Caroline and Susannah have just returned from a mother-daughter weekend-away in New York. They had a great time. They walked and walked – so much so that the first thing Caroline had to do on her return was to take her shoes to be repaired. They visited museums and art galleries, went up the Empire State Building, took a ferry to Staten Island… and went to church!
The church they chose to attend on the Sunday was simply the nearest church to their hotel. It wasn’t a Baptist church nor indeed an evangelical church – rather it was St Bart’s, an impressive Episcopalian church on the corner of Park Avenue and 51st church. Packed to the gunnels, with a great music and thoughtful preaching, it was clearly a super experience.
On her return, Caroline showed me the notice sheet for the day. With great interest I discovered that their strapline is very similar to the one we have adopted here at Central. Here in Chelmsford we say “Central Baptist – a place to belong”. In New York St Bart’s declares – “Everybody needs a place”; or in its expanded form – “Everybody needs a place. St Bart’s could be yours. Check out what’s inside and join us”. Or slightly differently phrased: “Wherever you’re from, wherever you are in life, this church may be the place for you”. I very much like this emphasis on community. In a world full of lonely people, what a difference it makes becoming part of a vibrant and loving family.
St Bart’s too had a lengthy four-fold statement reflecting their understanding of mission and ministry. Let me quote just two sections from this statement: –
WE’RE FOR – The dignity and worth of every person. An open-minded, passionate commitment to truth. The importance of everyone’s own spiritual journey. God’s friends wherever we find them. Seeking Christ in every person who comes through the door. The sacredness of life’s rites of passage. The value of community. The hard work necessary to make sure that all are welcomed. Telling the truth about life’s challenges. A ‘user-friendly’ church experience. Children and families.
WE’RE AGAINST – Claiming to have all the answers. Elitism and exclusivism, especially in church. Bigotry for any reason. Authoritarianism. Indifference to injustice and suffering. Certitude in the face of ambiguity and superficial answers to hard questions. Boring sermons, bad music and general cluelessness. (So, God help us, because we don’t always avoid them!)
As an evangelical, it is all too easy to be negative and ‘nit-pick’ such a statement.
For instance, the reference to bigotry has clearly homophobia in mind – and it comes as no surprise to discover that St Bart’s has an active Lesbian and Gay Fellowship. But just because as evangelicals we may not be pro-gay, does not mean that we should not work at ensuring that gay people are welcome in our churches. Indeed, I like the way in which St Bart’s speaks of “the hard work necessary to make sure all are welcome”.
Likewise, when we read that St Bart’s is against ‘certitude in the face of ambiguity’, it is clear that the church is of a liberal persuasion and it comes as no surprise that they go on to define faith as ‘reason over dogma, reality over perfection, and ambiguity over certitude’. But just because as evangelicals we know that in Jesus, crucified and risen, sins are forgiven and eternal life is assured; this does not mean that we do have all the answers to life – we don’t! There are times when we have to be ‘agnostic’ and say we do not know. I believe that people would value such honesty – for it would then hopefully cause them to listen to our certainties.
One thing I did like – without reservation – was that they are against “boring sermons, bad music, and general cluelessness”. And I liked too their honesty, that at times at St Bart’s they don’t always get it right! Here is as challenge for us all – and not least for evangelicals!