Why are we here?
We did some work last week at the Annual Meeting, when we looked at why we are here. Why has God called us to this church, rather than to any other? There is an abundance of churches in this area, including now some liberal churches, and so we have to be able to say that the Ascension is a church with a distinctive mission and purpose. There is no point reordering, there is no point planning for our future, if we don’t know why we are here. So we spent a little time on this – a very little time – but I think it was a worthwhile exercise. For anyone who wasn’t here, we ended up with a pile of post-it notes about our mission and purpose, which I took home and analysed.
I apologise to a few of you who have heard some of this earlier in the week, but it is worth exploring it together as a congregation. Sometimes when you do these exercises you end up with all sorts of answers and nothing clear emerges, but the Church of the Ascension is very clear what it is about.
Firstly, we are about being a spiritual home. We are important to each other. This is a church where you are not questioned, where you are accepted for who you are, and this is a church with a long history of being liberal, radical and progressive, and we like that. That is all good, that is what drew me here, and it is our history and our mission to keep that cutting edge.
But, and here is a but from me, there are two problems here which I think may be impeding our growth.
Number one: if you see the church as your home, and that specific word did come up, then what does that say to people who come here for the first time? Are they outsiders? Visitors? Non-members? How will that make them feel? The idea of home sometimes means that we get stuck. This is how we do things. We like it like this. We think we are open to change and growth, but actually, we like what we do now. We don’t want to be more traditional – no, we are a radical, inclusive church. We don’t want to introduce new things either – we like what we traditionally do. That’s just something to watch. When new people come into church, they will bring newness with them, and you may not always be comfortable with it.
Number two: we are, I think, resting on our laurels a little bit. We think we are THE inclusive, progressive church, and so we don’t need to do anything more. Actually you’ve got several modern, welcoming, inclusive churches within a couple of miles of us, so if they also have other factors which draw people in, they will go there instead. That’s not really a problem – if people prefer another church, it doesn’t matter, they’re still worshipping. But it does show that we need to change and modernise and up our game to get new people to come in to us.
The second theme was inclusion, unsurprisingly. We call ourselves the Inclusive Church of the Ascension. But, as one person pointed out, we are not there yet, and maybe we need to revisit our inclusion consciously. Strike the Maybe. We need to make sure we are including everyone. Let’s bring the children more into our worship. Let’s consider what we do for people with dementia. Let’s see if we can improve our offering for people with disabilities, even before the reordering. Let’s see if we can replace this sound system so people with hearing difficulties can actually participate properly in our worship.
Someone asked why we use this word inclusive – can’t we just say ‘everybody welcome’? I would say no, because it’s about more than treating people equally, it’s about more, even, than meeting people’s needs. It’s about seeing Christ in each other. It’s about making sure that the distinctive gifts of each person are honoured. I would really like to see more participation in our worship, but not more of the same people doing different things. Just one example: I am working towards having the children leading worship more – it says in Isaiah that ‘a little child will lead them’, and it’s life changing when they do.
Somebody wrote a definition of a church which was more than welcoming – I hope, by this definition, we are actively affirming. We think we are, but we are not sure. It’s specifically about the issue of being gay, but it can be widened in many ways.
Lastly, we are about service to our community. We do amazing things in our community – shoutout to Simon and the Wash House project, Bridget and ESOL, Trish and LewCAS, Ted for the Majority World work, and many others. That’s what we really need to develop, both as a church and as the Ravensbourne Team.The parish boundaries are useless here. We need to recognise that Holy Trinity can work in our parish, just as we work in theirs. St John’s and the Ascension freely work at Holy Trinity – now let them bring their gifts to us. And when we reorder, let’s have a team-wide vision, which lets us do the right things in the right places.
I’ll finish with the thing that wasn’t on many slides. I didn’t ask why we go to church, I asked why this church, so the answers we gave are fair and good. There is, however, a deeper why, and I know that we know this. Still we should always remind ourselves that there is a deeper why. We are here for one reason alone, and that is to meet with God. In being an inclusive, liberal, welcoming, active church, we must never lose sight of that. f we are not conscious that we are followers of Jesus, we cease to be a spiritual home and we become a club. If we are not always seeking a divine encounter, we become a doer of good works, just plugging the gaps in the welfare state. And if we are not filled with love, one for another, we will never really be inclusive.
And that is the key to church growth. If your hearts are filled with love, your pews will fill with people. If Christ is at the heart of all we do, we will be effective, loving, serving people who carry the gospel with us. It starts in here, with our heartfelt confession and deep commitment, and it ends out there, as we seek to transform this community and to bring the transformation only God can bring to the world.
Reverend Anne Bennett
Anne is Team Vicar at the Church of the Ascension, Blackheath.
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