Toorak Uniting Church

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"Opting out of opting out"

Acts 2: 36 – 41
Rev. Ian Brown
14 April 2002

Today, the focus of the Bible reading is on the same theme as it will be for much of this Easter season, namely it’s about the church - the beginning of the church, about conversion, about early preaching, about how people joined in.

The story of the recent history of most mainline churches is a very different story - let’s be real, it is a story of stark contrast, a story of decline, of people leaving, of the reasons for opting out.

There are exceptions of course. There are congregations that grow, and, I’m pleased to be able to say, this 9 am family service is one of them - I’m pleased, not because I want to take any credit for that, this service was set up with well aimed vision long before I came, but more about that later.

The critical question for us here is why? Why did the early church grow, why has the 20th century church been in a tailspin of decline since the 60's? Why is it that opting out has been more attractive than opting in for a generation now?

I personally don’t believe in simplistic answers, there are many facets to this, in both society and the church - I don’t really want to look at analysis and answers just now - I want to point out our general uncertainty.

It’s a bit like this:

"there was an experienced pilot who one day had the misfortune of needing to eject from a no longer functioning plane, pop!! Out he went, still sitting in his pilot’s seat and pulled the cord on his parachute - but the chute didn’t work. Panic started to set in - he thought back to his training, many years ago - how did these things work, he couldn’t remember much, he felt around in desperation while dropping thousands of feet. Then he noticed another man coming up towards him at a great rate - he was sitting on a kitchen chair.

Here was his chance! Hey! he yelled to the upcoming man, do you know anything about parachutes?

No, yelled back the fellow as he went by, do you know anything about gas stoves?

It’s like that in the church sometimes - not sure what the equipment is for, not sure why numbers plummet, desperate but not sure what to do to stop it, and where things are going up, not sure why, suspecting it’s an accident and sure that it looks unsupported and likely to fall again.

And I’m sure that the infant church looked that way too, from the perspective of the religious traditionalists of the day. But grow it did. It grew despite faults and mistakes, grew because it was a sign of the good news, because it did enough in the character of the kingdom to attract and nurture those who were interested.

Let me point to a few things I think we are doing well and where we can do better as a congregation and then finish with a reflection on the church in dramatic form;

"the first positive is that we meet as a community of faith, a family, in the round with an emphasis on participation and a focus on including our young people so God’s love for all is lived in our time of worship. But we could do much more - what ideas do you have?

second, there is a clear attempt to promote fellowship - so we can be a family, by sharing after the service. But we could do much more - what ideas do you have?

third, we try to value each others gifts and share leadership where we can with readers, other worship leaders But we could do much more - what ideas do you have?

fourth, there is a great openness to try new things, learn new music, embrace new members, in a sense, to move with the Spirit - But we could do much more - what ideas do you have? Please tell me about them!

We could be the sort of growing, thriving community that Peter talks about in Acts, where the promise of God is made real for people as Peter says, "For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls." The very promise and blessing of God, for us.


© Rev. Ian Brown, 2002

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