Turning Up and Being Counted

I’m currently going through a strange time. I’m away from my congregation on sabbatical. It is a good thing to do and I’m having a great time, meeting fantastic people and learning a thing or two by stopping for a while to breathe.

There’s always things that you miss when you are away from the place you know best. For me, the fact that Branston Pickle has not conquered the world is astonishment and I’ve missed it in far flung places all around the world over the years. However, there’s something more quirky, churchy and odd that I really missed this year.

Last Sunday was the day that the Scottish Episcopal Church counts all the people in its churches and reports the numbers back to each diocese, which then sends them to the General Synod Office in Edinburgh and the numbers are published in the new year. The count always happens on the Sunday next before Advent – the one we call Christ the King. The idea is that it is a fairly normal Sunday at a time of the year when most people are not on holiday and so you get a fair idea of the size of the worshipping population of the church.

They key thing though is that you have to turn up to be counted.

You might be on an electoral roll for a congregation (we report those numbers too) but if you are not there you would not be included in the annual count of who is in church on the Sunday next before Advent. You might have been baptised in the church or confirmed in it. You might have had the most glorious nuptials that church ever witnessed or have buried your great uncle Albert’s surprising bidey-in in the churchyard. You may have had tea with the rector once or even been to a carol service in 1972. But no matter how close you think your relationship is with the congregation, on the day when the count takes place, you won’t be counted unless you are there.

And I missed it.

Somehow not being counted made me feel a long way from home.

There’s all kinds of criticism of the kind of congregational statistics that we gather in Scotland, as there is in many other parts of the Anglican Communion. But the trouble is, we’ve got a great data set of next before Advent statistics and we need to keep measuring that one, even if we want to start to measure other things, if they are going to be of any use to us.

I’d quite like us to record average Sunday attendance as well. Some people want to count the number of people who enter the church at any time to measure the effective reach of the church. And some people don’t like the idea of counting at all.

But I do.

I don’t particularly want to rehearse the arguments for how we should count people in church but it does seem to matter to me that we have some sense of the trends and patterns of people’s worship patterns.

Quite a lot of people care more about the numbers of people whom the church is in contact with through the week and through the year than about the numbers of people in church for worship.

I’m probably in the minority by not counting myself amongst them.

I do care how many people are in church to worship and tend to think that worship is not only the most distinctive thing that churches offer but also the most interesting.

There are currently some very deep fears amongst clergy and lay leaders in a great many churches and of different traditions and theological persuasions around the numbers attending. It is also very difficult for Christians to talk about these fears openly.

There are obvious fears about how to keep paying the bills and the fact is, the greatest and most glorious expenses that most churches have are the people who work in them. Clergy, lay workers, musicians are all looking at attendance figures at the moment and thinking about the future a little nervously.

Clearly churches have to pay the bills and usually this money comes from those who turn up. One of the questions that the pandemic has raised is whether the link between turning up and coughing up (cash not phlegm!) is being broken.

I seem to be hearing stories of congregations being significantly down in number but where giving has risen at bit during the pandemic but no-one knows what that really means.

I have another anxiety which goes beyond worrying about how we are all going to pay the bills though. My primary anxiety about current changes in churchgoing is that what is done in church only really makes much sense if you are there every week to experience it.

The Liturgical Movement, which led to the kind of worship that many mainstream congregations now have, is predicated on the very idea that if you turn up, week by week, your personal faith will become deeper and more satisfying by being formed by the worship that you experience. Not just that, but when you gather all those individual experiences of deepening faith together, you build the strength, confidence and witness of the whole people of God who, acting out of that renewed faith, will turn the world upside down, usher in God’s kingdom of justice and joy and all the world will be saved.

(I know it isn’t particularly fashionable to talk about all the world being saved, but some of us still think it kind of matters).

One of the things that I realised as the events of 2020 unfolded was just how badly the Liturgical Movement had prepared us all for the pandemic. Somewhere along the way we’d become so focussed on community piety and devotion that we’d lost the idea that individuals on their own can deepen their faith.

Two years on, our communities can gather again in most places. However, all around the world, people are reporting that numbers are still quite disappointing.

It is clear that in many places some people have simply given up coming to church during the pandemic. Links were broken. Relationships were harder. Some people got angry in the midst of it all. And as usual with anger, it is difficult to pin down. Anger at oneself, anger at the pastor, anger at God, anger at those one lives with and anger at just about anything were all part of the pandemic.

However, my hunch is that numbers are still down in very many churches not primarily because of people who have left but more because of people who are turning up less often than they used to do. That was already a feature of life in the pre-pandemic church but as with so many things, the pandemic itself seemed to hit the accelerator on this process.

It is also the case of course that some people have changed health circumstances and are simply not able to do what they used to do.  (Online worship is a joy to some but we’ve no idea how to count those attending that way).

This year’s statistics, gathered in many different ways and in many different denominations, are going to show that a lot of people did not show up and were not counted.

But how are we going to talk about this in public?

Clergy are very wary of telling people that they must come to church every week and for good reason. We don’t need people to come to church because of a guilt trip that someone has induced in them. We need people to come to church for more positive reasons.

I want people to come because turning up helps them make sense of life. I want people to come because it is gloriously fun. I want people to come to be inspired to help make the kingdom of justice and joy a reality. I want people to come because it helps us to learn how to live when life isn’t gloriously fun. I want people to come because friendships formed as we worship together challenge us all to live as salt and light in the world. And I want people to know that sometimes,  out of what I can only describe as a very strange sense of humour, God even seems to enjoy teaching us good things through people whom we would never otherwise be with.

It has been the universal expectation of Christianity that worshipping together weekly is the norm for Christians. I suspect that there have been very many times in the history of the faith that those who count the numbers have sighed deeply and wondered how to convey the giddy joyful truth, that deepening one’s faith by committing to weekly worship, is life changing and life affirming.

Clergy and lay church leaders are planning how to deliver another festive season that will be both wonderful and exhausting. Very many, I suspect are also trying to work out how to convey that maybe, just maybe, part of our healing from pandemic-driven exhaustion might be found in finding regular, weekly rhythms of faith.

You know the drill. Advent Sunday is upon us. A new church year dawns. Ecclesiastical new year resolutions are the best new year resolutions of them all.

In a few weeks time we’ll be celebrating someone who turned up and was counted in a census just over 2000 years ago.

And a God is for life, not just for Christmas.

12 Things I’ve Learned About Preaching

Kelvin, preaching

At the moment, I’m on sabbatical and am not preaching regularly. However, I recently had the opportunity to preach to a congregation largely made up of apprentice preachers – those who are training for ordained and lay ministries in the church in the future. A number of them have asked me to share some wisdom on how I prepare a sermon. One even asked me to share my ‘homiletic method’. I don’t know about that, but here’s a few things I’ve been learning about preaching. I’ve written posts like this before, but here’s where I am in 2022.

  1. In good sermons there should be a beginning, a middle and an end. In the best sermons, they don’t come in that order.
    Start somewhere unexpected. Bewilder. Entrance. Beguile.
  2. A thousand biblical commentaries will not make a preacher a thousand times better.
    I have a huge admiration for those who write biblical commentaries but I have to confess that I very rarely use them when I’m writing a sermon. I remember a biblical scholar who used to be a member of one of the congregations that I’ve belonged to telling me that he had spent months trying to work out what my sources were and what commentaries I was reading.
    “Ah,” I said, “I’m just making it all up”.
    “I knew it!” he replied.
    The only caveat I would add to this is that I don’t think I would be able to make it all up without having been taught theology by inspirational teachers in university.
  3. Good preachers listen to good preachers.
    I’m lucky in that I hear good preaching within my own congregation from other members of the team. However, everyone can listen to good preaching these days. This internet thingy looks like it is here to stay.
  4. Reflecting on the biblical texts is not just for sermon prep.
    Regularly thinking about what’s in the bible is part of the life of a preacher, it isn’t just for when you need to get into the pulpit. For me, I’ve come to realise that hearing the bible read aloud when saying the daily office with others is a key way that I get to think about what’s in it. Being part of a group of people who regularly read the bible out loud together means that you get to be in a group that can talk about the horrible and outrageous bits honestly and say what you feel about them. This is important. The bible isn’t always nice.
  5. It is OK to use other people’s ideas but not their words.
    Don’t copy and paste. You’ll get found out. Anyone who knows you will know if you use material that isn’t in your own voice. They will wonder whose voice it is. And nowadays they will find out.
  6. Be serious about being funny if you want to make people laugh.
    I’m very lucky in being someone who preaches in Glasgow where people have an amazing sense of humour. It always used to be said that stand-up comedians dreaded playing Glasgow as audiences could give them a hard time. However, one of a number of reasons that the Glasgow Empire was called the comedians’ graveyard was because the audience was funnier than some who trod the boards and they knew it.
    Different things make people laugh in different places and it is worth working out what those things are. For example, the word, “Edinburgh” is intrinsically funny in Glasgow. The word, “Glasgow” will barely raise a smile in Edinburgh.
    There’s a big difference between being genuinely funny in the pulpit and telling a joke. By and large, formulaic jokes are not nearly as funny as reflecting on real life.
    The way you speak matters. Your voice will be different when you make people laugh to when you make people cry or think or get cross.
    Yes, sometimes preachers should make people cross.
    Rhythm is crucial. Think about preaching whilst doing something rhythmic – walking, swimming, knitting or …. well, you can think of something else that you need rhythm for.
  7. Preaching is a form of striptease.
    I’ve said this before and it always makes people feel uneasy. What I mean by it is that good preachers tend to reveal a lot about themselves. Congregations come to know the person they are listening to week after week. Show them another layer. Reveal something new every time.
    You know and they know that there’s parts of your personality that you’ll never quite reveal but they don’t know which those bits are. Not knowing quite what’s coming next is all part of the excitement.
    Tell stories about yourself but only stories in which you are the fool.
  8. Art begets preachers art.
    I’m sure that my preaching would be a lot more dull if I didn’t go to the theatre or listen to the spoken word on the radio. People craft words and use them to tell stories. Some of them are very good at it and they have much to teach us in church. People who see good opera and theatre are never going to be satisfied whilst putting on dull liturgy and preaching dull sermons.
    Remember what Peter Brook said: “A stage space has two rules: (1) Anything can happen and (2) Something must happen.”
    A pulpit is a stage.
    The altar sits in the middle of another one.
    Oh, and go to art galleries and look at things you don’t immediately understand. Preaching is a visual art, just one in which the paintings and the sculptures are made with words.
  9. Have one idea at once. Save the other ideas for another day.
    My bishop once said to me after I’d preached at some bigfangled service or another, “I don’t know how you do it, you only ever have one idea in every sermon.” He’s right. I do. And if I find I’ve got lots going on in a sermon I try to weed out the thoughts that are getting in the way of the one idea that I’m trying to get over and leave them for another time.
    People in the pews know that a sermon that is a few sentences too short is a hundred times better than a sermon that is a few hours too long. Preachers need to learn the difference too.
  10. Always chose the difficult text if presented with a choice to preach on.
    Some of the stories in the bible are difficult. Some vicious. Some violent. Some perplexing. Some outrageous. Always prioritise preaching on the hard stuff and worry away over it. The best sermons I ever write are about the most difficult texts. Preaching on the difficult stuff is hard. Preaching on the lovely stuff is impossible. Who ever preached a sermon that improved on or elucidated 1 Corinthians 13 anyway?
    Someone once told me that I made the hard stuff easy and the easy stuff difficult.
    I take that as a compliment.
    Never be frightened of admitting that a passage is difficult. Never patronise people in the pews by withholding from them Big Modern Ideas that you came across in your theological education. Christians can cope with new ideas. Christianity isn’t about to be wiped out by theology.
  11. Record sermons. Share sermons. Be the first to watch your own sermon.
    I’ve probably learned more from watching and listening to my own sermons than from anyone else. Not because I’m a homiletic genius but because I’m not. Listening to how I paced the sermon, how I used the dynamics and speed of my voice and above all, listening for the reactions of the congregation, is crucial to leaning how to do it better. Most people don’t like listening to recordings of their own voice. However, if you want to get better at preaching then get over yourself as quickly as you can. If you can’t cope with listening to yourself you cannot reasonably expect others to listen to you.
    I realised this week after I’d preached that if I’d just rephrased one of the lines and paced it differently I’d have got a belly laugh out of the congregation instead of a mere titter.
    That’s not a failure.
    Spotting that and tucking it away for another time is a success.
  12. Everyone who preaches can become a better preacher
    There is no-one who speaks in public who couldn’t get better at it than they currently are. Don’t be frightened of thinking about doing it better, no matter how early (or how late) you are in your preaching career. Quality and excellence are mission values these days, something a lot of people are very frightened of indeed – which I may write about more in another post.
    I remember years ago someone telling me that they thought I’d be a great preacher one day. I was furious – I thought I was pretty good at the time. I eventually came to realise that it wasn’t me who had the word of wisdom that day, it was the person who was speaking to me.
    Nowadays I share their hope that I’ll be a great preacher some day. In the mean time, I’m still learning.