Category Archives: Sermons

Growing Through Church – Review

Before I start reviewing Growing through the Church: A practical and theological vision for all-age worship by Russell Herbert I want to give a bit of background on how I came to be reading the book.

Karl has been asked to write a proper review on it for somewhere and so that’s how we happened to have it in the house when I got back from leading an all age service on Sunday which I knew hadn’t achieved what it was supposed to – i.e. it hadn’t been all age worship. The prayer and preperation had all gone into it and I had worked hard to put something together which was appropriate but it hadn’t worked as I’d hoped. As a teacher it was a feeling I was familiar with – you know when something hasn’t engaged (in the intended way or not).

As a reflective practitioner I know the way to deal with this feeling – which is particularly hard for some of us to deal with – is acknowledge the feelings you have, be kind to yourself rather than beat yourself up and then look at why it didn’t work and what you might do differently. Once you’ve looked at why it hadn’t gone as you had hoped some further study/ reading/ thinking may be required to try and change what happens next time. And so that’s how I came to be picking up the group which I decided to do a review on – as a way to engage in some positive reflective practice.

Russell Herbert is a Methodist Superintendent who has sought to write a book looking at the theology of all age worship rather than the actual practice involved. As he states in the introduction “it is not a ‘how-to’ book”. That to a large extent is true, although the latter chapters – particularly those on music, prayer and message – do give some excellent practical advice.

Within the introduction he lays out why all age worship can and does go wrong for people – both within the congregation and those leading. As he says two common problems are when it is either “a service for children at which adults are present” or “a service for adults at which children are present.”

The first main chapter entitled The Need to Grow focuses on the need for qualitative growth through discipleship as well as quantitative growth through evangelism within any congregation. The writer explores the way in which over simplification which can occur in the desire to be seeker-sensitive as well as child friendly is problematic. He argues within this chapter and throughout the text that in our desire to be welcoming and inclusive we can hold people back from spiritual maturity and growth.

Within this chapter he begins to talk about alienation making reference to Alan Jamieson’s text A Churchless Faith, and Fowler’s model of the stages of faith which Jamieson refers to within his work. Herbert claims that whilst Jamieson paints a picture of churches which is extreme and fundamentalist but agrees many within congregations would be able to identify with the discontent Jamieson refers to. I think this comment is one which highlights that whilst this book is not written from a denomination position. It is written from the perspective of somebody who is located within a particular ‘mainstream’ theological position which whilst broadly evangelical is also rooted in a tradition which values the use of reason above experience and reads scripture through that lens.

He also critiques the work of John Hull and Pete Ward in this first main chapter to argue against a dependency chapter where people are filtered through a system which turns them into leaders or the led.  He argues most strongly that “there is a need for us to encounter the not yet familiar as well as what we already understand and relate to”.

Chapter Two The Generation Game: Towards and all-age Church is a clarion call for intergenerational church. Again he focuses on the qualitative rather than the quantitative within this chapter. He makes the point that spiritual maturity should not be measured against age or even the length of time people have been Christians rather it should be identified through thought and practice. That said he makes the point that the wisdom of older members of our congregations is often not valued, rather they are often marginalised.

He uses the work of Rob Merchant on the third and forth ages to show how demographic changes within our society relating to life expectancy are meaning that we have a new category of people within our churches. Living into your eighties or nineties is now often the norm rather than the exception. We need, he argues, to value older generations as the church of today rather than viewing them as the church of yesterday.

He has no illusions about the difficulties involved in inclusion and intergenerational worship. However he warns against the Homogeneous Unit Pricipal (HUB) strongly critiquing it and in turn the Fresh Expressions movement which he views, despite what Cray et al may say, as running the risk of producing HUB’s rather than a diverse and inclusive church. (My own view on this can be seen I think from this post I wrote regarding safe space and the Christian LGBandT community).

Chapter Three Church for all Stages: Towards and all-stage Church returns to Fowlers stages of church and critiques this in more depth as well as laying the foundation for using this in much of the rest of the book. Again this is a call for an inclusive approach to church and worship.

The book changes gear between chapters three and four. Chapter Four Imagining Worship looks at worship from a variety of perspectives: as service to God, as the mirror of heaven, as affirmation, as communion, as proclamation and as the arena of transcendence. The last of which he argues is one part often lost – and this is because he argues we can often lose sight of the importance of the presence of God in our worship. There can too often be a focus on what we do, how we do it and why do it without taking into account the reality of the presence of God in our worship.

It is within this forth main chapter that his focus moves to the importance of images and symbols and starts to talk a little more about practice rather than the theology and philoshophy behind it.

In beginning to talk of images he refers to needing to produce a spark and how this often comes from playing with different images to which people are able to relate and which have a link but which are not ordinarily associated.  He argues part of the role of the worship leader/ preacher is to produce a sense of intrege which can be nurtured enabling the familiar to be presented in a way which seems fresh and new.

Within this section where he talks of the value of story, projection and drama he makes several points he goes on to underline. The first is that there is a danger in too much explanation. The second is that symbols are important but they have their power through a sense of participation and interaction with them. If this sense of participation is lost then the congregation is robbed of the necessary meaning of the symbols.

He then talks about comedy and how it can work on the same level as symbols. Whilst being careful to give the required health warning regarding humour he shows it is useful. He does, however, make very clear that we need to know when to mourn and cry as well as when to laugh.

Music is often a contentious subject within churches and this is something he deals within in Chapter Five. He begins by making an important point that you can not assume a preference for a particular type of music based upon a persons age. This is a problem which I think many of us fall into.

In terms of music he makes the point that ethos and atmosphere is important as is participation and ritual. There is an importance he reminds us to strive to avoid “performance”. I think that whilst there is a growing recognition of the second part of this the former is equally important and may provide some explanation for why we are seeing a growth in cathedral worship (something the Church Growth Research Programme research currently being undertaken may help us explore further).

A very practical point he makes within this section before underlining in the following chapters is the overuse of any form/ element can be a problem. That said he argues that it should be engaging imagination rather than a quest for balance which should be our starting point.

Chapter Six Let Us Pray looks at symbols, participation, ritual, play and laughter again. It gives a few practical ideas and examples but essentially reinforces what has already been said, whilst focusing it around the subject of prayer.

Chapter Seven The Word Made Flesh again acts as a mix of reinforcement and practical ideas relating to the giving of “the message”. Within this chapter he brings in the importance of quality in what we do. He also develops further the conversations on images and symbols and identifies why the two are different. Within this he talks about the way in which an image doesn’t point beyond itself in the same way in which a symbol does. The health warnings in this chapter against “over use of novelty” is a useful reminder.

The final main chapter is called Calling Everyone: Services with Respons-ibilty talks of the need to find innovative ways to allow creative ways to respond. Within this chapter he makes the point that one needs to know what best suits the local context. This is an important point which I think he could have explored further, particularly in relation to the denominational context he is coming from. Local Preachers who travel around the circuit and who may only visit a chapel once or twice a year don’t have the same knowledge of the local congregation which he advocates.

This lack of knowledge of the local context becomes a problem not only in terms of finding the right way for people to respond to the message but also in putting some of the good advice into practice. If one has regular and direct contact with a congregation, rather than working through a steward on infrequent visits it is easier to include drama, etc. The visiting local preacher does not have the same knowledge of the toolbox of gifts within the congregation and this is something I am increasingly aware of. One way of encouraging participation is knowing about and being able to use gifts within the congregation – the average local preacher lacks this knowledge.

Going back to my own experience on Sunday, briefly, after reading this book I was able to identify exactly where I had gone wrong as well as what I had done which was good practice for this type of service. Whilst seeking to be child friendly I had relied too much on technology which it turned out there wasn’t a confidence in. I had not looked at how to fully engage people in a participative way. Where I had sought to ensure participation much of it had been adultcentric. I had also sought to explain too much rather than give space for the individual to unpack the wonder of the scriptures. Russell Herberts book ends with a list of practical resource material which I can refer to in the future to help me in the planning of such services.

For me being able to write that last paragraph is the test of a book like this. Does it enable me to reflect on the nature of all age worship and to come away with a greater understanding which I can then reflect upon and relate to my own experience, seeking to serve those congregations I have appointments with in the future in a better? If as in this case the answer is yes then this is a good book worth purchasing and referring back to in the future. On this basis I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Advent Preparation

The readings for my sermon tomorrow are taken from Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 1:68-79

Sermon – Preparing the Way

I want to take you to a rural land where people are struggling to survive. They are scared of attack and so many prefer to live in the countryside where they can hide rather than in a city where they could be victims of a siege or all out attack.

These people who are living in a small hill town and some surrounding villages are hungry and struggling, living on the edge between life and death. Recent harvests have been poor and swarms of locusts have attacked their largely barren and uncultivated land.

They have somewhere small to worship but it’s a sad reminder of how things used to be. Back in the day before their ancestors were taken away into exile there was a beautiful temple which was large and ornate, there’s isn’t.

The people stick to worshipping the true God rather than alternatives, but when they go the temple it’s largely out of tradition rather than any sense of engaging with a real, living God. It’s certainly not the priority it once was.

They are asking what the minimum amount of time and money they could get away with spending on their faith is.

Their morals are beginning to fall too, it seemed where one generation had asked why bother with God? the next is asking why be good? Divorce and adultery are rising and there are a large number of destitute women who have no welfare state to fall back on.

It’s been 100 years since their people returned from exile but they don’t have a king or a palace, although Zerubbabel their governor comes from the same genealogical line as David one of their previous kings.

So they’re disappointed, disillusioned and even despairing wondering if there was any point to it all and if they wouldn’t have been better off if their ancestors had stayed in Babylon.

I don’t know about you but I can hear the echoes of their experience in some of our own, particularly as we live in a post-Christendom world where church isn’t what it once was to people.

But this is not a contemporary situation I’m describing. It was the world which the unknown writer of Malachi was living in.

In our old testament reading he tells them that God is preparing to send a messenger who will prepare the way before the Messiah they are waiting for, who will suddenly appear.

The writer  warns them that they will be called to account because this Messiah is going to act as a purifier who will act to cleanse the people and particularly the priests who are the descendents of Levi. He is going to take the raw material and bring out the preciousness from the dirt and nonsense surrounding it turning their worship and lives back into something beautiful which will be just as pleasing to God as anything which went before.

Then it all goes quiet, very quiet. We don’t have anything recorded for 400 years. God seems to have gone for the silent option – deciding that he’s had enough and is taking time out from these people.

Except it hasn’t life has gone on and the people have continued worshiping their God, however formally and out of a sense of duty that’s been.  He has quietly spoken to some of them over the years, faithful people like Anna and Simeon who we hear about later in this Christmas season, people who are quietly waiting. It’s just that there is no big engagement with his people over that time.

The land in which the silence is broken is different to the one 400 years before but there are similarities. The people are still struggling only this time it’s not poor harvests it’s occupation by a foreign power which is their main concern. They as many others at that time have been taken over by the Romans.

However, there is hope somewhere within that community the light of individual and corporate hope which  is found in their history and faith continues.

Zachariah’s prophecy, a breaking of the silence, comes from this place of hope in the mist of fear, desperation and being caught up in the routine of the restricting ritual. He was a Levite, a priest he had been bought up to continue the faith and ritual. He had an in-depth knowledge of his people’s history and faith. He conducted symbolic acts on behalf of his community, he was charged with keeping an important part of their communal identity in place during a period of political and military occupation. As a Levite this sense of what it meant to be a priest and the importance of that role for the wider community would have been handed down through the generations.

He also gives this prophecy from a place of watching and listening both to God and those around him.

Throughout Elizabeth’s pregnancy he had been unable to speak and as a result his other senses would have heightened. There is a sense what pours out when his tongue is freed is all those thoughts he has been quietly and silently mulling over with God.

But he is not simply giving a prophecy, he is addressing a community who have heard through gossip what has been happening to his family and who have become fearful of the new born child John.

What Zachariah is doing within this prophecy is addressing them in that context. He is seeking to allay the fear of his friends and neighbours by pointing them back to God and putting it in the wider context.

In the mist of their fear he is bringing them hope as well as acting as a signpost.

Zachariah has a message to proclaim which can be seen as both political and spiritual. This prophecy is a breaking not only of his own silence but of Gods apparent silence.

He is telling them that the time has come and God is going to fulfil his promise to them by sending the Messiah.

He points them back to their history here, not to tie them down with more tradition but to free them by showing that God has not forgotten them and is fulfilling all those all sayings in the scripture.

He then points to his own son and explains the role John is to play. He proclaims that this little baby is going to be a prophet too. God is going to use him to prepare the way for the Messiah, just as Malachi had spoken about.

He recognises that his son is special but that his role is to prepare the way for somebody who is going to be able to do more. He is proclaiming that his son is going to prepare the way for a liberator who God is going to use to make life better for these people. Somebody who is going to bring life and light to a people who are living in darkness and the constant fear of death.

The silence is broken through a message of hope.

So what does this all have to do with us today? Surely these prophecies were about preparing the way for Jesus 2000 years ago, they were about what Jesus would come and do then for a people most of us don’t belong to. They are preparing the way for the first Christmas, preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus, preparing the way for the road to the cross and preparing the way for Jesus resurrection but they weren’t preparing the way for us now – were they?

Well, on one hand they were prophecies God was giving which related to Jesus first coming as a baby in Judea. The event we celebrate in a few weeks. But on the other hand they can I believe help us in the here and now, especially as people waiting for Jesus return and the fulfilment of history.

We are people who share some things in common with the people to whom the message in Malachi was given and to those in Zachariah’s time.

Whilst in the UK today we are not living in a subsistence society where a bad harvest can wipe out our economy we are living in increasingly uncertain and precarious times. The level of fear amongst many people is rising as uncertainty about the future grows and many people are finding life increasingly hard. The coverage around and reaction to the Chancellors financial statement we’ve seen in the media this week has reflected this to some extent.  

Whilst faith is vibrant and living in some people and places the truth is in many other people and places there is a feeling of disillusionment about the church. We are living in a Post-Christian society where people increasingly feel disconnected from organised religion and morals in society have appeared to changed reflecting this.

Within churches there are lots of people who are continuing with the ritual but have lost that spark and hope they used to have. They have a tendency to look back at how it used to be and feel a sense of loss and slight despair. They continue out of a sense of duty but little more than that.

 God doesn’t call us to look back in that way though. He calls us to recognise and value the faith which our ancestors had but not to dwell on it in a wistful way.

We are called to be prepared and have that mixture of hope and fear we find in Zachariah’s time.

The bible tells us that Jesus will return and we have to be prepared. Luke 21 verses 25 – 28 tell us “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

This passage is one which people get very caught up in trying to interpret but the message of it is the same as the message which we find in Malachi and in the earlier passage in Luke we need to be patient and prepared. Christ will return and we need to be ready and expectant for it.

How do we prepare then? Is it by buying more and more stuff, or by putting together bunkers full of supplies for when disaster strikes as some people do?

No it’s about carrying on as faithful people being ready to listen and come back to God. Worshipping out of conviction rather than routine. It’s about taking seriously the four callings of the calling of the Methodist Church to respond to the gospel of God’s love in Christ and to live out its discipleship in worship and mission through worship, learning and caring, service and evangelism.

This morning I want to end by encouraging you to see yourselves as faithful Zachariah’s, people who are still here, still worshipping and still serving. People who are playing your part in the outworking of Gods grace through the big picture of history. People who are being refined and purified.

People who are being involved in preparing the way. People who have a message of hope to share.  

*Key source for Malachi material was Pawson, D, Unlocking the Bible, Collins.