Navigating Change -
Conference at Plymouth Methodist Central Hall
On Friday 9th November six delegates from our church caught an early train to Plymouth for a Conference at Central Hall, entitled Navigating Change (a movement concerned about the future of the Methodist Church in the UK.)
It was salutary to hear from our first Keynote speaker (Ashley Cooper, Principal of Cliff College) that in 1932 there were one million members, but in 2018 only 188,000. Methodists seem to have taken their eye off the ball as far as their primary mission is concerned. He explained how, yes, churches are good at holding Sunday services, visiting the sick, giving to Foodbanks, supporting charities, running Toddler Groups etc, but that many are doing these worthy things at the expense of connecting people with Jesus. We were reminded that making disciples of Jesus Christ must be our church’s highest priority.
In a workshop entitled ‘Everybody Welcome, Gareth Higgs, Superintendent Minister of Plymouth Central Hall, shared stories of how he’d instigated a new ‘culture of welcome’ which he’d used for evangelism and which had resulted in church growth. He gave several tips based on personal experience. He had asked a friend of his (a non church-goer) to turn up incognito at the local Methodist church one Sunday, then report back. As most of the back pews were full (!) this chap sat near the front, on his own, stood up for the hymn too soon, couldn’t join in the Lord’s Prayer because he didn’t know it, had no idea what “saying the Grace to one another” meant and would have like to have known where the toilets were. Like the ‘mystery shopper’ idea, we were encouraged to think what experience a ‘mystery worshipper’ would have in our own churches. Gareth’s basic message was: “Speak and act as though guests are always present in your service. Invite them, expect them and one day they’ll be there.”
Another keynote speaker, Anji Barker, is a chaplain and community builder as part of a local neighbourhood in Birmingham, and a passionate advocate for social justice and discipleship. She lives in a vicarage just outside Winson Green prison (her husband Ash is a Chaplain there), a challenging multi-cultural area where rents are relatively low, but social deprivation and crime statistics are high (they regularly see drones flying overhead to drop drugs and other illicit items over the prison fence).
Anji was born and grew up in Melbourne, Australia. She got into trouble as a teenager and started to dabble in drugs. But then she had a life-changing encounter on a beach and decided to follow Jesus. She knew very soon after that she should become a missionary.
Before coming to Winson Green, Anji and Ash spent 14 years working in Klong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok, focusing on building relationships, discipleship, church planting, education, creating employment and recreational options, so that their neighbourhood could be transformed through Jesus from the bottom up.
Anji’s inspiring talk and Q&A sessions were full of food for thought, but here are just some (of many) ideas that might help us to reach out to the community:
Read the Bible through the eyes of the poor (like on the Titanic film, go below deck to try and find out how ‘the other half live’). This will help us see things in a very different way and be better equipped in the task of community building.
Remember the ‘Ideal, Ordeal, New Deal’ cycle. If God gives us a vision for a new ‘Ideal’ piece of work we’ll probably find that once we get very far it will get tough and become an ‘Ordeal’. Don’t give up but persevere – this stage is inevitable, but temporary.
Use the ‘assets of brokenness’. If we work with someone to help them overcome a particular issue then they will have become quite an ‘expert by experience’ in that issue. So, let’s encourage and train them to help others with that issue.
Finally, Jesus wasn’t afraid to invest his time in people. In Bangkok, Anji and some friends spent much time with a lady called Khun Poo who was living in extreme poverty and hardship. They helped her to start a cooking class. This has developed into hugely successful school known as ‘Cooking with Poo’, which in turn is helping to lift many others out of poverty – you may have seen it on TV or read the book. An example of sharing the unfathomable love of God in a very practical way which has brought light and life to the wider community and drawn lots of people to become disciples of Jesus.
It was a very thought-provoking day (and one we shall also remember for getting drenched in torrential rain on our return journey and experiencing the explosive sound of waves crashing over the top of our train carriage at Dawlish!) If the Methodist Church is to flourish in the future and be successful at connecting people with Jesus we must take heed and navigate our way through change.