Dismissing the crowds (Robert Harrison)

Robert HarrisonRobert Harrison reflects on Jesus dismissing the crowds.

December is a time when we prepare to meet the needs of the crowds who flock to the Christian story over Christmas. It's relatively easy to get a crowd over Christmas, and so often have I asked myself: 'How can I keep this crowd? How can I entice these people to come back to church more often?' Equally often I have looked at the numbers entered into the service register with a contented smile on my face.

I have not been thinking like Jesus.

Jesus welcomed the crowds, he taught them and he healed them, but then he dismissed them. He never invited them back or suggested that they return to him. He sent them away and got back to the important task of teaching and training his disciples, trusting the crowds to God.

After being told by the Pharisees that he was attracting a bigger crowd then John the Baptist (John 4), Jesus left the area – I would have stayed for more 'success'. After the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6), Jesus dismissed the crowd, and moved on – I would have been on that same hillside the next week and the week after, while the crowd slowly dwindled.

We need to sit lightly to the crowds and resist being seduced by rising numbers

Wherever it is that we welcome our crowds this Christmas, we must remember to dismiss them afterwards. It is not in the example of Jesus to try to hold onto them. If our mission-shaped church is to have a Jesus-shaped mission, we need to sit lightly to the crowds, and resist being seduced by rising numbers. Yes, we must welcome the crowds and teach them. But we must also dismiss them.

That leaves the question: what do we do with these crowds when they are with us? In a Jesus-shaped mission, we will tell them stories – wild stories, crazy stories, funny stories, but stories that are laced with the 100% proof love of God – and then dismiss them. In a Jesus-shaped mission we will send them back to their homes, not with answers but with questions, not with understanding in their heads but with the love of God in their hearts. And, finally – if we really want to be like Jesus – we will do so without ever asking them to come back.

Intuitive liturgy at The Garden Centre (Robert Harrison)

Robert Harrison reflects on intuitive liturgy at The Garden Centre.

Is it possible to have a liturgy that is so intuitive and culturally apt that it doesn't require any service sheets or projectors, introductions or explanations – or repeated attendance – to get the hang of it?

From the evidence of my annual 'pilgrimage' to Greenbelt, it seems that the answer is: no. Assembled musicians and comedians manage to actively engage their followers without any of these artificial 'aids', but Christian worship liturgies – it appeared – cannot.

My mind turned to the faithful, little fresh expression in my own parish – simply known as The Garden Centre.

Every other Sunday, about eight people gather in the café at our local garden centre. They buy a cup of tea and gather round a table for an hour or so of gently guided conversation – usually based on the theme which St John's is exploring that month but always starting with the needs and concerns of those present. If there is a birthday or other cause for celebration, someone brings a cake, and the café staff provide plates and cutlery. Then, when the tea is drunk, the cake eaten, the concerns shared and the theme explored, a poem or prayer offered, people say their goodbyes and the gathering dissipates.

It is a liturgy. From the first hello to the last goodbye there is a familiar pattern of action and interaction that holds the event together and ensures a helpful balance. But this liturgy is so natural that it doesn't require any artificial aids to maintain, and is free enough to respond swiftly to the needs of those present. It is a liturgy that is natural, intuitive and culturally apt.

Casting my mind across the gospels, it seems that Jesus habitually employed such natural liturgies. The temple of the Sadducees and the synagogues of the Pharisees had complex liturgies which required scrolls or memorisation to keep them going, and were subject to all manner of rules and traditions. Jesus, however, engaged with people around the common patterns of ordinary life.

He was not attempting to re-imagine temple or synagogue for a new generation; he was showing people that the realm of God was right where they were and all around them in the reality of their own lives. This is no less true of the way he engaged his disciples at the Last Supper, when he subtly tweaked the established pattern on Jewish table fellowship to such dramatic effect that we are still reeling from its impact.

Imagine a day, a century or two for now, when devout religious folk at some future incarnation of Greenbelt might try to revive the worship of the Hillingdon Garden Centre group. They will have to source the tea and the furniture though specialist ecclesiastical suppliers; the cake will be baked to a 'traditional' recipe and be quite unpalatable to the tastes of the day; and the opening responses:

  • Minister: Hello, how are you?
  • All: Good thanks. And you?
  • Minister: OK

will need to be written out and explained because half the words may no longer exist in the language of the day.

All too often, we over-complicate our gatherings. We want them feel special (holy), so we add unusual stuff. We want them to echo the traditions of the past, so we add old stuff. We want them to express an incomprehensible God, so we add incomprehensible stuff. But the special, traditional and divine stuff doesn't naturally resonate, so it requires scripts, explanations or patient experience in order to fully take part.

This is what Jesus did not do on the hillsides and lakesides of Galilee.

Hillingdon's Garden Centre group grew, like many fresh expressions, from a desire to reach out to practical needs within the local community. It started life in a council-owned shop front providing tea and friendship to isolated pensioners, and relocated to the garden centre when the council closed the shop. It didn't really intend to become a 'church'; that only happened because the folk enjoyed talking about God and life so much that they asked for more.

Whether or not it counts as a 'church' now can remain a matter of opinion. It doesn't matter to the people who go. They break cake instead of bread. They sing, 'happy birthday' instead of the Sanctus. They listen to each other's concerns instead of explicitly praying. They drink tea instead of red wine. And I, the vicar, make a conscious decision not to go – in case I spoil it.

When I walked around Greenbelt, pondering to myself that a natural liturgy would require no service sheet, no PowerPoint, no explanation, no instructions, and no hard-won familiarity, I had already promised to write this piece about our wonderful little Garden Centre gathering. It was an unexpected turn of events to discover that this – perhaps – is a natural liturgy, and is more akin to the ministry of Jesus than I had expected.

Come and Go

Robert Harrison, vicar of St John's Hillingdon, and teams of people from the church have spent over a year planning for an innovative way of doing Sunday mornings. Here he answers questions local people might ask about how it works.

Come and Go - logoWhat is 'Come & Go' worship?

It is exactly what it says: come when you can and go when you like. Our worship starts at 8am and continues all the way through to lunch at 12.30pm. You can arrive at any time in between, and leave whenever you wish.

Will I interrupt people if I arrive at the wrong time?

No. If you arrive in a quiet bit, it would help if you come in quietly, of course. But we are quite used to people arriving and leaving all through the morning.

Will people think I'm rude if I go half way through something?

Again, if you leave at a quiet moment, no-one will mind if you leave quietly. There is a planned opportunity to leave every half hour (at the end of each section), but you are welcome to leave at any stage.

Is there a minimum amount of time I will be expected to stay?

It is quite common for people to worship for one half hour section and then leave. But if you can only stay for five minutes, we will be pleased that you joined our worship, and believe God will too.

Occasionally, people stay for the full five hours. Those who have, have enjoyed the experience.

If I stay for a long time, will the worship start repeating itself?

Every half hour has a different style and approach. Each Sunday, a single theme runs through the morning's worship, but each section explores that theme in a different way.

You will get to look at the same aspect of Christian life and faith from many different perspectives.

I am used to worshipping in other Church of England churches. Will I get the kind of 'service' I am used to?

If you come from 8.00am to 9.00am, you will worship in a traditional, 'Book of Common Prayer – 1662' format.

If you come from 10.00am to 11.00am, you will find the worship similar to other services based on 'Common Worship – 2000'.

The worship from 11.30am to 12.30pm is contemporary, relaxed and interactive, while keeping within the guidelines of the Church of England.

Will I get a whole service every half hour?

That depends on what you mean by a 'whole service'. You will get a complete act of worship, but you will not get all of the ingredients that are commonly found in a Church of England service. The Come & Go program is designed so that you will get a fairly well-balanced spiritual diet if you stay for about one and half hours.

What style of worship will I find at St John's?

We do not believe that there is a 'right' way of worshipping God. (Jacob heaped up a pile of stones and poured oil on them; Moses roasted a sheep and ate it with his family and neighbours. King David wrote spiritual songs, and sacrificed bulls on a neighbour's farm; King Solomon did the same in a magnificent Temple. Jesus read the scriptures and discussed their meaning in a purpose-built synagogue; St Peter gathered Christians for regular communal meals in people's homes, and St Paul encouraged them to sing together and tell one another about God).

We purposefully offer a wide variety of worship styles so you can worship God in a way that suits your needs.

As a general rule, our Sundays begin with formal and traditional worship. As the morning progresses the style and content gradually become more informal and contemporary.

Are breakfast, coffee and lunch part of the worship, or gaps in the worship?

They are very much part of the worship. The very first worship gatherings of the Christian church took place over communal meals (not least of these were Jesus' Last Supper and his first meetings with his disciples after the Resurrection).

At St John's we have a strong emphasis on being a community of Christians. There are few things better for a community than eating together.

Do I have to pay?

In every half hour section there is an opportunity to make a financial offering. Making a significant offering from our income has been a vital part of Christian and Jewish worship all the way back to Abraham.

In the meal-centred sections, you will be invited to make a contribution towards your food. Any surplus money, after the costs have been met, will go into the general offering.

As St John's is a charity, we can claim tax back from the government if tax payers fill in a very simple form to register their gift.

Come and go - bannerWhere did the Come & Go idea come from?

We live in an age of extended shop opening, flexible working hours and 24/7 entertainment. There are only a few things in our lives that require us to arrive at a particular time and stay until it is finished, unless we have booked in advance.

We want to make it possible for as many people as possible who want to worship God, to do so.

Does Come & Go worship make a lot of extra work for the church leaders?

No. Because each half hour section is self-contained, it has been possible to include a wider spectrum of church members in leading our worship. As a result, the clergy are now doing slightly less on a Sunday morning than they used to. They are also regularly able to take part in leading the children's worship.

Even the vicar is free to come & go when he is not directly involved in leading the worship.

How much planning goes into each Sunday morning?

All the people who leading the half-hour sections on any given Sunday meet together about ten days beforehand.

They discuss the Bible readings for that Sunday and decide on a relevant theme arising from those readings.

They then talk through how each of them will explore that Bible passage & theme in the section(s) they are leading.

Finally they agree on a 'conversation topic' which is used three or four times during the morning when worshippers have an opportunity to talk among themselves.

They then go home and continue their own prayer and preparation.

What happens in each of the half hour sections?

8.00am Morning Prayer: the traditional 'Prayer Book' service of 'Matins', slightly shortened, with prayers, Bible readings and ancient Psalms & Canticles (there is no singing at this time in the morning).

8.30am Traditional Communion: the Communion part of the Holy Communion service in the 'Book of Common Prayer – 1662', along with a short sermon.

9.00am Breakfast & Conversation: a continental breakfast, preceded by a traditional prayer of thanksgiving. Sometimes we chat about the theme for the day, sometimes we just chat.

9.30am Songs of Praise: a selection of well loved hymns & songs, interspersed with a short Bible reading, a 'thought for the day', and time for prayer.

10.00am Understanding our Faith: a reading from the Bible, followed by a 'sermon' applying the theme of the reading to life and faith in the 21st century. Then a song and some prayers to give you time to respond to God.

10.30am Family Communion: a contemporary Anglican celebration of Holy Communion that links Jesus' Last Supper & his first meetings with his disciples after the Resurrection to the challenges and opportunities of our lives today.

11.00am Refreshments & Activities: after the communal announcements and a prayer of commitment to God, we disperse to a wide variety of activities, from coffee and chat, to presentations about different aspects of church and local community life. There is also an opportunity to talk and pray, in private, about particular concerns.

11.30am Praise & Worship: contemporary worship songs (with the occasional golden oldie) mixed with time to pray and a short reading from the Bible.

12noon Exploring Faith Together: a Bible story retold rather than read, a discussion instead of a sermon, and the bread & wine of communion shared together as an informal meal rather than a formal liturgical act.

12.30pm Food & Friendship: a simple ploughman's-style lunch with plenty of time to chat and relax together, beginning with some revitalised mealtime prayers.

Come and Go - communion

How do children fit in?

It is particularly useful for families to be free to come and go according to their needs. There are a number of different ways that children can take part in our worship.

There is a special area for toddlers and the adults they bring with them, which is equipped with soft and quiet toys. Those with toddlers do not have to sit in this area, but may if they wish.

Between 9.30am and 11.00am there is a parallel program of worship for children in school 'key stages' 1, 2 & 3. This happens in the Church Hall.

The children leave the church building together at about 9.40am and return to join in the Family Communion at about 10.45am. If you are arriving or leaving between these times, you will need to bring your children to, or collect them from, the church hall.

If you would like your children to stay with you in church, we have activity packs suitable for children in different age groups (any of our 'Welcomers' will happily give you one).

On the first Sunday of every month the 10.00 to 11.00 sections are particularly designed for all the family. There is no parallel 'Junior Church' on these Sundays.

Between 11.30am and 12.30pm there are activities and involvement for children within the worship in the Church.

What were the influences for the Come & Go idea?

The activity that most typifies our current British culture is shopping. Shops work on the simple principle of having an opening time and a closing time. Shoppers are free to come and go at any time in between.

Almost everyone in this country has a television. We are all familiar with the idea of looking through a varied programme schedule and choosing what interests us.

The Orthodox Christians of eastern Europe have been coming and going in their worship for hundreds of years.

How have the worshipping patterns of people changed?

Overall, attendance has grown. Occasional worshippers are coming more often. New worshippers can now fit Sunday worship into their busy lives. Regular worshippers with another commitment can fit worship around other obligations.

Beyond that, the 'Come when you can & Go when you like' message has made St John's appear much more welcoming.

Before, people had to come to church on our terms. Now, they can come on their own terms. We hope that, in time, we will all become more familiar with God's terms.

How did the existing congregation cope with the change?

Understandably, people were anxious at first.

This is one step in a long journey of growth and development. Come & Go is part of an ongoing process of mission planning.

We consulted very widely over a period of six months. We gradually unveiled the new pattern, giving people opportunities to ask questions. We deliberately shaped the new pattern so that if people came at much the same time as before, they would get much the same experience.

Now that people have had time to settle into the new pattern, they enjoy the freedom and the focus that it offers.

We were, in effect, already open from 8.00am to 1.00pm, but the only options were to arrive at 8.00, 9.45 or 11.30. In reality, a considerable number of people regularly arrived late for services; those people now feel much more comfortable about their part in the church community.

It took us about a year to take the whole thing through from initial idea to introduction. Looking back, the amount of work that went into developing and refining our plans was well worthwhile.