“We are at the beginning of a dynamic new Church-wide focus on evangelism as a crucial dimension of our mission and ministry in 21st century Britain. We believe that God has called all of us to speak, live, and listen for the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world.” (From the Methodist Connexional Website)
The Liverpool District 2020 Vision conference felt like a significant step in moving forward the thinking and practice of our churches in this vital mission. Organised by the Resourcing Mission Group, the conference brought together four experienced and able practitioners to speak and lead workshops for the some 200 church members who gathered in the impressive surroundings of Linacre Mission, in Liverpool.
The challenge throughout the day was simple: See-Hear-Respond. It was a day for envisioning what could be, rather than bemoaning what no longer was. It was an opportunity to hear wise counsel and encouraging stories. It prompted all those who were there to consider: What commitment will you make to yourself and God today?
Here are some headlines and notes of the day. If you want to know more, there is a list of resources at the bottom of the article which will help you and your church to start thinking about where you are now, and where you want to be in the future. Which leads us nicely to the first session.
Trey recounted his experience attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Chicago. He was struck by the parallels between AA and the outreaching church. It was a meeting full of joy and laughter, where people shared their stories to a sympathetic and empathetic audience, where there was an acknowledgement of need and weakness, and a determination to help one another on the path to sobriety.
Notably there were no “experts” – no therapists or experts, no administrative hierarchy, no book-learning or superior wisdom – just starving people helping one another to find bread. The reliance was on one another; the wisdom was what each could bring.
Most critically, the meeting was full of people who had hit rock-bottom, had come to the end of their resources, and had surrendered their lives to a “higher power” – however they conceived that power.
This is our only starting place as churches. We begin by acknowledging that we can’t do it alone. We recognise and glory in our inadequacies. We surrender our pride, our traditions, our judging, our desire to be in control. We begin, not with the needs of those outside the church, but with our own needs.
The starting point is personal discipleship, and encountering God in a life-changing way. The foundation of the AA programme is the famous “12 steps”; churches can learn from that by realising that discipleship doesn’t just happen – there are steps in growing into Christ, and we would do well to start with those who are already inside our walls.
Do we actually know what the “good news” is? We are involved in many activities; but do we understand the “why?” What is the gospel, and how is it transforming us and expressing itself in our church?
Trey gave an example of a growing Methodist church in Berlin whose single-minded mission was simply this: “teach people how to pray”. If all Methodist people were encountering God, understood the message of the gospel, were learning how to pray and had a story to tell, evangelism would grow naturally. “Hi; my name is Pete. I’ve been a Christian for 53 years, and this is how my week has gone.”
My vision or God’s vision? Our natural tendency is to shape the church according to our own needs, desires and preferences. Discernment is tuning in to God’s channel, and tuning out the extraneous noise and competing messages. Are our churches shaped by what we want to do for God, or by what he calls us to?
Who does God call? All of us. Our baptismal promise is to “turn from our sins and serve God”. Our calling is to serve Christ and to serve others in him.
We all know the experience of waiting on the sidelines to be “picked” – for a team, a job, a position. It’s frustrating. What can we do? We look, we listen and we test. Jesus said that “my sheep know my voice”; when we are called, we will know it.
Who does God call? Not just the strong, the clever, the capable. In 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, Paul reminds his readers of this: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
God doesn’t call the equipped; he equips the called. We are all apprentices in the things of God.
One thing we can always do: watch for what God is doing in the lives of others and encourage them to follow their calling. Rejoice in what God has equipped them for, and get behind them. Serve one another as we serve Christ.
There are three related concepts: vision, leadership – and power. We don’t tend like the idea of “power” when it is in the hands of individuals. But there are different kinds of power, not all bad. Power is simply the ability to influence others. If you are in a position to influence others – then you have power.
Writers list various kinds of power – the power of the expert; the power of the one to whom people naturally defer – the power that comes from how people perceive you. Then there is the legitimate power that comes from holding a certain position. Church stewards have this kind of power: it goes with the job.
For the Christian, our view of and approach to holding power is shaped by the cross: the power of servanthood and sacrifice. We see the leadership of Jesus exercised through inspiring, not through controlling.
Leading is different from managing: management is about order and stability; leadership is about change and movement. (Do we suffer from well-managed churches?)
Leadership is about vision – creative imagination, the ability to conceive a different reality to the one we currently inhabit. Visionary leadership also helps us make sense of where we are today; it helps us to find meaning in what we are doing, understand the “why?”, and see an alternative. For most Methodists, all we have experienced in our lives is decline. Vision enables us to imagine that things could be different.
Where does vision come from? It’s a gift of God; it is given to the body. It is not the “positional leader” – the king or priest – to whom vision comes, but to the prophet, the one outside the power structure. We need to hear one another.
The primary object of vision is to see God. Think of Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6). The primary outcome is personal renewal. And obedience to the vision is always costly.
Mission and Growth
The church doesn’t have a mission; the mission of God has a church. “The church exists by mission just as a fire exists by burning” (Emil Brunner (1931): “The Word and the World”).
Where there is mission:
- Unforeseen resources emerge
- Esprit de corps grows
- People grow in faith
- Some come to faith
- We are energised
- We are more aware of the Holy Spirit
- God opens up the way
Several writers have identified three stages in the life of a church:
Movement: A healthy church is born as a burst of positive gospel energy. Such a church has a sense of mission, even a sense of destiny.
Monument: The spirit of the church changes from hunger to self-satisfaction, from eagerness to routine, from daring new steps of faith to maintaining the status quo, from outward to ingrown.
Mausoleum: If this trend is not arrested, the church will decline and become a mausoleum, a place of death. The church as an institution may have enough social momentum and financial resources to keep churning on. But as a force for newness of life, it no longer counts. (see Ray Ortlund, https://in-the-meantime.com).
John Wesley said this: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” (“Thoughts upon Methodism”, 1786).
Peter conducted a rough and ready survey in his workshop regarding the strength of churches in the four statements of the Methodist Calling. The results were startling but unsurprising. Worship – OK; Learning and Caring – better; Service – good; Evangelism: non-existent. How does that feel for our churches, and where to we take it from here?
Final Thoughts (Editor)
All who were at the conference will have taken something away which was particular to them. Here are my key points, responses and commitments.
- Start with our own congregations. Meet their needs. Help them to encounter God. Teach them to pray. Make disciples. Help them to become a people who know the Good News and can share it with others.
- Open the door to change: radical change, not tweaking. Instead of assuming that new growth will develop from what we already have, be ready for something out of nothing.