Graham Horsley claims that if we just do the same thing over and over again, we're doomed.
Einstein may not have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results but, whoever first said it, it's a great quote.
If that's insanity, most of my ministry has been insane! For 35 years, I've enthusiastically followed the latest ideas for ministry, evangelism and church growth. However, none of them have gone deep enough to examine, much less challenge, deep-rooted ideas about what church is – and how it relates to the world at large.
Hope has been stirred, and guilt deepened, by those extraordinary individuals who make a 'success' of working in the more traditional ways of doing church.
For Methodists, September is the time of year when new ministers (and chairs of District) arrive; often to highly unrealistic expectations. Cue the comment, 'Of course our new minister can singlehandedly reverse 150 years of decline in the Methodist Church – no pressure!' Underlining those idealistic expectations is an often implicit – and not thought through – belief that Church, as we have always known it, is basically sound and that all we need to do is try harder. Unfortunately, the world around us has changed so radically that if we rely on the 'try harder' approach, we're doomed.
Many of my generation were challenged as young adults by American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler. His book, Future Shock – published in 1970 – painted a picture of a world where the rate of change was continually accelerating. I suspect that even Toffler himself might be surprised by the accuracy of those predictions.
The Church has not coped well with these massive changes happening around us. Too much of our restructuring hasn't challenged our basic assumptions about church, ministry and mission. Changing policies doesn't change our culture – and that's what we need. Much of today's Church in England meets the spiritual needs of a small and shrinking group.
Our challenge is to re-invent the structures of circuit and church and re-imagine the relationship between ordained and lay leadership.
At our Methodist District level, we need to think not only about buildings but also how:
- we engage in mission
- we do evangelism beyond those buildings in order to further the work of God. Why? Because the majority of the population will never come to us, however welcoming and 'good' are our churches.
We then must go to where the people are; understand their spiritual longings and accompany them on their spiritual journeys rather than invite them to join ours. If we do this, we may re-imagine church and re-engage with a culture that's lost its moral compass.
Also, if we embark on this risky and faith-filled approach to mission, we should not be surprised that some of the values and principles from the very beginnings of the Methodist movement will help us. How do we leave the safety of our buildings and culture and hold fast to these abiding values and principles? Let me briefly outline four aspects of this which seem to be of pressing importance for us today:
Prevenient grace (or preceding grace): the idea that God's divine grace exists before and without reference to anything humans may have done.
God is already at work in an unchurched culture in ways that will continually surprise us. The hippy Christians in the Californian Jesus Movement had a saying, 'If Jesus seems far away – who moved?' Their assumption was that we had moved from Jesus by our sinful actions. However, the Jesus of the gospels spent most of his time outside the religious institutions, sharing life with ordinary, vulnerable, marginalised, desperate, broken people. Perhaps today, it's Jesus who has moved away from us to encounter a needy world and is longing for us to go with him.
How do we preach holiness to a world that's largely abandoned the notion of sin? Most of the traditional evangelistic approaches of the Church begin by reminding people that they are sinners and offering them Jesus' help in breaking free from sinfulness to new life. Unfortunately if we start there, most people don't ever hear the second part of the argument. They've already become angry and rejected the notion that they are sinners. Holiness is a vital and powerful part of our Methodist tradition. How can we communicate this effectively in the 21st Century? Can we start with unmet aspirations, a sense of loss or lack, a feeling of brokenness and vulnerability?
Taking inspiration from Romans 12.2, we should not conform to the expectations of a District policy group or Church Council but instead be transformed by the renewing of our minds. How can we approach every business agenda with the expectation that we are transforming church culture rather than maintaining it? How can we think strategically and plan wisely and still remain open to the Holy Spirit breathing new life, direction and vision into our corporate lives?
This has been a text which has recurred over and over again in the last five years. Verse 13, in particular, stands out for me:
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
John Wesley's 'warmed heart' was an experience that came out of a desperate longing for a deeper experience of God. At the beginning of a new period of ministry, it is easy to become too busy to seek God with all our hearts but it's vital – both individually and corporately – that we take time to do that. Over the years I have found that I can only do this when I'm part of a small group which holds me accountable for my spiritual wellbeing. How do you do it? How will you do it?