Thursday, 12 September 2013

Who is Church for? Believers or unbelievers?

Today I am to speak to the Mothers' Union and have been pondering what to talk about. I ended up writing two talks but delivering another, completely extempore about the Jesus Prayer. Why the change of mind?

I wrote the first talk but was deeply unhappy about it and so abandoned it half way through. More of that in a moment. I then went on to write another talk which was based on more recent facts and figures about the demise of the Church in Wales and how we really should evangelise or cease to exist. As I was walking down to the Church having completed and printed the talk, praying as I went, I became more and more dissatisfied with what I had written feeling that it was rather negative and uninspiring.

Which was why, before the meeting started, I decided to take out my chotki (prayer rope) and talk about the Jesus Prayer. As it happened this was the right choice and seemed to elicit a good response.

But back to the first talk. The first talk started out as a kind of apologetic as to why I have changed the services from weekly Holy Communions at the 10.30 to every other week, interspersed with an All Age Service and a Morning Worship. The reason, so my talk went, was because we need to obey God's command to "Go, make disciples of all nations..." (Matthew 28:19ff) and the primary opportunity we have of doing this is through our weekly services where we can make welcome those who come to seek. To give these seekers a better chance of understanding the message, therefore, we should make the services as simple and as easy to relate to and understand as possible in the hope that they will come to follow Jesus Christ as his disciples. And to make the point I found a handy reference in the Book of Acts Chapter 15:19 which says: "...we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles (read non-believers) who are turning to God." 

Before going any further I decided to read the whole passage as a way of introducing my talk. It was then that it hit me. The passage is about the Council of Jerusalem meeting to decide what to do with Gentile converts to the Christian Faith who, the Jewish Christians said should be circumcised if they wanted to be part of the Church. In other words the people in question were already Christians. Peter, speaking at the council of Apostle and Elders (verse 7-8) says:

"Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the Gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us..." 

In other words the Gentiles were believers not non-believers and the Council met to talk about circumcision should be demanded of them if they were to become part of the Church. The decision of James, the leader of the council, was that no other demands should be made because they were already believers. This is why he says "we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles"  or in another translation "we should put no stumbling-block in their way" (Amplified Bible). 

Seeing this I came to the following conclusions:
1. I had fallen into the trap of reading into Scripture what I wanted to read in order to bolster my own presuppositions.
2. I was imposing onto the New Testament understanding of the Church my own understanding based on the current needs of today.
3. I was asking a fundamental question that needs addressing, which is this: "Who is the Church for? Believers of unbelievers? Christians or non-Christians?" Its a hugely important question because upon the answer depends what goes on in our Sunday services as well as how we do them.

I will not attempt to answer that question now because I need to go away and think about the answer and spend some time in the Bible and Church History to see what is said there. However it is a big question that the Church in Wales and other Anglican Churches need to sit down and think about because the answer is crucial to how we do our evangelism, inside or outside our churches. One hint, possibly, at what the answer may be. Jesus said "God and make disciples of all nations." (Matthew 28:19ff). Notice it is a call to action and a call to go from where they were - Jerusalem - to where others were "all nations". Staying in Church therefore seems to be the opposite of what Jesus expected.

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