Friday, 31 October 2014

My Adventures with God - Breaking into Church * Breaking out of Church

Chapter 24

At Lang Lang we had a flourishing Sunday School, a teenage Bible Study, and a large body of new converts. Actually many of the new converts had been fed into other denominations for a profound reason. Women who became Christians naturally wanted their husbands to find the joy they had found in Christ. So where their husband was Roman Catholic or Uniting Church they started going to that church in the hope that it would be easier for him to participate. It struck me then, and still does, as a very Christ-like attitude and so these women had our support and blessing in doing this. Interestingly God used this pool of Christians who had been converted through our ministry but who were now in other churches to help us greatly later on, but that is a story for later!

There still remained a large body of new believers who saw themselves as “Anglicans” who could not get past the “gatekeepers” to come to church.

So we, after much prayer of course, resorted to busting the blockade by force. Not every Sunday. Just on occasions.

The Sunday School kids wanted a means of showing their parents what Christianity meant to them. We had our own youth concert band so music was no problem. So for special occasions we put on “Family Service” with a difference. Not family service to entice young people along but family service for the young people to bring their non-churchgoing parents to!

When a normal Sunday congregation was 12 to 18 souls and an extra hundred people turned up – with Sunday School kids backed by social clout in the form of of Inez and Sue manning the door, the gatekeepers were totally powerless. They were reduced to retreating to the vestry and taking out their frustrations on me!

Jan, the chief gatekeeper threatened that if the Sunday School came to church once more she was leaving and going to the Anglican church in the next town. That was actually threatening to put us out of business since my salary was paid by the money they raised through the “Ladies Guild” and its fund-raising efforts. However on the other side it proved to be an idle threat. They did not do it.

On reflection part of the reason for this was also the reason she was so angry at new people not of her choosing coming into the church – it threatened her identity which was inextricably bound up with her status and roles in the church. Conversely she had waited decades for her turn at Guild President and Church Warden, and was not likely to give that up to go to another parish where she would start at the bottom of the guild hierarchy. (to be fair she was an extremely capable guild president, and chaired a meeting with an efficiency that most bureaucrats could have learned much from!)

While their hostility was very real and given vent, they did not act on it. And I don't think they did even carry out their threats to “go to the Bishop” at that stage. It is interesting that although they did bad things in opposing people being converted and added to the church, they were not bad people and they were in their own way indispensable. More of this – and especially the role of identity issues in church conflict later.

These family services were a thundering success, with an instrumental band (although usually not the full compliment) and so many voices it also was that volume-wise.

As I said these were different to most church's family service at that time. The conventional wisdom was that to entice children and young people to church you had to do a “Sesame Street” version of church. Our young people were already believers, but had no exposure to church services, so “church lite” or full liturgy were equally foreign to them. Their parents on the other hand often had some past exposure to church so expected a church service to be recognisable as such.

So while we had drums, trumpets, flutes, saxophones, clarinets and so on, we sang the old hymns as well as some of Rosalie's songs. My favourite was “Onward Christian Soldiers” to fife (flute in our case) and drum. But all the old favourites came alive to being played and sung with feeling.

Kids did the readings and prayers, and often presented prepared items, but we left the basic liturgy more or less intact.

The fear of new people coming to church was not just at Lang Lang.

Our other main church in this parish was at Koo-wee-rup. In many ways they were as a congregation much more advanced in the Faith than the congregation was at Lang Lang. However there were still serious problems. Some will come out in the next few blogs, one I will tell here.

This tale comes from a parish council meeting – which had six delegates each from Lang Lang, Koo-wee-rup and two from Balyes. I had for some time been trying to enthuse the parish council members with my ideas for evangelism and some of the “flavour-of-the-month” ideas of church growth which I gleaned from books and attending church growth conferences. Always to no avail. This time I wanted to start a ministry in the local high school. Ross and I presented our ideas but there was general opposition.

Then one man from Koo-wee-rup put their opposition in a nutshell: he burst out “But if you go into the High School, kids might want to come to our church!” His look of shock and horror was mirrored in many faces around the room.

None the less, Ross and I went ahead and started a Christian group in the high school. Week by week we went and met with kids who came to find out about Christianity. Some of them went on to attend the Bayles Fellowship meetings of a Sunday night.

At Bayles we tried the opposite approach – we broke out of the church mould!

As an Anglican priest I had taken vows to only use the approved liturgy in church. I know many priests did then and do now break those vows with impunity, and at that time I had certainly stretched them, but break them completely I would not

I truly think my fellow clergy who continue to throw out the baby with the bathwater by throwing off the principles enshrined in their liturgy and centuries of Christian experience should re-consider their behaviour. God was really severe in Old Testament times when Israelite leaders took oaths of obedience – even when it was to foreign pagan kings – and then broke their oath. We have taken an oath to use an approved liturgy. We cannot break that oath and pretend we are doing it for God!

However at Bayles we had only a Sunday School hall, not an actual church. So there I felt I could honestly hold services without using the Anglican liturgy. Actually I now think that even if my reasoning was correct – which in hindsight I confess is a bit doubtful – abandoning the liturgy was in practice a big mistake. But more of that later.

So our young people's Bible study which met at Ross and Robyn's house started to put on youth services in this Bayles Sunday School Hall.

We started out as a crispy evangelical youth service. The dozen young people from the Bible study were the nucleus of the new service. I think it was a “one-off” and when that went well a regular monthly event, then as it grew, fortnightly, and eventually every Sunday night. Over time it became progressively more Pentecostal. That was not itself a problem, but in time the church gained some fame, then people who were already pentecostal started coming to it and they brought their own baggage with them. That did become a big problem!

For now I will just sketch Bayles Fellowship at its height. It was a “Charismatic” style service – but naively Charismatic blended with with Evangelical passion for Biblical faithfulness and exposition.

It was a “team ministry” with members exercising their particular gifts. I preached. Ross led the worship. We had a music team – besides Ross on guitar - generally of drums, the two Johns on trumpets (they did some amazing improvisations ), Flute and clarinet, and sometimes saxophone. We had prayer support, and the whole team met beforehand to spend time together in prayer.

When I say it was naively Charismatic I mean in the good sense of “innocent”. We didn't try to act Charismatic – it just happened! When Ross was leading worship he would sometimes go off into a song we had never heard before – sometimes in English, sometimes in a strange tongue. When we had congregational praying in tongues it was not artificially set up – as I have seen in many places – it just happened. And most importantly it did not happen on a regular basis. To me that suggests it really was from the Holy Spirit as opposed to the humanly contrived version which I have seen in other places. As I will relate later, when Bayles became “known” among Charismatics, people came who were not content with that: they wanted their spiritual “fix” every week! That was of course the beginning of the end both of Bayles' innocence and eventually of its existence.

At is best Bayles was filled with excitement so that people who came came back and brought their friends.

We also broke out in many other ways – to reach as many people as possible.

We ran evangelistic outreach meetings – which I know is pretty standard for churches. But my point is that we did not neglect the tried and true methods. We had family BBQ's – again standard church practice. We tried to reach every part of the social spectrum. For instance Inez donated a really sweet little pipe organ to the Lang Lang church about this time. Yes I know that the conventional wisdom at that time was for churches that wanted growth to turn their backs on pipe organs in favour of music groups – which often only consisted of acoustic guitars. But my advice here is: “Don't be so enamoured of novelties that you neglect the traditional” We could beat most churches I've seen when it came to music groups – we had not just acoustic guitar – everything from solo trumpet or clarinet (which can be very effective) up to a full concert band, and every combination in between. But God, through Inez gave us a beautiful little pipe organ, and God used it to incredible effect (that is mostly a story for later).

However the organ provided two immediate benefits.

Our regular church organist was a mighty saint of God – but also a very frail old lady. (OK another story for later). She had struggled back from a serious stroke to provide music for the Sunday services. We then had a pedal-powered harmonium and the effort of playing it took a heavy toll on her. The new little pipe organ was naturally powered by an electric blower, then organ builder put in an extra feature with her in mind. It had some clever circuitry between the keyboard and the solenoids that fed air to the pipes. Flick a switch and Florence our organist could play with her good right hand and the one good finger of her clawed left hand and the organ played the appropriate pedal pipes by itself! (Naturally Jan and her fellow controllers had opposed the new organ and the diocesan hierarchy had sent someone to try to talk Inez out of donating it – but Inez believed God had told her that this was his way of collecting all the offerings she had not paid over the years.)

The organ and the contacts we had made with classical musicians while it was being built let us do some “highbrow” outreach. We had organ recitals and even hosted visiting opera singers - all to a packed church. It was all great fun and great team building. A number of men who frequented the pub came to each occasion – some because they actually liked classical music, others so that they could help out with things – even down to helping wash dishes.

Next post: The Devil Strikes Back

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