The Background Data for Mission newsletter helps United Methodist leaders sort through the new and integrate it with the old. It explores the latest in technology, demographic trends, and contemporary approaches to worship, church education, and evangelism.
HAPPENINGS IN THE MOTHERLANDA recent GCFA posting noted that preliminary analysis of the 2005 General Minutes data shows a membership decline in the USA of just over 1% and an attendance decline of 1.63%. While this is not encouraging, it is nothing like the decline experienced in recent years in the home of the Methodist movement, the UK. The Methodist Church in Britain has lost membership at a rate of 6%to 7% per year in recent years. (To their credit, however, their membership roles more accurately reflect true, active members.) Nevertheless, the British Methodists are not rolling over and playing dead, but are using a variety of approaches to find new life.
In an attempted turnaround, it is often useful to know what is causing the decline in the first place. The decline of the UMC in the USA has been the topic of endless discussions, but Rev. Graham Horsley, Secretary of Evangelism and Church Planting for the Methodist Church in Britain, notes a double whammy in his church. First, the age profile of this historic denomination in Britain is mostly elderly. Second, they are failing to gather new members.
Furthermore, the context of Christianity in general in the UK, and most of Europe for that matter, is much more secular than the US. The World Values Survey, pooled from 1981 to 2001, asked the following question. "Apart from weddings, funerals, and christenings, about how often do you attend religious services these days?" Among possible answers were 3) once a year, 2) less often, and 1) never or practically never. The UK rated somewhere between 1.2 and 1.6 on this scale. By comparison, the US in 1999 rated 4.5 where 4) is only on special holidays and 5) once a month. Also, in the US 30% of those polled indicated once a week and 12% more than once a week.
It is no surprise that evangelism is a challenge in Great Britain, amidst a culture with such a low priority on church attendance. It is a bit reminiscent of John Wesley's day. So what is the present day Methodist Church doing in the land of its heritage? Some good things, actually. For one, they are recognizing the value of prayer. The denomination just completed a year of prayer where every day was covered by at least one congregation. Another prayer venue being encouraged is for local congregations to do prayer walks. Basically this involves walking through the community and praying for the homes as they are passed.
Other approaches to evangelism through outreach and mission include lay witness missions, video missions, and church flowers. The latter involves taking flowers to those who are sick, troubled, or housebound and sharing Christ's love. Another option is to invite evangelists from Cliff College, a college of the Methodist Church. Cliff College engages in mission in a great variety of ways but generally in partnership with local congregations.
Their aim is to equip and enthuse local Christians in the evangelistic task and to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The College has six full time evangelists who prepare student teams and churches for specific periods of mission as part of the on-going mission of the local church, enabling churches to move from having missions to 'being mission'. They approach mission as a partnering with local churches not imposing a packaged program of events. Team sizes vary from two to twelve.
British Methodist churches are encouraged to use a variety of "discover Christianity" courses as well. Not surprisingly, Alpha is among them. This course originated in England and is based in Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican Church. Emmaus is also present in the UK. Three other courses are listed by the Evangelism office, representing a variety of theologies and styles. One of these is Essence, an exploration of contemporary spirituality looking towards a lifestyle integrating body, mind and spirit. It draws from the teachings of Jesus and the Christian mystics. Essence is designed for all who recognize that they are on a spiritual journey and have a desire to continue that journey. While written from a Christian perspective the aim is to explore with others the spiritual journey. It is written for those within the church and outside the church and also for those with a 'new age' philosophy.
The Methodist Church in Britain offers additional resources in evangelism such as conferences, training, and publications. Most of these address the aspect of congregational development related to bringing new vitality to existing congregations. Of course, the other facet of congregational development is being pursued too: planting new churches. Again, the context makes this more challenging. Our British colleagues are finding that the best approach to this task is through largely non-traditional means. This is demonstrated by their collaboration with the Church of England in an initiative called Fresh Expressions.
Fresh expressions embody mission shaped churches which can be Cell Church, Youth Church, Alternative Worship, Multiple Congregations, Ecumenical Church Planting, Mid-week Church, Church without buildings, Café Church & more. In fact, creativity, mission, and cultural sensitivity cause these ministries to often be outside the box. When asked how these are doing, Graham Horsley was not certain how to evaluate their progress, given that they are "messy."
In addition to cultural context, organizational context matters in congregational development. On the plus side, the British Methodists operate out of a denominational center, rather than semi-autonomous Annual Conferences. This enables them to work across the church uniformly and with maximum strength. On the other hand, their pastoral appointments are all circuit based, often working in teams. This means focusing the best and brightest leadership on a single ministry is difficult.
So what can we in the United Methodist Church in the USA learn from our British counterparts? For one we can see where our context may be going. European sociologists have long viewed American religion as an anomaly, since we have not experienced the degree of secularization found in much of Europe. The US is currently experiencing some of the same cultural shifts, however, though not as extensively. The cutting edge of starting new churches in Amerca includes some of the same types of approaches as the Fresh Expressions. On another note, we could benefit from a unified denominational prayer initiative.
The US church is structured better for assigning the most skilled leadership to specific ministries. On the other hand, we are fragmented as a denomination due to the annual conference independence in congregational development. Stronger conferences can do more than smaller conferences when in some cases, the need for new ministries may be great in the conferences with fewest resources to meet the needs. The June issue of this newsletter chronicled the emerging National Strategy Team, whose purpose is facilitate starting much greater numbers of new churches in coming years. Part of the emphasis will be in finding ways to operate out of a denominational center.
Let's be in prayer for our British sisters and brothers. We can be aware too, that our rate of decline may yet match their current rate if we are not proactive in some of the same ways they are now attempting to stem the tide.