Mission-shaped Circuits (Andrew Roberts)

Monday, 29 April, 2013

Andrew Roberts discusses what we can learn from the origins of the Methodist Church's circuit system.

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Andrew Roberts: Mission-shaped Circuits is the title of the piece of work that I was doing with Durham University looking at the Methodist circuit system, its origins, its theology, its practice and learning lessons both from its history and from the present day as to how we can be effectively shaped for mission in these days as a discipleship movement shaped for mission, how does the circuit system fit into that and how in particular can the circuit system be a helpful home for fresh expressions of church as they develop.

It was really interesting to go back to the beginnings of the circuit system and find there that evangelistic outreach, new forms of work, pioneering ministries were very much part of the fabric and the DNA of those circuits, they were all about mission. And they were part of a highly effective missionary movement with some key characteristics as part of that. So for example, the mass mobilisation of lay people - it was predominantly a lay movement, it was predominantly characterised by lay ministries - and all effective missionary movements always see that. It was light, it was nimble, it was flexible, it was effective. The focus was always on mission, but it was anchored, undergirded by, rooted in, deep discipleship as well.

So there is something intrinsic to the vision and values behind the circuit system, to the DNA of the circuit system, that says this can be a very effective way of organising God's people for mission.

Now that was the beginning and then as so often happens, because we're human beings, we get comfortable with the way things are, we systematise things, we institutionalise things and then a lot of the dynamic factors and forces in play begin to lose their impetus and their impact and so we begin to clericalise things, we begin to professionalise things, we begin to disempower the laity, we begin to encumber bright new creative initiatives with structures and rules and regulations.

In recent years, certainly in British Methodism, we've been going through a process of regrouping for mission and when David Deeks introduced that concept when he was then General Secretary of the Methodist Church, he said what was needed in that process was vision meshed with reality. A vision - a new vision, a refreshed vision, a new imaginative vision - for mission,  but also the realistic recognition that we live in a time of challenging and dwindling resources so we do have to temper our dreams if you like with the realities of the resources that we have at our disposal. So British Methodism has been going through this big big process of regrouping for mission and there have been some very imaginative and creative responses to that process in some newly forming circuits, but also I think it has to be said that in other circuits the focus of the reorganisation has been more an administrative one and more about the allocation of resources than it has been about fresh missional thinking.

Now we might have to recognise and say well ok, that's how it had to be in those cases, now that has been done we really must do the new missional thinking and we can learn from the more creative examples of regrouping for mission that have happened. So for example, in the Darlington Circuit, they've regrouped for mission and they've come up with a very bold and a very imaginative and a very courageous vision for a circuit that sees all of the premises within the circuit as centres for mission. It wants all of those buildings to be funded not by the offerings and the tithes or the gifts of the members, but actually funded from income that the building itself generates, so that all the offerings that the members make  go to mission and ministry. So they've regrouped and they've consciously said we want to release resources here for mission, for ministry, perhaps for some new things as well.

Over in Rotherham, they too went through a very careful process of thinking about who they were, what they were called to be and to do and they came up with an interesting solution there, they said rather than seeing themselves primarily as the Rotherham and Dearne Valley Methodist Circuit, they would see themselves as The Methodist Church in Rotherham and Dearne Valley so one church, but with a number of centres around the circuit. So collectively they developed vision they made decisions at circuit level and then saw the individual churches or chapels again as centres for mission and looked to deploy their resources, to work collaboratively and prayerfully to be effective in mission across that area. So there's lots of different ways in which people are going about this process.

Some of course may say well we haven't got very much, you know, we're a struggling circuit, we haven't got many resources and so on. And I'm always encouraged by the stories I hear of circuits or indeed churches that have recognised that very honestly and then have got down on their knees and said Lord, we offer you what we have got, we're not going to worry about what we haven't got but we will offer you what we have got and see what you can do with that. For me it's a kind of re-enacting of the feeding of the 5,000 if you like. The disciples felt a bit pathetic when all they realised they'd got was a few fish and a few loaves, but working with the Lord they were able to do that wonderful miracle of feeding that crowd. And one of my favourite stories is the Howden Clough story - the Wesley Playhouse story - where a chapel of seven or eight elderly folk felt perhaps all their good days were past, but along came one lady, Caroline, with a vision for what might be possible if the church could reconnect with the community and to cut a very long story short they transformed Howden Clough Methodist Church, which the circuit was thinking of closing, into a new centre for mission, Wesley's Playhouse was born and within three years, 42,000 people had crossed the threshold.

So in regrouping for mission I think yes David Deeks was right, we must mesh vision with reality, but let not reality be a hindrance, rather let it be a spur and a prompt to prayer, just honestly saying to God, Lord, you know what we've got, we offer it to you, let's see what we can do together. And I think if we can recapture that spirit, if as early Methodist did we can re-energise the laity, release people to their gifting and callings, give them permission to have a go, then maybe again in these days we can see the Methodist circuit system being a seabed for evangelistic outreach, new forms of community engagement and the release of many many pioneer ministers.


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