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.

coat tails of the unexpected

I was walking through Colchester this morning on my way to take a school assembly. I walked along Crouch Street and then through an underpass under the main road. At the bottom of the underpass are some plaques commemorating different aspects of Colchester’s history: for example one reminds us that Colchester was originally called Camulodunum by the Romans who made it their first capital of Britain.

A Start of a RunnerAnother commemorates the Crouched Friars, after which Crouch Street gets its name. I wondered what had happened in order to give the Crouched Friars this unusual name and decided to do a little research when I got back home in order to find out. Part of me hoped that there was something about them that caused them to develop a stoop. Perhaps they spent so long in a penitent prayer position that they were permanently leaning forward. Maybe they believed that a crouched posture was the most appropriate for someone whose life was devoted to Jesus. Perhaps they only admitted people who had back problems. Maybe they lived a life in the starting block position because they wanted to be ready for when Jesus told them to go somewhere. Perhaps they felt it was important that their coat tails should drag on the ground and walked in such a way as to make that possible.

It got me wondering about other unlikely names for religious orders. Perhaps there could be Tiptoeing Nuns, Hopping Monks, Crawling Clergy, Prostrate Priests, Drenched Baptists…

From the source of all knowledge in the world, a.k.a. Wikipedia, I discovered that the Crouched Friars are so called because they used to carry a staff with a crucifix on the top. ‘Crouched’ is a word that is a derivative of ‘crucifix’*. It was nothing to do with their posture at all. I confess to being somewhat disappointed.

But on reflection I have decided that actually this is not unlike the way some people encounter church. They will have acquired preconceptions about what church should be. Some will expect church to be like Songs of Praise. Others might expect a church to be dull and boring. Some will imagine cold dusty buildings. Others will imagine that the church’s message is summarised as “no!”

Others will have positive preconceptions: expecting to find joyful people who are willing to serve. They might be looking for a community that will welcome them with open arms. Some will hope for a place of safety and comfort. Some might even expect to encounter Jesus among us.

If the Crouched Friars were still in existence in Colchester today I suspect that they would be regularly explaining the origin of the name and the reasons why preconceptions like mine are wrong. I hope that churches do not have to explain why we do not match up with God’s expectations and preconceptions about church. I hope that people coming into a church will be pleasantly surprised – no matter how positive their preconceptions are about what the church will be like.

It would be nice if, after they have encountered us, people’s reflection is, “it was better than I thought it would be.” Wouldn’t it be fantastic though if they reflection was, “it was better than I thought it could be”? That can only take place if we are allowing God’s Spirit to transform us as individuals and as communities so that we are more and more like Jesus: good free samples of him. We need to allow him the freedom to change us, to challenge our prejudices and to open our hearts so that we can see people as Jesus is and respond to then as he would respond.

Be blessed, be a blessing

* kudos to my colleague Susan with whom I discussed this on our way back from the school and who suggested that it might well be something to do with the link between the words ‘crouch’ and ‘crucifix’.