When Church is Beautiful

By: Brian Harris

I don’t know if you have ever left a church service thinking, “Wow – that was beautiful – really beautiful.”

Given the bad press the church often gets, I can imagine some of the cynical comments that could be forming, but why not put them on hold, and listen to the experience I’ve had the last two Sundays – when I’ve left the same smallish church both weeks thinking, “that was beautiful – really beautiful.”

A quick disclaimer. I was the preacher both weeks. “Ha, ha, you say – you don’t think that might have clouded your assessment just a little?” Well perhaps, but it wasn’t about the sermon – it was about the people and what I saw happening and all the other things that go into church on Sunday. Let me walk you through what I experienced and noticed.

While I have no idea why, the service started with the hilarious but profound YouTube video of Tim Minchin’s “Play it safe – his tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House. Can’t say it had anything to do with what I was preaching on – but it worked. Some thoughts and comments followed. I’m more accustomed to people confidently speaking unscripted, but there was something about a slightly nervous speaker reading out a carefully crafted and heartfelt introduction that was lovely. And it was also good to hear the traditional owners of the land on which we were meeting being acknowledged and thanked.

Beautiful music followed. There were about 40 or 50 people there, and I was again reminded of the remarkable talent that gets untapped when people are given a chance to participate. Not that it was perfectly organised – in fact it turned out the first two verses of one song hadn’t uploaded properly, so the words had to be read out to enable us to sing along. Rather than a disruption, it drew attention to the significance of what we were singing. Though a song new to me, I couldn’t miss how meaningful the words were. This wasn’t trite triumphalism, nor the sloppy sentimentality of the “Jesus is my girlfriend” music we sometimes peddle. It was deep, thoughtful, God focused, grateful and world facing. Later they sang songs written by a church member who died four years ago. It was good to see their commitment to keep his memory and work alive.

People chatting after church
Above: Photo by Connor Olson on Unsplash

Notices were interesting. I usually find them the most boring part of the service – a necessary evil to ensure the congregation organises their diary around the church calendar. But in each of these services the congregation were asked to announce anything they wished. It was suggested that those who had announcements about activities that needed to be noted come up first – and those who wanted to share a request for prayer come afterwards. And announce they did – lots and lots of them. I was quietly alarmed – was this going to take away from my preaching time? But then I relaxed and leant into what was being said.

One notice on the second week struck home. On week one a woman had asked for prayer because her elderly mother had returned to her home after a minor stroke. On week two, she gave an update. Her mom was doing nicely, and the physio said it was important that she walk a little each day. She suggested a daily shuffle to her postbox and back. And then she said it. “Mom is at the stage when she forgets more than she remembers, so I don’t know if she will do this, but she is more likely to if there is something in the mailbox for her to collect. I wonder if some of you would send her a card of encouragement so she has something to motivate her to reach the postbox each day.” There were plenty of volunteers.

I found this strangely moving. Perhaps it was because an elderly friend of mine had died a few days before, and though her journey was not exactly the same, she too had been forgetting more than she remembered and had also been supported by the love and kindness of wonderful people. We truly can make a difference for one another.

After a meaningful prayer time that included both the needs of the congregation and the world, it was my turn to speak. It was such an easy group to speak to – warm, open, ready to engage. Engage? Yes, because I had been asked to field questions after the sermon. And they came – thick, fast and relevant. Seems like they were listening. Questions were stopped abruptly at 11am. I had been warned about this. “Otherwise we’d never stop asking questions – and we wouldn’t have enough time to chat together afterwards, and its really important that people have time to talk over a cuppa.”

Actually, it was more than a cuppa. Beautifully brewed coffee and a generous selection of hand made cakes meant this was not a place for the calorie conscious – but it was enjoyable. I stuck to my usual English breakfast tea and got chatting to a man who was wearing a dress. “I don’t know if this is me,” he said, pointing to his dress. “But today I needed it. And these are my people and this is the one place I feel I belong. I don’t know what I’d do without them.” I guess when you put loving people above trying to get them to “play it safe”, all kinds of things become possible. The opening video made a bit more sense.

And so I drove away each of those two Sundays thinking, “that was beautiful – really beautiful.” Because it was…

Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.

About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.

Feature image: Photo by Pedro Lima on Unsplash