Convenience Church

richmond parkI went for a ride a few Sunday mornings ago. That’s unusual. Not the ride; ever since I was forced to stop playing rugby, cycling has become my exercise of choice. But riding on Sunday was out of the ordinary because I’m normally in church. Fair enough, it’s my job and it’s unavoidable. But I’d still be there even if I wasn’t the Senior Minister because I’m a Christian and gathering with your church family comes with the territory. But this just means that I’m not usually out and about on a Sunday morning. But that Sunday was different. We’d postponed our usual 10.30am meeting until 4pm so that we could enjoy our family carols in the dark. The candles work better when the light has something to disperse.

And so I went out riding. I headed off to Richmond Park and span round like a deranged hamster on speed. But on the way there, on the way round and on the way back I was overwhelmed at the numbers of people going about a very different Sunday morning to my usual fayre. I’m willing to admit that their usual morning church may also been postponed to take advantage of the ambience of a candlelit nativity. But I don’t buy that. I’m simply going to assume that for the vast majority of people who I saw, church simply isn’t on their radar. At Christmas. Or at any other time of the year. And I don’t blame them. Not entirely. Don’t get me wrong, I think they ought to be in church. But I understand that they’ve made the decision not to be. I think they’re wrong. But I get that they don’t want to be there. Presumably they’re non-Christians and so it goes with the territory! And so on this particular Sunday morning I passed families on bikes, kids playing rugby or football for their team and the park was heaving with people going for a walk.

So here’s the question that nagged me all the way home: How do we reach them if we’re asking them to give all that up and join us on a Sunday morning?

We could say (and people have said this to me) that non-Christians need to realise what’s really important and then they’ll come to church. And I agree. But it’s not as simple as that. It’s true that what we do expresses what we value. So if I take my kids to rugby on a Sunday morning instead of taking them to church it’s because I think that their skills with the oval ball is more important than knowing the God who made them for Himself. When it’s an ‘either-or’ decision, that’s called idolatry. [For the record, I think it’s a ‘both-and’ decision. In other words, I think you can be a Christian rugby player! But the Christian bit of that description means that when you have to choose, rugby loses out.] Therefore not being in church is what you’d expect from non-Christians, isn’t it?

And so, if we’re asking non-Christian people to join us at church (when they have lots of other exciting things that they could be doing) that’s going to be difficult. It’s virtually impossible. Without a change of heart. And that’s called conversion. That occurs through the work of the Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel. The same wonderful gospel they may not hear and understand if they don’t go to church! That’s the conundrum in a nutshell. It prompts the question, is our current evangelistic strategy flawed? Aren’t we asking non-Christians to make a choice that even Christians find difficult. We’re asking them to give up the things they value on a Sunday morning without having had the opportunity to be persuaded that there’s nothing that we could ever give up that would make gaining Christ look like a bad deal. Aren’t we simply saying that church is for Christians? It is. But not exclusively so. After all, the Apostle Paul expected the presence of unbelievers in the church gathering 1 Corinthians 14. So why do we do church on a Sunday morning? Is it sensible? I’m not the first to ask this. And I won’t be the last. And it’s not a straightforward question. But it’s got to be worth visiting, hasn’t it?

We thought long and hard about it as a church family a few years’ back. It wasn’t an easy time. In the end, we decided not to move our family congregation to 4pm. We did so not because of the strength of the arguments against it. But because of the strength of feeling against it. Weak leadership? Perhaps. But It didn’t seem wise at the time to oppose the consensus on what’s a matter of judgment. And I still think that was the right call. But what was so disheartening about that discussion was just how few of some very fine Christian people were able to see how church can be an integrated part of our evangelistic strategy. For sure, bringing people to church isn’t our only evangelistic strategy. It doesn’t and shouldn’t replace inviting people into our homes and our lives so that we can talk about the gospel. But that missional strategy, though much to be encouraged, is not the only string to our bow.

It may seem harsh but the responses we received to our proposal could have been interpreted to mean that people were more concerned about the inconvenience of the change of time than they were about the conversion of unbelievers. If church has any part in our evangelistic passion to reach the unbelievers among whom we live then when we do church has to be a matter for debate. And, in fact, it already has been. Most urban evangelical churches do evening church for their 20s. Why is that? Because we’ve worked out that this is the best time to get the 20s along. We’ve conceded that getting them out of bed before midday on a Sunday is ambitious! I’m not being critical. I’m simply pointing out that we’re already willing to make concessions in order to reach people. So why not do the same for families? It may be that there simply isn’t a time that works for everyone, not even every family. And it may be that 10am not 4pm is the best time. But it’s worth pondering, isn’t it?

Do I think therefore that we all ought to close our morning meetings and instead find a more convenient time to reach unbelievers? No. I’m not really sure what to propose, which is frustrating. But the memory of the vast numbers of people out and about on that Sunday morning will stay with me for a long time. And the numbers of kids at rugby was simply astonishing.

Rugby church, anyone?

8 thoughts on “Convenience Church

  1. Matt Thompson January 7, 2015 / 10:07 am

    I pondered the same thing on a Sunday afternoon off the other day.

    Our Church has a 10.30am and 4.30pm Sunday service (stylistically different but with the same sermon at both) and the reality is (as you know) that there is always something competing for peoples worship. The rugby player enjoys Sunday afternoon church, the football fans prefer morning church (Super Sunday on Sky Sports). For the weekend travellers they prefer the afternoon, for the big Sunday lunchers they prefer the morning and the list goes on.

    It seems to me we have to be willing to offer as much as resources will allow being careful that we are not implying that we are trying to simply enable people to worship both God and (fill in the blank)

    Perhaps likeminded Churches in similar areas (if there is more than one!) need to work together in order to offer a variety of service times, days etc? But that is of course a great idea in theory!

    The thing that we have found encouraging with two service is that our people are freed up to go to where the world is congregating and so we are trying to use football, rugby, walks, the Sunday lunch as part of our missional strategy.

    Like you I am equally as frustrated with not knowing how best to approach it. when you have an answer please let me know.

    • theurbanpastor January 7, 2015 / 10:17 am

      Cheers Matt, helpful. We’ve just planted a 4pm in Streatham. But we meet at 10.30am in Balham. We’re trying to keep both separate to help each cultivate their own identity. But perhaps, in due course, if the Lord is willing He might give us sufficient growth to launch our own 4pm in Balham. As you’d imagine rugby is big among the families in this part of south west London! Footy is more Streatham. But perhaps that’s just my snobbery coming through!

  2. Deborah Dawton January 7, 2015 / 11:01 am

    As a Streatham planter, the shift to afternoon church took some getting used to but if messing up my Sunday routine is all we’re called to do for the sake of the Gospel, I don’t think we’re trying hard enough as Christians. And surely we have to be the ones to bend and flex, to suffer and sacrifice, it’s our privilege. The world is a powerful aphrodisiac, and if we’re to drawer people to Christ, even rugby players…. when they’re converted because of the invite they got to the 4pm service and it’s too big to cope with all the people at it, that’s when the rugby player starts coming at 10.30am and sets up a rugby training session in the park at 4pm!

  3. Lisa January 7, 2015 / 11:55 am

    Have you heard about the Street Pastors ? (www.streetpastors.org). The original idea is about a group of Christians doing ministry in the streets in the evenings to reach adults and young people. You could probably adapt the idea for the daytime too. It could be useful way to make contacts (in the run up to starting an additional Sunday service).

  4. Lisa January 7, 2015 / 12:32 pm

    eg: `A Lark in the Park’ ministry on Sunday afternoons for kids/families with parachute games and activities, or something to reach commuters like a tube station ministry handing out hot drinks at 7am etc.??

  5. Phil January 8, 2015 / 10:01 am

    Interesting post and I’d be up for rugby church when it happens – though the docs have finished my career too. I’m already waiting to take up the invitation to Cowboy Church next time I’m in the US. But, I have a few thoughts…

    1. Church doesn’t always mean the gathering of believers. Sure that’s what Paul seems to be talking about in the passage in 1 Cor, (though I’d want to double check when I’ve a little more time). So should our focus be on first getting people to the main Sunday meeting or inviting them to be part of our community? Would we be happy with them being part of our church without them ever walking through the door on a Sunday morning?

    2. When we think, plan and do a specific mission we aim to go to people where they are – maybe setting up to do free bike servicing on Richmond Park on a Sunday morning with the intention of building friendships – and from there inviting them into a conversation with Jesus.

    Of course, I’m not part of your local church so am looking on as an outsider, but that’s what blogs are for…right?

  6. MichaelA January 19, 2015 / 12:21 am

    The most cost effective way to grow a congregation is usually to add another service.

    In one sense, I don’t blame the people who didn’t want to change service times. Especially when you have young kids, its not easy to change the established rhythms of your Sunday. This is not just a matter of “convenience” – its unsettling to the kids as well.

    But, if you want to do this, and if its the Lord’s leading, then He will supply the people who have the vision to do it. I agree entirely with you, that the Sunday Service in church is an outreach tool. In 1 Corinthians 14:23, Paul points out that we should structure our services on the basis that unbelievers will attend and be converted.

    Therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord to supply the people who do have the vision to form the core group of your new service. He answers prayer and He will provide them.

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