It was written over 40 years ago by a church leader to his congregation. The author is long dead. The community to which this letter was addressed is no longer recognizable as the church it once was.
The letter fascinates me for a number of reasons:
1. By any conventional standard of measurement, the community that received this letter was a “successful” church. This was not a congregation in decline. It was not threatened by extinction.
2. The letter seems to indicate that the glory days of church four decades ago, may have been a little less glorious than today we are inclined to think.
3. I see in this letter a warning that the methods clergy use to motivate their congregations at times may risk over-powering the message they hope to embody.
My dear Christian Friends :-
While this letter is going to everyone on our list, it is intended for those we see in church only occasionally.
It is two years this month since I became, in response to your call, minister of this church. There have been many encouragements and some difficulties, not the least of which have been the problems of our building programme. But if we are to be fully effective as a parish, we must remember that our primary goal is to worship God and to serve Him by serving others. Then, like Paul, we shall forget the things which are behind us, and get on with our task.
Frankly, the most disheartening part of my work is the failure on the part of some of our people to understand the importance of commitment and loyalty. For example, there are about 280 names on our parish list – some individuals, mostly families, who claim some connection with our church. Counting men, women and children, conservatively there must be at least 750 persons. The question is, where are they on Sunday while others are at worship?
Allowing for shut-ins and for those who are sick or away on any given Sunday, it remains truth that if the worship of God and the gathering together in the family which Jesus Christ founded were really important to us, our church would be full every Sunday.
It is amazing to me that Christian people who profess an interest in this church, do in fact (although unwittingly)destroy the work of others by staying away. Absence is not neutral – it is negative. As members of God’s family, we cannot strengthen one another if we remain apart; we must come together in the way the Lord has provided – and by our willingness to share in the responsibilities of the family of God and to serve as we are able.
How many recall the solemn promise made at the time of my induction to “afford to their Minister at all times all needful help and encouragement in his work”? How many appreciate the encouragement they give, not only to the minister, but to the choir and congregation when they worship regularly and how disheartening it is when they are absent for no good reason. Yet these human loyalties pale into insignificance when compared with loyalty to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, who found the Church and is the Head of it.
If you are one who has become careless about your worship, may I quite simply ask why?
1. Is it because I have failed you? If this is so, I am very sorry, and would like you to tell me how I can make amends.
2. Is it because you don’t get much from the sermons or services? Then a good question is – did you come to GET or to GIVE? If we come to worship God, to give ourselves more fully to Him, and to ask Him to make us more effective instruments of His love, we shall leave this house of prayer richer for the experience.
3. Is it because you have temporarily forgotten the stand taken at your Baptism or Confirmation – to put God FIRST in your life, to be a member of God’s family (the church) and to live up to the requirements of that membership?
4. Is it because the times of worship are not convenient for you? Then what should we add to those we already offer?
If each one of us caught a vision of this church as a Broadcasting Channel of God’s love, we would come together gladly Sunday by Sunday to worship Him, and go out into the world to minister to others in the power of His love.
I close this letter with a question – how can I help you?
Second, with a request, that we all thank God for that wonderful group of people who give so unstintingly of their time and gifts to further the work of God in this parish - without whom any church could not long continue.
I am intrigued by at least four implications in this letter:
1. Involvement or lack of involvement in church seems to be a personal statement about the professionally religious paid staff person in the community.
2. Failure to be in regular attendance at public worship is judged to be a failure to take seriously the promises and commitments of the Christian life.
3. The fact that in the ’60′s this was a busy energetic congregation, suggests that guilt and social expectation are effective methods to motivate people to participate in the organizational life of the church.
4. If the people who occupied the pews of this church forty years ago were involved because they were driven by some compulsion to please the minister, it is no wonder their children and grandchildren today can no longer be found in the pews.
I wish I could ask the recipients of this letter a few questions:
Were you happy to be treated this way by the letter writer?
Did nothing in the tone of this letter cause you to feel upset or abused?
Did this letter feel to you like a life-giving communication from the spiritual leader of your community?
What would it take today to redeem your vision of a church in which the leadership would address you in this way?