Last Sunday marked one year since I started my ministry at SBC, and so I wanted us to go back to where we were a year ago and think about where we have come since then. I started my time here by reflecting on the idea of welcome, a theme I chose because I could see that it was already something that was part of the fabric of the church, a charism that we need to use to its fullest.
We thought about welcoming difference I used the example of Matthew and Simon, the tax collector and the zealot, two men on opposite extremes of the political spectrum, spending three years with Jesus as part of the Twelve. I talked about how that gives me hope that we can love each other and work together across pretty major differences, something we really need to model to the world. As I said then, welcoming difference does not mean tolerating any kind of prejudice or discrimination, but it does mean that where nobody is getting hurt, we should be able to live with different perespectives and different ways of being and doing, to hear those differences and perhaps even learn from them. I think it is a strength of this church that we are not dogmatic, that there is no ten point article of faith we all have to sign up to, because it leaves room for difference, room to question and to challenge and to disagree, and that is a good and healthy thing.
We thought about welcoming those who had been excluded This was about recognising that there are some people who have been made to feel unwelcome in church, whether they have been told that they cannot be truly themselves because of their gender or sexuality, or they have struggled to access the building or the services because of their physical or mental needs, or they have felt like their face doesn’t fit because of their race or their background. For those people there are barriers that need to be taken down, and so welcome will be more than just a friendly handshake at the door, it will be a very intentional act of inclusion. I asked you all to complete the phrase “inclusion is...” and answers were wonderfully encouraging. They are still on the notice board at the back of church, and you can find them in this blog, so that we can keep reminding ourselves of what we are seeking to do and be as a place of welcome and inclusion.
We thought about welcoming all ages I shared my experience of growing up in a proudly intergenerational church. I talked about how important it was for me to feel a full part of the congregation, to serve by counting the coppers and saying the prayers and playing in the band, and my hope that we can recreate something of that here, so that any children who come to join us feel valued and included. We tried Godly Play for the first time, because it is a way of storytelling that I think has the potential to be engaging for people of all ages, if not all people. The truth is that nothing will work for everyone, and that’s why it’s good to try lots of different things, and to remember that being family means making compromises, but I do think there are ways of doing church that bring together the youngest to the oldest, and I think they are probably the best ways.
We thought about welcoming the stranger we will never meet This was our Harvest Sunday, when we raised money for the BMS appeal to improve perinatal care in rural Afghanistan, and I talked about the importance of living in the world with hearts and hands open, of learning to love every neighbour and act in ways that seek their good. It is a dangerous and painful thing to let your heart break for the world, because then it all falls in and you end up sobbing your way through a sermon on refugees, but it is going to take a whole lot of broken hearts to mend the world.
And we started and framed the series with the idea that we are called to welcome as Christ welcomed, which is really to say that we are called to love as Christ loved. That really is the most important thing for us to hold on to, which is why I wanted us to hear Romans 15:5-7 and John 15:9-12 again this morning. As we spent time unpacking those verses last year, thinking of all the ways in which Christ welcomed and loved those around him, we heard that his was a welcome and a love that was open and indiscriminate, compassionate and generous, liberating and challenging, servanthearted and sacrificial. Christ still welcomes and loves us like that, and calls us to welcome and love one another in the same way.
Having reminded ourselves of where we began, I wanted to reflect on how some of those ideas about welcome have been worked out over the past year, thinking about who and what and how we have welcomed. The year has gone so fast that it would be easy to see the whole thing as a blur, but I think it is good to recognise and celebrate what we have done, and to use that as an encouragement for what we will do.
We have welcomed one another I have started to get to know you and you have started to get to know me, over cups of tea after services and pancakes at the manse, during meetings and parties and quizzes. I hope you have felt welcome in our home and lives, because have certainly felt welcome here. I am told with some frequency that I don’t look like a minister. I’m never sure if I’m too young or too female, or whether it is meant with surprise or disapproval, but whatever the case, I spend quite a lot of ministry feeling like something of an oddity. I have never felt that here. And I have never seen Eddie happier than welcoming his church family to our pancake party, or seen Mike so quick to jump on a rota. We have been made to feel very much at home, and it has been a particular joy to see how you have embraced Eddie, and how he is already throwing himself into serving here. It gives me great confidence that he will grow up with the same experience of church that I did, and that we can bless other families with that experience too. I will try not to get too soppy about it, but I have a very deep affection for this community.
We have welcomed new faces Some have stayed and some have passed through, but no one has left without commenting on how friendly we all are. And they have left us with some really lovely encouragements. One person walked five miles across the city to join us for a few months, and another commented on how much we felt like a family. I like to think we’ve made an impact on those who we have welcomed, and who knows what that might blossom into, even if those flowers are seen elsewhere.
We have welcomed new members I want to be careful in talking about membership, because some choose not to become formal members and they are no less loved or valued for it, but I do think it is worth mentioning membership because it is one of the ways we covenant together, and whether we do it through membership or not, the fact that we commit to one another is important. We are not just a club that meets once a week - as Eddie always says, we are family. Of course we don’t always get it right - like any family we can be clumsy with and forgetful of one another at times, and so we mustn’t be complacent, but must cotinue to love as well as we can - but I believe that we do care.
We have welcomed new families to Messy Church and Busy Bees I know there is some sadness that we don't have many children with us on a Sunday morning, and I too would love to welcome more families into our Sunday worship, but I want us to remember that the church is bigger than the Sunday service and the kingdom is bigger than the church. Messy Church and Busy Bees are part of our ministry and they are ways in which people are hearing about and perhaps even connecting with God, and so we should remember them and rejoice that they are growing. I bumped into several of the Busy Bees mums this week, and they told me how much their children enjoyed the holiday club and and are looking forward to Messy Church returning, and it was wonderful to hear that encouragement, but also have a sense of deepening relationships with these families.
We have welcomed new activities We now have two house groups going again, and we held our first Messy Play just before summer, an extension to Messy Church which I think could do great things in terms of building that community. We are also moving towards trialling a wellbeing cafe, and after a really positive meeting with two people working in mental health and wellbeing at the council, I am even more convinced about how much rich potential that holds, and I’m really excited to see it develop.
We have continued to welcome the community through regular groups and parties Having spent three years in a church with no building, this space has had lots of fresh lessons to teach me. I now know more about health and safety than ever before, and have even learnt how to negotiate the church cellar and relight the boiler. But the most important thing it has taught me is what a gift it is to have such a beautiful building and to be so generous in sharing it. There are very few spaces like this in this corner of the city, and so while it obviously benefits us, I also believe it is a real blessing to our community that we offer it for hire. Our bookings already open up points of connection between us and the community, and I hope that in the next year we can build on that. I have dreams of developing a ‘village hall’ feel, with a community noticeboard where we can share what we are doing and our regular groups can share their news and we can advertise other community activities and services.
We have thought about being more than welcome This goes back to what I said about inclusion, about intentionally welcoming those who have been excluded. Three of us went to a day of training run by Livability, to think about how we can better include those with additional physical and mental needs. There is lots we can still improve on, but little by little I’ve been trying to introduce some of that learning. We’ve also begun conversations around LGBT inclusion, which have started really positively, with a clear sense that of course everybody is welcome, even if there are still some aspects of full inclusion that we need to talk further about. I spent some time at the Christians at Pride stall at Leicester Pride yesterday, and it was clear how much people needed to hear that God loves them and there are churches that will welcome them, and a joy to be a part of that. Any church can put ‘everybody welcome’ on the door, but I believe the welcome here is deep and genuine and I want us to keep building on that, and keep broadcasting that message louder and wider.
I'm really proud of all we have done together over the past year. It may not have been big or dramatic, we haven't doubled in size or started ten new ministries, but we have continued to practice our charism of welcome, and I am excited about where that may take us next.