So it's instructive to visit other churches from time to time. Even if the church sucks, you're bound to encounter differences that make you think about the status quo in your own congregation.
I'd had a meeting the previous day in the southeastern part of the state, so I drove 150 miles over mountain roads and through pelting rain to get there for Sunday Eucharist. There was a moment of panic when I discovered that most of the entry points to Binghamton were under several feet of water. Thank God for GPS navigation systems.
There were so many good things going on at Good Shepherd, I'll only list a few of them:
An active, well-attended Adult Sunday School program. I got to the church at about 9:45 a.m. Finding the sanctuary empty, I went downstairs. There, flooding notwithstanding, I found a room full of maybe 50 people, ranging from college students to octogenarians, median age probably around 35. There were several different ethnicities represented, and an even number of men and women.
|Okay, this is the Bishop, not Matt, but you get the idea...|
When I slipped in, they were all listening attentively to Matt. He was pacing furiously around the front of the hall, using an exposition of the Great Commission (Matthew 28) to talk about the mission of Good Shepherd.
People asked questions, made comments. They answered Matt's occasional Bible knowledge questions! Matt was enthusiastically painting a picture of a congregation embedded in local communities, looking outward, eager to show God's love through service and gospel proclamation.
At one point, Matt asked: How many of you have been at this church for more than three years. Maybe half a dozen people raised their hands. Then he asked, how many have been here for more than a year and a half. About three-quarters of the people raised their hands. Talk about new growth. Something is drawing these people in.
Reverent, joyful worship. The whole service, with readings and hymns, was printed attractively in a booklet. Hospitality trumps tree conservation!
Before the service, Matt reminded the congregation, which apparently includes many new or not-yet Anglicans, to pray the words of the liturgy attentively. I suspect liturgical inculturation occurs through little catechetical moments like that.
There were maybe 130 people there (fewer than usual because of the flooding), but it felt smaller because the sanctuary (a former Catholic church) is so huge. Who knows? Maybe it will be filled one day--in the not so distant future, if current trends continue.
The music was a mix of standard Anglican hymns and praise music. A band consisting of the music director on piano, bass guitar, and bongo, acquitted themselves fairly well without drawing too much attention to themselves. I enjoyed singing.
Especially considering Matt's strong Reformed Anglican commitments, the worship style was fairly High(ish). There was a procession, with two torchbearers and a crucifer as well as a Eucharistic Minister. The altar team genuflected at some of the right places (i.e. the words about the Incarnation in the Creed) although I don't think anybody else did. A few older folks crossed themselves. Matt wore a chausuble for the Ministry of the Table. A sanctus bell accompanied his reverent elevation of the consecrated elements.
There were informal moments, too. Matt greeted us at the beginning, while Anne came to the microphone at announcement time holding the baby. The passing of the peace was a lengthy, boisterous affair.
They've just started having a person at the back of the church standing by to pray with people at any point if needed.
Solid preaching. When I get a chance, I catch Good Shepherd sermons online, so I've come to expect passionate, orthodox preaching tied closely to the biblical text. In fact, Matt and Anne's expository preaching has inspired me to do more of that with my own congregation, which has been well received (somewhat to my surprise).
Matt changed the readings in light of the week's devastating floods. It was a variation on the theodicy (=seeking to understand the place and meaning of suffering in the will of God) message that Matt has preached before, such as after the massive earthquake in Haiti.
I was again struck by Matt's refusal to let God off the hook. "God allowed this flooding to happen." Given his understanding of the inviolable sovereignty of God, that's pretty much where you have to end up. But Matt also followed that declaration with a very definitive "and we cannot know all the reasons why." Seems to me that Job would agree.
I also liked this line: "There have been many floods. God spoke about only one." Meaning: The story of Noah doesn't allow us to say that all floods are punishment for human wickedness.
Well, go read, or better yet, watch or listen to the whole thing. In fact, tune in to Good Shepherd's sermons every week. You are sure to be edified.
Also: Matt's sermon went on for more than 30 minutes, and NOT A SINGLE PERSON was looking at their watch impatiently. In an Anglican church. Nobody. They seemed quite content to sacrifice the 0.29% of their week it took to sit and listen to somebody preaching the Word of God.
Outward-looking ethos. During the floods, the church had been providing food as well as shelter for a handful of displaced families. Good Shepherd already runs a soup kitchen.
In Sunday School, Matt expressed his vision of all Good Shepherd members becoming Kingdom agents in their own communites. There was a huge, hand-drawn map of Binghamton on the wall, with parishoners' houses marked. The goal is to have various local mission groups take responsibility for their own neighborhoods, in terms of service and evangelism.
In Sunday School, and even more pointedly in his sermon, Matt was really calling on his people to go out in service. We're not social workers, he said. What we do is different. When people ask us why we're doing what we do, we say "Because God loves you and He told me to do this."
Well, there's more I could remark on. But it is clear that God is blessing the faithfulness of Good Shepherd, and that He has blessed them with passionate, clear-thinking pastors in Matt and Anne.
I'm excited about the future for this church. Especially in the wake of this flooding, which comes as a serious blow to an already economically depressed city. What better environment for the gospel to flourish in?