Every Easter and Christmas I can usually be found attending a church guest service – an all-singing, all-dancing attempt at making people who might not necessarily go to church very often – or ever – feel welcomed, loved, and catered for. People come with their friends and families, and very often, are touched and affected by what they see – the message of the festival presented in a creative and interesting way. It’s great when this happens, and we all know someone – or several people, perhaps, whose lives have been changed by a guest service.
This Easter, however, I did something a bit different. Away from home and staying with family, I attended an Easter service that was definitely not aimed at guests, seekers, or new Christians – no more so than any other Sunday of the year, that is. The sermon, although linked to Easter, was a continuation of a series the church is currently working through. It was reasonably rigorous and in-depth. It spoke to me. There was no altar call afterwards, no appeal to people to make a commitment. It was an unusual experience, and it was actually strangely helpful.
In the days following Easter Sunday, I wondered what this said about me. As I sat down to write this, I happened to spot a tweet from someone saying that if you look to the Church to feed you spiritually, you’re ‘not a mature disciple’. Fair enough, but not all of us have the opportunities and connections to be spiritually fed throughout the week by other things. And at the same time, I obviously understand the importance of outreach and engaging new audiences through Sunday services. Was it selfish of me to feel happy that I was affected by what I heard on the most important day in the Christian calendar?
However, I wonder if this can be done just as effectively through a service that’s more engaging for everyone – from people who have been Christians for decades right down to those who have never set foot in a church before.
The debate over whether or not a ‘seeker-sensitive’ approach is the ‘right’ one to take is long-running, complex, and often heated. It would be patronising to assume that a deeper sermon or approach could not have an impact on people who are fairly new to church. But it’s also wrong to dismiss overly guest-focused services completely, because they clearly do serve an important role. All of this before we even start to discuss the fact that different people prefer different types of sermon – I know people who expect a good hour’s worth of preaching, and others who feel that 20 minutes is too long.
What’s vital, in my opinion, then, is that churches achieve a balance on the most important Sundays of the year. Discussing my Easter experience with friends, a couple of people said they would run a mile at the merest hint of an altar call. Someone said she didn’t understand the need for different types of services for people at different stages of their faith journey. Another said he felt it was right to make every Sunday a good mixture of material aimed at visitors, new Christians, and long-time churchgoers alike.
But is this asking too much? Sometimes it seems like this is the case. For other churches, it seems like they have it all worked out.
What does balance look like?