Back to Basics
In the 1980s companies that had been successful in one area of economic activity frequently sought to grow by taking over other companies. The companies that they took over often worked in very different areas. So, for example, you had mining companies buying hotels and restaurants. This did not always work, and it was not long before these big conglomerates found themselves having to sell, what were for them, the fringe businesses to concentrate on their core activities.
I have been thinking recently about what the core activity of the church is, or should be. I do not know what it is like at your church, but I find it hard to persuade people to attend church meetings. I do understand some of the reasons why they don’t. If you have a family, with both parents working, after time spent travelling and time spent with the children, there is very little time left for anything else. This is especially true in Hong Kong where people are expected to work late and often also at weekends.
It may be that we are expecting too much of people and need to rethink our priorities. Instead of inviting people to meeting after meeting maybe we need to identify our core activity and concentrate on inviting them to that.
But, more specifically, what about us as priests? I have always felt that my own personal call is to teach and preach. I was fortunate in that I was given opportunity to do so while still a young teenager. I loved sermons and listening to established Christian teachers. I would happily travel a long way to hear a good preacher. As I grew up, I could not understand why people did not share my enthusiasm.
Congregations often complain that sermons are boring, and want more than anything else for them to be short. I recently told my congregation that my sermons were going to be longer in future and they just thought I was joking. Why would anyone want long sermons? This has led priests to feel spending time on sermons is a waste of time. We do not feel they are as important as other things we are called upon to do. And there are many other things!
I remember when I was training for the ministry. Each week organisations would be invited in to tell us about their work and about how, when we were ordained, we could be involved in their work. There were missionary organisations and organisations working in every area of human need: with the disabled, youth, the elderly, the bereaved, schools, the homeless, alcoholics, the depressed, etc, etc. I could go on. All these organisations sought to persuade us of the importance of their work and of how it should be important to us, too, as priests, in our future ministry.
It has not changed now that I am a priest. Human need is overwhelming, and we in the church are expected, rightly, to respond to it. But given the huge demands made upon us in every area of our lives and ministry, it is no wonder that we spend so little time on a sermon.
One preacher I used to like to listen to when I was young once spoke of how he went about preparing a sermon. He reckoned that you needed to spend at least one hour in preparation for every minute spent in the pulpit. Given that he often preached for nearly an hour, this was a massive amount of preparation. I don’t do that much preparation or anything like it. I wonder when the last time was that, as a priest, we cancelled a meeting because we had to prepare a sermon. Sermon preparation time is often what is left over after we have done everything else. It is almost as if we think: ‘Well the congregation don’t take the sermon seriously, why should I? I have enough to do!’
So instead of well prepared sermons, and in response to consumer demand, we are trying to be more entertaining (so that we can’t be accused of being boring) and are resorting to storytelling (because stories are easy to come up with). Now I realize that Jesus told stories, but he also preached the Sermon on the Mount! He spent a large amount of his ministry teaching people. I am convinced that if we preachers want congregations to take sermons more seriously, we need to take them more seriously ourselves and stop simply telling anecdotes. This may mean that we, as priests, have to make decisions about what are our personal core activities.
Do you remember the words of St Peter in Acts 6:2? He said it was not right for him and the other apostles to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. Now there is nothing wrong with waiting on tables, and Peter took steps to see that the work of waiting was done and done well. It just wasn’t his job to do it. He said, ‘We for our part will devote ourselves to prayer and serving the word.’ (Acts 6:4) God needs people who will serve on committees and who will work in organisations to bring the love of God to those in need, but he also needs those who, like Peter and the apostles, devote themselves to the word of God and prayer. And if this isn’t the job of a priest what is?
When someone comes to me to talk about the possibility of being ordained, I always ask them what difference it will make to them. What they think they will be able to do when they are ordained that they can’t do as a lay person. What is ordination all about? The answer, of course, is that there is very little that an ordained person does that a lay person can’t also do. If I look at my diary, much that I spend my time on could equally well be done by a lay person and probably very often done much better. But there remain some things that the church has determined are particularly the work of a priest.
I became a priest so that I would have the opportunity to preach. Now I am ordained, I don’t have the time to preach. Then I had the time and not the authority, now I have the authority and not the time! I am trying in my ministry at the moment to make more time for preaching. What I mean by time is time in preparation as well as in delivery. It can be discouraging. It is, for example, very disheartening when you spend hours preparing for a talk or sermon and only a handful of people make the effort to turn up to listen to it.
I have, however, been given heart by the late Pope John Paul. At a time of secularisation and mounting opposition to the church, he stuck to the fundamentals: to the church’s core activities. While people did not always agree with him, they respected him. The reaction of even hardened non-churchgoers to his death shows the respect with which he was held.
People still need to hear the word of God. St Paul asked how they can hear unless someone preaches to them (Romans 10:14). The responsibility belongs to all of us who have been set apart for this ministry. Like Pope John Paul, we need to stick to the fundamentals and concentrate on what should be our core activity. Perhaps then people will come to want to hear the word of God again.