When I was in college, I remember having a guest lecturer once who was famous for having been dean of a Cathedral during a time when its interior furnishings were completely changed and the worship life of the place renewed, with the result of transformed encounters with the people of the local community. This dean, then, had come to talk to us about the question of leading a faith community through a time of change (and when, I ask you, is a faith community not in a time of change?)
Anyway. One piece of advice that he gave us was that in order to help people become willing to engage with the challenge of change, you had to spend at least a year telling those people at every opportunity that the gospel is all about change. That the gospel should change us, change our relationships, change our churches and our world, and that we should not be satisfied with the status quo when we know how far it falls short of God’s will for our world. But it took a year, he said, for that message to begin to sink in and be internalised into people’s understanding of how things are.
Well. I came to the two parishes where I am currently ministering just a little over a year ago, at a time for them of very great, and in some ways very unwelcome change. I remembered this advice from college, and set myself a challenge; that for a year, I would try to preach, at every opportunity, about change. That I would scour the readings set in the lectionary and ask myself, “What does this have to tell us about God’s heart for change?” and use that as a reference point in my preaching.
It’s been a very interesting exercise. I was concerned, when I started, that it would be boring; that after a week or two I would find myself repeating the same basic points over and over again. In fact it has been positively eye-opening, for me as much as for those listening to me. And I have explored in depth some texts that otherwise I might have glossed over without paying much attention.
Because I don’t preach every week, and on some occasions my “change agenda” had to be interrupted for other important themes, over the year I preached 30 sermons which came out of this concern to build a theology and spirituality of change. In reviewing those sermons I see 13 on the gospels, 6 on the epistles, 4 on the psalms, and 7 on the prophets. Now, partly that’s a function of what the lectionary has given us this year, but I found the prophetic texts particularly interesting. (Maybe in hindsight I shouldn’t be surprised; who has more of a heart for change than a prophet?)
I’ve never done something like this before; usually my approach has been to look at the readings week by week and focus on whatever seemed right at the time. But I certainly found a longer-term focus enriching and challenging for me. I’m not sure how the congregations found it; whether they quite realised what I was doing, and whether they found it helpful. I will admit, though, that by now I feel ready to leave this theme behind (change will always be a challenge to a church community, but hopefully by now we are a little better equipped to reflect on that challenge).
(And I wonder how you, the readers of my blog, found it, too? Did you recognise the theme or see some consistency in topics addressed? Did you find it helpful? All comments welcome!)
So what next? I am wondering whether to choose another focus for another long stretch or go back to my previous pattern. I found the experience this time valuable enough to ponder whether it’s worth experimenting with further. But then, what’s the next priority, I wonder?