Open Air Worship

Last Sunday was a major step for our church as we met for the first time in-person as a congregation in the open air. We currently have a difficulty in that during lockdown we lost our regular meeting place and so that we have had to improvise for the time being. There were some hoops to jump through and practical arrangements to be made, but in the end it worked well and I was thankful to God for the joy of seeing our people once again. It was a taste of heaven.

We had to seek the approval of the local council who have been very helpful in the process. They wanted a risk assessment, which is usual for such ‘events’, but examined all the more closely in light of the covid-19 crisis. The only point to be resolved in our minds is the issue of numbers. As we read it the UK Government advice is that open air gatherings of more than 30 are permissible when organised by a charitable institution, which our church is. However, the council asked us to keep it to 30. We complied this time, but it is not clear yet why there should be a local restriction. It’s an ongoing discussion.

Practically we had to do the following:

  • keep a pre-booking register of those who wanted to come. This was done with a spreadsheet.
  • on site we marked off an area 15 squares (5 wide, 3 deep), each 3m square, with cones. Individuals, families or ‘bubbles’ could sit there.
  • people brought their own seating, waterproofs, Bibles.
  • set up a greetings table with sanitiser bottles, and a notice of the web address for an online order of service worked up on Dropbox Paper for people to access on their phones.
  • we recommended people bring masks, but there was no requirement as we were keeping 2m apart. Some people put them on after the service during the brief post-service chit chat.

Equipment brought by various people in the congregation:

  • gazebo. This was not much practical use, though it gave a point of focus for the gathering. (Actually it was a bit of a liability on a breezy day!)
  • folding table and lectern.
  • amplification (head mic + amp + speaker). I think I could have got away without but it would be been much more a strain.
  • audio recording to my phone with a lapel mic.
  • video recording camera.
  • my notes, notebook, Bible (as you might expect)

All in all a fairly low level of organisation required for the event.

There is nothing like public worship. Even in the midst of trials (while taking into account the public health concerns) Christians are to keep meeting together (Hebrews 10:24,25). Our assembling is a manifestation of that great truth that “we have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God” (Hebrews 12:22). We are thankful too that there were some passers-by who stopped.

Please pray for us as we continue meeting this way through to the end of August.

Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly! – Psalm 149:1

For those who are interested, here is the sermon I preached. Try not to get distracted by the footballers:

Open Air Worship

Treasures from Crieff

I have known about the Crieff Fellowship for decades but I only found out recently that there was a website with many of the past addresses.
For those of you in ministry, and to whet your appetite, listen to Eric Alexander in 1980 on “God’s Fellow Workers” from 1 Corinthians 3. Find it at the bottom of this page.

For those who hanker after the supposedly greener grass of some other field of ministry, here’s a quote in Alexander’s introduction:

“There is no ideal spot in which to serve God or to minister the word except for the one where he has set you down. That’s the ideal place in the world for you to minister.”

Go forage. There are many other treasures to be dug up.

Treasures from Crieff

Practical Evangelism

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Last Sunday at Solihull Presbyterian Church we were looking at Matthew 10:1-15. In this passage Matthew lists the names of the apostles and then describes how he sent out them with his authority to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, heal afflictions and cast out demons. It is the first time the apostles step into this role and marks the expansion of the mission beyond Jesus himself. Later, Jesus commissions them to go to the nations and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Ultimately the task is passed on to the church – Peter says in 1 Peter 2:19:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

The highlighted “you” is plural. It doesn’t merely signify a collection of separate individuals – i.e. we are not all to be preachers as such – but the context indicates that proclamation is a responsibility of the collective body, with each member of the body contributing in various appropriate ways. That does not exclude the need for each Christian to be ready to personally speak about Christ. Peter says as much in 1 Peter 3:15 – each needs to be ready to “make a defence” to those who ask.

After the sermon, someone came back to me with a question, asking what practical advice I would give to people who want to share the gospel. It is great to get that question and I often wish there was more interest in evangelism in church life. Here is a slightly expanded version of what I wrote:

The first thing I would say is that you need to be in a gospel-preaching church. In other words, in a church that values the whole Bible, sees the point of it to lead people to Christ, and preaching with that goal in mind. Preaching the word to it’s congregation is central to any true church’s ministry and church members need to have confidence that when they bring people to listen, they will hear the words of God.

Secondly, Christians should volunteer to help with any plans the church has for outreach. That may mean organising a prayer meeting of friends, doing some of the “legwork” of preparation, getting involved in visitation, being willing to lead a discussion, maybe even preaching. Of course, people must be suitably qualified and gifted for each task, but ministers and elders who care about Christ’s mission love to have people who have this encouraging attitude of “getting stuck in”.

Thirdly, be well prepared to give answers (1 Peter 3:15). Understand the Bible – read it, meditate on it, study it, listen hard to sermons. Think about the cross and the Saviour who died on it, what it means, why it matters to us today. Read good books about evangelism and answering objections (one I read recently was The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister). Know how to explain the essence of the gospel in a couple of minutes e.g. I learned “The Bridge Illustration” when I was a young Christian and have used it many times since.

Fourthly, pray for opportunities to witness and boldness to take them. We become comfortable in our inactivity and we can bewail to others our lack of opportunity but Paul asked others to pray that for him in his ministry – see Colossians 4:3,4 and Ephesians 6:19. My experience is that prayer and boldness go together. It is a Holy Spirit thing. Somehow, in answer to a genuine request to God, opportunities come, we become alert to them and we are that bit bolder!

Fifthly, practice hospitality. In other words, open up your home and invite people in. And not just Christian friends, but non-Christians too. Have neighbours round for dinner, for coffee, that summer BBQ, hold a games night – use your imagination! Perhaps plan this with Christian friends. You see, people need to see the gospel in action in people’s lives as well as hear it preached (see e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2:8). Beauty and Truth go together. Try hospitality and see what happens!

Well, there are a few ideas. There are probably more and better thoughts about this. But may the Lord bless us and the nations as we proclaim his excellencies!

Practical Evangelism

Listening to Sermons

Today, I was reading Christopher Ash’s little book Listen Up! It is excellent and I would recommend it to everyone. I take his word for it, but he said that there has been plenty written on preaching sermons but nothing on listening to sermons since Charles Simeon 200 years ago.

There are lots of quotable passages in Ash’s book but I came across this:

“When we listen to an MP3 recording of a sermon, we are not listening to preaching, but to an echo of preaching that happened in the past. Listening on my own to a recording can never be more than a poor second-best to actually being there with the people of God in a local church.”

It struck a chord with me so here are a few comments about it:

1) It is a reminder the “online church”, such as has been necessary over the last few months, is not and never will be an adequate substitute for assembling together as the church to hear the word of God.

Certainly, from my perspective as a preacher the experience has been wholly unsatisfying. Feedback from some hearers indicates the same.

Preaching to a live congregation is interactive. People are responding to the preacher and vice versa. Preaching to a camera, even though you know people are watching, cuts off the feedback loop. The whole thing is so much more dull for both sides.

2) For me a growing bee in my bonnet is that even in normal times, too many Christians live on a diet of “second-best” sermon podcasts to the detriment of their hearing of the word of God in their own church, and to the detriment of their spiritual maturity.

There are some great preachers out there. I wish I could sit under their ministry week after week! I used to listen to a lot of them. Now I don’t. A few years ago I realised I was falling into a trap of using sermons in the same way I might use music or have the TV news on in the house. Background. A sound, a voice, a distraction. But as such it washes over and runs away. Nothing learned. Nothing remembered. A bad habit that had developed and was ready for when I actually went to worship and heard a sermon. A sound, a voice, a distraction. Nothing learned. Nothing remembered.

It may seem like an extreme conclusion, but the deadening effect of listening to sermons while walking or driving or filling any available gap was doing nothing to aid my spiritual growth and maturity.

3) Too many preachers wish their podcasted sermons would be considered as worthy if not better when compared with a listening Christian’s own pastor.

Well, it’s a vast extrapolation! I only know my own heart, so the “too many” above is actually only one that I know of. But it is one too many. And I often think that if it is true of me, then it will be true of some others.

My job is not to have an internet ministry, but to have a real ministry with the real people God has given me. I remember when I first started in ministry some 13 years ago now, I came across a great preacher (who shall remain nameless) who had real reservations about putting his sermons online. There were a couple of sample sermons on his church’s website but no regular podcasting. He could have had much wider “reach”, I thought, but he wasn’t interested. What respect I now have for such an approach! It has not damaged his ministry one bit, nor his “reach”. He has kept focus on the task he had been given and been a rich blessing to his people.

Listening to Sermons

Ending Lockdown and the Mission of the Church

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Last Sunday was a significant moment for churches in England as legal restrictions were lifted on places of public worship. It was an answer to prayer and I am delighted that so many churches, including some in our own denomination (EPCEW), were able to meet in person to worship together.

However, for many churches it has been a bittersweet experience. Many congregations across the UK do not own their own building but rent their place of worship, so depending on others to make a decision to open up buildings for public use.

For us in Solihull Presbyterian Church the desire to be together in worship has only got deeper the last 100 days as we have had to make do with the wholly inadequate method of internet technology to broadcast services of worship. And who isn’t suffering from “Zoom fatigue” as we have had prayer meetings, fellowship times, Sunday school at a distance?

In Solihull, we have the added problem that we were asked to vacate our premises just days before the lockdown. The building had been deemed unsafe in its current state and a hard closure date was given. Considerable amounts of money are required to get the building into a fit state but the owners had decided not to commit any more to it . On our part we explored every avenue to get the building up and running, but the more we looked, the more the costs seemed to stack up. It was too much risk to take on.

So now we are homeless!

Of course, with nothing open, how do you go about finding a new venue? Schools, community halls and churches have all been closed and who is going to commit to a rental agreement with a third party until they have sorted themselves out? Now that lockdown restrictions has been lifted for places of worship we are still finding that many places have no plans to open for a while, probably not until September. Schools have the headache of planning to bring back students with social distancing measures and keeping schools virus-free with deep-cleaning plans. Who wants a third party group complicating things? Also we are finding that many local churches that may have a slot in their Sunday schedule (many have one Sunday service) are not planning to open soon.

For me this predicament has raised various questions about the nature of our mission as a church in Solihull. As a young person growing up in the west of Scotland I always thought of “a church” as a building on a street corner. But since my conversion some 40 years ago I learned to think of the church as the people, the members of the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit has baptised the church and he gives it life. The life is not in a building.

However, geography does matter, and buildings matter, to the extent that it defines a centre for gospel ministry. It is a place to bring people to. It is a visible presence in the community that can become familiar to people. It is a centre where the preaching of the gospel can be heard week-in, week-out. I recognise that this is not a strong theological or biblical argument to make for buildings. Where does the New Testament ever speak of bespoke buildings to meet in? However, it is an on-the-ground practical application of the missionary principles that have driven the church through the ages. As the gospel spreads places of worship spring up.

Having a place for worship makes planning for gospel ministry clearer. It defines an area we can reach. We know the people we should reach, the streets to visit. We know how many homes a church of our size can cope with. Sure, church members can share the gospel with friends and internet technology means we can broadcast far and wide. In one sense, there are no geographical limits. But we are still left with the question, what about the people in our neighbourhood that we are not friends with or don’t download a church podcast? These people need to be reached too. And when they have been reached and they believe, they need to be drawn into the bonds of fellowship of their local church and hear there the regular preaching of the word.

That is why being “homeless” as a church is so discombobulating. It is not simply a matter of finding an anything-will-do place to meet. It is tied to the question of how we reach Solihull.

When I first came to Solihull, there were something like 25 churches in the wards surrounding the town centre that had 100,000 people in them. That’s a third of the national average density of churches. If anything the number of churches in Solihull has declined. I know for sure three have closed since – there may be more – and I am not aware of any new ones that have opened. There is such a need here.

Will you pray for us and with us? We need a building to meet in. But we need stability – preferably with a building that we can call our own. And we need one that is in a locality where we can make plans to be able to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Ending Lockdown and the Mission of the Church