Let me tell you about the first time I went to church after I gave my life to Jesus. Some of you will know that it was the church of my best friend at school, and that it was an Open Brethren congregation. He’d invited me, and I was glad to go.
I’d been brought up as a nominal Anglican, rarely setting foot inside a church.
The Brethren have a particular style of worship, which includes a weekly Memorial of the Lord’s Supper. So I’m sitting in church, and the bread and wine (real wine!) were passed around the pews. I receive the Lord’s Supper.
Unbeknown to me, this causes quite a flutter of consternation. Who is this teenager who comes to church for the very first time and partakes of the Lord’s Supper?
After the service, my friend comes to me. ‘The elders’ have taken him aside. They want to know who I am. Is your friend a Christian? they ask him? He says he thinks so. He then tells me I have to go and talk to them.
I was both intimidated and incensed by this. Ok, I was pretty well totally intimidated. I was only fifteen, after all. Could they tell me never to return?
So I go and meet the elders, one of whom is my friend’s dad. They ask me questions, I can’t remember them all. But they hear me describe how I gave my heart to Jesus at a Billy Graham rally. They eventually decide I may continue to share the Lord’s Supper.
Now, you might think why did the Elders talk to Paul? Why not the minister, pastor or priest? There isn’t one. The Brethren are governed by the elders, who are an unelected body. They have no ordained ministry.
Over the next few years, I got to know these men a little better—yes, Brethren elders are all men. They were genuine men as far as I could see from my point of view, which was mostly concerned with girls, school, facial acne and faith. In no particular order.
But on my first day, they showed that one of their functions was to keep the congregation pure. They were doorkeepers, blocking the way to undesirable people. People couldn’t just walk in off the street and share in worship. They had a perfect right to order their church life that way; but it’s not the way Uniting Church elders operate.
That begs the question of course, how do Uniting Church elders operate? More particularly, what do elders do here in Centenary Uniting? We’ll look at that soon.
The Plymouth Brethren may have needed clear boundaries between them and ‘the world’, but we live differently. We have a pretty soft edge, our worship is public, and one of our spiritual practices is that we welcome anyone. At the same time, our centre is firm: Jesus is the centre of our gathering, our life together, and our service.
We aim to welcome anyone; but does everyone feel welcome among us? There may be those who find it hard to make a home in this fellowship, and we must always examine ourselves to ensure that we aren’t putting up any blockages to others.
We can do that without thinking. After all, the Jericho crowd who excluded Zacchaeus thought they were doing the right thing; everyone just ‘knew’ that a chief tax collector had no place in their gathering.
And of course, we can say the same about the disciples stopping mothers from bringing their babies to Jesus for a blessing; or the crowd trying to stop the blind beggar from making a fuss. They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong; they were trying to preserve order, decency, and to do things the ‘right’ way.
But it wasn’t the right way. Jesus calls all people to him, no matter who and what they are. So elders aren’t doorkeepers and ‘blockers’ here. Nor is anyone else. If elders don’t ‘vet’ people, neither does anyone else.
Furthermore, just because we have elders it doesn’t excuse others from showing the fruit of the Spirit—you know, all that ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ stuff that God cares deeply about.
Elders aren’t elders because they are the only ones who care. That’s meant to be each one of us. Elders are elders so that together they may have some caring pastoral and spiritual oversight of the congregation.
I’ve emphasised that elders aren’t gatekeepers, and how easy it is to be a gatekeeper. Perhaps you’ve heard what happened very recently at a gathering the Pope was addressing. A young boy, five or six, came onto the stage and wanted to be with the Pope. Pope Francis was clearly amused by this, but some of his cardinals thought their duty was to be gatekeepers and remove the boy. He didn’t want to go, and he stayed with Pope Francis. When the Pope next stood up to speak, he lifted the boy up and sat him on his throne. I hope the cardinals have realised his wisdom.
This is what people are looking for from the churches. It’s an example we would all do well to follow, elders or not. We welcome people into a community in which the life-giving love of Jesus is at the centre—and also at the edges.
I said that we’d look at what elders do here in Centenary Uniting. Let’s do that now.
The elders work with the minister to provide the spiritual and pastoral oversight of our congregation, and they do it as a team, as ‘the eldership’. We meet together, we share together, we pray together. The concerns of the eldership are the spiritual health and well being of the members of the congregation and of the congregation as a whole. They are there for others where there’s a need.
We meet in one another’s houses once a month, but not as an official ‘council’ of the Uniting Church. The meeting is a time of sharing, of prayer, of seeking how we may better serve the members of the congregation. The Church Council meets once a quarter; the eldership is a sub-group of the Council.
Because elders have the spiritual oversight of the congregation at heart, they may do certain things, like
• take pastoral responsibility for a Carewheel;
• lead the Prayers of the People;
• assist in Baptism and Holy Communion.
Elders are elected by the congregation. To be nominated for the eldership, a person must
• be a mature Christian;
• have a sense of call;
• already show evidence of having a pastoral heart;
• be willing to participate in the monthly meetings.
We’re going to commission four new elders today, who were elected last Sunday. They have different areas of interest and involvement: Geoff looks after our small group life; Bec is a central member of our evening service; Cathy leads our Kids Hope program at the school; Jane is involved with our young families. We are overjoyed that you have agreed to serve as elders here.
But elders, one thing you will not do is take new people aside and vet them. That isn’t our way, and I know you will have been shocked if I told you I wanted you to do that. We try to be a welcoming community for all, even for Zacchaeus! Your call is to assist with the spiritual and pastoral oversight of this place; you’re here to walk with people on their journey into Jesus.