I 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?