father has sent me, I’m now sending you.” John 20:21b (The Passion)