Sunday, December 20, 2009

Young witnesses

The Sunday before Christmas closest to the end of term is an occasion, before families start going away for Christmas, when church children present the nativity story to the congregation in a play or a tableau, often in a liturgical setting. Purists can argue for all their worth that this detracts from Advent or dilutes Christmas just as 'the world' does (from mid-November), but this is an occasion all regular churchgoers want to share together. Contemporary patterns of mobility mean that the worshipping community is more likley to be scattered than to gather as usual at the festive season. Midnight Mass will again be attended by a majority of worshippers I don't recognise, visiting from elsewhere. This development has occurred during my forty years of ministry.

When I was young, Sunday Schools were big organisations with a life of their own, sometimes quite separate from the life of a church's congregation. The Sunday School arranged a Nativity spectacular and the rest of the church was invited to attend and observe. Adult worship services remained as they ever had been - segregated and formal. Children attending were expected to 'behave', meaning 'be seen and not heard'. In the 1970s, the pressure of declining numbers led to a complete re-think of what worshipping community should be. The idea of All Age worship and Family Services, gained acceptance in some places and worshippers generally began to get used to having children not only present but contributing to acts of worship.

This hasn't always been an easy or comfortable arrangement for all taking part. The needs of children and adults are different. Yet, people of all ages are united in the loving embrace of the same Christ, and that leads to occasions in worship when all, regardless of age, find themselves united in a shared experience of prayer. As congregations have grown smaller and older on average, the presence of any child has come to be appreciated by many, as adults realise that children are not just the future of the church, but part of its present.

In the ancient church, children often read scripture to the congregation, their innocence being regarded as contributing purity of spirit to worship. In third world churches where population growth means the majority of church members are under 21, witness to faith by children contributes significantly to the church's evangelistic initiative.

St John's is unlike an averagely mixed suburban congregation, since it is mainly comprised of older people. However, this is not the whole story. We do have several young families, and over the past decade, a new generation of children has emerged, brought to church since infancy. They are known and cherished by the elders, valued as hurch members. The Sunday before Christmas is an occasion when the children, with lots of adult encouragement and support, tell the story everyone cherishes to the whole church, at the Parish Eucharist.

After the Scripture for today, Alex and Bethan delivered a rap version of the nativity story, which I wrote and first used for Sunday School adolescents in my Geneva days. Then, our little handful of under fives sang 'Away in a Manger', we blessed the Crib, and the congregation sang 'Away in a Manger' again with them. All very simple and unpretentious, but bonding us together, across generations, recalling our Lord's birth. A special memory of St John's that I will cherish in years to come.

There were nearly a hundred of us for the Nine Lessons and Carols service this evening. Clare read a lesson perfectly in Welsh. Bethan, ever enthusiastic also read, for the second time today, and opened the service, playing 'Once in Royal David's city' on her flugelhorn. Half of those who were present I didn't recognise as being among our regular or irregular attenders. This says a great deal about the potential of St John's to offer a celebration that appeals to people who are not committed but searching for an experience of worship to help them discover where they are in relation to God.

One couple said they'd come down from Treorchy, at the top end of the Rhondda train line, thirty miles away. Another young man had crossed the city to join us, his second visit, as he sets out on a journey to discover what his own relationship with God means for him in practice - he came in on Friday as well. This morning we were joined by a man of Mauritian origin from the far east of Cardiff, who'd set out to reconnect with the faith of his youth, and started with us, as a place that was similar to the worship that shaped his early experience back home.

The fact that St John's keeps the faith and maintains its traditional expressions of worship may not be exciting or attractive to everyone in these restless and critical times, yet its constancy does speak to the hearts of some seeking to renew their relationship with God. or wanting to start somewhere accessible in asking questions about God. Not just at this peculiarly 'religious' time, but all year round. The challenge for us for whom this place is a spiritual home, is to be ever awake and ready to engage at a level of faith sharing with the strangers in our midst, regardless of where sowing the seeds of God's Word will lead.

No comments: