This is the final Sunday of our Holy Habits year and again I’ve been given instruction as to the topic I should be preaching on. John wants me to focus on the Great Commission,
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
I’ve been asked more specifically to focus on the word “Go”. The whole point of the Holy Habits programme is to explore what the early church was doing at a time of rapid growth and reflect on what we can learn form this at a time when the church, in Western Europe at least, is declining. The only surviving history of the very early church is that recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and it is very clear from that book that the disciples travelled across the Eastern Mediterranean with the primary intention of fulfilling that Commission. Although there are records that they healed, cast out demons, forgave sins it is clear that the primary purpose of those early journeys was to make disciples.
There can be no doubt that they were successful. The impression is of churches starting off slowly, Paul refers in his letters to individual by name and it is clear that they met primarily in each others’ homes. The groups grew in numbers and influence however. By the mid 60s AD the Christian community in Rome was sufficiently large and influential for Nero to feel a necessity to order a programme of state persecution (during which Paul is thought to have died). That and the wider community continued to grow both in numbers and influence. It was accepted as a legal religion within the Roman Empire in 313 and became the state religion in 380. This is quite amazing growth for a movement that had burst into life only after its leader had been executed as a criminal.
Since then the history of the church, in global terms, has been one of growth. Sometimes this has been driven by the pure evangelistic power of the gospel message at other times by cultural, political and economic factors which had very little to do with that message. There’s no doubt for example that emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity was largely because he thought that having God on his side would give him a major advantage in his extensive military campaigns. For whatever reasons, whether good or bad the history of Christianity has undoubtedly been one of growth and, on an international scale that story of growth is continuing today.
… but not now in Western Europe. Data from the 2011 census shows that the number of people identifying as Christian has dropped by about 12% over ten years. If you’ve picked up the “Conference Business Digest” from the table outside the worship area over the last couple of weeks you will have read that membership of the Methodist Church has dropped by 3.5% a year over the last decade. Since we arrived in this circuit, seven years ago, two churches have closed and none of the remaining 5 are showing any signs of significant growth
So what can we do about this? I haven’t got time in one morning to analyse what makes effective mission so I’m going to stick to the simplest possible recommendation that is that we need to “go” and make disciples. I think the fundamental assumption of most mainline British churches is that we can “stay” and make disciples. We tend to assume that what we need to do is make the church more attractive and then people will come to us. The early church didn’t spend its energies re-arranging the furniture within the worship area, or changing the songs it sang or upgrading the signage outside its buildings (it didn’t have any). It put its energy into travelling across the known world and proclaiming the gospel.
Perhaps more importantly when the early Christian missionaries, particularly Paul, arrived in a new community they adapted their message for that community. “To the Jews, I become a Jew, to win Jews. To those not under the law I become like one not under the law to win those not having the law.” The message from the early church is clear. If we want the early church to grow we must go to new communities and adapt what we say to make it relevant to them. The emphasis is on adapting what we have to what they need, not on assuming that we can change them so that they need what we already have.
So far this is following pretty much in the steps of what John talked about in his sermon at beginning of this theme. After that service, however, I was having a chat with Ray and he commented, “You know what the elephant in the room is, the elephant in the room is that we, as a congregation, are too old”. Mission of the kind I’ve been describing takes energy. The apostles going on all those journeys were young men filled with energy. We are not, as a congregation, young and energetic. Many of us have put a lifetime of service into the church and have now reached a time in our life when we want someone else to take over.
But society has changed, working patterns have changed, employers expectations have changed. The generation that could be taking over have no energy for mission because they are expected to pour their energy into different things. Anyone with a professional career in the modern world has to work long hours to develop that career and maintain it and, of course, it is those people who have most to offer to in leading the world outside the church who have most to offer in terms of leadership within it.
For a variety of reasons, in most couples of employment age both partners now work. Their surplus energy is ploughed into the tasks of keeping the household running and family relationships healthy. That energy is not available for mission activity of the church.
So it’s all very well to talk about the necessity for mission and for us to go into the world and make disciples but who is going to do this?
Here, as on so many issues that we have addressed this year, it might be useful to look to the experience of the early church. For all that the Book of Acts is dominated by accounts of heroic missionary endeavours, it is clear that only a relatively small number of individuals were involved in this aspect of ministry. It is clear from what we read in the letters that most of the early Christian community stayed at home. Maybe mission should be seen as the responsibility of a small number of people who are particularly suited to it than a broader responsibility shared amongst all of us. If we reflect on the Great Commission literally, it is perhaps useful to recognise that it was given to a very select group of individuals (Jesus’s Disciples). There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason to generalise this and take it as an obligation on us all.
I’ve changed career. Friday was my last day working for the University. On Sunday next week I start a new role as a Lay Pastor at Bramhall Methodist Church. As with all life decisions it has been driven by a complex web of interacting factors but one of those has been that I’ve been one of those people in a modern professional role who hasn’t had the energy to engage in mission for the church. It’s partly about time, but it’s much more about having the headspace. If I’m struggling with the demands of a leadership role in a large modern corporation, whether it be a university, school, hospital, or company, I simply haven’t got the emotional energy to do so for the Church as well.
By supporting the Lay Pastor role, the congregation at Bramhall are offering an opportunity for me to step aside from my career (possibly for just a few years, possibly for longer) and focus on how I would like to express my faith. Although the job title is Lay Pastor, the one phrase in the person specification for that post that really really caught my imagination is for someone with a “heart to work with people at the margins of church life”. It is essentially an invitation for someone to engage in mission within their community.
So is this the future? Do ageing congregations, and Bramhall has its fair share of ageing members, need to think less of engaging in mission themselves and more in making opportunities available for others to do so with their blessing? How many other people are out there like me who would love an opportunity to refocus their lives either for a defined period of permanently? Perhaps there is a middle ground. Perhaps an employee’s energy can be used to direct the mission and set out a vision. Perhaps once this has been established it might be easier for others to commit to their time and what reserves of energy remain to share in the realisation of that vision.
We also need to think more imaginatively about how we use resources. A time of closing churches is also a time of opportunity? Selling churches frees up capital making it available for other uses. This circuit has sold one church recently and is in the process of selling another. Those funds are being held for future mission activity. Perhaps we need to engage with more urgency in a discussion about what that activity should be. Perhaps we could use that money to create an opportunity for someone to engage in mission within this community. The money is lodged in the circuit rather than this church but let’s start a conversation about how it is going to be used. Doing so now while we still have a church to act as a base for this must be better than waiting for ten years until it is too late.
We are also in the process of looking for a new minister. What should his or her priorities be? I’m sure that there will be an initial assumption that we are looking for someone to minister to us and look after our needs. On reflection though I think we are very good at looking after our own needs. We have very strong formal and informal networks of support within our congregation. Maybe we could look to the future and say that we will take responsibility for our own pastoral needs and free up the time of the new minister to engage in mission within the local community. Maybe we could look for someone who could spend two days a week ministering to a local school, or to people in this commuter suburb who suffer from work-related stress, or to the incoming families to the new housing estate in Woodford. Again this is a circuit rather than congregational decision but if we want to change someone is going to have to initiate that discussion.
This needn’t be only outward looking. There is currently a rather small pool of ministers within the Methodist church and a large number of churches from which to choose. If you are a dynamic forward looking minister are you going to want to focus on the internal needs of an ageing congregation – or would you relish the opportunity to be blessed to engage in mission to the community within which they are situated? How we view our future may well have an important influence on the type of minister who might be attracted to come here, or indeed whether anyone wants to come at all.
This isn’t just a personal vision. It mirrors the path that the Methodist church as a whole is starting to journey along. Conference this year adopted a motion that every church council be encouraged to address and answer the question “do you have a growth plan or an end of life plan”. The starkness of this choice takes the breath away but once we have got over the initial shock we recognise that it is real. If we don’t grow we will die. I don’t know how long that “encouragement” will take to filter through but maybe we could start now and get ahead of the game. Are we, as a congregation and circuit, going to develop a growth plan or an end of life plan?