“Will you come to church with me?”
For a number of weeks over the course of the summer months, I visited in hospice with a woman who was in the process of dying from cancer.
We spent many hours together talking, and in one session, as we reflected on her life, she said something that touched me very deeply. She had been sharing her regret that she had not gone back to church again after many years of absence. There had not been a specific reason for the break – she had simply drifted away and, although she had lived for many years on the periphery of the church community, she had not experienced an invitation to return. “But”, she said, “I realize now that all my life I have been moving closer to God. And all my life, God has been moving closer to me.”
That thought gave her great comfort as she faced the reality of her death. Being able to see glimpses of God’s presence throughout her life, gave her confidence that God would be present in this moment as well, to give her strength when she needed it most, and in the end, the hope of “seeing, face to face”.
Her words stayed with me, and several days later, as I was driving to work, I was thinking about her and looking forward to sharing with her a favourite psalm, which our conversation had evoked for me. Sadly, that was not to be, as I received word later in the day that she had died the night before.
“You have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting-places, and are acquainted with all my ways. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me….”
Psalm 139 came to me at a time of gathering darkness in my own life, and has always been for me a song of hope and confidence, that whatever the circumstances, and wherever the path in my life would lead me, God would be there to meet me.
I believe with all of my heart that no one, despite their best, or perhaps their worst efforts to disengage, to disappear, and to hide can escape God’s presence. And I believe that God is continually reaching out to each and every one of us to gather us closer. This is as true for those who are outside the walls of our churches as it is for us who choose to gather for worship on a Sunday morning. In fact our history demonstrates that God is often more at work on the margins than with the elect.
In Luke’s Gospel, we see this activity of God in the person of Jesus, whose teaching and healing ministry was focused on those people who were on the “outside” rather than with those insiders who were so convinced they had all the answers, they were unable to see the truth right in front of them, and often erected barriers to try to keep others out. Jesus intentionally sought the outsiders – the lost and the sinners – to restore them to union with God.
In the past few years the church has rediscovered the importance of this work of healing and reconciliation, as we look outward to the world and engage in ministries that address the very real needs in the lives of our neighbours near and far. Like Jesus we are trying to meet people where they are and share the “good news” of what God is doing through acts of compassion and service that are an outward expression of our devotion to God. We are more discerning of the ways this ‘good news’ has shaped our own lives and how we are modeling this in the attitudes we adopt and the choices we make. As Martha Stewart would say, “This is a good thing.” This is Evangelism.
But it is only one part of our responsibility to be evangelists for Christ’s sake. When we observe the way Jesus lived out his own ministry we see a second aspect of evangelism – that of invitation. Jesus went out to meet people to tell them and show them about God’s love for them. Then he invited them to follow him – to be a part of the kingdom God was building in their midst.
According to Michael Harvey, a Christian motivational speaker and author, who founded the “Back to Church” movement in the Diocese of Manchester in 2004, it is this second aspect of ‘invitation’ that continues to be a stumbling block for more than 80% of Christians in the world. Harvey’s explanation for this is that we are afraid. He has worked with gatherings of Christians all over the world and invited them to talk about their reasons for not inviting others to church. – the underlying motivation for each and every excuse is fear. In fact, he says, in response to our underlying fear, we have so convinced ourselves that people are not interested in what we have to share, that we have become ghettoized – facing the world through an impenetrable threshold that makes it impossible to see or become involved in the amazing things God is doing out there in the world. Acknowledging our fear can be the thing that releases us from our self-imposed prison. Fear can be a sign that God is speaking to us, prompting us to grow in new directions. Moving toward the thing we fear, rather than suppressing it frees us from its hold on us.
The biggest fear Christians experience when we contemplate speaking about our faith and inviting others to join us is the fear of rejection. What if people say ‘no’. Harvey has a term he calls the NQ – the ‘no quotient’, and asks: “How many ‘noes’ are we willing to take for Christ?” He urges us to learn to experience ‘no’ so many times that the word loses its power over us.
As Jesus warns us in Luke’s Gospel, there is a cost to discipleship. Sometimes “the Good News” is very hard. Discipleship requires a total commitment to God in Christ that can bring us into conflict with the world, and can even have an adverse affect on those with whom we are in close relationship. It is not something we enter into lightly, but only after carefully considering the costs of our actions. But we have this amazing news to share with the world and we cannot keep it to ourselves.
Harvey likes to point out that Christians in the early church suffered not only rejection, but torture and even death. Yet the Church grew by leaps and bounds because they had something that was worth suffering for and were eager to invite others to be a part of this new Way of life.
The key is the invitation – to simply say to another, “Will you come to church with me?” The important thing to remember is that success is not measured by the number of people who say ‘yes’ but in our faithfulness in inviting them to be a part of God’s kingdom. Success is one person inviting another to come to church.. God is only asking us to invite. How the other responds is not our concern – that is God’s worry, and God has the hardest part.
As I listened to her story, it was clear to me that God had been very active in the life of the woman I was visiting in hospice. And I realize that my role as a chaplain to her was to invite her into a deeper reflection so she could see God’s movement in her life, and trust in God’s continued faithfulness to her.
I think of the many people out there in the world who are frightened, or lonely, or grieving, or dying, or just needing to know they have dignity and value. God is already at work in their lives. But how will they know if we do not invite them to come to church.
Just as the Creator formed the first humans from the dust of the earth, God the Master Potter continues to mold and shape the spoiled clay of humanity into the Body of Christ, through the community of the church. This is why the act of inviting others is so important. We are not doing it so we can get more people in the pews, or have more envelopes in the collection plate. We are doing it because God wants to be in relationship with people – to be a part of their lives and to have them be a part of God’s life in the world. God wants to be our partner in mission. We are doing it because being the Church is more than just worship on Sunday – it is about growing disciples ; it is about growing the Kingdom of God.
Back to Church Sunday has become a yearly event not only in the Anglican Church but across many denominations. But I hope we will not treat it as an end in itself so that once a year we will think about inviting someone to Church. I hope we will see Back to Church Sunday as the start of something much bigger: Back to Church Sunday is an opportunity to become a community that not only welcomes others, but invites us all to grow together, into a deeper relationship with our God.