My thoughts on a sermon, ‘How to case a church’

Post from an old blog 9th October 2011

St Giles Church, Church South Mimms, Herts England / gjarchive

The Rev Dr Patrick O’Neil is the new minister at Rosslyn Hill having arrived in September. His second sermon was, ‘How to case a church.’ I suppose as a newcomer himself, as one who had to case this chapel before accepting the job, he had the newcomer’s perspective.

The reading was from, “To find the Missing part” by Rev. Ralph Helverson.

“We go to church in expectancy, to find the missing part, to relate to what we can never explain, to live with unanswerable questions.

We go to church because we are looking for something of life’s fulfilment, a fleeting sense that we wish to make life whole, to find the point of our existence, what the great religions have called God.

We go to church because we’re looking for fellowship, a community where we think of helping one another rather than exploiting one another.

We go to church seeking composure to face a world of confusion with its many problems, and predicaments to be faced over and over in life, calling for courage and decision.

We go to church to find the strength to go the second mile, to offer forgiveness, to make amends, to find the good with the evil, the healing beyond the hurt, to rise again after we have fallen.

We go to church to find anew the vision of what life may be…”

‘Church’ could be replaced with wherever you go to meet with others and have a common experience. Hold on let’s try it and see if it works, if we put in the word Temple, Mosque, Synagogue it works not sure if it works if we put in Pub, theatre, or cinema but maybe it does, let me know.

What if you put in your hobby, We go to the ‘Book group’ in expectancy, or your sport, We go to ‘rugby practice’ in expectancy…. If nothing fits maybe you should try something that does otherwise how do you get these needs met?

Maybe going to your mum’s on a Sunday for dinner, does it? I am interested to know what does it for you so if you have the time and inclination let me know.

Patrick talked about a woman who decided to visit 18 churches and score them on all aspects of their organisation. The majority of churches did not do so well and she concluded,

“The churches principles may be relevant, the music most inspirational, the sermon uplifting, but contact with you is the most important factor of all in making visitors feel welcome at church.”

The story reminds me of arriving at University and the Christian Union supplying us with a guide to the local churches. Each had a page to profile themselves. The savvier organised a visit and supplied a Sunday dinner after their service. It was certainly a good way to ensure a Sunday dinner though by mid-October you may have to make a choice.

Patrick acknowledged the difficulties of visiting for the first time,

“ ……..let’s face it, it’s hard to walk in cold to a church where you’ve never been before, where you don’t know anyone. You don’t really know what you’re going to find, you don’t know the protocols or the customs or the traditions of the place.”

I suppose I have over the years become something of a connoisseur of churches, I seem to have a love for the places and a curiosity about the people who occupy them.

My parents were not churchgoers though I was sent to Sunday school. The Sunday school was held in a Community centre organised by the local Church of Ireland parish. One Sunday I decided to take myself to the Church after Sunday school. I think I was about seven. I walked in and sat in a pew and that was that. I continued to do that until my friends at the Methodist Boys’ Brigade (BB) persuaded me to join them at the Methodist Sunday School and then the Methodist church.

Many years later, I have visited many churches. About fourteen years ago, I decided to visit the local congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Days Saints better known as the Mormons. We turned up at 10 00 am only to find that for the first two hours the men went one way and the women the other. My then partner did not like that idea so we agreed we would come back at 12 noon when everyone came together. We arrived back at noon and had two young missionaries sit next to us. They were surprised that we had just turned up somehow expecting that the only people to come through their doors would be personally invited.

More recently, I visited an Anglican church in Waterloo, SE1, it was an evening service and there were not many people, I was asked would I do a reading, and I obliged. In the mountains of Romania, I have sat in Baptist churches where the men sat on one side and the women on the other, in France where the congregation all held hands and said a communal blessing. In a Black church in Washington DC were the ushers wore white gloves and showed me to my seat. In Christian Science churches where the whole service is conducted by two readers who read alternately from the Bible and Science and Health. At a Quaker meeting where the helpful leaflet handed to me explained that we would sit in silence except when anyone amongst us felt the need to speak. The Orthodox service was where we stood from beginning to end. You can see I experiences churches like some people experience foreign holidays, as a cultural experience.

Patrick in his sermon speculated who may be in the congregation, I felt identified with the,

“Or maybe the faith you grew up in and attended for years no longer feels authentic and honest as an expression of what you currently believe in or value at this time in your life. Maybe for reasons you don’t totally understand yourself, you’ve grown in new directions, taken unexpected pathways, become different from that person you used to be who felt comfortable in another kind of church.”

In many ways, the churches and or religious communities I have been a part of have reflected something of my life at the time; just as we grow we need a new set of clothes. I find myself part of a Free Church or perhaps more accurately a Liberal community. In this place, I find Atheists, Agnostics, Theists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans and Others without labels. I think this is a tremendous thing that people regardless of belief can be part of one community. We don’t think alike but we respect each other. I feel a freedom in being able to grow without being limited to a creed. My creed is dynamic as is my life.

Patrick quoted from the Colour Purple by Alice Walker,

“Tell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show up. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God….God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifests itself, even if you are not looking, or don’t know what you’re looking for.”

Perhaps what is most telling about this quote is that we bring ourselves, we bring our experiences and our concepts of what is Holy, what is worthy to wherever we go.

It is quite an encouraging thought to think that you bring something of the Holy. You are a piece of the human jigsaw.

It is an affirming thought that you simply in who you are ‘bring something’. ‘Something’ if you were not there that would be missing.

In recent years, I have found my way to a Hindu temple, a Muslim Mosque and a Jewish synagogue. I detect that people regardless of tradition are seeking the same.

Patrick spoke about Worship. I have struggled with the idea of being a subject of a Pharaoh-like God who I prostrate before or that I sing to, to make my God happy.

My God is more like the God of Toto, the dog in the Wizard of Oz. I pull back the curtain and say, being to Being,

“I don’t need a God who seems all-powerful, all-knowing. I need a God who can help me at a very practical level to get me out of Kansas.”

Patrick says, “The word worship, ……it’s worth noting that the word itself is derived from the old English word meaning, “worth-ship. It means to “ascribe worth” to something, or even to shape things of worth. Worship, then, is “the deliberate shaping, ordering, or holding up of the things of worth.”

One authority puts it,

“Worship is the touching of certain human needs -the need to give praise, to express gratitude, to acknowledge our own shortcomings, to experience healing and forgiveness, to feel connected with the church community, experience something of the transcendent….. The goal of worship is to help us declare, celebrate, and rejoice in those things we hold to be of worth.” (See, “Common Worship — Why and How?” A Paper by the UUA Commission on Common Worship, 1980.)

These words really help me understand what I have been doing since before I can remember when I have gone to ‘Worship’.

Ultimately a church or whatever it is that becomes church for you, needs to respect you as you need to respect it, to liberate you to the fullness of the life you possess and as those members help you become you, you help them be.


Reminder : Post from an old blog 9th October 2011



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Gordie Jackson

Gordie Jackson

Speaks with a Northern Irish accent, lives in Hertfordshire, England.