Friday, 29 August 2014

Reflections on 2014 Sabbatical

      Some reflections on the last four months.  This is in a report and reflection form and just picks up a whole range of subjects and thoughts.

1.   As I visited and engaged with larger Churches and larger events a key characteristic which occurred repeatedly was confidence, first in the good news of Jesus and second that the life of their church or event would be vibrant and that there would be engagement with new people.  Although it would be true to say that some of the growth in a number of the larger churches I visited was transfer growth virtually all of them also saw people coming into a relationship with Jesus which meant that there really was new growth.  It seems to me that this confidence in the gospel is very important and although it is not confined to larger churches it is not something that I have seen real evidence of in many smaller church congregations.  Such a confidence does not appear to be a general flavour for many churches in my own denomination within the Methodist Church.  Perhaps it is easy to believe and speak the language of death and decline and maybe we need to learn a new language.  There was also a passion for the gospel and for Jesus in these larger churches which was readily and easily expressed.  Perhaps in some churches there is a fear of passion just as “enthusiasm” was warned against in John Wesley’s time.

2.   Church Planting was a major theme of what I saw and what I read.  There have been previous attempts at Church Planting, often organised by denominations.  The sense I had though was that this was more organic.  Growing churches that I visited seemed to be those who committed to church planting.  Church Planting should not be seen as setting up large congregations and big buildings but should be viewed much more flexibly ranging from small groups and cells meeting in homes through to mega-churches setting up new churches with a couple of hundred people as the core start up group with a fixed budget.  Because this has been a constant theme across many different churches I discern that there is a movement of the Holy Spirit here.  Of particular interest was the challenge to look at Church growth as multiplication rather than addition (Exponential, Ferguson & Ferguson, p11) as part of a new missional paradigm.  The same authors suggest that we need to teach people to “Go and not just Bring” and that in developing people for mission they need to be both Incarnational and Apostolic (Exponential, Ferguson & Ferguson, p112/3).  In all of this it is important that we do not get into a numbers game (although the alternative does not look too healthy and appears to be the way that Methodism in the UK is going at the moment).  I was challenged by the book “not a fan” by Kyle Idleman who uses the book to argue that some who are connected with Jesus are fans rather than followers.  He develops this argument throughout the book and challenges people to become true followers with all the sacrifice that entails.  At one point he says “it wasn’t the size of the crowd Jesus cared about; it was their level of commitment” (p13).

It was encouraging to have these words appear by email on 28th August from Revd Dr Martyn Atkins, General Secretary of the Methodist Church, in his Pastoral Letter to Ministers and in response to the decline of numbers within the Methodist Church:
“One response - and one that the Conference endorsed - is a renewed emphasis on apt and appropriate evangelism as “the main thing.” To be sure we don’t engage in evangelism because of falling numbers of Methodists, less still to replenish pew fillers, rather we do so because God’s love, the Gospel and Christ’s command and continuing presence in our lives urge us to do so. Yet there is a connection between our health and our passion to share Good News, and flourish or perish we should refocus on and reimagine evangelism for our time: as one person put it recently, put the ‘E’ back in mission!”

Now to see whether we can rise to that challenge or whether it becomes a debate about what is meant by mission and evangelism and how we must be careful not to offend people!

3.   Mission in the context of Worship was one theme I pursued through questions I asked of leaders of churches I visited.  A number felt they tried to ensure that the worship they offered was accessible and provided information about how to connect with the church in a deeper way.  Most provided ways of investigating the Christian faith in a fuller way (eg ALPHA) outside Sunday services.  I did find that there was still a lack of information in many churches about what was happening during services of worship, why it was happening, and what it meant.

4.   Partly as a result of reading Idleman’s book I feel strongly that an important emphasis in ministry in these coming weeks is to encourage people to become followers of Jesus, not just fans.  This is a challenge that may come hard where we have developed a comfortable Christianity.  Idleman talks about “a culture of consumers in our churches” (p148) and encourages his readers to “Define the Relationship” (p22) much like those in human romantic relationships at some stage have to define their relationship, what it really means and where it is going.  Having a little bit of religion is not enough.  In fact it can be positively dangerous.  A friend of mine used to say that a little bit of religion is like a vaccination – it stops you getting the real thing.  This emphasis on a committed relationship with Jesus grounded in self-giving, sacrificial love, where we do not treat our Christian faith like another hobby fitted in around our personal diary commitments will be one that I intend to visit frequently.  I have already suggested that members of the churches I serve buy and read Idleman’s book.

One of the questions I have put to church leaders from different churches is whether they have a way of gauging or tracking the spiritual growth of their members.  This seems difficult and indeed no leader I spoke to had any formalised way of doing this.  This underlined to me the importance of doing some work on developing a kind of Spiritual MOT or Health Check.  I have started putting together some plans for this.  It would have to be something that people opted into on a voluntary basis, but could be interesting to try.

Linked with this is the concept of “whole life discipleship” which is explored in “Imagine Church” by Hudson. This book is devoted to encouraging the resources of disciples so they can find their front line and be resourced to be witnesses to the Gospel and to mission there.

I intend to spend more time finding spiritual resources which might be offered to resource people for daily life. One area that I have been reflecting on is the potential value of joining religious communities that might give a devotional framework for everyday life helping to resource us as we go through each day.  Iona and the Northumbria Community are just two ways of finding such resources.  Within the Methodist Church in our Worship Book we have a Morning and Evening Office and following a structure such as this might provide such resourcing.  To place this alongside the spiritual MOT or health check above might be an appropriate method to offer people ways of intentionally responding in terms of identifying opportunities for growth and deeper discipleship.  One might term this “moving up a level”.  So, starting daily devotions, going to an additional service, giving more financially or in time, joining a community of faith, attending mid-week Bible or Fellowship meetings, for instance, could all be ways of both growing as a follower and being better equipped in the world to represent Christ at the front line.

5.   One phrase which I picked up from a book (I think) was that in some places the Church is “over governed and under led”.  How I agree!  It appears to me that we seem to trust people less and less and control them more and more.   Often I hear that church “rules” are very flexible, but in reality the flexibility has to be agreed at the centre with those who by position have power and control otherwise woe betide anyone that steps out of line.  We need Godly leaders, with passion for and confidence in the good news of Jesus (see above), who are willing to take risks.  “Everything rises and falls on leadership” is an interesting quote to reflect on (Exponential, Ferguson & Ferguson, p60).

6.   Within the Methodist Church, and within other churches I believe there has been a tendency to narrow down what we look for within ordained Christian ministry.  We too often focus on the Pastor and Teaching gifts and those testing the call of others, having been trained and appointed on the basis of focussing on pastor/teaching gifts then help to perpetuate this as the main characteristics of ministry.  “Training systems are designed to help people become better pastors and teachers. Has any theological or Bible college developed training to help people become better apostles, prophets and evangelists?” (Invading Secular Space, Robinson & Smith, p85) There needs to be a widening so that Apostle, Evangelist and Prophet are placed alongside these as equally important.  This is a picture of missional leadership as in Ephesians Chapter 4.  It is my view that where these gifts are acknowledged then they are usually side-lined into specialist ministries (within the Methodist Church this would be in areas such as Venture FX and Pioneer Ministry).  However, we now live in a mission context where simply nurturing the faithful will mean in not too many years there may not be many of the faithful left to nurture.  I believe it would be right and courageous for churches to completely redefine who they look for in terms of ordained ministry, who actually discerns those with a call, and acknowledges that what we need today in ministers is completely different to what we may have needed fifty years ago.  Side-lining evangelism is not the answer.  Another area which might do with some reflection and action is to acknowledge the riches that evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches can bring to ministry and mission.  Martin Robinson touches on this in his book “Invading Secular Space”, but quotes others as well.  Smith enlarged on this during a Methodist Superintendents’ Retreat in the Southampton District of the Methodist Church earlier in 2014.

Relevant to this was “We are in need of a missiological agenda for theology rather than just a theological agenda for mission; for theology, rightly understood, has no reason to exist other than critically to accompany the missio Dei” ( Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, David J Bosch, p494 quoted in Total Church, Chester & Timmis, p152.

7.   Consistent, Visible Leadership seemed to be a constant in virtually all the churches I visited that seemed to be growing.  The Leadership Team in most of these consisted of a number of people per church.  There was very little concept of the kind of preacher merry-go-round that is visible in most Methodist Circuits.  Given the way that a number of Methodist Presbyters often have several churches it may be one way to consider consistency of approach and visibility of leadership each week is to go back to the idea of a “Pastor in every church”.  Theoretically there is consistent lay leadership each week in Methodist Churches through the Stewards.  I think the difficulty here is that it is not perceived as such by congregations and not understood by anyone new without a Methodist background.

8.   I was interested to see the importance of apprenticeships in enabling people to grow in their gifts. Often in churches people are appointed.  We decide they are able to do the job or that they have the gifts to do the job.  What we need to place alongside this is enabling people to learn and grow in a role and with responsibilities.  Therefore I feel that the idea of apprentices enabling people to develop before branching out on their own is a key idea.  This may be particularly relevant and helpful in the context of Church Planting (see above).   This is not the same as mentoring although there may be elements of mentoring within apprenticeships.  To make a connection with Church Planting above then it could be of very great value to spend time resourcing and building leaders so that they become reproducing leaders in the life of the Church and repeat the process with those around them.

9.   There is no retirement from being a Christian.  I was challenged by hearing this on several occasions from different sources.  Of course most of us would say that we realise there is no retirement from being a Christian.  However sometimes we act as if there is.  People step back from active duty because of age, or because they have done their share, or for a whole host of good reasons.  Yet we are always called to serve.  It is just that the nature of that service sometimes changes.  Retirement is in heaven.

10.                One particular challenge for larger churches is how to welcome and engage with newcomers.  There were good welcome packs around in churches, people on the doors, good hospitality in terms of refreshments in many of the churches, and regular gatherings for new people.  However, I found that once sitting in a congregation both before and after worship it was highly unusual for anyone to talk to me.  Being a welcoming church is a real challenge for churches of all sizes.  I think the larger congregation perhaps has a greater challenge as in a large group of people it is genuinely difficult to spot the stranger.  If we were to have a school report in this area it might well be that many churches would get “Could do better”.

11.                More than Gold 2014 sought to resource the Church for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.  I was deeply privileged to work with More than Gold.  In particular my thanks to Ish Lennox who was my main contact and who worked so hard to make sure I could engage with More than Gold and with the Church in Scotland. I am extremely grateful.  I met Ish when she was the National Olympics Co-ordinator for the Methodist Church.

Having been involved in responding to the opportunities that London 2012 brought to Weymouth and Portland as host for the Sailing Events I was curious to analyse the response of the Church and churches to the opportunities presented by having these major events.  In a nutshell it was much as one would imagine.  Even with a major event served up on a platter such as the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games, it appears to be very hard work indeed to motivate churches to seize the opportunities.  To me this underlines the fact that there is not really a mission mind-set in most churches.  Personally I feel the Methodist Church demonstrated this lack of mission mind-set admirably when it chose not to extend the role of our Olympics Co-ordinator to use gathered expertise and a developed network for the Commonwealth Games or the Island Games (to be based in the Channel Islands).  It apparently was too difficult to respond to such a mission opportunity.  Budgets and short term projects rule.  I am afraid I beg to differ with those at the centre of Methodism.  We need to develop more of a “Can do” attitude and make mission central to much of our thinking.  We missed an opportunity and that opportunity will never ever present itself again.

12.                It was a joy to share in the Keswick Convention once again as a family in the third week of the Convention.  Prior to that though I joined the Stewards’ Team for the first week of the Convention.  This enabled me to get under the skin of the Convention in a different way.  Apart from the hard work of the Stewards that I witnessed I saw at first hand the high degree of discipline and generosity that goes into making these kinds of events possible.  Generosity and Hospitality were key themes during my Sabbatical and ones which I want to examine more closely in the areas of ministry that I am engaged in.  They link with the theme of welcome above.

13.                During my Sabbatical I encountered feelings and emotions of many types – frustration, anger, excitement, elation, determination, defeat, turmoil, disappointment, confidence, but always the sense that God was weaving in and out of all this and I thank him and the Church for this gift, just as I also specifically thank my family, my churches and circuit, and all those who showed hospitality.

Glory to God!