A People-Centred Church

by Richard Martin

from Signs of the Times, No. 23 - Oct 2006

What did Jesus teach on the subject?

Jesus often quoted the Old Testament in his teaching and disputations. On one occasion the Pharisees were criticising him for socialising with publicans and sinners. Protocol prevented them from so lowering themselves. They felt themselves too holy to do such - and felt that it was shameful for any teacher to so lower himself. Jesus answered 'But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance' (Matthew 9:13).

Another time he was defending his disciples against a charge of sabbath-breaking. Jesus refused to command people to obey in a mechanical way the outward form of the law: this would dry up the spirit. But why say 'But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless' (Mattthew:12:7, quoting Hosea 6:6)? Perhaps we can conclude that since Jesus quoted it twice in separate incidents, he must have been rather fond of it.

What did it say to him? It seems to me that "mercy" in this saying is a code word for relationships. Jesus seemed to spend most of his time relating to people - talking to them, listening to them, healing them, teaching them (which included getting them to respond).

The other word in the phrase "mercy, not sacrifice", namely "sacrifice", seems to me to be one which signifies protocol, ceremony, ritual, liturgy. This is not without its value, but it should not be valued as much, Jesus says, as relationships. In Jewish idiom, "A not B" often means A more than B. So we interpret the saying in Hosea as "I would prefer mercy to sacrifice" - "I would prefer you to forge relationships than to concentrate on services."

It is true that in Luke there is a verse which describes his regular attendance at the synagogue: 'And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day' (Luke:4:16), but this is the only such verse in the gospels, compared with a wealth of verses which describe his relationship-creating activity.

But what has the church actually believed?

Logically, if God has done wonderful things in creating the world, and if the Son of God has done a wonderful thing in coming in humility to redeem us, then we ought to praise him and thank him for what he is and what he has done. And that is what the church has emphasised . The heart of the church's activity is worship. What is wrong with that?

What is wrong is that this contravenes Jesus' use of that verse 'I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.' As we have seen, Jesus spent his time mainly in relating to people, particularly the poor and needy, and thereby doing God's will. He spread God's generosity, joy, and mercy around liberally, giving praise to God from time to time, but not centring his ministry on praise and worship. But the church has placed its emphasis for 2000 years on ceremonies and liturgies (the argument being that a wonderful God deserves the best that we can possibly offer in worship). It has ordained men for those ceremonies, and made sure that nobody except those approved by the hierarchy could conduct the ceremonies, equipping them with suitable gorgeous clothing, building impressive cathedrals and churches for the worship, with beautiful paintings created by expensive artists. Perhaps it has even developed doctrines to go along with this process. A huge and complex structure has been constructed around the primacy of worship. Often great amounts of money have been spent on this structure while the poor have been suffering all around. Not that those poor have objected - they too joined in the enthusiasm for the primacy of worship!

Untapped riches

A great many people (perhaps most) who faithfully attend church have had interesting, even wonderful, experiences of a spiritual nature which could strengthen the church enormously if only they were made available to the other members. The tradition of the church, however, is to confine all the speaking to a select few, and to relegate the others to the role of listening and (hopefully) accepting. There is virtually never an opportunity to challenge the words which come from the pulpit, and there is a strong impetus to feel guilty if the listener disagrees with what he/she hears. This makes those listeners reluctant to talk about what they feel about things. When they leave the church and gather in the church hall for coffee, what do they talk about? Never about God...

Practical implications

The church has always placed its main emphasis on worship. What would a church which left behind this emphasis look like? Here we are only in a position to speculate and ask questions. We need lots of ideas and suggestions to be put forward, and perhaps tried out before we have a clear idea of the way ahead - not forgetting, anyway, that it is not our church but Christ's. Would such a church expect all its members to play a much more active part in its proceedings? Would the typical group meeting be small in number, and meet in private houses? Presumably every member would be encouraged to attend the group regularly, say once a week. Could there be, in a typical meeting, three of the following - Study of a book, prayer, discussion of practical ways of helping needy neighbours, planning to attend perhaps some protest against Third World debt, enjoying a meal together (very important)? Would such a group want to combine occasionally with a few other groups to compare developments and worship together?

God of surprises

There are no less than 24 verses in the gospels which speak of the amazement, or astonishment, of the people as they listened to Jesus or witnessed his healings. He always seemed to be able to speak to their heart, to get under their skin. Should we not expect the same sort of thing (perhaps in a lesser degree) to happen in the church? But when did you last come away from church with amazement at what you had heard? Perhaps you enjoyed the comforting familiarity of the liturgy, or perhaps you were bored! But either way the procedure was predictable and unsurprising... Now compare that with a group of eight or so people meeting in a house, perhaps discussing a Christian book. The chairperson (whose role is crucial) tactfully restrains the over-talkative, encourages the diffident, and tries to make each contribution relevant to what the previous person has said. Everybody is expected to contribute. Invariably you are surprised at what the others say, sometimes you have a good laugh together, and mutual understanding if not agreement grows as each meeting takes place. Could you not imagine Jesus being thoroughly at home in such a situation?

Preparation for the future

Numbers attending church services have been declining for years, and the financial situation of the church is becoming alarming. Many chapels have been sold off to commerce, and the time has to come at this rate when Anglican churches will have to be deconsecrated and sold. The nearest church with services may be many miles away - and what are we to do then? If you accept the ideas in this paper, you need not be too alarmed; small groups can still meet in homes. But what will be in short supply is competent chairpeople. They need to be trained - and today's church is not training them. The parson of today is used to doing all the talking him/herself, not encouraging others to take over his/her job! In order to train chairpeople, the qualities needed in such a position need to be identified - not everyone can do the job. Firstly it must be recognised that the chairperson's job is to enable others to articulate their thoughts and experience; he/she must be very restrained about speaking his/her own mind. Secondly, the chairperson must be quite tough on those who are long-winded, sensitive to those who say little, and concerned about a logical flow of conversation - it must not consist of disconnected snippets of information or opinions. He/she must be strict in timekeeping - to start and finish the discussion on time. He/she must make sure that everyone is involved in the discussion and, for instance, can hear what other people are saying. He/she must be able to jump in and question a member of the group about what he/she has just said - to make it clear. Or there may be times when after one person has expressed his/her views, there is a need for a comment on them by someone else; for this purpose the chair must ask particular people for their reaction. There are lots of qualities and abilities needed; it is a very important job.

Richard Martin is a retired physics teacher. He organizes the meetings of the North West regional group of the MCU.