the inevitability of disappointing church services?

I’m currently searching for inspiration for our Mothering Sunday service this week.

I find that this is one of the most difficult services of the year to prepare. That’s not because the subject is difficult. Neither is it because I don’t have any ideas. It’s because it is one of the services where different people have very different hopes and aspirations for the service and it’s almost impossible to meet them all. To some extent that is true of most services in churches, especially those like ours that have an eclectic congregation (a good thing imho). But on Mothering Sunday it seems to be heightened.

For example: some want to maintain traditions that go back a long time, such as giving out flowers. And others don’t want flowers at all and would prefer we stopped that tradition. It’s not easy to give out flowers and not give them out simultaneously. Now I am not against the flower-giving, I am just using as an example of the sort of tensions that exist. I could also have mentioned the difficulties for those who are childless or have been bereaved in contrast with those who want to celebrate their children, or those who want to focus on the ‘motherhood’ of God and those who struggle with seeing God that way, and many more…

Each year I (usually along with other colleagues) seek to prepare a service that blesses all those who come. And each year I know that some people will go away upset or unhappy. And that’s the last thing that I want to happen. But is it inevitable?

As ‘worship’ is not for our benefit but for God’s, shouldn’t we all simply put aside our preferences and focus on him? Shouldn’t we come expecting to give him pleasure rather than hoping to be pleased by what happens? It is possible that this is part of the answer – if we come to give to God rather than looking to receive, we will not be so disappointed, unless the service does not enable us to give our worship to him.

Yes. I have often heard speakers say things about us not bringing our consumer culture into church services for that reason. I have probably said it myself.

Honey, I brought You GiftBut I want to add a rider to that. Because God is so gracious and generous that he does not want us to leave empty-handed when we have gathered together in Jesus’ name. Long before it became the thing to do to give out party bags at the end of children’s parties, God was giving out party bags at the end of services. Yes, they are metaphorical, but they contain blessings from him – a glimpse of the divine, an encounter with Jesus.

It may be that a worship song or hymn blesses us, lifts our spirits or inspires us. It may be that someone prays in a way that blesses us. God may speak to us through the reading of the Bible or (dare I suggest) even through the sermon. One of the mysteries of collective worship is that as we offer our worship to bless God he meets us by his Spirit and blesses us.

While we may not come to church because of what we get out of it, just as we don’t attend a birthday party for the party bags, we should expect to be blessed because we were there. So if or when people leave a service disappointed or upset it is right for the people who were leading the service to think about what happened and whether they gave God enough opportunities to bless people through the service even as we worshipped him.

That brings me back to the original conundrum about the inevitability of disappointing some people this coming Sunday. I am coming to the conclusion that while there are things I can do (or avoid) so that people are not unnecessarily upset, a service is first and foremost for an audience of One. If we can enable people to worship Jesus they may also see Jesus in the service. If we can help them to encounter him, then they will not leave the service empty handed, even if the contents of their party bags are not what they were expecting!

Be blessed, be a blessing

Mums who have teenagers understand why some animals eat their young.

A mother’s love never ages, but a child ages you quicker than anything else on the planet.

If at first you don’t succeed, do it the way your Mum told you to do it.

13 thoughts on “the inevitability of disappointing church services?”

  1. Interestingly the last several churches I’ve been part of have abandoned keeping this tradition, and if they want a replacement go with older Lenten themes of Laetere Sunday or the Protestant Passion Sunday. It must be at least 15 years since I was in a church that kept Mothering Sunday as a regular thing. In one church, as we reached the stage where we had no school aged children, and had several childless couples or singles, we marked it ‘one last time’ with everyone, male and female, being given a ‘buttonhole’ as they arrived… there was a corporate sigh of relief as we let it go! Not saying anyone else should go that way, but it is perfectly possible.

  2. Thanks for that perspective Catriona. I have wondered sometimes if we have become too ‘Hallmark’ (other card manufacturers are available) about it, but it is a service that has a certain amount of history too – a day to return to your ‘mother church’, a specific day for domestic staff to spend with their families… I think there is something distinct about ‘Mothering Sunday’ from ‘Mother’s Day’ and perhaps part of my failure in the past has been related to a blurring of the two.

  3. I think that where churches go wrong is when they turn mothering sunday as a day about mothers instead of a day about God… almost as if, for some reason, once a year, mothers take the place of God.

  4. Hi Nick,

    As a pastor I will not be attending Church this Sunday. My wife and I have been unable to have children, we have thought carefully and prayed through this issue, but there are somethings we need to do to protect ourselves, however at the same time we feel that others should not be forced to “opt-out” because of our presence. So we have chosen not to go, to pass all the duties to someone else and to enjoy some time with each other.

    The idea that all women “are mothers” is no consolation to us. It is a poor platitude. Maybe as well as celebrating those who are mothers, you should take some time praying and ministering to those for whom motherhood has not been possible, either because of medical causes, never finding the right partner or some other reason. This could be a time to highlight an issue that is often hidden, but affects 1 in 5 couples.

    1. Thanks so much for your honesty, Mike. I know that there will be people in our church who are in the same and simliar situations and it’s important that we recognise that.

      It’s one of the tensions I feel about the service and one of the reasons why it’s such a difficult service. People should not feel that they have to ‘opt out’ of church on a given Sunday, but traditions run deep and if we did not ‘celebrate’ Mothering Sunday we would have lots of people who were hurt by the absence. So some people end up being hurt.

      It is when people like you are brave enough to be honest that God highlights ways in which we unthinkingly exclude people from worshipping him together. And please God save us from platitudes!

  5. Extending this discussion somewhat . . . do we have the same questions about Fathers; Day in June? Or is this particular celebration not yet sufficiently as ingrained as Mothers’ Day?

    1. Similar questions must be asked, but Father’s Day seems to be more of a Hallmark Holiday. It does not have the same historical roots (going back to ‘Mother Churches’) and seems to be designed to bring balance and (cynically) boost card and gift sales.

    2. Not sure our Fellowship even mention Fathers Days.Its best to keep these events low key in services .Surely a few daffodils given to each and every lady present is,nt going to upset anyone.A Ladies Day
      may be the answer because so many are not Mothers for various reasons.Perhaps the J.W .s have the best solution ignore all worldy feasts and festivals.!!

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