Martyn Atkins on fresh expressions in the Methodist Church

Monday, 19 March, 2012

Martyn Atkins, General Secretary of the British Methodist Church, talks with Anna Drew of the D:Sign podcast about discipleship, disquiet and the need to sacrificially resource new ways of being church.

Duration: 13:13   | Download Download mp3


Martyn Atkins: In Britain, what we definitely know is that the kind of worship and the kind of life, that what we might describe as a lovely and devoted group of Methodists, that kind of life seems to commend itself to fewer and fewer people in the general population. And I think it's that that sets up the disquiet and the dis-ease in the most lovely of normal Methodists. And I think of huge numbers of people I know in their 80s, 90s and downwards to whatever, you know, who sort of say well it suits us and we've almost become churched in the sense that we understand what we're doing, but it grieves us to think that our children and our grandchildren seem to find no calories in this, it doesn't seem to be a life full enough, it doesn't seem to be a discipleship rich enough for them to say there's anything in it for me Mum and Dad, Grandma and Granddad, now that sets up the disquiet and I think that disquiet is there from God if you like. That God is saying to us well you might be content, but is that sufficient, you know? And I think more and more Methodists are saying no, the missional agenda is the one where we ask the question what does God want of us in this time, with all our resources, with all our buildings, in order that the pearl of great price that some people who seem impervious to the Christian gospel, if we really believe it's good news, if we really believe that following Jesus is worth a candle at all, then what is this vehicle that we've got that God wants us to use more effectively to reach more people. Now for me as the General Secretary, what that means is that I think we're saying to one another quite a costly thing, and that is that the things that might show the way riskily – there's no guarantee – in reaching new constituencies with the gospel of Jesus Christ, is primarily not geared towards bringing them back so they take their place in our pews and repopulate our churches in exactly the same way they've been for another generation, but that we put a disproportionate amount of time, effort, staffing and resourcing into teasing out ways whereby those other people can encounter an authentic Christian life in the 21st century. I think that's what God is calling us to do. And you can't do that while remaining everything saying well that remains untouched, we've got this little bit of fag-end time or fag-end money over here to spend exploring this, it's got to be a more radical shift, and so I think the General Secretary's report was saying if you agree with this direction of travel, what we're saying is that everything's in the mix. But the general view of our church is that it's now a resource given to God and nothing is sacred in the sense of 'there it is', in order that we move faster and more speedily and more wholeheartedly towards this kind of obedience.

Interviewer: So as General Secretary it is your job to look at the big picture, to look at all our resources…

Martyn Atkins: With others, I don't do it alone.

Interviewer: Yes, of course. To look at all our resources, to look at all our churches, our worship modes, our youth and children's work, everything. And to kind of take that in and digest that and have a cup of tea maybe, and then think about how do we move this forward, how do we take the risks that we think God is leading us to, how do we become that discipleship movement shaped for mission. In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues to take that forward?

Martyn Atkins: I think the pressing issues were the ones that were identified in the General Secretary's report, but the General Secretary's report was in large parts simply mirroring back to the connexion what I'd heard over a number of years. So in a sense I was stating back to the church, have we heard each other correctly? And it seems to be that the Conference of 2011 said, pretty overwhelmingly, yes, these are the kind of things we want to explore. Now it seems to me that there are three things generically. Put very very briefly, one is that we need to look again at the kind of ministries that resource our church and enable a rich witness and offering of service to our communities. So I articulated things like what does a circuit leadership group look like, especially now that we've in the last three years lessened the number of circuits by about 150-170. You see we forget that in 2006 there were 617 circuits with 1,790 active full-time presbyters. Now we're in a situation where we don't know exactly how many circuits there are because every week something's changing but we reckon something around about 490 at the moment, and falling. Now it's not because there's a kind of Orwellian, you know, small number of circuits is good, large number of circuits is bad, it's because we're recognising that very very small circuits were reproducing large numbers of roles, taking up large amounts of time and energy from a limited number of people and vitality so that we began to say to one another we can do certain things in bigger units that release energy to focus more on things that really really we feel need doing. And that's the impetus for me behind regrouping for mission. It's not simply that… a strategy for decline, in fact it's quite the opposite for me, I've got no interest in managing decline, decline will manage itself. If you leave it alone it'll sort itself out wonderfully. What I'm interested in is what do we learn that by galvanising circuits or churches together, by reigniting vision, by reflecting on what discipleship is, by reflecting on what the interplay between lay and ordained people are as common disciples of Jesus bearing witness in their life and in their work and what they're doing, how does all that refocus upon the core purposes and then what happens out of that. So to resource those kind of ministries in small groups, in leadership teams, this idea of pastoral focus – partly to provide focus in a church which very often sees itself as rather disconnected from one to the other, and also to release then the possibility that a group of people in the ministry can themselves identify where that limited amount of ministry is best focussed. You see we can't do everything. So for the last ten years we've said to ourselves if we can't do everything, what is it we've got to do? And that's becoming an ever-more pressing problem for us. And my answer is we do the things that see ourselves as poured out in order to be a discipleship movement shaped for mission, which is given over to God for the good of others.

Interviewer: You talk about not being able to do everything, there is a kind of tendency among Christians to go well that's a good idea and that's a good idea and that's a good idea so we must do all of the things that are good, and then you find yourself I think getting stretched thinner and thinner and thinner. But we do invest in new things and we do invest in new ideas like the VentureFX pioneer ministry scheme and the youth participation project and fresh expressions, you know we're a major partner in that. How do we keep doing those things that are good and are worth doing in the myriad stuff that we could be doing? How do we keep holding all that together? Is there a danger that by doing youth participation and VentureFX and then maybe traditional church in one area that the church becomes so disparate it starts to pull apart?

Martyn Atkins: Now I don't think so. I mean there is that danger, of course there is. And the more it seems to become an exotic thing that those who like doing that over there and has pristine money that doesn't touch… you see I think the thing that really is coming home to us is that up to now we've been able to resource these exploratory more outward focussed kinds of ministries, we've been able to resource them out of money that we've got in the bank. And so in a sense it's not touched what you might call the normal routine life of church as we've known it. That's going to change, in fact it is changing already. Now in a sense we're put more and more in a situation of we can't do both, which are we going to do. And I'm a person who is urging Methodism that the faith-ful hope-filled thing to do is to increasingly take the risk of saying we use a greater proportion of the money that we have locally, how we spend it locally, on those things that are not simply servicing church as we know it. There's nothing wrong with that, I'm not arguing it's somehow a debased way of using our resources, but all the signals are that if we continue to do that we are missing a kind of vital call of God to be more engaged with things that work. And my answer would be to people who say well why do we have to do that is, my answer would be because we're doing the 21st century version of what Methodism did at the first and that is looking round and saying how do those who don't find it easy to encounter the gospel, to see the relevance of Christ, to experience the love of God in society, who's… what's going to be the instrument that God uses in order to do that, rather than to sort of say here we are, you know, come and join us if you feel somewhat comfortable or in need. So I've said very stupidly, boldly, whatever the phrase is, back to the church, we have 5,300 chapels, that's far too many for what we need – and that's not to say that they're all bad, you see this is the nuance of the thing, I'm not saying therefore close them, what I'm saying is that we should be bold enough to say in every circuit, in every district, as a connexion, is this fit for our purpose, do we need them all, do we need to own them all, what's the nature of a church as a satellite station of disciples in the world, as both a focus and a point for dispersal for ministry in the world, how many of them do we need and where should they be? And in a sense what I'm hoping is that that's an energising question, it's not a dictatorial question, it's just simply a statement of fact. Because even without asking that question, we're losing 100, 150 a year through closure anyway. And at the moment all that's happening is that the money from that is going in various places, but if it's simply retrenched back into a kind of central pot that enables the rest of them to survive without asking those kind of missional questions, then that really is a managing of decline. And I suspect that huge numbers of Methodists simply say we don't want to be as unimaginative and unmissional as that, so let's ask the questions. If we release that, can we do this? So I'm urging Methodism to use… continue to use for at least a long time yet, a disproportionate amount of finite resources in exploring what might… what God might be leading us into. And if I can just say one more thing, I know time's going, the amount of money that we put in something like the fresh expressions initiative is round about £100,000 £110,000 a year. The stipend budget, I realise it's not like with like, the stipend budget that we pay to sustain our ministers, quite rightly, is about £64,000,000 a year. Now that's the proportion of what we're talking about – it's very easy to say well this is extra, it's somehow exotic, but look at it. In seven years of the fresh expressions movement our latest statistics for mission now tell us that one third of all Methodist causes in the country have formed what they consider to be a fresh expression. And that's on £110,000 a year. It's good money!

Interviewer: Well we… as you say, we really nearly are out of time, but I want to ask you very quickly before we finish, very briefly what kind of Jesus do you imagine when you think about the Jesus who is leading us forward through this divine disquiet?

Martyn Atkins: I see a really… I see an angry Jesus. I'm not governed by an angry Jesus, I mean I'm a Methodist, I'm a Wesleyan, I'm sort of sloppy with prevenient grace, Jesus is all-compassionate and all-loving and all-forgiving and I never reach the end of his forgiveness so yes, that's the kind… but in terms of what the Spirit of Jesus is saying to the church, the Spirit of Jesus is saying to the church can I use you or can't I? Are you going to be with me incarnationally in Britain in the 21st century, or are you going to be a movement that history consigns to a particular time in history – and history is replete with the bones of churches that didn't hear the cry to follow and accompany Christ into a new world, with dirty fingernails, with resolute prayer, with a pretty radical agenda of social change and social justice and the promise of an inhabiting Spirit that makes all things possible, that's the kind of Jesus.


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