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As a child, I grew up with a sports-mad Dad and an aversion to doing sport myself. I went along with my Dad to football and cricket matches and learnt English and world geography through accompanying him to football grounds watching Barnsley F. C. and following England tours abroad. I watched golf, horse-riding, rugby league and rugby union on television and followed the more obscure sports in the Olympics as well as winter sports with him. I loved learning the different rules of sport and loved the camaraderie of being a supporter. Wimbledon was one of my favourite tournaments; I enjoyed watching tennis in the 1980s in particular and was a huge Borg fan.
But as far as participating in sport was concerned, I hated that. My poor eyesight, left-handedness and lack of spatial awareness meant I was never going to be in anyone’s top-11 for team sports, and I was no better at individual sports. At school I had to play hockey, rounders, tennis and take part in gymnastics and athletics, all of which became the most dreaded hour of the week for me. I knew the rules. I knew what I was supposed to do. But actually doing what I was supposed to do just never seemed to happen. And the shame and humiliation of that haunted me for many years. I was gifted academically, but when it came to sport – which I loved to watch, admiring the skill, tactics, physical and mental strength required – I was at the bottom of the class, and my pride was badly dented.
There’s a huge difference between participating in something and being a spectator. It was years before as an adult I took part in any physical activity, finally taking to swimming to help my health, and I still can’t say I enjoy sport or exercise in any shape or form, even though I have got used to the benefits of them and realise the need to participate. But I know full well there’s an involvement from participation which can’t fully be explored through the act of being a spectator, however fanatical a fan you are (and believe me, I have been that fanatical fan…)
Many people, it seems to me, have the same tension between participator and spectator when it comes to ‘Team Church.’ We teach and preach all the time about every individual being a vital team member, but many people would rather be a spectator when it comes to church than a participator. There can be all kinds of reasons behind this, including my familiar feeling that ‘I’m-no-good-at-this-so-I’d-better-not-even-try’ and a sense of shame and humiliation (‘what if I get it wrong?’) I can remember the first time I attended a Church of England service – I had no idea how to follow a service sheet or what was meant by ‘responses’ – feeling terrified that I would be standing when I was supposed to sit or sitting when I was supposed to stand. All these things make it difficult for us to learn what it means to find our place in the body of Christ.
Online meetings have been a great blessing to us during the pandemic, but they are fuel for the idea that church is a spectator sport. It really isn’t. Church isn’t about passively sitting in a meeting and letting others do everything. Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.’ (1 Cor 14:26) To the Ephesians, he said, ‘speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.’ (Eph 5:19) That sounds to me like involvement, participation, not passive spectating!
So when we gather together in person next week, what will you be? A participator or a spectator? There’ll be opportunities to pray and to tell other people something of what God has been doing in your life over these past four months. There’ll be opportunities to talk to each other and build each other up, perhaps bringing verses of Scripture or hymns and songs which have blessed you recently. The challenge for us all is to move from being people who know the rules, know how to spectate and keep God and other people at arm’s length… and become participators, sharing from our hearts and seeking to bless God and build people up. Which will you choose to be?