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Reaching the unGoded – the Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

Sunday 8th July 2018 – 6th Sunday after Trinity

Jeremiah 20.1-11a & Romans 14.1-17

‘For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ Rom. 14.17

As the Church faces the challenge of diminishing congregations it has developed all sorts of strategies and plans to increase numbers. Last month there was ‘Back to church Sunday’ with all sorts of ideas and resources available to encourage those who do go to church to bring along family and friends who have perhaps fallen away. This project is aimed at those who used to have a church connection.

Most of the initiatives the Church has developed are about connecting with the 90% + of people who don’t have any real connection with church at all – this large group of people are often referred to as the ‘unchurched’. So, Fresh Expressions of church like ‘Messy Church’ and Café Church are all about trying to do church differently to connect with people who, at present, have no connection with church at all. Most of this activity is good and to be encouraged, but I really don’t like referring to those we want to connect with as the ‘unchurched’ and the reason why I don’t like that title is partly to do with what Paul is saying in Romans 14.

In Romans 14 Paul is being incredibly inclusive. When we read this passage it is good to remember that Paul, who wrote it, had been a Pharisee, a person steeped in the Jewish Law, a person who had led a life of scrupulous obedience to the law, a set of rules, which, for example, included clear guidance about what was ‘clean’ to eat and what was ‘unclean’ and should not be eaten. For the vast majority of his life, Paul had measured his life, and others lives, by measuring obedience to the Law. It is with this background that he now writes ‘nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.’ In other words, Paul is saying that we should not measure or judge other people’s faith by our own standards, we should not count people as being ‘in’ or ‘out’, ‘saved’ or ‘unsaved’ by judging whether they are expressing and practising their faith in the way we do.

There is a danger for all church communities that we all engage in mission with the aim of connecting with people so that they become members of our church community – this is understandable and is what targeting the ‘unchurched’ seems to be all about. With what Paul says in Romans 14 in mind I just wonder if it would be better if we adjust our thinking and change from targeting the ‘unchurched’ to think about targeting the ‘unGoded’. To stop aiming to make church members like us and to start aiming, first and foremost, to connect people with God. It may be, for example, that someone comes to York Minster and encounters God in some way, maybe through this magnificent building which is steeped in prayer, or maybe through the wonderful music we are privileged to experience, or maybe through coming the Minster Mice, our fortnightly service for toddlers and their parents, or maybe, even, through something that someone says in a sermon – stranger things have happened! The point is that if someone encounters God within our church community they then need to see whether this is the right church community for them to grow and be nurtured in their newly discovered faith. In my time here I have come across people who have encountered God here for the first time and stayed and grown in faith here and I have also known people who have encountered God here and have found another church community where they have felt more ‘at home’ where their faith has been nurtured.

Mission should be more about God and less about Church.

By thinking about those who don’t come as the ‘unchurched’ we run the risk of giving the message that faith is all about coming to church and learning to do church the way we do church. Paul reminds us at the beginning of Romans 14 that we should welcome those who are weak in faith, not to quarrel with them and to try and make them express and explore their faith in the way we do, but to truly befriend them and somehow enable them to be drawn into the ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ which is at the heart of faith. Some people will find that ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ by coming to Choral Evensong at York Minster and some may find that ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ by worshipping in a completely different way at St Paul’s Holgate or next door at St Michael le Belfry.

Today we are delighted to be welcoming Abi as our new curate. Abi was ordained deacon here last week and intends to remain as a deacon. She is a self-supporting minister so she has a job and she also has a family, this means that she will be with us for two days a week. Abi will be working with Catriona, our Succentor, and the rest of us as we engage in mission, seeking to enable people to encounter God and to enable them to discover the right church community to celebrate and explore that encounter. It is fantastic that Abi’s home church is St Paul’s Holgate, a church with a different tradition and a different way of doing things than here and she will be helping me and my colleagues to ensure that we never fall into the trap of thinking that the only way to properly do ‘church’ is the way we do church here!

The welcome we offer to all who come here every day is mission. It so happens that we are organising a Mission weekend at the end of September that will be led by the Archbishop. (please see the note about this in our Notice Sheet) As we engage in all these missionary initiatives we must remember that mission is not all about Church it is all about God. Our diocesan vision is that we should be generous churches making and nurturing disciples. Part of what it means to be a generous church is to play our part in making and nurturing disciples of Jesus Christ and helping those new disciples to find the right church community, wherever it is, for them to grow and thrive.

There is only one real mission initiative and it is God’s – everything we do is never our mission, it is always God’s mission.

Let us pray

Almighty God, we pray that more people may know your love for them. We pray for all the preparations for our mission in September, for Archbishop Sentamu and for everyone who will come to the mission. Pour out your Spirit and grant us, a renewed experience of your love, a renewed vision of your glory, a renewed faithfulness to your Word, a renewed commitment to worship and to your service, that your love may grow among us, and your kingdom come; through Christ, our Lord. Amen



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