We Will Remember Them
For many years now, Grace Community Church in Bedford have used Remembrance Sunday as an evangelistic opportunity. As churches plan their autumn activities, Ray Evans thinks more could do something different on Remembrance Sunday – especially this year.
The Great War ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
100 years later, this year, Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday actually coincide. It will be a very special centenary time in our nation, and indeed around the world. It could become a great opportunity for churches across the land to engage with their communities, as we take time to, ‘remember them’.
I have to admit that for many years as a church, we didn’t make much of Remembrance Sunday. We were a young congregation, we met in a school, and we left Remembrance Sunday to ‘the professionals’ and official things happening at places like the Cenotaph or at War Memorials.
Then we realised we were missing a great open door of opportunity, especially for older citizens and the young. Why so? Well the old may seem obvious as they endured serious national conflict and personally know people amongst their family and friends who served, and perhaps died, in war. But the young?
Yes, the young, because unlike me when history at school ceased with Queen Victoria, leaving me quite ignorant of 20th century history, the young are studying these things. This has generated a great deal of awareness in their minds, and questioning in their hearts. These questions about right and wrong, about God and war, about duty and folly, need addressing.
Remembrance Sunday can both bring comfort to the afflicted, and can help answer some of the deep questions, without being jingoistic or glorying in human aggression.
Planning Your Service
So we made a significant change and started making Remembrance Sunday a particular time when we encouraged Christians to invite friends to a church event. For over 20 years it has proven to be a very valuable time for the whole church and community. Lots of visitors of all ages regularly come.
What do we have to change? Music is an obvious area. Rather than our usual fare of songs, we deliberately only have traditional and well-known hymns, such as, ‘Abide with me’, ‘The day thou gavest Lord has ended’, and, ‘Praise my soul the king of heaven’, and so forth.
We change our service timings. Out goes our usual, and in comes a time which enables us to mark the two minutes’ silence at 11am exactly. It is quite a challenge for a service leader to get there precisely but we start at 10:45am with some introductory hymns and prayers before the traditional time of reflection.
We have also adopted greater formality. Usually our dress code is pretty relaxed and leaders are ‘smart casual’, but on Remembrance Sunday many choose a greater formality such as jackets and ties, with poppies in lapels, for example. We hand out really attractive invite cards beforehand and a beautifully produced Order of Service on the day. It contains not only our hymns, but prayers, a Bible reading, and invites to other kinds of services.
The service is more scripted too. We use the familiar Words of Remembrance at the Two Minute Silence, and also read out the inscription from the Kohima memorial, “for your tomorrow, we gave our today”. If we have a trumpeter available, they play ‘the Last Post’ and then ‘Reveille’ to begin and end the time of silence as we all stand in remembrance.
Sometimes we have interviewed people in our congregation (due to age that is now a dwindling number) about their experiences during times of conflict. We have been able to have conversations with veterans and serving Armed Forces’ personnel too.
Preaching on Remembrance Sunday
The talk is appropriately themed and usually shorter. I often talk about some story or individual I’ve come across. For example, there is a bomber crew buried in our local cemetery, and I researched the accident that led to their untimely death in World War II and told their story of sacrifice.
On another occasion I told of the bravery of a committed Christian doctor, Noel Chavasse who was awarded a double VC in World War I, but gave his life for others. We use a projector so I can show pictures that are appropriate – in his case of the grave in Flanders Fields where he is buried. On it are inscribed famous words of the Lord Jesus, ‘No greater love…’. It was then an easy lead into the message about a greater love and a greater sacrifice.
Last year I told the story of the Scottish Division who were billeted in Bedford in 1914 and 1915. 135 of these men tragically died in a measles’ epidemic and 33 are buried in a corner of Bedford cemetery. They are still remembered at a special service each year. The theme and question of the talk was, ‘Doesn’t suffering and sacrifice sometimes seem pointless?’ I went on to point to One whose sacrifice was anything but that, contrary to what onlookers thought.
Remembrance Sunday is not a difficult service to preach at! In every Commonwealth War Grave there is a cross of sacrifice erected. It is not a problem moving from the suffering and sacrifice of many, to the suffering and ultimate sacrifice of the Son of God – who laid his life down for his enemies.
We have often been deeply moved by why what we have heard on Remembrance Sunday. It has proven to be a great evangelistic opportunity.
And this may lead on to many other things. For us, since we started this service, we have had numerous friendship-building trips to the Somme, Passchendaele, and to Normandy. They have been utterly memorable for all the people who have gone on them. Visiting these places has led to great conversations with those we invite to them.
Could you think more about making this service an opportunity for community engagement in your church’s outreach? Could you use this once-in-a-lifetime centenary to do something different? Perhaps it might lead your church to make this a regular feature?
As missionaries to this needy land, could your church not ‘flex’ a little to more helpfully connect with those who are outsiders? Remembrance Sunday, especially this year, is an ideal time to do that.
I am confident it will be well worth it.