Advent is the season observed in many Western Christian Churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. The term is an anglicized version of the Latin word adventus, meaning ‘coming’. Advent is the beginning of the Western liturgical year and commences on Advent Sunday, the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. For Christians, the season of Advent anticipates the coming of Christ from two different perspectives. The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming.
Before I ‘retired’ from the Baptist Ministry in 2010 I was an unashamed advocate of the importance of following the Church Year in the preaching and teaching programme of local church life. I am not in favour of being slavishly bound to the Lectionary – a three-year cycle of set Bible Readings followed systematically in the Church of England and some other historic churches – although I would be the first to admit that simply because of this system being in operation, far more of the Bible is actually read and expounded in such churches than in so-called ‘Bible Believing’ Free Churches?! I am, however, in favour of following the Church Year more loosely but nevertheless definitely. We need to make space and time in our church programme for observing the major Church Festivals – Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday. And we also need to make much better use of the Church Seasons – Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and so on. Without being tied down by the Lectionary texts, we can profitably explore appropriate Biblical themes, books of the Bible, doctrines, stories, during Advent, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc. In fact, I would go as far as to say that we should deliberately plan each Church Year to specifically follow these various spiritual ‘seasons’, and explore them fully.
Personally, I would like to see the whole teaching programme of the local church geared up to unpacking the various lessons to be learned from following Church Year in a relevant and meaningful way. It ought not to be beyond the wit and ability of any Pastor-Teacher (perhaps making use of the gifts and abilities of other members of the church and congregation) to plan such a teaching programme for the year, ensure that the main weekly worship events enhance (rather than distract from) that week’s teaching theme, produce brief study guides on that theme for use in a church cell group structure, and either produce in house (or utilise existing material) for daily Bible readings on the same theme? In our last two churches Julia and I managed to do this very effectively, our daily Bible Reading Notes proving more popular than either the Scripture Union material or the International Bible Reading Association notes.
Such an approach to the Church Year would, I believe, ensure that varied and significant themes are covered in a productive way throughout the life of a local church over an extended period of time. The very nature of the varied seasons within the Church Year allow for a variety of themes to be covered in a variety of ways. Advent and Christmas allows us to explore the Coming of Christ in detail and helpfully consider stories and events that are normally ‘skipped over’ in many Baptist and New Churches at this time of year. Similarly the Lent Season, with its steady build up to Easter, allows us to explore various aspects of consecration. Easter itself, fully explored with time given to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Saturday as well as Easter Sunday, helps us to get to grips with the whole meaning of Easter not just the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead (as important as that is). The Season of Pentecost encourages us to explore the Christian’s and the Church’s experience of the Holy Spirit in meaningful ways … and so we can go forward with the whole Church Year.
I have been repeatedly told by some of my more Charismatic and Pentecostal friends that such an approach quenches the Holy Spirit, and that rather than all this thought and planning we need to be ‘led by the Spirit’ (Romans 8:14). Sadly this phrase being ‘led by the Spirit’ has become the justification (‘excuse’ would be a better word) for all manner of rubbish!? ‘Sin against the Holy Spirit’ (Mark 3:28-30) might be a better description in many cases? Poorly planned Worship Events, which appear to have been ‘thrown together’ at the last moment and where literally ‘the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing’ – the hymns and songs bear no relation to each other leave alone the teaching or the rest of the service. Poorly prepared and delivered preaching and teaching, where the ‘message’ is either ‘cobbled together’ from off the internet or appears to be ‘made up on the spot’ on the basis of being ‘inspired’ by the Holy Spirit. Some years ago I Pastored a Pentecostal Church in South Wales. Although the majority of people there were wonderfully supportive and appreciative people (and the church grew considerably in my time there), I found myself embroiled at one time in a battle with one of the leaders who considered himself a far superior preacher to me. He particularly objected to my systematic, expository style of preaching, and claimed that his style was ‘inspirational’ because (in contrast to me) he was being ‘led by the Spirit’?! If truth be told, his preaching was not very good at all – more perspirational than inspirational?! He always had a different text … but in reality it was always the same sermon that got preached, whatever the text?! Fortunately he was in a minority and the church progressed nonetheless. Similarly I have found that so-called extemporary prayer (rather than prepared prayer) in public worship is more often than not very repetitive and uninspiring. Such prayer, for example, is often full of ‘justs’, or has God the Father (rather than Jesus) dying on the cross for us … and all too often seems to go on and on and on interminably?! The reality is that the presence and enabling of God the Holy Spirit can be as much there in the planning of a year’s services, themes, content, and so on, as in any one particular service or sermon!
Sitting in the ‘pew’ for three years, rather than being in the pulpit or on the platform, has given me a unique opportunity to ‘see things from the other side of the fence’ in several different churches. In that time I have observed two particular things that troubled me during my time as a Pastor, and continue to trouble me today. One is the continued emphasis on our need to become ‘missionary congregations’, and the other is our ongoing inability to ‘turn believers into disciples’. In some ways I welcome the emphasis on the need to move from ‘maintenance to mission’ that has been ‘thrust down our throats’ by the ‘powers that be’ in the Baptist Union, for the last 20 years or so. As a denomination, as well as local churches, we needed to hear this loud and clear because we were declining steadily numerically. The problem for me is that this particular emphasis has virtually taken over and one rarely hears anything else from our pulpits and platforms seemingly these days? One would not mind this emphasis if it had led to us actually engage more effectively in mission, but the reality is that we are still declining numerically, and I suspect that many Christians are now simply ‘switching off’ because of this constant ‘one dimensional’ message. This emphasis has led, in turn, to my second concern – our inability to ‘turn believers into disciples’. In fairness this problem has existed for a good number of years in our churches, and over the years I have heard it discussed many times in Ministers’ Fellowships. This problem has always existed, and probably always will because our old sinful nature will constantly tempt us to ‘easy believism’. I can’t help but feel, however, that the current constant emphasis on ‘mission, mission, mission’ has not helped believers become disciples because of the imbalance of our spiritual diet?! We no longer hear the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27) because of this over-emphasis on us ‘becoming missionary congregations’! But in order to grow and be healthy, we need a proper balanced diet! I would suggest that re-jigging the way we ‘do Church’ in line with the Church Year, and in the ways I propose above, would give us a more healthy and balanced approach overall, and lead to greater numerical and spiritual growth as well.
A young Youth Pastor I know sports a marvellous T-shirt with the caption: ‘Jesus is Coming … Look Busy!’ Very appropriate for Advent I would suggest. One of the ‘hall-marks’ of Evangelical Christians, it is suggested, is our ‘activism’ … so we do need to be busy! But there is all the difference between ‘good ideas’ and ‘God ideas’. Perhaps the time has come – and the lull between Christmas and New Year provides such an opportunity for quiet, prayerful, meditation and thoughtfulness – for Pastors, Church Leaders, Church members, indeed all of us, to re-think the way we ‘do Church’ in the light of the Christ who came, who comes, and who will come again!