by Sally Coleman.
The Church of Christ in every age,
Beset by change, but Spirit led,
Must claim and test its heritage
And keep on rising from the dead
Times of change are challenging and difficult, producing all kinds of resistance and anxieties within us, and yet, we all know they are quite simply a part of life. Over the last decades we have become more and more aware of a change in the life of the church; numbers have fallen, churches have ceased to meet, and the demands of church life and ministry have become too much for some.
Recently one of our Church Stewards returned from holiday with news for the local congregation, “it seems to be the same everywhere” he said, “churches are struggling with questions about their future. Even if they go into stationing for a minister it seems unlikely that they will get one. We are going to have to start thinking differently.”
Could this then be the time for us to begin to ask and imagine what rising from the dead might look like in the myriad of local contexts that we inhabit? This demands that we might be willing to let go, and to die to the way that things have been; “anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal” (John 12: 24 The Message).
Change is always happening; people come and go, people die, others are born. Life is a constant reminder of the cycle of birth and death, and this is normal, yet so often when it comes to our institutions we look for constancy and security, something to keep us fixed and sure, a stronghold in times of trouble. Do we look to the church for our security, substituting it for God? Does our desire to cling on to what is, hinder us from becoming, and even desiring what might be? Are we missing the move and call of the Spirit, who longs to lead us through the desert of loss and lament to a new place where life begins again, where we literally rise from the dead?
Again and again the Psalmist finds hope in the darkness; consolation and help from God when he (sic) gets to the end of himself. Or to put it another way:
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.
With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
(Matthew 5:3 The Message)
Lament has the power to release and re-orientate ourselves. While many see the gift of lament in the context of exile and return, it can also relate to the situation between the Crucifixion and Pentecost. Can we place ourselves into the shoes of the early followers whose world has been turned upside down; the shock of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the confusion and slow dawning of Easter day and all that lay between those days and the total change that Pentecost brought?
Not much happened in those days. The disciples met with Jesus on and off between Easter Day and Ascension Day, but even then, they were in a space of waiting, watching and praying, preparing for something they could not name, and for a future they couldn’t anticipate. It takes serious commitment to sit with such discomfort, and two things marked out this waiting time: firstly they met together and, secondly, they committed themselves to prayer. In days such as these the underpinning of basic spiritual disciplines is essential. They will help us through the storming times and prepare us for what is to come. To quote the popular C.S. Lewis mis-quote, “Prayer does not change God it changes me.”
We know prayer can change and re-orientate us, and yet we often feel that it is nothing. How many times have you heard somebody say, “I can’t do anything but pray,” as if prayer is our last resort and not the first option? Prayer releases in us new possibilities and potentials, and even more remarkably frees us from fear as it connects us to the perfect love of God.
So we are called to set out upon an uncertain road. As with any journey what we want is a map and clear directions, a destination in sight, but that is often not the pattern for the people of God. From Abraham to the disciples the call was to move and to follow, and yet no immediate destination was made clear.
Elaine Heath writes an open letter to the church:
“Change happens all the time so that every generation, every community, every person can experience God in their world, their context, their time. And what about the wave of change that is upon us… that looks different from the church that we grew up in? These are from God… Beloved church, can we agree to let God have our anxiety? God knows how hard it is for us to let go. We simply have to be willing to be made willing. Just a tiny degree of openness allows God to work with us…”
 Elaine Heath, God Unbound Upper Room Books 2016 pg. 98
7 thoughts on “Into the future; navigating a time of change”
So, so good to read this.
It looks as though everything is less, but on the ground it doesn’t always feel that way.
‘Let go and let God’ feels a bit like liaises faire, yet there is a lot going on which does not translate into more people in church, but does translate into the love of God being let loose in our communities.
Let’s pray and have trust and faith that the times we share hospitality, love and care will reveal God in our midst.
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People’s deepest needs do not change, and God’s love does not change. Many church buildings may soon become homes, warehouses, even museums – but God will be worshipped, and our calling is to follow The Way. First-century Palestine wasn’t exactly a serene setting – Resurrection takes may forms, and perhaps Theology Everywhere is one of them?
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There have been calls in the recent past for the church to make much better use of the skills of the laity. Yet the leadership of the Methodist Church seems to want to keep everything under ministerial control by continuing to insist that only ministers can deal with certain aspects of administration and worship – almost as if it lacked trust in the laity. Despite the claim that “The Methodist Church holds the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and consequently believes that no priesthood exists which belongs exclusively to any group,” there appears in practice to be a mindset of shepherds and sheep. Yet Jesus indicated that the kingdom of God isn’t about position and protocols, it’s more about empowerment.
We have lay people who run important meetings every day of their working lives, others who’ve spent a lifetime in property management and still others with long experience of confidential work with families, while many have a deep personal relationship with God. Despite this, the assumption sometimes seems to be that ordination gives ministers skills and wisdom in all areas of church life that no lay person – and certainly not a volunteer – can possibly match. Yet the laity has local knowledge and it is also the laity that will have to live with decisions about buildings and re-organisation of circuits – and to finance them, long after itinerant ministers have moved on.
It might be interesting for presbyters to undertake an honest appraisal of how much time they spend in meetings, how much sat in front of a computer or on the telephone dealing with administrative matters, how long preparing services, and what proportion is spent actually ministering to people on a personal level or reaching out through mission. They might reflect also how that pattern will change as the number of ministers reduces in many circuits. Time is our most precious resource, so how we use it tells us far more clearly than any mission statement what our priorities really are. Ministers might then compare the results with what they felt their call to ministry to be about and what the priorities are for mission in their communities.
If the Methodist Church is to have a future, individual churches and circuits need to be spending at least as much time on outreach and on new initiatives, as they do on maintaining the existing framework.
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I completely agree Pavel, time for honest reflection and re-ordering is upon us, time to ask hard questions about the shape of church today.
How long have people been saying precisely what Pavel says? And we are very little further forward in reality. I once asked a minister how he saw himself in the church: ‘First among equals’ was his immediate reply, and then proved over time that the emphasis lay on the ‘first’ more than the ‘equal’. Just don’t fall into the trap that laity should be merely leading committees or doing admin work – their gifts and talents go far beyond that, even to [dare one suggest] presiding at communion; when it comes to work that is confidential in nature there’s even greater reluctance on the part of some to allow it to happen, yet having had responsibility for posts County-wide in work with vulnerable people I’m as familiar with confidentiality as any minister is likely to be. So we’ll keep hammering on in the hope that one day we’ll get there…
One of the barriers to change is the insistence on the central control by Conference which only meets for a few days each year. When change is needed or a major initiative is proposed, it seems that there often isn’t time to discuss it properly and so the response is to set up a committee to consider the matter and to report back in 12 or even 24 months’ time. You mention lay people presiding at communion, Philip. It is possible now, provided that it can be shown that otherwise people would be deprived of communion. However, this has to go through Circuit, Synod and Conference. So, if the need arises in July, a simple local solution can’t be implemented until it is approved by Conference the following June. Surely, decisions like this have to be delegated to Council, District or Circuit. The present system has inertia built in to it.
Re lay presidency – Methodism has done everything it can to prevent it except in extremis – as far as I can see the way it was set up in Union in 1932 was a sop to the Prims and a method of prevention by the Wesleyans: the formula is complicated and weighed against it, our people don’t expect communion more than once a month [if that] and aren’t taught to value it more, so ministers can usually just about squeeze the monthly service in and say it’s being covered properly. Wesley wanted us to partake as often as possible, the church prevents us doing so, which is why I’ve known several family groups who have organised their own. When at Conference one hears ministers say openly they’d prevent any lay person, and any probationer too, from leading communion then it puts the matter in perspective – what James Dunn calls ‘a priesthood by the back door.’ I’m fortunate that I take communion to people in old persons’ homes and in their own homes too when necessary – it gives me the opportunity to partake much more often. I just wish others could experience the same.