Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 1:29-42
The beginning of a new year, and in our case a new decade, is always a good time to stop and take stock. It is a good thing to do individually, but also as a church family. As we look forward to the coming year and the coming decade, what are our hopes and plans? As many of you will be aware, we are at the beginning of a rather ambitious adventure. We have committed to try and grow our church, from about 115 people who worship here on average each week to about 200 people. And to focus our minds, we have given ourselves a deadline – our church’s 200th anniversary in 2024.
It is an ambitious adventure for two huge reasons. Firstly, despite all sorts of initiatives and projects, the Church of England nationally is shrinking – mainly because the generations who were brought up to attend church as a weekly duty are being promoted to glory, but also because of societal changes which means more people have work and family obligations during the usual Sunday morning worship time. So in trying to grow, we are trying to buck a rather established trend.
Also, secondly, research consistently shows that churches struggle to grow from 100 members to 200 members, because a 200 member church has different structures and ways of working to a 100 member church. We don’t just add people, we need to change some of the ways we do things and think about things – without, of course, losing the love, faith and worship that makes us, us. Breaking through the 150 barrier, as it is sometimes known, is not an easy task. And so to overcome these two rather formidable obstacles, it is going to take commitment, love and prayer not just from myself and Jo, not just from the management group focusing on this challenge, not just from our fab PCC but from everyone in the church family.
Daunting, isn’t it? But, before you get too freaked out, we have some things in our favour. The first thing is that we have a lot of people to work with. Our parish population is over 13,000 and I cannot help but think that more than 100 of them would like to know God’s love better and to follow Jesus.
Furthermore, because of your two decades of faithful loving service to our parish, lots of people have a good attitude towards their parish church. They value what we do and what we bring to our community. We are their church – they just don’t worship with us yet. And that is a good place to start.
Thirdly, you are a church which doesn’t mind an ambitious project. In the last three decades you have built a parish centre and completely reordered the Church leaving us with phenomenal facilities for the work we do now. You are a church building congregation – this is just the next phase.
And lastly, and by far the most importantly, we believe we are doing this not for ourselves, but for the love of God and the love of our friends and neighbours, and so God is in this. The work of church building is ultimately God’s, we are just to be faithful and do our part.
And so, it is the doing our part – all doing our part – that I want us to think about as we look at our readings today. Our gospel is like a row of dominoes falling as one person after another realises who Jesus is and passes it on. Of course they all do it in slightly different ways. John the Baptist has a vision revealing Jesus true identity to him and points Jesus out to his disciples. Andrew, on John pointing Jesus out, goes and asks if he can spend a bit of time with Jesus, before realising who Jesus is and going home to tell his brother. Peter is dragged along by a family member and has an encounter with Jesus and receives a new name. Philip gets an invitation from Jesus himself and goes to tell his friend, Nathanael. Nathanael is rude and sceptical, but still takes up his friend’s invitation and ends up completely convinced. Five different people, five different ways of coming to Jesus, but they all have two key things in common: an invitation and an encounter. The invitation to know Jesus came from God in John the Baptist’s case, from Jesus himself for Philip, from a mentor for Andrew, from a family member for Peter and from a friend for Nathanael. The encounter was always with Jesus.
A little over five years ago, I was interviewed to be Vicar here at St Paul’s. During the interview, I was asked this question: “Tell the story of two people you have brought to faith in the last two years.” I deeply objected to this question, and so I replied “None, because Jesus brings people to faith – but I have been around when it happens!” Our task in evangelism is not to make anyone believe anything. We do not have the responsibility for whether people do or do not come to faith. Faith is a gift of God. What we are called to do is point people towards God, invite people to encounter Jesus and create spaces for that encounter to happen. It is then down to God and the person to work out the rest!
How do we point people towards God? Well we do that in three main ways: in who we are, in what we do and in what we say. I think at St Paul’s we are pretty good at two out of the three of these. By who we are, I mean by showing our friends and family that ordinary people choose to be Christians. Christians aren’t super spiritual, weird or judgemental. We haven’t got life sussed. We face struggles and joys like everyone around us. Ordinary people can be Christians. But in the things we do – my second point – we try to live out God’s love. In the way we speak to people, treat people, use our time and talents and resources, we don’t just look after ourselves, but care for others and for our world. Again, we are not perfect, but we are trying, and I think some people notice and respect that. And as I said, I think the congregation here are pretty good at both these things.
The third one we could do with a bit more practice, a little more confidence, but if we give it a go, I am sure we will get the hang of it. It is simply telling a little of our story and how our faith, how God’s love, how following Jesus makes a difference. It doesn’t need to be fancy theology. It doesn’t need to be exciting. Just what you think or feel, have noticed or experienced. Often people are more interested than we realise and it is good to be able, when someone asks about church or our faith, to be able to say a little bit about what it means to us. It is not our job to make anyone believe anything, but we can point them towards the God who loves them by what we are, what we do and what we say, so keep giving it your best shot.
How do we invite people? Well, that is easy. We invite people! Again, it is not our job to make them say yes. We just say “Would you like to come and see?” Would you like to come along to a church social and see that the church – building and people – is quite a friendly place? The roof won’t fall in if you walk through the door! Would you like to come along to a small group or a lent group or Alpha and see what you think about some of the things we believe? We are open to chat and laugh and question and discuss stuff – you don’t have to have all the answers! Would you like to come along to a church service and see why I find it special? We are so lucky that as a church we have lots of things happening throughout the year, so why not ask God to point out a couple of people you could invite to something over the next few months. We are trying to create a lot more leaflets and social media posts for things, so it is really easy for you to take one, pop it in a friend’s hand or share it by messenger and say “I wondered if you would like to go to this?”
Lastly, we just create the spaces and trust God to do the rest. So as a church we offer a range of community and social events suitable for those who just want to dip a toe in the water, we offer a range of groups for people who want to chat things through a bit more and a range of services where people can encounter God in worship. We offer them with love, welcome and a healthy side portion of prayer, and trust that God who loves our friends, family and community will do what God will do.
We are embarking on an ambitious adventure and it is going to take love, commitment and effort from every single one of us. So as I draw this sermon to a close, I want to encourage us by thinking a little about our reading from Isaiah. Verse 4 reminds us to leave our work in God’s hands. There will be times on this adventure when we are tired and discouraged. Maybe something we organised was poorly attended. Maybe we invited a friend and they said no. Maybe we have been faithfully doing something for months or years and are wondering if it is worth it. Don’t despair. Leave it in God’s hand and trust God for your reward.
And then verse 6 reminds us that God’s plans are often far more ambitious than our wildest dreams. For the exiles, the restoration of their homeland was a distant dream, yet God says to his servants, “you will do even more than that – you will be a blessing to the ends of the earth”. 200 by 200 might seem like a crazy dream to us today, but we serve a God whose purpose is for the whole of creation to know God’s love. Maybe 200 by 200 isn’t ambitious enough?
However, it is a start, and an important one. So in love, and always with prayer, I encourage you all to point the people around you towards God, by your life, your actions and sometimes your words, and to invite them to places where they might encounter Jesus. The rest we can leave in God’s hands. Amen.