60% of people would visit church if asked

Flicking through the T.V. channels the other day I ended up watching a service from the Abundant Life church in Bradford. I’m never quite sure if I agree with everything said – but then I feel that way about my own church and only a fool would deny that they are being very successful in their work.

Anyway Paul Scanlon mentioned a survey they had taken on the streets of Bradford. The results were very challenging. They discovered (this was just a simple questioning, not a full blown survey or anything) that 90% of people said they had never been invited to church and 60% said that they would go it they were asked.

Now, even if the results are not entirely accurate they still point to two interesting things.

The vast majority of people in Britain have never been invited to church.

I think a lot of people don’t invite friends because they are a little embarrassed of what their friends will come to. I went to a meeting the other day where the question was asked about whether it matters if the music isn’t done very well in a church. Of course the answer most gave was no. This is right on the basis that God just wants us to offer what we can, it doesn’t matter to God if you are good at making music or not the important thing is that you offer it in the right way. However, people who don’t understand this (non-churched visitors perhaps) will notice if the music is badly done. We church goers understand this and I think this puts us off asking people (you can extend this to bad preachers, bad drama, bad prayers, bad worship leading, etc).

The majority of people would go to church if they were asked by a Christian friend

The survey had no connection with the ALM Bradford and so the question they were answering was an invitation to the image of church that most people have (boring, dusty, irrelevant, etc). This doesn’t answer the question of whether they would come again after being asked but simply that many would come if they were invited.

Lots to think about

There is lots to think about here but I see this as a challenge to the church. We need to take inviting visitors seriously and although it may make us feel uncomfortable we ought to start doing it.

Memories of a Methodist Church

I thought I might continue with my thoughts about the Methodist church today. I have often come across people who are very attached to church buildings and how they find it incredibly difficult to cope with the idea of closing it. I understand this because I’ve experienced it myself. The Methodist church that has had the most impact on my own life was closed down and is now a housing estate.

This church (Wesley Methodist Church in Plymouth – formerly King Street Methodist) was built after WW2 when the huge King Street Methodist church building was bombed flat. This was a major church in the heart of Plymouth and it was rebuilt in a new location (no longer on King Street) with money from the Rank Foundation. The premises were magnificent. The church itself was tall, bright and roomy. There was a great circular window above an impressive altar area. There was a large platform area at the front of the church which proved ideal for choirs, drama, etc to be performed. The church also had a large hall (with stage, green room etc) and there were many other rooms of all different shapes and sizes. It was the kind of building that any church would be delighted to own.

It was also the church my parents attended when I was born. Hence I was baptised there and went to Sunday School there. My parents were very involved at the time and so (together with my brothers) I took part in annual pantomimes, Christmas plays, sang solos,  and played in the long corridors. It played an important role in my childhood. I have very happy memories of Christmas services, in particular. Christmas is very big for me and I think some of this stems from my memories of being in church for candle light services and taking part in nativity plays.

When I was about 13 I decided I didn’t want to go to church anymore and my parents agreed. We had some bad experiences as a family and this lead to difficulties with some of the church members. I thought this would probably be the end of my involvement with King Street (as it was still called then).

However, at the tender age of 18 I found myself back at church, although this time it was my local church: Crownhill Methodist Church. At the time there was a youth choir in the Methodist Circuit and I was persuaded to give it a go. This choir was called the Plymouth Praisemakers and was lead by Peter Bolt who was the minister at King Street. The choir meetings were held in the hall of King Street.

So now every week I was in the old church again. This choir was to have a big effect on my spiritual life and took me from being a very new Christian through to candidating for the Methodist ministry.  It was also the place that I met my wife Alison.

Every year we would sing concerts in the church at King Street (now renamed Wesley – because it was not actually on King Street). My Christmas memories were revived and made even bigger and better. I loved singing in the choir so much that I started singing in other choirs. I sang in my own church choir (Crownhill Methodist) and at times the church choir at Wesley. I sang Handel’s Messiah in Crownhill Methodist and was so impressed by it that I joined the Wesley Choir so I could sing it again.

Now a preacher I also got the odd chance of preaching in the church.

Even when I left Plymouth to begin my ministry I found that Wesley Methodist church played a part. I came back for a few Praisemaker concerts but the biggest event was returning to the church to take the marriage service for my eldest brother (his wife was later to die of cancer but he is now happily remarried).

The minister of Wesley also helped me out during my time at College with some holiday work on the building. I painted the rooms and polished the floors in this magnificent building.

Then when I resigned from the ministry it was a reunion with the old choir at Wesley Methodist Church that healed some wounds and brought me back to thinking about ministry again. We sang in the church shortly before it was demolished.

These are all big things for me and much of it happened within the walls of this wonderful church building. I can’t put across in words just how important this building had been to me.

However, it was a big building and the congregation was decreasing. It wasn’t long after my brother’s wedding that the church decided they could no longer afford to keep the building open. It was a very difficult time for the church people and caused a great deal of sadness – even more than I felt I’m sure.

So now it is gone and I still miss it. When I visit Plymouth and see where it once stood it makes me feel very sad – the memories go on but the scene has changed.

Yet I am forced to admit that this was God’s will for this place. I can’t say why people would not come – I do know that it was not through lack of effort of the people in the church. Perhaps there were opportunities missed, perhaps the people didn’t always listen to God (isn’t this true for every church?). I dare say the money to repair the building could have been found from somewhere but would it have been money well spent?

Yes, I miss the building but I know that the work of God goes on and whatever sacrifices I have to make to let it happen – so be it. If God wills that everything from my past disappear then I must accept it. The important thing is that God continues to work through his people in Plymouth and perhaps one day there will be a big enough church to allow a building to be built that surpasses the grandeur of Wesley but whatever God’s plans we must follow his lead.

This brings me back to the way the Methodist church is changing at the moment and possible joining with the Church of England. Do I want a strong Methodist church the way that it used to be? Do I want to see crowds of people attending Methodist churches again? Of course I do.

But do I want to serve God? Do I want to follow where Jesus leads me – wherever that may be? Yes I do.

From the older version of the Covenant service (which I also miss) with a few insertions of my own:

“I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; [this is my bit now] let me have my memories, let me forget; let me be a Methodist, let me be an Anglican; let me have my buildings, let me be homeless; [end of my bit] I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen”

Future of the Methodist Church

If you are a Methodist in the UK then you will have heard of the excitement caused by the President of Conferences comments about the future merger of the Methodist Church with the Church of England.

It has always been my desire to see a more united Christian church and so I see this as a positive comment. However, it seems to me that there are dangers, dangers which the Methodist church knows about only too well because it has already joined together with other denominations in it’s past. The Methodist Church in Britain and Ireland came from the amalgamation of several Methodist denominations (Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, United Methodists, Bible Christians, etc – if my memory serves me right). The danger has been that the larger denomination simply takes over the smaller ones and the distinctive nature of the smaller churches is lost. Some of those who came from the smaller denominations commented on how they had all become Wesleyan Methodists. Of course the differences between these denominations was slight and so the losses were not so great (although Bible Christians had women ministers before the merger and it took the new Methodist church quite a while to catch up with this idea).

If you walk around many towns in the UK you will see Methodist chapels of many different sorts. In the town where I live there once were 4 Methodist churches of various denominations but now there is just the 1.

So what should be retained from the Methodist church as it is now?

Class System
Of course we don’t call it the Class system anymore and we don’t insist that people who want to be Methodists join one (they are generally called House Groups or Fellowship Groups). It could be argued that these are already lost but there are those in the Methodist church who want to see them revived. These Classes were the start of the original Methodist church and were the real strength of Methodism. It seems to me that this would be an easy part to retain (or perhaps I should say revive) as they were originally formed when Methodists were still all Anglicans anyway.

Preachers
The CofE has managed to produce some pretty good preachers and the Methodist church some pretty bad ones in the past, but in general Methodists have a great emphasis on preaching. Again this formed part of the original Methodist movement when it was part of the CofE. I still think that preaching is important and it needs reviving in most churches but the Methodist church has at least retained it’s importance and it’s training of local preachers (different to the Lay Readers in CofE).

John Wesley
Methodism has kept the work and witness of John Wesley and the early Methodists alive. It would be a shame to see these things lost.

Simple services
The Methodist church has had a long tradition of services that are simple and accessible to all. No complicated liturgies to be read (unless it’s a communion service), no sung liturgies (I have seen this done but it’s very rare indeed), no fancy robes (cassock and gown at most), simple prayers and sermons.

Singing and music
I’m always struck by the difference in volume between a Methodist church and a CofE church. I have a pretty strong singing voice but in a Methodist church there are others who sing loud with me, in most CofE Churches I’ve been in I feel like I’m singing a solo. It seems to me that this is an issue bigger than just volume. Music plays an essential part in most forms of spirituality and we would lose a great deal if we lost the Methodist enthusiasm for music. We also need to keep Charles Wesley’s hymns (to be used alongside modern worship songs as well as old hymns) – many of them are fantastic.

Organisation and ministry of all believers emphasis
I hate to add this one because I’ve sat through some pretty dreadful Methodist meetings in my time, and the system can seem very slow on occasions. However, it is a system that is designed to include all the members of a church and for them all to have an equal say. I’ve talked with some CofE Clergy where they seem to be expected to do all kinds of jobs that in a Methodist church would be the responsibility of the whole church.

Hymn Book
The present Methodist Hymn Book (Hymns & Psalms – there is a new one being planned as I write this) is arranged in a way to help Methodists with their devotions at home.

What can go?

Buildings (well some anyway)
I may not be all that old (although I’m getting there) but I have seen much of my built history demolished. Places where I grew up have disappeared. I know that this can be painful and although it’s wrong to get too attached to physical things it’s hard not to feel emotional about buildings where you were married, or had your children baptised, or held a funeral service for your mum, etc. The wonderful church (it was an amazing building built just after WW2 to replace one that had been bombed) where I went to Sunday School is now a housing estate. The church was even kind enough to support me during my training as a minister by giving me some holiday work polishing wooden floors and painting rooms (this was very important to me at the time). I even had some of my best memories singing in a youth choir there (my wife sang in the choir too). Yet, at the end of the day it was just a building and sometimes buildings fall into disuse or they become too big or they just crumble away and are hard to repair. There are many Methodist churches like this. Of course it will be sad to say goodbye to them but it doesn’t matter if the work of God goes on. Some of the better buildings must be kept of course and where the current Methodist church is growing those churches must be retained.

Name
This is a hard one but I don’t think the name is important. It was a derogatory name in the beginning and John Wesley never really liked it himself. For those of us who grew up Methodists this may be the hardest part of all to give up but I see it as something of a maiden name that we will need to give up if we want to get married to the Church of England. Sometimes people retain maiden names and that works fine for them, this is not a comment on their choices. I’m not in favour of the business approach of combining names: Church of England & Methodists? Methodist Church of England? MethCh? I can’t see a good combination and it’s probably best just to lose it. The only way I could see it working would be to have a subheading: Church of England (Methodist)

History
The Methodist church, on it’s own at times, has played a very important role in the life of Britain – as well as the rest of the world. Our history will remain, of course, in those Methodist denominations that won’t be part of the joining, as it will remain in the Methodist church throughout the world. In Britain, though, we should do our best to ensure that the memory and long history of the Methodist church remains (perhaps there needs to be something of the name retained for this to happen?).

Conclusions

Above all I think it is important to the joining of 2 churches makes something better at the end of the process. If either one just dissolves into the other then we lost something important. My hope would be that all that has made the Methodist church a powerful force in Christian Britain will become part of a stronger and better Church of England.

Our priority must always be to do what God wants us to do. It seems clear to me that God wants unity in his church and as long as we respond to God out of desire to follow rather than fear or greed then how can this be wrong?

We must not let our personal feelings stop the work of God and how can we see Christian unity as anything but the work of God?

Do you have any suggestions as to what to keep and what not to keep?

Waiting for things to happen

I’ve applied for reinstatement to the Methodist ministry but I’m now having to wait for the system to move along. It’s one of those crazy feelings where every day of waiting is difficult and yet it’s taken me about 11 years to get around to applying. Of course there are implications with the waiting for me because I am self-employed and not quite sure of the future until this is sorted out.

Waiting is a strange experience but teaches some important lessons – not least of which is patience.

I also know – from my self-employed experience – that it is easy to assume that nothing is happening when you don’t hear anything. I think this is one of the reasons why you will hear how important communication is within an organisation. People love to know what is going on and when they don’t they get all edgy and impatient. It’s much easier to be patient when you know that you haven’t been forgotten or pushed to one side.

Don’t take this as a criticism of the Methodist church because they have kept me informed of the major developments I just need to learn patience.

I’m sure something is happening but I just have to be patient.

Back as Methodist Preacher

Had my first service back as a Methodist preacher yesterday (14th Feb 2010). It was a good experience although there were many things that I need to improve on. I’ve always found preaching to be exhausting and this was no exception.

I am determined to get to preach without any notes at all but this time allowed myself a few. I seem to preach an awful lot better when I’m not tied to notes – it’s always been a problem for me to get my own personality involved when I have to read a sermon. I remember disappointing my friends at College who thought I’d be a better preacher than I was – of course they didn’t say this but I could tell.

The rest of the service went ok but I want it to be better than ok. I think the biggest problem was my sermon was too long – I think I had too much material because I was nervous that with only a few notes I would dry up and not have enough to say.

Anyway it was well received – I preached on the transfiguration and for a first time back it went fine. Next service is in a months time.

Thoughts about anything