Thursday, July 23, 2009
At the Local Preacher's meeting last night, following the announcement of my diagnosis of cancer, the Superintendent asked for help in ensuring that all my appointments were covered. It was this, I believe which led to my interesting nightmare last night.
I dreamt that some members of the Church, a few local preachers and the all Circuit staff were playing a game of trivial pursuit. The dream was a nightmare because I absolutely loathe the game of trivial pursuit. Just the idea of having to waste my time in a game of chance, elevating snippets of trivia to a position of prime importance is my idea of hell. The only thing that ever redeems the game for me is the companionship of good friends.
It was a horrifyingly accurate nightmare of what is troubling me most; having to watch and participate in the all too human tendency to trivialize what IS important as a means of coping, and to dice with chance rather than trust to God's providence in our lives as disciples and preachers of God's Word. My revulsion is, I think, a natural consequence of my calling as a theologian and preacher. Last night it was all about worship and mission.
I know that worship is not trivial, but when the preaching plan has to be made, it is all too easy to slip into thinking that as long as we have the right preacher or type of service in place, then we have it covered. In my nightmare scenario, the preachers were the players, the services the squares on the board. The dice - the element of chance driving the game, was my illness and the unpredictability of when I would need to take time out for surgery etc. The trivia that was pursued at each roll of the dice were the questions: Who is available to preach on this particular Sunday? When did the preacher preach last at that Church ?(heaven forbid they should be at the same Church two Sundays in a row), and, What sort of service is it that needs to be 'filled'?
And it was all so desperately wrong. In my nightmare, I was forced to watch the relationship between mission and worship which, as a church we have been deliberately trying to strengthen, being threatened for no other reason than the need to 'fill the plan'.
Now of course, dreams exaggerate - but my anguish stayed with me when I woke fed by the knowledge that worship should never be a game of chance based on who is available to preach on a particular Sunday. It shouldn't be about the preachers at all, but about the people of God and God's provision of the means of grace.
We all KNOW that Worship is NOT trivial - so surely this means that the preaching plan should reflect this? The Superintendents who are required to 'make' the preaching plans that govern Methodist worship up and down the Connexion are, nonetheless, put in an almost impossible situation. My concern is not with them, they are working hard to fulfil the demands made of them. My complaint is against those congregations and ministers alike who simply refuse to even consider the question - What is the preaching plan for? Is the purpose of the plan to put a preacher in every pulpit every Sunday - or is it to assist in furthering the missio dei?
Local preachers have an essential role to play in Methodist worship and in mission. Through their familiarity with both the local Church and the surrounding community, they can help to embody the principle of incarnational ministry and contextual mission. When people hear their own concerns directly related to the Gospel message in a way that they can immediately understand, they are much better able to respond. But when a local preacher is no longer really 'local' to the Church or has no direct contact with the local community then their ability to bridge the gulf between those particular secular and sacred worlds becomes more difficult. The missional dimension of local preaching changes. This does not mean that their preaching is no longer valid, or important. But the link between mission, context and worship is something that is too important to ignore.
If the worship in a circuit is to reach out in mission and aim to do more than satisfy the spiritual needs of existing congregations then the local Church and/or Circuit leadership team has to give serious thought (if they haven't already) to the direct relationship between the purpose of worship and the plan.
WHY should THAT preacher be in THAT pulpit on THAT Sunday - by God's providential ordering, or by the vagaries of holidays, family commitments, work, the number of times they are already on the plan, or simply because they haven't been there that quarter yet..?
God forbid that it should be because there isn't anyone else.
We proclaim as much by what we do as by what we say - and the preaching plan, more than any other circuit document, proclaims our priorities. Surely therefore we need to demand of ourselves, that the preaching plans in our circuits are written in such a way that they are not about the trivial pursuit of preachers and pulpits, but are about the essential need for the people of God - churched, dechurched, and unchurched to encounter and Worship God and so grow in grace and holiness.