Sermon preached on Palm Sunday after a reading from Luke 10:1-11 & 16-20 the story of Jesus sending out 72 disciples to towns in Galilee (we read from this Australian paraphrase)
It was a great pleasure to go along to our annual Newcomer’s tea a couple of weeks back. These are an occasion when a few of the Stewards and Church staff put on a tea for those people who have joined our congregation over the last year. About a dozen people came. We sat around and had a chat about first responses to the church. Almost everyone commented on how welcoming it was. I think all of us on the church side came away feeling very proud and satisfied that this is the way the church is perceived. Well done. This feedback wasn’t really on the personalities or the behaviour of the staff, or even the stewards, it was on the whole congregation. So let me take the opportunity to pass on this feedback. If hearing it makes you feel good, so it should, give yourself a pat on the back and give thanks for yourselves and give thanks for each other. At least on the basis of the feedback from these people we can be confident in describing our selves as a welcoming church.
Then on Friday Alan Jacob and I went up to Durham to a reception and meal for those who had been funded by their Scientists in Congregations scheme. By random chance I ended up sitting next to a guy called Michael Harvey and fell into conversation. He works for an organisation called the National Weekend of Invitation and he started to talk about the concept of an Invitational Church which I’d never heard of before. He explained that if we want to be a church that grows and thrives that being a welcoming church is not enough. Church growth will be extremely slow if we just sit back passively and wait for people to come, even if we have the warmest welcome imaginable if they do come. If our church is serious about growing then we they need to move on from this platform and come more active. We need to start inviting people to join us.
It was one of those times when someone explains something that is so obvious that you come aware wondering how it can never occur to you before. How stupid could I have been. Of course, if we want to grow we need to invite people to join us.
We are here on Palm Sunday. If you think about it that day Jesus’ actions were one enormous invitation to join him. He hires a donkey and manufactures a procession, something highly visual. Then his disciples start shouting hosanna and singing songs of praises, they are making a noise. The whole event is staged to attract attention to the group. Then he processes into Jerusalem. What is a procession if it is not an invitation to join in, to join the movement both physically and metaphorically? The account of this story in John’s gospel is more explicit in saying that a crowd of people did respond to that invitation and join in with the procession. In our own little way this morning we have acted this out within church. I invited you to join in a procession led by our children, and you did!
In the other reading we’ve heard from Luke’s gospel this morning Jesus sends his disciples out, in pairs to offer an invitation. The context is difference, the location is different, the action is different, but the intent is the same. Jesus is inviting people to join in the new movement.
So is this church, our church, an invitational church? Do we as its members feel confident in inviting other people to worship with us? If we think back as individuals, when was that last time we invited anyone to join us in church (leaving out perhaps members of our own family, and friends who are already Christians who have come to stay with us). I know that this is something that I am very bad at. I told this to Michael (the guy in Durham in case you’ve forgotten!) and he was quite gracious. “You’re not alone”, he said, “we’ve done some surveys which give repeatable results across a range of churches. 8 out of 10 church members have absolutely no intention of inviting anyone to come to church”.
This was another statement that hit me with some force. Philip, Hannah and I have invested a lot of time recently in planning for our Fresh Perspectives course. This is a project to encourage people from the margins of the church to come and explore the difference that Jesus can make to their lives in the 21st century. The sessions clearly won’t work unless we get people to attend and the main strategy we’ve adopted to get them here is to ask members of the congregation, you, to invite them. You should all have received two invitation cards and our hope is that you will use them to invite other people. But that seems pretty stupid in the light of Michael’s suggestion that the vast majority of church members have no intention of issuing and invitation to church to anyone.
“Why”, I asked, “do you think that is?”. Well it’s not because they don’t know anyone. Was the reply. Michael’s team had done some more research. Given the opportunity to think about it 7 out of 10 Christians can think of somebody in their circle of acquaintance (family, friend, neighbour, colleague) who they feel God might be prompting them to invite to church. It might be someone who’s gone through a particular life experience, it might be someone who appears lonely, it might be someone who has actually come on to our premises at some other time of the week, it might be someone who actually says something about wanting to explore deeper issues or a Christian faith a little more. Given an opportunity 7 out of 10 of us can think of someone who falls into that category. So, I’m going to stop for a few seconds to give you that opportunity. Who, in your life, might God be prompting you to invite to come to church? Who, in your life, might God be prompting you to invite to Fresh Perspectives?
What Michael’s research does show, is that most church members are afraid to be invitational, afraid, more specifically of failure, afraid of the invitation being rejected. This is a reasonable fear because part of this process is beyond our control. We cannot compel anyone to come to church, we can only offer them an invitation. So he suggests that we define success in a different way. Our task, he argues is to offer the invitation. The measure of success should not be whether the person accepts the invitation, which is largely out of our control. The measure of success should simply be whether you give out the invitation or not. See the offering of the invitation as what you are doing for God. Leave the question of whether it is accepted or not to how God works within the recipient. We are asked to be “good and faithful” servants, not necessarily “good ans successful ones”.
A similar principle is at the heart of Jesus’ instructions when he sends out the 72. “Go to different towns”, he says, “If they welcome you then stay. If they do not welcome you then simply move onto the next town”. The disciples’ preliminary outcome measure is not how many people respond but how many invitations they have issued.
So you should all have the invitation packs for Fresh Perspectives. (There are more available at the back on the way out if you haven’t). Some of you will have offered the invitations already, but many more of you will have the invitations still sitting around in your kitchen or hallway or study, wherever it is that you have that pile of letters and bits of paper that you are going to get round to looking at at some time in the future. Go and find those invitations and offer them to someone. Don’t worry about whether the invitations will be accepted or not, simply be satisfied that once the invitation has passed out of your hands your task has been completed successfully.
The final point that Michael made, and that can be drawn out of the story of the sending of the 72, is that the focus of this exercise should be as much on you, who offer the invitations, as on those that it is offered to. One thing that is remarkable about Luke’s story is how little concern Jesus shows for the towns that the disciples have visited. He’s not like Paul, setting up new churches, organising a support network and writing regular letters of encouragement and asking for reports on progress. He just seems to move on in the confidence, that having been told about God’s Kingdom those individuals will respond to their invitations in their own way.
He is much more interested in those who offered the invitations, in how they have grown and developed in their own faith. “You see, the world is full of snakes and sharks, but I have given you the ability to stand against them” – the focus is on the way that those who were sent out have been transformed by their experience. “All the same, the most exciting news for you is not that evil will give way to you, but that your names are on the books in the pay office of heaven.” It is almost as if the reason Jesus sent those disciples out was more to give them an opportunity for personal growth in faith than it was for the results of their actions.
So maybe we can take this the same way. Maybe we can see this process as a way for us to grow in our own faith. Maybe we can take that invitation in our own hands and think, “how am I going to take the next step in growing in my own faith through the act of offering that invitation to someone else?”. How am I going to be transformed by taking the gospel seriously and passing it on to someone else? How am I going to get my name “on the books of the pay office in heaven?”