What’s wrong with success?

by Martin Turner

How does the church deal with success? I have been fortunate  to have been in a number of  churches during my ministry where (despite me!) numerical growth has taken place.  I fully recognise that there are others who have worked hard, prayed hard but through no fault of their own have not been in such situations of potential.  Nevertheless the response to such growth and what others have termed success has often been underwhelming! I recall how on one occasion I was asked to share some of my experiences of ministry. I gave an account of four situations where considerable growth in numbers,  response to social need and depth of fellowship and spirituality had taken place, to be met with a stony silence. It was only when I started to speak of a more difficult situation where such things had not taken place that I was greeted with enthusiasm!

Why it is that Methodism seems to struggle with success? I can think of three possible reasons.

First, most of us have been in a declining Church all our lives, our situation shapes expectation, subliminally it is easy to rationalise and justify decline.

Second, the theology of the sixties and seventies had a strong emphasis upon the idea of remnant, the thinking being that the small faith group was more effective and positive than the large.  I remember hearing with amazement a senior Church leader describing how his situation had declined numerically to an astounding extent, but he was delighted with that because he felt that he was being faithful to the radical and challenging gospel.

Third, we are quite rightly wary of the so called “prosperity gospel” pedalled by American television evangelists and, from my London experience, affirmed by some of the ethnic churches of other traditions.

The theological question I want to ask is does God want us as a Church to grow numerically and be successful?  Now of course we must ask what does the word “successful” mean?  In a brief article I cannot spell out the various ways we might view success, so please excuse me if I share my own  view, perhaps in the feedback others may like to share theirs.

I firmly believe that three criteria need to be  in place for success in the life of the Church.

First, the creation of  a community in which the love of God is experienced and self evident.

Second, the proclamation of the gospel that through faith in Christ we can receive salvation, know forgiveness and commence discipleship.

Third, an openness to the guidance and work of the Holy Spirit to empower our mission and answer our daily prayer “Your Kingdom come…”

That pattern is set out very clearly in Acts Chapter 2 where we see the fruit of a Church working well leading to success coming in various ways:-

  • people becoming more theologically literate and therefore more confident in their faith (v42)
  • seeing God at work through changed lives, healings and the sometimes extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit (v43)
  • the quality of the community life, so different to that of the local drama group, choir, golf club or pub (v44-45)
  • worship which challenges and inspires and where God is clearly at the centre (v46 – 47A)
  • outreach which makes an impact in the local community and leads them to think positively about their local Church (v47B)
  • numerical growth (v47B)

I suspect that the point which causes Methodists the most difficulty is the last: numerical growth.  If numerical growth is not important why does Luke bother to count and report a growth in numbers?    Are we lauding the virtue of faithfulness, in the context of a declining Church, in order to avoid facing up to issues of decline where a more appropriate response might be repentance?

Growing churches see and experience faithfulness and success  as being inextricably linked.

So the question I would ask is whether or not we think that God wants us to be successful, however we understand it?  Linked to this, if God does want us to be successful as a Church why does Methodism in many ways, especially numerically, not seem to be?  Is the personality of the leader a factor? Do our structures and the way CPD is sometimes applied constrain risk taking?   What might we do to enable success?

Salvation from the outside

by Tim Moore

At the beginning of June I was privileged to attend a weekend conference entitled Positive Working Together.  It was hosted by Cliff College and organised by the Discipleship and Ministries Learning Network.  I really wasn’t sure how good it would it be but I can honestly say it was truly excellent.  I sat there listening to speakers talking about conflict management, conflict resolution and conflict transformation never realising they could be different from each other.  I was reminded that dealing with conflict is largely dependent on how well we know ourselves. I also discovered that there is an emotional life cycle of conflict and that there would be times when I was in conflict with someone and wouldn’t know it.  On reflection I have come to realise that when I hear preaching in our churches I am often in conflict but don’t realise just how much.

The keynote speakers drew insights from secular experts and folded them into their own theological understanding.  I heard Rev Dr Justine Allain Chapman talk about her doctoral research and how she used the very latest psychological studies to encourage resilience in our pastors[1] and congregations.  All of this was nothing less than music to my ears – and I asked myself, ‘why don’t we hear about this in church?’ which was quickly followed by ‘why doesn’t the Sunday morning service include secular knowledge to enlighten our theology?’

I have listened to many sermons both inside and outside of Methodism preached by ordained ministers and local preachers alike.  Often it has been as if the preachers have relied on telling the Bible story or describing the characters but never going further and applying learning to our everyday lives, helping us to answer that time-honoured question, ‘who am I really?’ Most preachers have had jobs in secular life but rarely in my experience include their expertise in a theological reflection or sermon.  It occurred to me that if we as a Church are fighting for survival and want to engage the non-churched then we need to start speaking their language and in the process we might find out something about ourselves.

At the conference Gary Williams[2] guided us in a Bible study on 2 Kings 7:3-14 entitled Renewing the Church from the Margins?  The story goes that the king is besieged and is fearful of facing death by starvation.  However, four lepers outside the city walls decide they have nothing to lose and so venture off and to their surprise discover food and salvation which they bring back to the frightened king.  Salvation comes from the outsider.  This idea of salvation from the outside is not new.  Consider King Cyrus in Isaiah 45.  He too is an outsider who brings salvation (the Syro-Phoenician/Canaanite woman in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 leap to mind here)

In my own work as a Mindfulness teacher I have come to realise that secular disciplines have much to teach us about how we view God and how we might live better lives – and I am not talking about syncretism here. I teach public groups, children, school teachers and college lecturers some of whom struggle with low self-worth, over-work, depression and anxiety.  It is amazing how lives can change when we talk about self-compassion and love in a way they understand.[3]

As I drove away from the conference I was left asking myself, ‘why shouldn’t we talk in our Sunday sermons about relevant findings from the secular world which could inform our praxis?’  Surely talking therapies[4] that so many of our congregations access via the GP can illumine our own understanding of who we are and who we are before God.  Perhaps preachers are afraid to stray off the ‘safe path’ or fear they might incur the wrath of the chief steward at the door which keeps them from bringing in tried and trusted ideas from the secular world.  We are fast coming to the time when we, like the lepers will have nothing to lose and everything to gain[5].

[1] Justine Allain Chapman, Resilient Pastors (London:SPCK 2012)

[2] Gary Williams is a Learning and Development Officer in the Discipleship and Ministries Learning Network based in Scotland and Shetland region.

[3] For example, see Christopher Germer, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion (NY: Guilford Press, 2009) and Tim Stead, Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality (London:SPCK, 2016)

[4] By this I mean Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Dialectical Behaviour therapy as examples.

[5] For a useful resource on the interface of church and society see Sara Savage and Eolene Boyd-MacMillan, The Human Face of Church (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007)

Lukan Reflections on the Referendum

by Frances Young

It was the week of the referendum. The lectionary was Galatians 5.1, 13-25 and Luke 9.51-62. What was one to make of all that for the following Sunday?

Reflection on the Lukan passage turned up two key phrases: ‘big picture’ and ‘turning-point’.

Usually the Bible is read in snippets – in public worship lectionary snippets or peach passages chosen by the preacher; in private short passages in quiet time. This snippet from the Gospel, however, invited us to think about the ‘big picture’: Luke 9.51 speaks of the time nearing when Jesus was to be ‘taken up’: GNB adds ‘to heaven’, but this is borrowed by the translators from 24.51, the Gospel account of the ascension. Their instinct was no doubt right, though there is another lifting up in 23.32 – two criminals were ‘lifted up’ with him (translations tend to specify ‘crucified’). These little details carry big implications: 9.51 is the beginning of the journey not just to Jerusalem, to which he set his face, but through rejection, death, resurrection and ascension to heaven.

So the meaning of the journey becomes clear through the ‘big picture’. Just before this we read of the Transfiguration, where in Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah of the ‘exodus’ he is to make. In Luke’s Gospel this exodus journey is the largest part of the whole story, and on the way to the Promised Land (heaven), Jesus gives the bulk of his teaching, as the people received the Law during the exodus from Egypt, and faces rejection and testing – a pioneer through the wilderness, tempted and tried in all points as we are (to borrow from Hebrews, which also draws on the wilderness wanderings to understand what Christ was all about). The pattern of God’s engagement with God’s people in scripture is re-played in the story of Jesus, who invites us to respond, to follow, to take the same journey, rather than reject or turn back.

Just before the Transfiguration came Peter’s Confession, the prediction of the passion, and the challenge to take up the cross and follow – signs and pointers to read the ‘big picture’. Now the rejection begins as Jesus takes the direct route through Samaria, and would-be disciples find the demands too challenging (the snippets found in the rest of the Gospel lection). Indeed, the ‘big picture’ is made up of little snippets – the particular words, stories, details which carry big implications. So Luke 9.51, the end of the Galilaean ministry and the setting out to Jerusalem, is discerned as the major ‘turning-point’.

So back to the referendum. There has been much talk of ‘turning-point’. But the future is uncertain. How can we tell the outcome? Is Brexit a risk or an opportunity? I fear the campaign on both sides did little to address the ‘big picture’. But whatever side one was on, the consequences of it all, if ‘turning-point’ it be, will only become clear in the future – by hindsight. The disciples couldn’t see what was going on, but by hindsight Luke could compile all his little snippets to bring out the significance of it all. The message of the Bible, surely, is that God is at work, despite appearances, in the long, long run bringing good out of the mess we make of things. This was Oestreicher’s big argument for pacifism: in the long, long run evil regimes implode, while violence only breeds more violence.

It is in the little lives, lived in trust and according to the message of the lectionary Epistle set alongside this Lucan passage, that the hidden work of God may be glimpsed: to live in freedom doesn’t mean being free to live a life of self-interest – sex, pleasure, envy, strife, factionalism, etc.; for the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Luke’s Gospel not only suggests a new Exodus but a new Genesis: the Holy Spirit ‘overshadows’ Mary, just as the Spirit hovered over the chaos-waters – new creation in Christ. That is the ‘biggest picture of all’.

History is a long chain of ups and downs, and ins and outs, marked by the self-interest not just of individuals but of the groups with which they identify. Transformation in Christ points to a different way, barely realised in those of us committed to this vision, let alone evident in history’s ‘turning-points’. Yet the form of the Gospels suggests that it is in the little snippets of lives lived in the light of Christ that the ‘big picture’ is incarnated.

The End of Mission?

by George Bailey

I have a growing unease with the use of the term ‘mission,’ and also ‘missional’ which in the last 15-20 years has been used increasingly to identify churches or activities with an outwardly focused ecclesiology.[1] I find myself using them often; both as a ‘Lecturer in Mission’ and also as minister for churches which have recently undertaken ‘mission planning.’ The term ‘mission’ has patristic roots in the sending of the Spirit, but was taken up in the nineteenth century for the sending of people as ‘missionaries.’ The twentieth century has seen retrieval of the concept from cultural imperialism and denominational competition, and a recovery of its rootedness in the Trinity and missio Dei. Despite this theological rescue work, it is hard to use the term in a way sufficiently free from the prejudices of past errors.

There remain two simple semantic dangers with the terms ‘mission’ and ‘missional.’ Firstly, it is difficult to avoid an unhelpful dualism, dividing our life in Christ into separate spheres of activity. Merely by using the terms for some situations but not others, Christians invite the implication that there are some practices of discipleship which may be less than fully caught up in God sending love to the world through Jesus Christ. One possible strategy is to declare everything to be missional. The fact that this move invites the critique summed up by the phrase, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission”[2] is not an argument that mission must remain limited as a concept, but rather that it may be, at best, redundant, and, at worst, hindering theological insight. Secondly, even when we use the term ‘mission’ with an understanding of missio Dei in the background, simple grammatical structures lead us back into a human-centred attitude. The ‘mission of God’ has its source in God, and the direction and practical outworking is in God’s control. However, when we speak of ‘the mission of the Church,’ we ought to take the grammar differently such that the ‘of’ does not imply ownership or control for the Church. Though the one who says ‘mission’ may intend this shift in grammar, it is not easy to maintain as a church plans its activities, nor is it easy to predict or shape the ways it may be heard in the midst of secular understandings of mission as organisational goal setting.

If we just stopped using the word ‘mission,’ what would replace it? It is the Holy Spirit which connects the missio Dei to the mission of the Church; is subtle misuse of the term hindering the Church’s life in the Spirit? There are ample pre-modern theological sources to draw on, and many recent writers who have engaged with reframing mission, but Jürgen Moltmann’s theology is particularly helpful by focusing on the Trinity, rather than mission, yet remaining consistently ‘missional’ in its outcomes: “God’s mission is nothing less than the sending of the Holy Spirit from the Father through the Son into this world, so that this world should not perish but live.”[3] Theology of the Holy Spirit is rooted in several key Scripture passages, of which especially John 14-16 offers an understanding of the sending of the Spirit into and for the world, and the way the disciples are drawn into this sending. Jesus is leaving the disciples so that the Spirit will be sent to make him present with them (16:7), and where Jesus is present there is life (14:19). The Spirit glorifies Jesus in relations with the world (16:18), and draws the disciples into this process (16:14). As Moltmann puts it, the Spirit “convinces the world of its sins (16:7f), puts the unjust world to rights, and turns believers, from being the slaves and victims of sin, into free servants of the divine justice and righteousness which leads to eternal life in this world and the next (Rom.6:13f., 22).”[4] The Spirit will live in them (14:17) and by the renewed presence of Jesus their joy will be complete (16:22). The Spirit brings the world into the presence of Christ, and disciples in whom the Spirit lives are signs of the first fruits (Rom. 8:23) of the reign of God through the work of Christ.

In our speaking and writing, can the concept of ‘mission’ be replaced by a renewed discourse about the life of the Holy Spirit making real the presence of Jesus Christ? Semantically this is a significant challenge as ‘mission’ serves as convenient shorthand, but if the shorthand is obscuring the work of the Spirit, perhaps it is worth attempting?

[1] Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile trace the developing use of this term from 1998 onwards in The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

[2] David Bosch quotes this phrase as formulated by Stephen Neill in 1959; Transforming Mission, (New York: Orbis Books: 1991), p.511.

[3] The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), p.19.

[4] The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (London: SCM, 1992), p.123.

The Priesthood of All Believers

by Catrin Harland

Last week, Roger Walton suggested that the very Methodist idea of social holiness, while perhaps originally concerned with the internal life of Methodist community, typically also finds meaningful expression within the sphere of social justice.

Another phrase with strong resonance for Methodists is ‘the Priesthood of all believers’. Being a ‘priesthood’ is rightly seen as emphasising a sense of community, but without losing that dimension, I want to suggest that this idea has often been too inward-focused, concerned to too great a degree with internal relationships, including between lay and ordained. Understood in the context of its biblical roots, I would suggest, it is a concept which has more missional potential, and should turn us outwards.

Luther, in speaking of the church as a priesthood[1], drew on 1 Peter 2:5 and 9. These, in turn, seem to derive in part from Exodus 19:6, where Israel’s relationship with her God is powerfully proclaimed. The writer of 1 Peter adopts this language to give an identity as God’s people to those living as ‘exiles’ and ‘strangers’ – a ‘diaspora’. They are a people, not because they are gathered in one place, but because they share one identity in Christ.

And they are a priesthood. This is inextricably linked with holiness. Holiness in Scripture comes by being chosen by God, close to God, dedicated to God’s purposes. The Temple and its priesthood are holy. The land and people of Israel are holy. The people who belong to Christ are holy. This is a result not of their actions, but of God’s choice. This is the grace of God, a message close to the warmed heart of Methodism.

So what are we to make of the idea that the people of Christ are a holy priesthood?

Firstly, I would suggest that it is linked to the idea of exile identity. It is striking that, in first century Judaism, not much appears to have been made of this Exodus verse. The one exception to this is Philo, a diaspora Jew from Alexandria. He quotes the Greek translation of Exodus – not the ‘Kingdom of Priests’ of the Hebrew, but a ‘royal Priesthood (hierateuma)’. This word is unusual, and found mainly in Alexandrian Jewish literature. So maybe the idea of priestly identity had some particular currency among the diaspora community there? For a Jew in Jerusalem, holiness would be embodied in particular by the priests. But in the diaspora, with very few priests around, the Jewish community would have felt particularly holy – even, perhaps, priestly – relative to their ‘unholy’ host city. If so, it may be that the Christian communities to whom 1 Peter is written, are being offered this relative holiness. They are the few who know themselves chosen and made holy by the grace of God.

Secondly, priests entered the holiest parts of the Temple not on their own behalf, but on behalf of the people. So perhaps the ‘priestly’ diaspora was holy not merely relative to, but on behalf of, Alexandria? As a Christian community, we are a holy priesthood, knowing ourselves close to God, not so we can feel superior to those around us, but so we can offer prayer for a world that often feels lacking in holiness and desperately in need of it. And that holiness that comes through grace makes us very aware of how far we and the whole world fall short of the holy way of life to which we are called, and can both lament and offer confession for the world.

Which leads us to the third implication of our priestliness. Paradoxically, holiness is a gift of grace, but also a way of life. We do not make ourselves holy, but we are called to ‘be holy, as the Lord is holy’[2]. 1 Peter makes it clear that the followers of Christ are to live and behave in a particular way, not just for the sake of their own souls, but also so others ‘may see your honourable deeds and glorify God’[3]. As priests, we proclaim and imitate Christ’s self-giving love, telling and living a story which is transformative and holy.

The priesthood of all believers is a chosen community, with a special place in God’s heart, but it is also a community looking outward. It is a missional community, a community committed wholeheartedly to the messy world in which we live. It is an open community; entry into it is not earned, but offered freely. And it is a holy community. Holiness is a gift of God, and a way of life. The priesthood of all believers is a community blessed with, and called to, that holiness.

[1] An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, Luther, W.A., 6.407; It is this text which is often seen as the origin of the doctrine we now call ‘The Priesthood of All Believers’.

[2] 1 Peter 1: 15-16; cf. Leviticus 11: 44-45; 19:2

[3] 1 Peter 2:12

Social Holiness and Social Justice

by Roger Walton

The tendency to equate social holiness with social justice is widespread.  Some people use the terms interchangeably, others as closely related concepts central to a Methodist understanding of church and mission.  Andrew Thompson has, however, challenged this sloppy and inaccurate Methodist vocabulary.[1]  According to Thompson the original context of John Wesley’s only use of the term ‘social holiness’ is not in any way connected with social justice.  Rather, appearing in the Preface to one of the Wesleys’ early hymnbooks, it refers to the environmental contexts ‘in which holiness of heart and life is manifest in the Christian life’, such as congregational hymn singing, and expresses Wesley’s dismissal of any notions of holiness as achieved by solitary activity such as retreating to the desert!

Social justice as a notion was developed by the 19th century Jesuit, Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, whose vision for European social life was ‘grounded in a model of the constitution of society as intended by God’ in which various communities – a complex web of smaller societies – interact freely enabled by the twin principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.  Social justice is achieved by this interaction held within and driven by a strong understanding of the common good.  Thompson suggests that later Wesleyan emphasis on social justice as expressing the ethical orientation of Methodism is, in fact, derived not from Wesley but (imperfectly) from Taparelli.

So one term referred to corporate contexts in which Christians find the means of grace; the other to a social and economic philosophy for a more just society.  What are we to make of this?  Should we keep these two notions distinct and discrete or, if they are to be related, how do we make the connection?

Thompson helps us understand the origins of these words, and this can enrich our thinking, but in effect he only demonstrates what we know to be true of everyday language, that origins are not the final word on meaning and use.  Language is a fluid, evolving and dynamic process, as is theology, and new connections are often as important as ancestry.

We need to ask why Methodists find the notion of social justice so attractive and apposite.  One reason is surely John Wesley’s practice of engagement with social justice issues in his own context.  Wesley went to preach in the open air to reach those outside the congregational gatherings of the church.  He visited prisoners condemned to death, he went out among and listened to the poor, he got involved in campaigns against the distillers (not primarily because they fermented alcohol but because they exploited the poor), he opposed slavery and set up work opportunities for those who would otherwise be destitute or in prostitution.  In all those places he (and others) encountered the grace of God.  In other words, his actions tell us that missional spaces and encounters are also environments in which holiness can grow.

Moreover, it is clear from the work of David Field[2] that Wesley considered the outward expression and the sure sign of holiness to be ‘justice, mercy and truth’ and that ‘works of mercy’ were a means of grace.  Summing up his careful analysis of Wesley’s writing on the relationship between justice and holiness, he states:

‘Works of mercy are a means through which God encounters and transforms people’s characters; they manifest a transformed character and through this manifestation they lead to further transformation. They are an expression of holiness and a means to become more holy.’[3]

In other words, participating in the missio dei, including the struggle for a just society, takes us to many and various sites of social holiness where grace is readily available.  It is in our participation, whether gathering for praise or campaigning against injustice, that we are formed by grace.

Social justice may thus be seen as belonging with social holiness in the theological register of Methodism.  Mission as a location and means of grace has a proper Wesleyan (as well as New Testament) pedigree.  For Methodists, and many others, the pursuit of holiness must not be separated from mission but found in and through it.  Social holiness and social justice are inextricably bound together.

[1] Thompson, A. C. (2011). “From Societies to Society: The Shift from Holiness to Justice in the Wesleyan Tradition.” Methodist Review 3: 141–172.

[2] Field, D. N. (2015). “Holiness, social justice and the mission of the Church: John Wesley’s inisghts in contemporary context.” Holiness 1(2): 177-198.

[3] Field p185

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