Thoughts on Methodism Part 5: What Concerns Me

It seems like I have been thinking through this a lot over the past few months. I agree with most of what Dave wrote in his post on what concerns him, maybe with different emphasis. There has been a lot going around about what’s going on in American Methodism (in particular, with the ordination process), but 5 years removed from the UMC, I can’t really speak to it. So this post will focus on British Methodism.

  1. Sunday Only Focus: Church has become what happens during the hour on Sunday morning.
  2. Maintenance has Become the Mission: Ministries are judged by if they will get ‘bums on seats’ on Sunday morning, which will bring people in to do the vacant jobs and maintain the building.
  3. Too Many Buildings: As congregations become smaller and older, the buildings become harder to maintain, yet the congregations remain steadfast in their determination to remain.
  4. Maintaining the Status Quo: I get the sense that the connexion has a list of suggestions that are ‘off-limits’ for a number of reasons. But there seems to be an avoidance at all costs of a complete overhaul (my friend Garreth talks about the church needing to overhaul here).
  5. The Ambiguous Leadership Role of Clergy: The treasurer at one of my churches has said, ‘The Methodist Church expects ministers to be change agents, but don’t enable them to do it because the power still lies with the congregation.’ I struggle to find where the laity needs to be ‘freed up’. With the day-to-day running of the church primarily with the laity and ministers split between 2-8 churches, can we really say ministers (few if any who would say all power needs to be with the clergy) are holding them back? Why are some of these smaller ones who rarely see a minister so resolute in church being only about Sunday morning?
  6. The Circuit Plan: This is where I can’t get my head around – following on from the previous, I see it as a problem I am only in my church once, maybe twice a month. I don’t want to denigrate the local preacher system – many are good preachers. But, for a minister to be the leader, it seems she would need to be there every week, living with them week in and week out. Worship could carry on a continuity and the leader could press on topics and issues where needed. At the very least, it would give less of a feel of an outsider coming in each week.
  7. Loss of Focus on Discipleship: Methodism began as a movement of Christians who wanted to live out their faith. Wesley instituted a regime of class meetings where people met for accountability, scripture study, and good works. In this format, a system of local preachers which supported the class system made sense. Now the people gather for what was the side show (the preaching) and what made Methodism Methodism is barely on the radar. In regards to church members, this should make us think about what it means for leadership of the local church.
  8. Church as Services Provider: I have struggled with this one, and this may need to get a whole post on its on. In order to save our buildings, we lease them out to groups or look to larger organisations (or government agencies) to come in and use our premises to provide services. The church can have little involvement (if any). This is not all bad, and in fact I applaud this. Yet, there seems to be something missing when we want to build a community of people who follow Jesus. I think we are losing out on two things: the sense that the church as a foretaste of the eschatological community and any notion of conversion (very important in Methodism).

I have made some generalisations, and I have been told that my experience is confined to this area in Lancashire. There are churches that are doing some great things, but I wonder if we can find ways to channel resources to them (I remember someone at my last church, which was going through a building scheme, who said the Methodist Church easily provides approval and money for a church that wants to put some iron fencing around a garden, but sets up all kinds of roadblocks for churches looking ‘really do ministry’).

All this sounds terribly judgmental, and whilst I focus on the laity over discipleship, I have to raise my hand and say I suffer in my own. I don’t mean to say I am separate from the problems I name, but I also add to them. In addition to thinking through where I add to the problems, I am trying to work out where my concerns are my own and not really big problems.

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10 thoughts on “Thoughts on Methodism Part 5: What Concerns Me

  1. What you say above resonates with me more than what Dave said in his list (sorry Dave).

    I too struggle very much with ‘how to be a leader’ when I can only be somewhere once a month and can’t really live day-to-day with the churches.

    I try my best to live day-to-day with the churches, but with four churches, that’s really not easy.

    Also, the general public (those who don’t go to church but who use the buildings) seem to assume that I have only one church. They can’t understand why, when they ask me to come spend an hour with the Scouts, that they have to book the session months and months in advance. Answer: because I’m trying to be in four communities at once!

  2. Living day-to-day is the challenge, and not only because of the number of churches, but circuit commitments, too. It’s hard to establish any continuity with things like house groups and Bible studies.

    And I know what you mean about non-church going folk who have to listen to me figure out which church they are asking about!

  3. Pingback: What Kind of Youth Work? « Ramblings from Red Rose

  4. Good stuff Will, and it seems that John Sentamu agrees with you. An arutcle in the Church Times quotes him on the fact that we have too many buildings whuch can become idols.

  5. Will

    Fascinating (as ever) to read your thoughts.

    “Maintaining the Status Quo: I get the sense that the connexion has a list of suggestions that are ‘off-limits’ for a number of reasons. But there seems to be an avoidance at all costs of a complete overhaul (my friend Garreth talks about the church needing to overhaul here”

    I would love to hear what yo uthink the ‘off limits’ suggestions could be…

    With regards

    John

  6. This is the first I’ve heard of ‘off limits’ suggestions.

    But I’d be willing to bet (am I allowed to say that? *grin*) that one of them is allowing more dispensations for lay people to preside at communion.

    Mind, I think that would probably be used as a stop-gap to avoid a lot of needed change and to try to maintain status quo services and buildings as long as possible. On the other hand, I expect it’s a problem for a lot of ‘fresh expressions’.

  7. Hello, John! Thanks for your comment. Whilst I wasn’t thinking of the lay president at the sacrament, Pam points to a lot of the thinking that I see behind the decisions that get made. In other words, we ‘tinker’ rather than look at it afresh. So, with that in mind, here are two things I see as ‘off limits’:

    1) The circuit: We know that something seems to be wrong, so we introduce larger circuits. The same thing we have now, but make it bigger with an extra layer of management. We have less ministers, and we just give more churches to her or him. When I (and others) have questioned this, I have been told a) it works great in other places, but these vague places aren’t given nor is what they have done been told. It also assumes that because it works great in a few places, it will work great everywhere. It also sends the impression to me: they made it work, what’s wrong with you? b) the Anglicans are looking to copy our system, but what seems to be missing from the story is that it is an act of desperation. Share has an interesting article on Fresh Expressions blog that wonders if we are institutionalising pioneering ministries. It’s this trying to make it fit within our system that seems counter to what pioneering ministries is to be about!

    2) Following on, from the first, the local preachers system. The momentum I had built up with two sermons in Jan/Feb lost after being away from the church for three weeks. When I have mentioned trying to plan services where I would be at my churches more/every Sunday, I have been responded with, ‘what about the local preachers?’

    That’s the two that spring to mind. Whilst I get uncomfortable with lay presidency, I would gladly put that on the table!

    Perhaps this comment deserved its own post! 🙂

  8. We have less ministers, and we just give more churches to her or him.

    I think this is actually symptomatic of the underlying malaise.

    I think the underlying malaise is that we don’t really want to go outside of our congregations and bring mission into the strange and scary world. We want to stay comfortable in our congregations and we don’t even want to merge with the Methodist church a mile down the road. We are very happy putting all of our energies into our buildings and to the ‘church family’ who we have known for the last 40 years. And if it takes bigger circuits so that we can still continue the way we have done in the past, then so be it.

    I’m sure that there are many existing congregations that need to close who won’t close until they are faced with a crisis. Bigger circuits is just prolonging the day that the crisis arrives. I’m sure that there are also lots of ‘Fresh Expressions’ that will leave Methodism because we can’t get our heads around what they are exactly or how they may be controlled.

  9. Well said, Pam! I think you are exactly right.

    My question now becomes, and I have thought about putting this in a blog post, how much can we really talk change to these congregations you describe? Is it fair to make people change who simply want to come to church on Sunday in their last remaining years?

    Of course, the problem is that many still have some sort of desire to see the church full of young people and young adults (unspoken desire: who will fit the model of the church you describe. This is why I am entirely with you on programmes for youth with the goal of getting them into church – from my other post!).

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