Monday, 8 February 2010

Alexander Maclaren, liberal evangelism and a church's future.

Got to preach for the first time yesterday at Alexander Maclaren’s old church. Maclaren was one of the great Victorian/Edwardian preachers, the northern Spurgeon. Wonder what he would have made of it. Not the sermon, the church.

The folk at Union Chapel, Fallowfield, Manchester now meet for worship in what was the church hall, the “sanctuary” having long since been demolished. Just by way of a reminder though a slice of Maclaren’s pulpit stands in the corner of the vestibule, at once a piece of Baptist Heritage and a free church relic.

Just under thirty of us gathered to worship. The service was formal but relaxed and the morning followed the locally established pattern of an act of worship, a break for coffee (this week with added sliver wedding anniversary chocolate cake) and then a follow-up session exploring a particular theme. I had been asked to address the question of evangelism in a liberal church.

It was good to see a church creating space for interactive reflection. It was good to see that they were entirely at home with the process. Good too to see congregation that regards itself as liberal trying to get to grips with how they might evangelise in a way that is true to their own convictions. If my experience is anything to go by this is an emerging trend.

The issue is a pertinent one for the folk at Union. They find themselves between ministers wondering about the future of the church. What will they need to do if they are to have a future; what kind of minister do they need to help them find a viable and effective way ahead?

As I made my way home after what I hope was a useful discussion I couldn’t help but feel wistful, melancholic even. In Maclaren’s day the 1,500 seater chapel would have been full. Churches knew what they were and where they stood. They also knew what they had to do and as long as they did it well they would prosper.

We live in different days. The challenge facing congregations such as Union chapel are by turn daunting and challenging. Whatever future they fashion for themselves, one thing’s for sure it won’t be as a Victorian preaching barn. Here’s hoping though that it will be a future marked by the manifest blessing of God.


Craig Gardiner said...

Hi, shame on me i had not heard of Rev MacLaren. Thank you for bringing him to my attention. Re your reflection might it be that churches back then may well have known 'what they were and where they stood' but they didn't know where the world was or where it stood in its longing for God. Which may be why there are relatively so few remaining in the church today. I don't mean this church in particular I mean The Church and that might be where so many of us lost our missional way. We stepped out of the world. Blessings on them as they search for a new pastor and as they endeavour as you say to be missioanl about the kind of faith that sustains them as a fellowship and has urged them to want to share it.

Glen Marshall said...

I suspect the problem was that there were big enough bits of the world back then that were close enough to the church for them not even to worry about such questions. If you preach it they will come. Trouble is as time went by more and more bits of the world went elsehwere than where the church was and we didn't notice it until the trend was well established. Time to get out the cultural maps and do some mission planning. Not forgetting of course to get out the prayer mats and do some mission praying.