Facing Out

Priority for those who live outside

William Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944. He is often known for perhaps his most famous quote:

"The Church is the only organisation
that does not exist for itself,
but for those who live outside of it."

Strange habits

Is that right? If so, what does that mean for us today and how we are and do church amongst the community of which we are a part? The trouble is that sometimes in our church we forget just how different our church culture can be to that of those who don't come. We use funny words, do strange things and expect people to just know what to do as they walk in the door. When should I sit or stand, what do I say, what do I do (and not do) at different parts of the service? Perhaps even more importantly, what does all this mean?

We have a language and culture all our own, and newcomers will often not know the 'rules' we set up for ourselves. Perhaps we don't do it on purpose, but it can be offputting, even anxiety-inducing, to those who are coming to us for the first time.

I remember once going to a church while we were on holiday for a communion service. The wine, instead of being in a single cup, was given to us in individual glasses. It was the first time we'd experienced this, and we weren't quite sure what to do with our glasses afterwards. Fortunately, one of the stewards passed us a plate. 'Great,' we thought, 'we clearly put them on there.' We thought nothing more of it until we were leaving at the end. There, perched on a table by the door, was the same plate with everyone's gifts for the collection on it... and two little glasses!

The purpose of Church

We may not do it on purpose, but what we see as normal, helpful and good often isn't for those who aren't 'in the know!' Here's how Paul put it as he wrote to the Corinthian Church:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
2 Corinthians 5:18-20a NIV

We may think that God's priority is to build a really big church - that we're the end goal. However, that's not the case at all. The church is actually a means to an end. We exist to engage in God's true mission, which is the reconciliation of the world - of all things - to God! We are ambassadors, presenters of God's Kingdom to the wider world. If that's our true purpose, then William Temple was right. We exist primarily not for ourselves, but for those outside us.

Doing church differently

So, what does that mean for how we do church? Well, it means that we will be busy engaging with our community. As an example, we're building relatioships with partners across our community, from community groups to the council, through our locality partnership meetings. But it will also mean that we think differently, even about what we do on a Sunday morning when we meet. How do we make people feel more comfortable and welcome? That will mean working hard in important areas like our welcome, our hospitality, offering places to ask questions and find answers, explaining what is happening in the service and why, using language which is readily undersood.

Café or theatre?

This priority for those outside is leading us to make one significant change to the way we do church on the first Sunday of the month. For a while now, we have been arranging the seating differently on this Sunday, seating everyone around tables rather than in rows. It's come from a time when on the first Sunday we served breakfast, and when our children stayed in throughout the service with activities.

However, times have changed. We no longer serve breakfast and we now have Children's Church every week, catering especially for that age group. So the need for tables has lessened. Of course, tables are still great for us regulars. We can sit with our friends, we can pray together aloud as a table... we'd miss these things if they went!

If we think about being a newcomer for a moment... how might they feel? Imagine how you feel if the only seats left in a café are ones on tables where others are already sitting. We might feel very awkward sitting in them - we'd want our own table! We may even decide not to stay. Suppose, though, that we did, and the strangers on our table asked us if we'd like to share their food and enter into their conversation on a topic we didn't know anything about!

Strangers to friends

To welcome the newcomer, we need to allow space for people to come on their own terms; to watch and join in only when they're ready. So, for that reason, we're going to move away from tables on the first Sunday, and stick with rows of chairs every week. This means that we have a consistent approach every Sunday, so newcomers get to know what to expect as they come and can feel comfortable, whatever week they turn up on. Might we miss the tables? We might. But after all, it isn't about us. As William Temple said,

"The Church is the only organisation
that does not exist for itself,
but for those who live outside of it."


Jason Kennedy
Enabling Minister
Haven Christian Centre

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