This morning we met at the local church primary school for ‘Start the Week’, a simple 10 minute prayer time before the Monday morning bell. A lovely mixture of staff, parents and children, all joining in on their own level, including one or two that, to my knowledge, weren’t part of a church.
Yesterday we had our monthly ‘Café service’ in the local community centre, again the congregation was a mix of committed Christians, and folk we’ve recently connected with through baptisms and other local work with families.
The church Alpha course, led by laypeople for the first time rather than clergy, has got 9 members on top of the folk who are running it, which is a pretty high number for us. On ‘Back to Church Sunday’ we counted 12 folk who were there for the first time.
What’s going on here? And what’s the best way to describe what local Christians are doing? The immediate image that comes to mind is of fishing: you know the story – Jesus calls the disciples away from their fishing boats and says ‘now I’ll teach you to catch people’. And here we are, a little fleet of fishing boats, each fishing in a slightly different part of the lake, with a different sort of net, and getting some sort of a ‘catch’.
But the trouble with the fishing metaphor is that once you’ve got the ‘catch’, that’s job done. Dead or alive, once the fish are in the boat, that’s ‘success’. It leads to a focus on numbers (which you might be able to detect in me!!), and the misconception that the end result is attendance at x or y. It can also mean that all our attention is taken with the fish, and not with God. In fact, in the fishing metaphor, who is God – the master boatman? The chef? The boss of the fish processing plant? The fact that it’s hard to be sure makes it easy to leave God out of ‘fishing’ evangelism, and overuse of this metaphor leaves us in danger of empire-building and a ‘bums on pews’ mentality.
How about a different biblical picture, that of the priest. The role of the priest in the Old Testament is to lead people in worship, to be the facilitator of people’s relationship with God and their encounter with God in his holiness and glory. Priests tended to work in groups, rather than alone, and their focus was on God, rather than on the people/fish.
Anglicanism, I guess, is more suited to this model, since most of what we do and invite people to is public worship. What we’ve stumbled into, in our church, is a buffet (to use another metaphor) of different worship styles, with access points at different times, places and forms, so that there’s more opportunities for people to be part of a worshipping community, and through that to connect with God. In the school prayers, we pass round a little model of the famous ‘praying hands’ picture, and everyone gets the chance to pray out loud or in silence. At the café service, there were prayer stations, for people to use playdough, art, prayer cards, and various other means to speak to God and allow God to speak to them. It feels more like being a priest than being a fisherman.
Another healthy feature of the priest model is that it’s an ongoing work. The priest is constantly before God, worshipping and helping others to worship. You don’t get to say ‘that’s it! Job done!’
The knotty bit in both models is discipleship. Fishing stops at the catch (conversion) – a weakness of classical ‘make a decision for Jesus’ forms of evangelism. But the priest model also lacks this – the OT priesthood was a separate caste, and if you weren’t born a Levite, you couldn’t join them. Many churches, including my own, still have a definite line between priest and not-priest, and the dynamic of that is that it turns worshippers into attendees at a show, or stage crew to keep the show on the road, rather than disciples.
Progression in faith is more than just more regular attendance at worship, or a more profound experience of God when you worship. Growth in grace, becoming more like Jesus, finding a way for the worshipping community to be just as much community as it is worshipping, this is the challenge. How do we help worshippers/fish to become lifelong learners with Jesus and with each other?