British Methodists seek fresh expressions, pioneering ministry
By Paul Titus
As the United Kingdom become increasingly multicultural and secular, the Methodist Church of Great Britain is experimenting with new ways to reach out and engage people.
In July the president of the British Methodist Church Rev Stephen Poxon visited New Zealand on his way to the coronation of King George Tupou V in Tonga. He was accompanied by his wife Myrtle, the British Methodist area secretary for Asia and the Pacific Rev Steve Pearce, and his wife Christine Elliott (Christine held the Asia-Pacific post prior to Steve).
During their brief stopover in Christchurch, the four spoke with Touchstone about some of their Church’s innovative mission and ministry initiatives.
Among the exciting developments the described are growing numbers of worshippers and ministers from minority ethnic groups, experimental and pioneering ministry, and a strong diaconate that is spearheading some outreach initiatives.
|UK Methodist Church president Rev Stephen Poxon gave a talk at Durham St Methodist Church is Christchurch in which he described some of the initiatives his church is using to reach out to people in our increasingly secular society.|
As Britain has become an immigrant society, the Methodist Church has become home to a host of ethnic congregations. Among them are groups who worship in African (Ghanaian and Zimbabwean), Chinese, Korean, Tamil, Urdu, Tongan and Fijian languages.
It can require an effort to keep all of these diverse people in fellowship, the Methodist leaders say.
“We have one congregation that has worship services in seven different languages. In some cities African people have brought considerable growth to the church. In London the Methodist Church is now basically a Black majority church and we celebrate that.
“Some Africans are now offering for ministry and the same is true for some of the other ethnic groups. At this year’s Conference we ordained a Chinese woman, who is our first indigenous Chinese person to come through training.”
Overall, however, the church has seen dwindling numbers.
“Over the last 10 to 15 years we have been living with the reality that we are a declining church, that is, a church with declinin
g membership. In that situation it is possible to fall into the mindset that we are a dying church but that is not the case,” Stephen says.
|Left to right: Steve Pearce, Christine Elliott, Myrtle Poxon, and Stephen Poxon|
“But from our pioneering ministry initiatives we know that despite falling numbers, we are not dying. This is because we are bringing the Gospel to people and this is life enhancing.
“And now, in fact, there is statistical evidence that the fall in membership is bottoming out. Over half of our churches are showing signs of growth and that includes more children and young people.”
Part of the problem is the trend in Western society for people to avoid joining or belonging to organisations or community groups. Congregations are struggling to get people to become members.
One solution to this dilemma is outreach that seeks people where they are and engages them in ways that are not explicitly religious.
A major initiative that takes this approach is Fresh Expressions. It is a joint venture between the Methodist and Anglican Churches to bring the gospel to people in new ways. Fresh Expressions might include alternative worship communities, caf? churches, or networking and conversation with individuals and groups to build trust and confidence.
“Both the Anglican and Methodist churches have committed themselves and invested lots of money in Fresh Expressions. It seeks to create new initiatives and refresh existing ones.
“It says let’s start outside the church – in a pub, or caf? or community centre to create groups who meet alongside the Sunday morning congregations. It might be a group that meets informally in a coffee house one night a week. They may not have any singing or prayers.”
The establishment of Fresh Expressions does not mean the Methodist Church is abandoning its traditional practices or parishes. But all local areas in the Church are encouraged to sponsor a Fresh Expression unit.
Deacons are another important element in the contemporary outreach of British Methodists. Some 20 years ago the diaconate was restructured and its focus shifted from primarily women and children to be an order that works alongside and as a complement to ordained presbyters.
Deacons have been inspirational in some of the British Methodists’ new initiatives. The Fresh Expressions movement emerged out of some of their efforts to connect with people in housing estates.
To institutionalise these alternative approaches to ministry the British Methodist Church has established Pioneering Ministries, which is a training programme that discerns people who are suited to outreach in different settings and equips them to carry it out. This includes both ordained and lay people.
Ordained pioneering ministers have the same pay and status as traditional ministers though they are integrated into the church in looser ways as their calling is to establish fresh expressions of church.
Some creative ministry initiatives of the British Methodist Church
- Messy Church – a family based outreach effort that focuses on families and generally includes crafts, food, and a short service. Messy Church is during the week for parents who may not attend on Sunday services.
- Stem the Tide – an initiative driven by young people in the Church to increase awareness about global warming. It includes activities, information and assessment tools so people can take action as individuals or congregations.
- Just Fair Laughs – a professional stand up comedy programme linked to the Fair Trade movement. Just Fair Laughs raises money for World Vision and Make Poverty History and organises teams of volunteers to work abroad.
- Amelia Farm Trust – a 160 acre livestock farm which provides disaffected young people and adults with learning difficulties from the city a chance to experience the countryside and make positive changes in their lives.