Rural Church Meeting
Recently, 91 people registered for our Rural Church conference hosted by St. Dunstan’s Church in Mineola. The group included 17 priests and 18 different parishes and missions. This would prove to be the largest gathering of rural churches since they begin meeting as part of the Rural Gathering hosted by the Rural Church Commission over 10 years ago.
Bishop Fraser Lawton, Bishop of Athabasca, Canada in northern Alberta Province was our guest speaker and he brought a powerful message to lay and ordained alike.
Without any particular order, these are some of his comments:
What the Church does is the fruits of the Church, but may not always be what the Church is called to be. The Church isn’t that place that asks for your money and your heart each Sunday morning. It is the people and the hunger they have for the world.
Bishop Lawton asked the question, “what is your mission field?” as a congregation and as individuals. He suggested that too often that question hasn’t been addressed and we may attempt to be all things to all people by whatever means possible. We need to understand that worship is not about us, it’s about God and we don’t come to church in order to be entertained. While our worship may well make us feel good about ourselves, we’re meant to experience a sense joy having been in the very presence of God. However, we also need to acknowledge that our God is not always attracted by smoke and amplifiers. There is no magic bullet or program that will attract the people. Making changes for change sake may well be ineffective. We need to understand that while the world has a consumer mentality, the Church is not a commodity. The more we change, in order to meet the needs of the world, the more we water down who we are as a Church. God is not calling us to be like another church. He is calling us to be fruitful and grow where we have been planted.
The bishop went on to remind the group that small congregations have many advantages that are unique to their size. It’s easier to establish community and make space for one another. Everyone knows one another and are in a position to care for one another…a thing often lost in large congregations.
Bishop Lawton told the group that too often congregations hunger for the 50’s and want to get back to the “good old days” when families came to church together and children were allowed to pray in school. He suggested that we would all like to have a copy of a book entitled, “5 Steps to Renewal” but he also suggested the pages would all be blank and that the “good old days” no longer exist.
He went on to state that too often we find ourselves trying to determine “how to fit the problem” rather than answering the question, “what is the problem.” We don’t need to tell God what’s wrong because He already knows and Jesus would remind us that it’s about the cross As churches we need to know who we are and work to be the best we can be always seeks to answer the question, “are we witnessing to the presence of God in our midst?” Again, he would stress that there is a time for worship and a time for fellowship and we need to recognize the difference.
Looking at 1st Corinthians, the group was reminded that they possess all the gifts needed to be the Church and God is ready, able and prepared to be the means through which his commands are fulfilled.
We looked at 2nd Peter 1:16 and acknowledged that success is not measured by neither numbers of programs. While numbers are important and programs may offer us a vehicle by which we proclaim the Gospel our focus needs to remain on God’s plan for us as individuals and as a congregation. He reminded us that we are meant to share what we have received and used to old familiar adage of one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. Bishop Lawton recalled the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 one day and then seeing the crowds return the next day “to be fed again” and he asked if we were feeding those who are truly hungry.
The bishop then began to focus his attention on worship and asked the question, “who are we worshipping?” God is to be the only focus of our worship and he knows what is in our hearts and minds when we come into his presence. Many congregations have come to believe that Sunday worship is about them. They come to be entertained. They come to feel good about themselves. They come to be fed and go away happy. He concluded by reminding us that we are meant to be witnessing to the presence of God in our midst when we come together.
When we begin to talk about renewal, the first thing we must do is to stop telling God how to do things. Renewal and revival will only come through reconciliation when we ask God to forgive us and to be the head of his Church. We were reminded that renewal like love and forgiveness is a choice. It is a decision we make with God’s help. We were not created to be comfortable, but God gives us his peace in order to do his will. We need to know without a shadow of a doubt that the spirit of God is present in our lives.
In Matthew 28 when Jesus was preparing to leave this world he told his followers he was turning over the mission of the Church them and it was up to them to fulfill his purpose. He had made decisions and they were to continue to do the same. That purpose still remains today to be the mission of the Church.
While this only scratches the surface of the Bishop’s presentation, the group went away having been challenged to go back to their home churches and take a long hard look at who they are and how they might better show their love and devotion to our Creator as they seek to build His Church and strengthen their witness to the world around them.