'Looking to the future' with Rev David Deeks
Rev John Sadler welcomed Rev David Deeks, president of the Methodist Conference, to the afternoon meeting at Wesley chapel and invited him to "tell us how it is", especially what we have to face in the 21st century. On his first visit to the area, David noted "I honestly know nothing about Harrogate..." but he was delighted to be here!
David said how the keyword is 'change', not the 'church'. Some things are forcing change on us and his role is to dangle carrots in front of us, drawing us towards change. He sighed lightly as he recognised the mood: "If only we had the energy, courage and capacity to bring about change...".
David has seen a wide range of changes since he started as a local preacher. He invited the group meeting at Wesley to offer their own views on the major changes that the Methodist church has had to face over the last ten or twenty years.
Changes in the last ten years
The many thoughts included falling - and rising - congregations, changing age profiles, those who prefer traditions, changes which impact on those outside the church, how to use premises differently, new musical styles, technology and instruments, banners, the new worship book, more flexibility and informality in worship, fresh expressions of worship, elderly congregations needing taking to church, the lack of commitment and those who find church boring, environmental issues, lifestyle issues affecting change, the challenge of relevance of the established church, lack of facilities, covenant relationship with the Anglicans and ecumenical relationships with other traditions, relevance of the whole church together as it presents itself to a town or area, attracting young families, the loneliness of those sliding into retirement, the sense that we've lost the knack of engaging with older folk, and having to comply with new regulations - not just the new kitchen! David said how these gave a good taste of the pressures, uncertainties and opportunities that these all present to the church, very similar to the contributions from across the nation. "Of course, some bits of church are sexier than others - that's church, let's face it!".
"We're all in this together - let's grasp the nettles and help each other face these changes, without losing the richness of our heritage. One of the challenges to the Methodist church is releasing locked up resources that would help the Church meet these challenges."
"We're on the move"
Where's the vision coming from that might stimulate and inspire us? It comes from the very nature of the gospel - it is God's way of inspiring us to move forward. David drew on several of the many images in the New Testament of people being inspired and challenged by the gospel. "We're on the move."
At a recent visit to a 200 year old Methodist society, he thanked God for the last 200 years, but he exhorted the congregation to move forward. "If we resist change", then all the church would have is a history. The Church is a learning community, living the life of a disciple; every day we learn more of the ways God changes us and calls us. "We're on the move and we're glad to be changing.
"In Methodist terms we've battled for a long time to see the vision that would help us rediscover what are and can be, being relevant to the challenge." Our calling is to:
* Caring and service, and
Expanding on these, the call is to increase awareness of God's presence and celebrate his love, to help one another to grow in mutual support and love, to challenge injustice and to make more followers of Jesus Christ.
Since the year 2000, we've invited churches to review their life against those challenges. "I bet we could do better if we thought about it in each area; why not set ourselves a target to do better each year in each of these four areas." Each time the churches do that audit, we give ourselves a project or target for the following year. The vision for the church bubbles up from where you are, and discover what you can do to help yourselves. The community could call the church to account on how it helps us be who we are.
Ways to help move things forward
At Connexion level, there are some who send around short emails called The Buzz with headings on what each church has achieved. Examples of achievements can be small or large changes - each being an effective way of encouraging each other at local level.
There are several priorities for the Methodist Church as we review where we're at:
1 Rediscover a new context to proclaim the gospel; how do we focus on a fresh, attractive and engaging way to proclaim the gospel?
2 Committing ourselves to action for justice especially the poor
3 Recovering the confidence for evangelism
4 Encouraging fresh ways of worship and
5 Developing a culture playing to strength rather than running a bureaucratic system.
New Contexts: Fresh Expressions. We faithfully keep the churches going each week but are they relevant to most people in the UK; remember - is the gospel for them? But they don't hear it. There are experiments up and down the land to take the gospel to people who would never hear. St Pixel's, a virtual church on the internet, welcomes thousands of kids all over the world on a computer - they won't come to 'my church', and, for them, that's their church. Busy professionals have no time to run the traditional church; their support comes through prayer over the internet.
Social Action: Serving the community and justice, environment and world poverty: there are those who are compassionate about those concerns and are providing a crucial input.
Confidence: Learning to speak in everyday terms about our faith, not demanding that others worship with our hymns - but rather finding out how to be relevant to their language and culture.
The vision is coming from all parts of the church - from every local church that is renewing its own local life. Intrigue has been followed up with wanting to find out more about how others have made changes.
Confidence, courage and hopefulness: new changes, ways of worship and engaging, it implies and demands quite a lot of change from all of us.
External forces of change
What difference does change make to each of our lives? The Charities Commission is breathing down our necks; we will have to revolutionise how we show our accountability to the public. The Methodist Conference wants churches to be totally squeaky clean. The Charities Commission is under the impression that Charities only hold money to then spend it; the Methodists will have to change the way we handle money - we as a church are immensely wealthy and we will have to learn how to spend the money.
In repsonse, we are reducing the Core Team by 30%, which will release money for the mission of the church - it's all about Core priorities. We need to be buildings for communities, working in partnerships with others through Churches Together and also secular groups.
Sharing the visions
David invited the group to outline the ways the churches in this area share visions across the local churches and how can it be done better. He also asked how the churches create the energy to make things happen.
* The main forum for sharing is the church council - changes can take months!
* The world around us doesn't take as long to change things; our systems can be based on old traditions. * There is opportunity for flexibility in our meetings.
* Drawing on the wisdom to know how to use younger people on councils.
* Less people are free to serve and contribute; not everyone is connected to the church; we have a wider diversity than many organisations which truly changes the dynamics are restricts our ability to move and change.
* We're unable to focus as a circuit, as a single unit of mission; in every circuit there are likely to be one or more churches who go their own way
* Lots more use of the internet to help us; it's a globally tendency that is changing all our lives, not just a generational thing for young people.
Ecumenical change: "We're deeply committed to ecumenical partnership, recognising the main drivers for collaboration; we are natural partners with CofE and URC," but David encouraged the group not to be restrained by that. He cited how foreign language churches provide plenty of opportunities for us to work across church denominations. He then added the need to work with secular partners - an opportunity to work with those outside the church, being eyes to see as we work together, all in the interests of the churches mission. And, of course, with the Anglican Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, John Packer, this area is reknowned as a flagship area for ecumenical partnership. [See links on the local Churches Together website (www.CTHarrogate.org.uk) for a summary of John Packer's talk at the Annual Assembly 2005]
Another program of change raised at the Methodist Council is mapping a way forward, regrouping for mission. There are many pressures upon us requiring change; we should make the most of these as opportunities to make us fit to do the work.
Over the next five years we may begin with service or administrative. As we focus on a primary unit of mission, let's encourage one another into strategic ways of mission. Let's see the work of local churches on a map - seeing the new opportunities for communicating the gospel, planting a church or seeing a new way such as a new commercial development with chaplaincy opportunities.
Here are the bits and pieces of our church where we can say 'Praise God, mission accomplished' and release resources for new opportunities. New beginnings and ends!
In 5 or 10 years time, how will the Harrogate Circuit be different? Is this Circuit a strategic unit accomplishing its mission?
There are other questions for every Circuit. Here's a second one: are we a natural unit of mission? A natural community? As an example, David outlined how the four circuits in Bristol are forming one circuit to find a natural strategic mission to the whole city, working with their ecumenical partners.
With some 600 unsustainable circuits across the UK, we need to ask what it's all for, and take responsibility to redesign it from the bottom up. We must work across circuit boundaries, sharing resources, treasurers, ministries. It is right to bring some things to a comfortable and appropriate end; some ministries must be sustained - and to do this, Districts are to encourage cross-Circuit co-operation.
And then again, what's a District for? With 32 Districts across the UK, they're unsustainable in the long term. Every district should have an overview of where the mission fields are, supporting those areas which are sustainable. Districts are to cover natural units of identity and how these will adapt to change and meet the needs of their areas.
Methodist support for our mission should become more focused on our strategy for mission. A District should be able to propose Circuit boundary changes, for example. Sensitivity is vital, but we must be ready to change. David Deeks described how more resources in the form of grants and money are being made available to help growth, mission and change - but not just to maintain what's already there. How do Districts regroup for mission to meet the mission challenges that face us? Skilled people are being placed in the districts to help this all happen, investing in the growth of the church.
So, it's a big program of change; the vision will bubble up from everywhere and we have a frame work. This is not change not for the sake of change, but so that we see what it is that God is calling us to be and do, creating opportunities to praise God and serve God. The whole church everywhere is going through a rapid time of change, and the Methodist Conference is encouraging us to be responsible. At church, Circuit and District level we're even using things like risk assessments to be opportunities to manage change that reflects totally on our mission.
Whilst we might not get it right, we can get it good enough to make a difference and upgrade the church so that its morale lifts us and to meet the challenge of our mission.