by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
I have stated repeatedly in my initial months of new ministry with you that St. John this Divine possesses a culture of warm and invitational fellowship unique among the parishes I have served. This is a special community of faith in that regard even as we seek to deepen a culture of belonging going forward. However, I encourage us to remember that warm internal fellowship is not an end in itself. Our life together is the locus from which we radiate the light of Christ outward into the city.
I was listening several years ago to an interview with Jonathan Arnold, an Anglican priest in the Church of England. He is an accomplished singer, having sung and traveled with the well-known choral group, The Tallis Scholars. He has also been a staff singer at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.
Arnold was talking about attending the York Minster Early Music Festival, an annual event in the historic city of York, England. During the festival, he observed a couple of thousand people standing in line to buy tickets to hear the York Minster Choir sing at one of the scheduled concerts. Arnold was struck by this sight, noting the concert included much of the very same music the choir sings every day at York Minster’s service of Choral Evensong. Usually, this prayer service is attended by a small smattering of people. But it’s free! In fact, that worship service of Choral Evensong was being offered that very day of the concert!
Why would these people pay for what you can enjoy for free any day you wish? The reason lies in the appeal for many of a concert over a worship service. People paid an entrance fee, preferring to be spectators instead of participants, passive audience members instead of prayer partners. It is less of a commitment to be a consumer of the sacred than a gathered community of believers within it, brothers and sisters, together in the presence of God.
Our vision here at St. John the Divine could not be more different from the scene at the sacred music festival described above. Ours is a vision of gathered life in Jesus both formed and sustained through shared worship, deep belonging, and mutual commitment. As you are likely to hear me say often into the future, the quality of our life together is the chief means by which those outside the faith will be convinced of the love of Jesus and drawn into the church. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Loneliness. The disappearance of community. Degraded networks of social and civic belonging. The despondent feeling many have of going it alone through life, like buying tickets to be a spectator at a concert rather than experiencing genuine belonging. All this describes our cultural moment. This is also our mission field beginning as close as your neighbors, wherever we live and move and have our being in the City of Houston. And perhaps the most potent missional asset we have is simply to invite a neighbor to visit our church that seeks to embody genuine belonging for all.
We believe in the risen Jesus who is still doing what he did when he first started his ministry: calling disciples into fellowship as we follow him into the world. Christianity by its very nature is a social reality. There are no individual Christians. There are only Christians who belong to one another in belonging to Christ. I can think of no higher calling for our church in this day than to deepen our experience of that audacious claim and to invite others into it. What shape might that take for you?
"It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society."
—Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer by Rowan Williams (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Do not be fooled by the slimness of this little book. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written an outstanding introduction on the essential elements shaping the pattern of life for those who call themselves Christian. Williams is a world-class theologian writing here in an accessible way for believers at any stage of commitment and for all who yearn for a return to fundamentals.