A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, September 4th 2022
Why bother coming to church? What’s it for? What’s it about?
If, you had asked what church was about when I was a child and teenager, growing up in Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s, I would have said it was about going to Sunday School, Boys’ Brigade, and the Saturday evening youth club. If you had asked the adults in the church I suspect they would have replied in terms of the Sunday services, the men’s fellowship, the women’s fellowship, the choir, and helping to run the children’s and youth organisations. They might also have given their view on the long running arguments over whether it was appropriate for a church to allow indoor bowls on the premises.
Times change, and so do people. Churches change as well, sometimes reflecting social trends. If you want some evidence for that, consider church halls. Here at Saint Columba’s, and in the church where I grew up, and in many other churches during the last three or four decades, the stage has been removed from the church hall. This has provided space for a bigger, better kitchen, and improved toilet facilities. Many of our church activities today centre upon or contain a significant element of eating and drinking together.
Yes, times change ,and churches change, but some things remain constant, whether we find that comfortable or not. Fewer and fewer people will ever ask ‘Why bother coming to church?’ because ‘church’ has never been part of their life and they don’t feel the need for it. The experience of church life in this country has been of numerical decline since before any of us were born. This has continued throughout our lifetimes – the membership figure for United Reformed Church is one fifth of what it was when the denomination came into being fifty years ago. The figure for Saint Columba’s since 1972. Here in North Shields, in 1972/74 Saint Columba’s and All Saints URCs comprised around five hundred and seventy members. Today, our membership number hovers around the one hundred mark, so our drop in membership has been as great, or even a little greater than that for the denomination as a whole.
It’s not that people don’t join the church. It’s just that those who leave consistently outpace the numbers of those who join. Those leaving include most of those who experienced church in childhood or youth, but then stopped coming along. This is one problem that will reduce but that’s because so few children and young people have a regular experience of church life in the first place.
How do you feel about all of that? I’m in two minds about it. Some days each week I worry about it a lot. What if the church collapses on my watch? Other days, I’m quite relaxed about it all. If this is what God wills for our time who am I to put a stop to it. Even if the whole United Reformed Church does disappear I think God and faith will still manage to survive without us. After all, membership of political parties has been in decline for years (that’s why so few people will be deciding the identity of our next Prime Minister), but nobody thinks that means politics will cease to exist.
So, rather than worry too much about the future, it’s better to ask what a church should be about in the here and now. Thinking of the parable we have just heard from Matthew’s Gospel, maybe Jesus would encourage us to ask, ‘what’s foundational to being a church?’ How do we make sure that the main thing about being a church remains the main thing in how we are a church?
I want to suggest to you two things that are foundational to being a church; the two essential reasons why it is worth you while coming to church. The first is that churches are about responding to God and God’s chosen relationship with the world. The second is that churches are about equipping people to cope with and flourish in this world through exploring and applying the teachings of Jesus. Together, these form the proper, essential foundation for being a church.
Remember our piece of scripture from earlier in the service? ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.’ (2 Corinthians 5:19) That verse goes on to add, ‘and has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation.’ First of all church is about proclaiming the existence of God. Do you wonder if there is a God – a creator? If you think there is, do you wonder why that matters? If you do wonder about such things then church should be the place for you. Day by day, week by week, church people gather to encounter God.
And we worship God, not simply for existing, but also for being loving and just. We believe that all that goes wrong in the world, all the self-inflicted shortcoming in our lives, all of the injustices inflicted upon us, are swept up and dealt with by God. Through the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ God’s love overcomes the flaws in the world, including those of our own making, and God chooses to be reconciled with us. This profoundly good news – it’s the gospel.
So that’s worthy of celebration, which we call “worship” – our response to God and God’s chosen relationship with the world; the first of the two elements which are foundational being a church. The second element of being church is about equipping ourselves and others to cope with and flourish in this world. And churches do this through exploring and applying the teachings of Jesus.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’s parable about wise and foolish builders comes at the end of chapter seven; at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount starts with, but is much more than the beatitudes: ‘blessed are the poor in spirit …’ etc. Matthew spends three whole chapters assembling Jesus’s teaching – about how we are to live as salt or light in the world; about how to read scripture; about anger, adultery, divorce, oath-taking, retaliation, and love for enemies. It includes Jesus’s teaching about giving to the poor, how to pray (including the Lord’s Prayer), fasting, priorities in life, anxiety, judging others, asking for things, the golden rule, being materially rich, and discerning true from false. Then Jesus says, ‘everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. (7:24)
Now there is even more to Jesus’s teaching about the best way to live our lives than appears in the Sermon on the Mount. So churches both recognise and celebrate that there is a living God at work in the world, and also are to be settings where the content of Jesus’s teaching is learned and applied in people’s life situations. Churches are also to be places where we support each other when we screw up in trying to apply the teaching of Jesus to living in today’s world.
If this is what church is about it’s a wonder that anyone comes at all! This all sounds like hard work, because it is hard work. It’s not to say that everything in church life is hard work. Lots of it can be fun – remember how eating and drinking has become so important in church life, and most of us like eating and drinking. If we try to make the fun parts the main focus of church life, however, we will be building on sand. Our worship may at times be entertaining for us, but it’s supposed to focus upon God, not the wants of the worshippers. If we eat and drink in order to make merry, rather than eat together as an expression of our shared fellowship, then sandwiches (not rock cakes) would be appropriate.
Truth to tell, there will always be things more entertaining than a church’s worship service; there will always be more preferred food and drink elsewhere; always more alluring forms of entertainment, underpinned by commercial millions. We need to keep the main thing about church being the main thing. There are lots of spiritually interested people in our society, but they don’t think that churches are interested in spiritual matters. There are lots of challenged and struggling people in our society, who would benefit whenever and wherever churches explore and seek to apply the teachings of Jesus.
Why bother coming to church? What’s it for? What’s it about? Church is for celebrating that there’s a just God who loves the world and is reconciled to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Church is about is about equipping ourselves and others to cope with and flourish in this world, by exploring and applying the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Commit to this this – and yes, it’s a commitment – and we have a firm foundation for life today and for our future.