Church growth strategies are the death rattle of a church that has lost its way.
Last week I was given some wisdom from a clergy colleague who is (in their own words) 'transforming Church' as to how we need to, Make Church popular by throwing off the old stuff and attract people by making our services light!'
Intrigued I asked what they meant and was pointed to the 'new' liturgy for baptism and the 'getting rid of all those words' as being part of the process. They continued, 'We don't do all that old stuff where we talk about sin and the devil and that sort of thing, the people who come don't like it and it turns visitors off!'
Nodding (in unbelief rather than assent) I passed them the shovel and allowed them to keep on digging - and they did as they told me how Church needed to become accessible and stop using religious words and concepts and give the people what they want to hear in the way they want to hear it.'
I was taken back to one of my lecturers who challenged me regarding my approach to the baptism service some years back as I explained how I did mine. I explained that I engaged them and went through the safety stuff and make a joke about which way to leave and then asked them to not fight with crying children because, 'Church should be a place where children are.'
Shaking his head, my lecturer said, 'Oh, so you're one of those who like to make Church a circus are you? What about the solemnity and import of the service before you?'
Now, when this happened I was quite annoyed because in fact I don't think Church should be a circus and while I do think we need to make it accessible, the words of today's NT reading (which have always been a spur and guide for me) where Paul speaks of:
'being all thing to all people - without compromising our faith or falling into sin'
Amazingly, a few years later I saw that self same lecturer conduct a baptism and (sad to say) it was dry, turgid church; church designed to remind us of the days when Brilliantine and suits were the order of the day. The liturgy was impeccable - the congregation unnecessary and the content uninspiring!
The additional offering (not changes) to the baptism service came about because of a disconnectedness between the baptismal family and the liturgy. Whilst I don't doubt that, I do have some struggles with the assumption that this was because the words were too difficult for the customer (which surely saying something rather negative about them and their education, reading age (the national average being nine) and culture) and the like.
Working in a setting which is more Sun (reading age of eight years) than The Times or Guardian (fourteen to sixteen years) I have found the words of our services (including the baptism service) to communicate well with those before me. I think to proclaim the dumbing down of the liturgy to make it accessible is to take an elitist and quite mocking approach rather than presenting something popularise and accessible.
So Where does the problem lie?
Not going to be popular this I reckon, but the problem isn't in with the punters but the providers!
Taking the baptism service's 'prayer over the water':
We thank you, almighty God, for the gift of water to sustain, refresh and cleanse all life.
Over water the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.
Through water you led the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us from the death of sin to newness of life.
We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism.
In it we are buried with Christ in his death.
By it we share in his resurrection.
Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, in joyful obedience to your Son, we baptise into his fellowship those who come to him in faith.
Now sanctify [an epiclesis is indicated here*] this water that, by the power of your Holy Spirit, they may be cleansed from sin and born again. Renewed in your image, may they walk by the light of faith and continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord; to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
This one block of text provides us with the opportunity to include creation, Exodus, Redemption, Baptism and the ministry of Jesus leading to the cross and so much more. If this isn't being taken up then the problem is surely with the person ministering rather than the words of the people before them!
Moving on to the devil - from Futurama through to the old and gold films like the Omen, Rosemary's baby and the like (who do you think the 2012 film 'the devil' was about?) - you'll find dark thinks and satan featuring large in popular TV, film and literature.
How odd that we worry about looking out of touch by talking about an entity who appears in so much of the modern cultures media offerings. In fact, plonking your audience into the 'low education' bracket probably means they have encountered more about the devil than many of the faithful members of your church!
People understand the tensions between Virtue and Vice, Good and Evil, Right and Wrong - so why are we so frightened to use the word 'sin; I wonder?
No I'm sorry but whilst I am all for making Church accessible I can't see how, as we seek to be all things to all people, watering down of the Gospel or weakening the message is going to do anything but fail to deliver the word. If people don't understand then we need to tell (and teach) them: And if we cannot then let us stop blaming the written words and realise the weakness lies with the person delivering it.
So baptism: How do you do yours?
* Epiclesis: the invoking or imparting of the Holy Spirit (AKA the 'Priestly bit) - A Blessing, usually associated or accompanied by the making of the sign of the cross.
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