This past Saturday, Methodists from across the North West of England gathered for a leadership conference. The main speaker was the President of the Methodist Conference (who will be our General Secretary starting September 2008. He and our Vice President, Ruby Beech, keep a blog here). He presided at my ordination at Blackpool Cathedral. I have only heard him speak once, at the Methodist Conference in Blackpool in the traditional President’s Message to those newly ordained. Up until his election this past summer, he has been the principal at Cliff College. I was really impressed with him. He gave us a lot to think about. He has also written a book in which he expounded on the themes in Resourcing Renewal.
He touched on what we have been talking with regard to the changing culture in which we now are trying to evangelise (see PamBG’s post). In his book, he tells a story that I think gives an example of what Pam is talking about in how people view church. He writes about his pub quiz team where he, his wife, and one other out of 10 have any church affiliation. When church comes into the conversation, some of them will say to Martyn, ‘You are my church.’ Then he comments, ‘They possess what is common to so many people today, an antipathy and even hostility to some aspects of “church”,’ and this even while they wanting some connection with a spiritual side. Pam also commented that the ‘joining culture’ is where many just want nothing to do with church.
I think this is something that many in our churches have trouble grasping. We seem talk like it was 20 or 30 years ago when people came across our door when now they barely look at the building as they walk past, much less give a thought to what goes on behind it. I think the hardest part of this situation is convincing people that we are in this situation! In his talk, Atkins quoted a survey of Methodist churches that asked them to describe their chief characteristic. The number one answer? Friendly! Atkins went on to say, ‘Of course they said they were friendly because all the people who they weren’t friendly to weren’t there to tell them what they were really like!’ Churches have this perception of themselves that they are welcoming and inclusive places, when in fact it isn’t just how we greet them at the door but everything we do assumes that everything that goes on is already known by anyone who walks through the door!
Atkins makes the suggestion that people on the outside are quite willing to hear about God and faith, but are looking more than just a Sunday service. They are looking for community (which would point to why a pub quiz team feels like ‘church’).