Why do we attend Church
Sermon by Fr James Heard, Trinity 12, 8 September 2019
One of the questions I am frequently asked by other priests is: what it the size of your congregation? I suspect they ask this because many of them, especially in London, are deeply competitive. There is also an unquestioned assumption that bigger is better. This certainly fits with our cultural trend that’s preoccupied with success… success understood in terms of what’s quantifiable. And from this you have the importance of setting targets, and of using statistics as a way of measuring success. It’s a very neat and mechanistic way of assessing things.
The church has been influenced by this. The numbers of ‘bums on seats’ has become a bit of an obsession for many priests. There are now various church growth conferences and courses and DVDs and books. I’m even going to a day-course on growth this week.
Counting church attendance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Anglican churches have done this for centuries. However, counting the number of people who attend church only highlights a small part of what it means to be a living breathing church community. It doesn’t account for those who wander in to this church throughout the week, seeking comfort, looking for direction, finding a quiet place to think, pray… spiritual space. Many express how grateful they are that this church is kept open throughout the week.
Ironically, the obsession with numbers and growth is often counterproductive. It has led to what one theologian has described as a faddism… for many churches, it has led to a pragmatic search for some sort of special key – a golden key – that will magically unlock the harvest and bring in floods of people.
Of course, we have much to learn from other churches around the world, so yes, let’s reflect and engage with other good practice from those different from ourselves. But an obsession with numbers distorts the gospel imperative…to bring the good news of God’s generous all-embracing love to the local community here in Campden Hill. A love which will hopefully overflow to others in distress.
So, with all that said about numbers, it’s interesting to note that today’s Gospel reading starts with the words: large crowds were following Jesus. Jesus had gained quite a following. Some were attracted by Jesus’s wisdom. Others were interested in seeing miraculous signs. Yet having huge numbers following him clearly wasn’t the sort of thing that impressed Jesus.
It wasn’t long before the crowds left Jesus. You could say that Jesus’ career was an unmitigated failure: by the time he died, all of his disciples had left him apart from a few loyal women.
But Jesus wasn’t attempting to build a huge following, to have crowds following him everywhere. Rather, he was interested in making disciples. He wasn’t concerned about being popular with people: he wanted to see lives transformed.
When Jesus sees the crowd he tells them the cost of discipleship. And he does so using very strange language: following me means hating your mother, your father, brother, sister. Jesus clearly didn’t mean for us to hate our family. St Bonaventure suggests that the extreme language of “hating” family and life is an example of Jewish hyperbole. Sometimes during periods of persecution of the church this choice between discipleship and family was profoundly real. The waters of baptism are thicker than the blood of human kinship. The point being made is that discipleship of Jesus takes precedence over every other commitment or allegiance. And this can sometimes be at odds with the wider values of society.
Today, perhaps we might ask ourselves, what am I willing to ‘hate?’ What customs, beliefs, or traditions have I inherited that I need to renounce in order to follow Jesus? What baggage must I abandon? What ties must I loosen? What relationships must I subordinate?
Because (as Debie Thomas notes), if we are God’s disciple, then everything we do — every choice we make, every tribalism we cherish, every idol we worship, every possession we hoard — affects the entire church.
In short, the cost of discipleship is, well, it’s costly. And it’s important to be prepared for the cost. Discipleship is not a weekend hobby. It’s a soul, body and mind endeavour that requires renunciation. And a reordering of our identities, our priorities. It requires “hating” what is too narrow, too exclusive, and too insular, and learning instead to love what is broad, inclusive, and boundless.
Today’s Gospel puts it in a stark and uncompromising way: your commitment has to be 100% or nothing.
Whilst it’s helpful and inspiring to have that challenge, it is also very daunting. The Christian pilgrimage, as many of us have experienced and as John Bunyan knew well, has many contours and dimensions: it includes times of passion and zeal and clarity of belief. But it also includes the ‘slough of despond’, or the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’. There are times of a loss of faith and doubt. This is all part of the life of the Christian pilgrimage, the cost of discipleship.
The OT reading brings an important balance to the gospel today. It reminds us that God is the potter, we are the clay. We and our attempt to be the church are in God’s hands. We are called to be faithful witnesses to the gospel of God’s transforming love in the world. But ultimately it is God who does the transforming.
The metaphor of potter and clay provides an organic rather than mechanic image of transformation and of growth. Yet, ironically, we discover growth occurs not by adopting the latest cure-all from somewhere around the world, but by relinquishing the numbers game altogether, when we dedicate our lives to following God and open ourselves up to his transforming and redeeming love.