How do we tackle the challenge of Methodist decline?

Monday, 11 August, 2014

Phil Potter asks how we respond to the latest Methodist statistics for mission.

So, we all know that the latest Methodist Statistics for Mission are 'challenging' to say the least but what is the way forward? In just 22 pages, the report catalogues the loss of 100,000 members over 10 years. BUT, is that a sign for all Methodists to lie down in a darkened room and give up? I don't think so.

The statistics also show how three quarters of all Methodist work with groups and outreach happens through the week, with over 483,000 people involved in one way or another. To me, that reflects the changing face of church in today's society.

As Martyn Atkins said, in his General Secretary's report to Conference, the lessons from the statistics must be learned but there is

a growing desire to reclaim evangelism as a crucial part of God’s mission, as the main thing.

The recent commissioning of New Song Network Church in Warrington as the newest church in Methodism is evidence of that desire becoming a reality but how will New Song become just the first in a long line of new churches?

In looking at overarching practice in Methodism, I'd suggest three main things:

  • every Circuit to have at least one half-time post developing new forms of church. Don't worry about what 'sort' of church is being encouraged by the Holy Spirit; look instead at their intention; what do they intend to do to reach the people who wouldn't otherwise be reached with the Good News? There is a real window of opportunity to respond to the missional challenges all around us; that's why every Circuit needs to have a designated person to explore and encourage and help to source funding for fresh expressions.
  • develop pathways for lay people to lead churches.The Church Army's Research Unit report, From Anecdote to Evidence - which looked at fresh expressions in ten Church of England Dioceses – highlighted the increasing importance, relevance and role of lay people in leading new forms of church. Identify them, support them, give them the backing to develop the ministry that God has given them.
  • conduct an urgent review of present leadership structures and make it a matter of policy to increasingly partner with Christians of other denominations and streams. Working alongside Christians from all traditions and denominations has been at the heart of Fresh Expressions since it first saw the light of day in 2004. The value of that has become all too clear with hundreds of new churches being formed which, in turn reach thousands of people - many of whom have never been anywhere near a Christian community before. That has only been possible through working together.

In all of these things, difficult resourcing decisions need to be made – but is it important for God's people called Methodists, for all of us, to prop up the present or invest in the future?


I believe we need to act as follows:

1. Prop up the existing structure with minimal resources designed to be in "maintenance mode" - this has been tried in the North Lancashire District a few years ago. I have no idea whether it worked or not.
2. Find a way of getting each circuit to have people specifically responsible for mission/evangelism/fresh expressions and insist that it is on the agenda of circuit meeting, LP meeting and circuit leadership teams at least.
3. seek out and resource whatever opportunities there - supporting small churches who lack people especially asking for volunteers to transfer from neighbouring churches.
4. Work with other local Christians in an area or focus based.
5. Use lay people as lay pastors - one for each church - volunteers - a president suggested this some years ago - why won't the Methodist church trust lay people in this role - there is more than to life than discipline within the ministry - this implies changes to the role of presbyter which I think is the problem

I have been a LP for 44 years and a member 51 years. Why won't people let go of the past?

our present model is simply not working - like any other organisation that means we have to change - if we don't the consequence is inevitable

1) Deciding that certain churches need to be put in maintaince only mode is too hard, and doesn't happen because it requires LEADERSHIP and DECISION MAKING, and UPSETS PEOPLE. These are all things which the church as presently constituted is very bad at demonstrating; we are happier seeing it drift along, and most ministers' time is allocated to 'fire fighting'.

2) The need is to identify the people with a gift of evangelism - and ban them from all other activities in the church. They and the leaders must undertake that they will NOT volunteer for offices, committees, Sunday School etc.

3) Diverting people between churches is an interesting theory, but in reality needs to be done with a clear understanding of the context. Is the receiving church a viable proposition - being defined as 'if my best friend became a Christian, would I want them to join that church'. If the answer to that is 'No', then that must be addressed first by the existing congregation.

4) See my comments below. Most such endeavours end up as 'being nice to the neighbours'* or reflecting a lowest common denominator that is deadly.

5) The role of class leader needs to be revived, and from those leaders such leaders may emerge. Overall the Methodist tradition of classes is one that offers interesting possibilities for growth...

* A phrase derived from this crushing condemnation of the modern church by Terry Pratchett, himself an atheist:

'Now if I'd seen him, really there, really alive, it'd be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched them like a father and cared for them like a mother... well, you wouldn't catch me sayin' things like "There are two sides to every question" and "We must respect other people's beliefs". You wouldn't find me just being ge'rally nice in the hope that it would turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgiving sword. And I did say burnin' Mister Oats, 'cos that's what it'd be. You say that people don't burn folks anymore, but that's what true faith would mean, y'see? Sacrificin' your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin' the truth of it, workin' for it, breathing the soul of it. THAT'S religion. Anything else... is just being nice. And a way of keepin' in touch with the neighbours.'

From Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett London: Corgi 1999 p.349

All that you suggest and ask for has been dealt with over and over again for many years, and even Fresh Expressions etc., is only a rehash of all that we have experienced. I think vital, fundamental issues need to be faced up to, including what John Wesley wished for the initial people called Methodists.Methodism needs to be much braver than it has been, and that includes being invited to join Wesley's Church.
What are the alternatives? There are none.
Best wishes,

"[M]ake it a matter of policy to increasingly partner with Christians of other denominations and streams."

Er, no... the evidence on the ground is that it is churches with a clear commitment to a particular stream that make the impact, whilst the ones that worry about being 'ecumenical' get nowhere. This doesn't mean that Christians who currently inhabit different denominations can't come together to create a Fresh Expressions church, but they need to be united in their approach. A moment's glance at church history, most obviously with the Wesleys, shows that the clear movements of God knew exactly where they were going and weren't ultimately interested in compromising with the parts of the church that didn't cope with what they were. (c.f Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, George Fox, William Booth)

The decline in Methodism is not just a "gosh, look" surprise based on 10 years' data. The Methodist Church has been in near-continuous decline from its peak of 850000 members in 1914. And it sems to have learnt nothing in that 100 years - it has just come to accept "thats how it is".
It's focus is on its excess of small and ineffective buildings. True, they aren't very active, but at least they are there every Sunday.
It might be better to look instead at ineffective ministry (ordained and lay) and figure out where to start pruning for growth.

Recipe for successful churchs..... (according to US source)

1. They send an intentional message.

2. They focus on relationships.

3. They have long-range plans.

4. They take reasonable risks

5. They have a real leader.

6. They are decisive.

Score your congregation yourself on each dimension!

As for the three recommendations in the article

+ special post....maybe, but that won't fix much
+ support for lay leaders...... yes, if there are any left!
+ partnering.....possibly, although that is also a brilliant excuse for doing nothing, waiting for the others.

[FX is about growth...go for it. It is not about fixing an organisation - Methodism - that enjoys its self-inflicted terminal condition: a sort of anorexia.]

Could just be the methodist church is loosing members because when people ask to become members to follow a calling whatever it may be they have to win their stripes first !

We belonged to a church for almost 9 years 5 1/2 as worship leaders. Had to leave because of an upset caused by thoughtless ministers . Bravely returned one day and was refused re-training and membership. The pain caused has and still is tremendous , with no apology from any one . by the way my husband was a good evangelist but they did not want him either !

Many interesting and positive comments have been posted but most fail to recognise that Methodism's precipitous decline can be best understood as a sociological phenomenon. Since my boyhood in the 1940's membership has declined by some 75% and there has been a wholesale withdrawal from the villages where there were often two or three competing chapels. Significantly in most of those villages there remains an active parish church. The reason for this would make an excellent subject for a dissertation by a student seeking a PhD for it surely merits serious study.

In my own experience most chapels tend to be inward-looking and are often dominated by certain dominent families. Also village life tends to revolve around the Church and the Pub and with Methodism's attitude to drink and gambling its appeal was bound to be very limited unless something very vital and inspiring was being offered.

After John Wesley's heart had been "strangely warmed" his mission to take the gospel to the unchurched masses promised a very different kind of religious experience to that offered by the C of E which condemned its exuberent "enthusiasm." One of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, called Methodism "the most apostate church in Christendom." Harsh words but he was only describing a church which in his view had turned its back on its great heritage and mission. Is there anything to distinguish between what is proclaimed from Methodist pulpits today and what one can hear in most parish churches? That is the vital question confronting Methodism today.

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