I was staggered. There in the ‘Situations Vacant’ column was an advertisement for an organist: ‘Organist required for an impressive Baptist church in South London’. ‘Wow!, I thought, ‘What a claim to make – an “impressive” church’. What is an impressive church?
I looked up the word ‘impressive’ in a thesaurus:
absorbing, affecting, arresting, august, awe-inspiring, consequential, cool, deep, dramatic, effective, eloquent, excited, exciting, extraordinary, forcible, grand, impassioned, important, imposing, inspiring, intense, lavish, luxurious, majestic, massive, momentous, monumental, moving, noble, notable, penetrating, prime, profound, remarkable, rousing, splendid, stately, stirring, striking, sumptuous, superb, thrilling, touching, towering, vital, well-done.
I went online to check out the phrase ‘impressive churches’ – and ended up with churches such as London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.
What an earth did this South London Baptist church have in mind when it called itself ‘impressive’? I happen to have preached at the church some ten or more years ago. The church building is large – and seats over 550 people. Years ago the church was full – but today there are less than 100 members, and the on the occasion I visited the congregation was certainly considerably smaller than the membership. Still, full marks to the church for its self- confidence!
But what is an impressive church? The internet would suggest that it is a ‘grand’ building which makes for an impressive church. When I was a teenager and preaching was more of an ‘art’ than it is today, it was often the preacher who made for an impressive church: it was, for instance, Martin Lloyd Jones at Westminster Chapel, Leonard Griffiths at City Temple, and Howard Williams at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church which drew the crowds. Today’s Christian celebrities tend not to be preachers – and today when people flock to Holy Trinity Brompton, Kensington Temple, and London’s Hill Song, the attraction seems to be more the worship. And, of course, the size of a congregation helps to create a positive impression – a congregation of 500 or more people is clearly more impressive than say a congregation of 25.
Buildings, preachers, worship, congregational size – all matter; and all create an impression, for good or ill. Thanks to our £2 million re-development some ten years ago, I am blessed with wonderful church premises. Thanks to some really gifted and committed musicians, worship on a Sunday can be an amazing experience. Modesty forbids me to say anything about one of the preachers, but I am blessed by colleagues who can preach effectively. As for size of congregations, I am disappointed with less than 300 of a morning and 80 at our young-adult focussed evening service.
Yet at the end of the day that which impresses is not the building, the preacher, the worship or the eize – but rather the people. Time and again on the evaluation section of our welcome cards, people comment on the warmth of the welcome they have received. It is the people
which can make or break a church. I am reminded of the words of Jesus: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13.34,35). It is the love of God’s people for one another which provides the sounding-board for effective Gospel preaching; it is their love for one another which attracts.
Important as buildings, preachers, worship, and congregational size may be, that which impresses is the reality of Christian fellowship – and that can be impressive whatever the size of church, whatever the building, whoever the preacher, and whatever the worship.