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Sunday Night Live Sermons

OLD CHURCH NEW CHURCH
Revelation 21:1-7

26th May 2002

One dark night over twenty years ago, I was flying in a single engine aeroplane from Bendigo, where I had ad-dressed the University, to Tullamarine, to catch the last flight back to Sydney. My pilot was Russell G. Withers, Managing Director of Pacific-Seven Pty. Ltd.. Russell knew we were in the planning stages of building a new Wesley Centre. I was troubled because it involved demolishing the Wesley Centre built only fourteen years previously under the leadership of Sir Alan Walker, and on which we still owed an impossible debt! Furthermore, Sir Alan had given me ten reasons why we should not redevelop our total site with a huge building many times the size of the existing collection of buildings including Wesley Centre. As the new young minister, I was a threat to his building on which we still owed over a million dollars.

The decrepit buildings on Castlereagh St., and in Wesley Arcade concerned me. I was troubled about the need to refurbish the Lyceum Theatre and Wesley Centre, rebuilt only fourteen years previously, but whose low cost fabric was now showing wear and tear, and high maintenance costs. I was dismayed at the small, dark and mouldy Wesley Chapel, even though I knew it held a place of endearment in the hearts of Sydney Methodists. It seemed to me that total re-development was the only answer. Demolish all the buildings, clear the debt, and build higher and wider and deeper and bigger than had ever been built on this site before. I shared my concerns with Russell Withers in the dark cockpit of the small plane. He commented: "The successful store operator in my game refurbishes his store every three or four years top to bottom. So have a look at your own site. You can't help an old location but you sure can help an old store."

"You can't help an old location but you sure can help an old store." That was true. Our historic location in the very heart of the CBD was superb. The land value was high. But our low level buildings were a century old! We could not help our old location but we sure could help our old property! So I wrote to The Board of Finance and Property of the Uniting Church and suggested that together we redevelop the whole site in what would be one of Sydney's great building projects. They agreed. Committees were established and over several years approvals were gained, plans were drawn and re-drawn, a developer, a financier and a builder were locked in.

In 1978, I had written a thesis entitled "Transforming the City Church", based upon my understanding of what was required for a city ministry in Sydney. I said any new church in the City of Sydney would require the answers to nine theological issues. Our church members studied my theological requirements of a city church. When we had our theology right, we drew up the specifications, then the architects designed a building to fit them. The result you see about you. I want to consider today those theological requirements which will explain what we built. Our theological understanding determined our building complex. Most of what I say now I wrote in 1978. The future of Christianity lies in its ability to effectively reach the people of our cities. City Churches are on the frontline of the work of God. Yet existing City Churches, while they continue their present patterns of ministry, are doomed to failure! The great empty Churches and Cathedrals of the major cities of the Western world bear mute testimony to this grim prophecy. Only old churches which become new City Churches can fulfil the mission of God.

Contrary to our Akubra bush hats and four wheeled drive vehicles, Australians are not rural creatures. People by nature are city creatures. Adam was a rural creature, but his son Cain lived in a city. Mankind has long left behind the concept of a rural Eden, and has headed for the city where he finds the fulfilment of his desires. Every achievement of humanity in art, culture, government, religion, politics, scientific and technological achievement has been born and developed in cities. If Christianity is to impact upon mankind, it must do so in the cities of the world. Only the renewed City Church is viable. These nine theological understandings must transform our ministry:

1. SACRAMENT: The City Church has a sacramental ministry. For the Church is a symbol of God's presence within the city. The Church reminds the world that God is at work in that city, and that He can take ordinary lives and transform them by His power. Each person has been claimed by God and is loved by God. God loves them and offers them His power for living in this City. When the youth is pressured to experiment with drugs, or join in juvenile crime, or when the adult is tempted to be unethical in business, or to commit adultery, that person knows God has a place within his or her life. The sacrament affirms God's presence. The City Church possesses the signs of the faith: a Cross symbolising the Christ, a font for infant baptism, two baptisteries for believers baptism, free-standing communion tables, four pulpits, open space for alternative forms of worship including drama, music groups, mime, video and dance. That is why four congregations can worship simultaneously in one huge building with theatre, church, lyceum and chapel.

2. SALVATION: The presence of the City Church is a reminder to the whole world of the forgiveness, healing and hope that God offers those who accept His salvation. That message of salvation must be passed on to others. Hence evangelism is primary to all we do. We worship in many languages and multiculturalism is a normal way of life. People are valued regardless of race. Human nature has not changed since Jesus walked beside Galilee. In spite of all our technological and scientific ability we still have the same problems. Neither education, technology, psychology, nor scientific progress answers personal need. The Bible indicates that apart from God we are sinners needing salvation. The City Church must proclaim salvation in Christ. Only Christ saves from sin.

3. SANCTUARY: There exists in human hearts a need to find a transcendence in city living. City dwellers need the elevating experience of worship. Where concrete replaces lawns and trees, where factories shut off the sunset, and where the noise of traffic substitutes for the song of birds and wind in the trees - the human spirit is dulled. Hence a new church should be a place of quiet refuge - carpeted fully, soft drapes, wall hangings, soft natural lighting, stained glass from our heritage, real flowers and greenery, and an atmosphere encouraging prayer and meditation. The city church must be a sanctuary in the concrete city, pointing beyond itself to a deep and satisfying relationship each can have with our Creator.

4. SECURITY: People in the city always feel insecure. But the Church can provide a sense of security in the midst of rapid social change. It can provide an eternal stability, a point of reference when all about is in a state of flux.

So many city folk face loneliness, feel fragmented, alienated, depersonalised, and powerless. Personal wholeness and healthy interpersonal relationships are difficult. Their devotion to the things of this world seem to shut out ultimate concerns. The Church is given by God a ministry of reconciliation; bringing the warring and the divided self together under the Lordship of Christ; helping the defeated to find dignity, courage, and reconciling them to God. Hence the city church must have areas where people can be at home, feel welcome, and find friendship. So our historical memorabilia, and stained glass remind us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

5. SEMINARY: The City Church must equip Christians for their personal ministry. This involves all aspects of Christian education and of developing those gifts within each individual. Wesley Mission has two thousand each week in small groups and classes, so adequate meeting rooms are required and a good program of Christian education for students of all ages. Our Wesley Institute providing degree courses in ministry and the arts, community and vocational training is all done in the context of theological understanding.

6. SERVANT: The body of Christ is His servant people. Our Mission depends upon His servants seeing the need of mankind and giving themselves into the service of the gospel. The ministry of the Church is the whole people of Christ meeting the needs of people. No other church in the world has 3,500 staff and 3,500 volunteers serving the needs of people in 486 buildings! So we serve the poor and powerless and from our office tower oversee a service ministry across the nation.

7. SOCIETY: The substance of cities lies not in buildings, freeways and overpasses, but in the way people live together. The roads and streets are a network of communication, the houses and buildings are shells in which we sleep and work. But the life of the city is its relationships. Social networking is fundamental. We bring together the people of the city. Against the impersonality, loneliness, and lack of communication between people, lies the Church with its sense of participation, communication and friendship. That communication takes place in our restaurant, our lounges, our library, at dinners and breakfasts, in the School For Seniors, in all our social activities. The city Church puts heart into society, content into communication, and fellowship into acquaintanceship.

8. SPACE: Churches must provide space within the city. City streets are lined with building crammed against building, fighting each other as they reach for the sky. Small streets and laneways are over crowded as buildings seem to touch each other at the top. There is an overbearing pressure of buildings within the city. Many people feel entombed within those city streets. But this Church breathes space. The quiet atmosphere gives a feeling of space to the spirit. People come in from the street to the quiet and peace of an open Church during the middle of a busy day and sit quietly and pray. Their eyes lift to the stained glass windows. A feeling calm and peace comes into overcrowded lives.

9. SPIRIT: The city church is the only provider of the essential human spirit. Every city dweller ingests some of the pressures, some of the tensions and some of the attitudes of the city.

People who live their lives within an oppressive and hard environment cannot help but be infected by the spirit of their community. But the City Church can give people a new spirit. Here is the promise of a new creation, of a citizenship that goes beyond this earth to heaven, and a promise of a heavenly city, not made with hands but eternal in the heavens. We have fifty services a week including each weekday to provide a sense of meaning, hope, and transcendence to living. These services communicate to the nation by use of the media from a theatre capable of video and TV transmission, and radio broadcasting.

When a City Church has the rare opportunity of re-establishing itself and of building to the next century, the architect has the privilege of drawing the lines round theology and of making the Church real in the centre of the streets. "You can't help an old location but you sure can help an old store." That was the challenge we faced. We are an old church - new church. One hundred and ninety years of history, and stronger and fresher than at any time. God has been faithful to our efforts to fulfil that challenge of making a new church in an old church for His glory and for the service of our city. Wesley Mission is His church to the City of Sydney. No other church is so strategically situated in the Central Business District nor so finely equipped. Join with us now as we minister to our beautiful city. "Behold, I make all things new!" Thank you Lord Jesus! Help us be your new Church in this old church. We can't help our location, but we can help our city by being the old church - new church!

Wesley Mission, Sydney.