The Church, out and about

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 10:15am on 23rd January 2017

‘The church has left the building’ is a catchy phrase adopted by Christians engaging in evangelism and social action outside of Sunday worship.  The parishioners of High Barnet parish are living out this motto while our church premises are closed for rebuilding.  We have a temporary home in a community centre, which some worshippers prefer to the church.  Some local Catholics who had never come up the hill to church now attend Sunday Mass in the community centre.  The Church has visited the people, having previously expected people to come to church.  To use the community centre for Mass, everything has to be set up and packed away every Sunday, but this apparent problem has promoted co-operation between worshippers.  Some congregants who used to arrive late for Mass and dash off straight after receiving Communion now arrive early to set up or stay afterwards to clear away.  More people are getting involved in making Mass happen.  Moving closer to people, the Church has helped people find a place at church, at prayer and in practical tasks.

Ongoing Church projects reach out to the wider parish, for example, SVP and the Foodbank which demonstrate God’s love in action, and social meet-ups for young people and the elderly which promote social cohesion and combat loneliness.  But the Church can reach out to more parishioners who don’t regularly attend services; not only those who are materially poor or disadvantaged.  For example, the Church’s musicians provided basic music reading and learn-to-sing courses in a local pub, a win-win situation for everyone, apparently, since the publican was delighted to have his premises full of customers on Monday nights and the musicians were pleased to be in a warmer building than the church in winter.  Participants included regular church-goers learning alongside those who didn’t even know the church’s address.  Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, one or two joined the church choirs, and current choir members improved their sight-singing.  Parish pubs feature in church music outreach at Christmas, too, when we lead crowded carol singing evenings.  A local professional trumpeter and violinist always join us there, although they never come to church. 

The worshipping community exceeds the congregation in the church at Mass.  A neighbouring parish streaming its services live on churchservices.tv is constantly surprised by who tunes in, and from where.  Live streaming is a vital link to the church for sick and housebound parishioners, who contribute to the life of the parish by their prayer and are connected to those who gather in church on Sunday by Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion who take communion to them at home or in medical institutions.  Some Readers help children reading in local schools.  It’s expected that parish priests will visit Catholic schools regularly, but it’s a great witness to faith and spiritual support to staff and students when priests spend time in secular schools and colleges, too, attending events, addressing assemblies, or simply being on the premises from time to time in case anyone wants pastoral care.  Lay people can assist with such chaplaincy, not only in schools but in workplaces, bringing the support of the faith community to employees of all faiths and none.  The thinktank Theos has reported on the work of chaplains in such diverse environments as ‘theatres, a casino, Premier League football clubs, and nightclubs’ (A Very Modern Ministry, theosthinktank.co.uk).  Street pastors (streetpastors.org) from countless churches offer pastoral and practical care quite literally on the streets of over 300 UK towns and cities.  Their reassurance and help is appreciated not only by people out and about at night but also by the emergency services, who can focus on serious incidents because they can delegate other problems to Street Pastors.

Each worshipper represents the Church even when they’re outside church.  Conversations beyond church may not explicitly mention God, and may not explicitly involve prayer, but they are open to this possibility wherever at least one participant is recognised as a Christian.  Non-Christian colleagues may turn to you when they’re in crisis just because you’re a religious person and can say a prayer or light a candle if they don’t feel able to approach God directly.  The Evangelical Alliance has launched greatcommission.co.uk to help Christians feel more comfortable discussing their faith.  Third Space Ministries (www.thirdspaceministries.co.uk) explain that when we leave church on Sundays we do not take God out, rather wherever we go, God is already there.  So talking about God in different environments outside church helps us remember his presence is everywhere.  Engaging in specifically Christian activities outside church buildings reminds us God is not captive in our churches.  Outside church, we are not more Christian when we take on a Street Pastor or chaplaincy role or sing Christian carols in a pub.  However, such activities in which we are identified clearly by our faith may remind us that once we are known to be Christian we are always visible to others as ambassadors for Christ, and hopefully that changes our behaviour and attitudes for the better wherever we are and whatever we’re doing.  It can help us appreciate every task, no matter how mundane, as part of the process of building the Kingdom.

It’s good for my Sunday worshipping community to experience that as we are displaced from our church building for months we have to recognise the presence of God elsewhere.  I hope meeting with God in a community centre on Sundays for Mass will inspire us to perceive God Monday to Saturday all over the parish – in shops, cinemas, GP surgeries, at the Post Office, at the vet, in the park, over coffee, on the streets, out and about – and to feel more confident speaking to other people in the parish about God, including people who have not yet come to church, so we can grow together in faith.

Reproduced from Issue 359, Volume 42, Number 3 of Music and Liturgy, January 2017, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory https://www.ssg.org.uk/

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