Sunday, September 14, 2008

Arresting decline with the Lord’s Prayer

Today I preached on the Lord’s Prayer (per request, it was not a lectionary reading). I found in preparing the message that my mind engaged with some anecdotes from the past few days in which some of our parishes are noticing a decline in worshipping numbers.

When talking about decline in numbers there are always some specific factors to consider – people move geographically, leadership may have made a mistake (insisting on the Latin Mass when everyone wanted it to be in French etc!!), lousy winters and Saturday night rugby tests impact some Sundays, and so forth. But there has been for 50 years or so (some might say 250 years or so) a more general factor of Western world secularization. In this general factor, as I understand it, a combination of advancement in knowledge, improvement in conditions of living, widespread materialism, and critique of religious belief undermine either commitment to Christian faith or openness to the possibility of Christian faith. In simpler terms, temptations to leave or ignore the church abound, and pressing reasons to seek the solace of the gospel are fewer.

So, if we are facing a declining situation in our own parish, we need to reflect at two levels. One level is the specific situation and addressing questions such as ‘why are people leaving?’ The answer may be something we can do something about or it may not be. The other level is the general situation of the impact of the gospel in the Western world. We need to find (in the words used just on Friday during a course I was running) where people are itching and let the gospel do some scratching.

The Lord’s Prayer is a gospel prayer. There is no relationship with the Father (for example) without the death of the Son. That death also leads to our forgiveness and to assurance that we can be delivered from evil, and so on. In preparing for the sermon I realised that people itch in different ways, and the Lord’s Prayer is a useful summary of the gospel in its different ‘scratch’ applications. In this season of election preparation (now NZ, as well as the US), for example, we are reminded of the tawdry imperfections of the kingdoms of this world. ‘Your kingdom come’ reminds us that there is another kingdom which offers promises which do not fail! I am sure you can think of the itches that ‘Father’, ‘bread’, ‘forgiveness’, and ‘deliverance’ scratch!