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Neil Richardson

The Wesley Spotlight series draws an audience each month to both listen to and ask questions of a variety of people. The visit of the President of the Methodist Conference closely follows the signing of the Anglican-Methodist covenant and accordingly the crowd filled the ground floor and much of the balcony on 21 January 2004. Neil Richardson expressed his great pleasure to be in Harrogate having being born and raised in the West Riding, and indeed he passed his driving test here - albeit at the second taking!

Neil's title Can the Church survive? was a natural question for Western Europe, not just Harrogate. Figures show that, compared with 1966, the Latin American, African and Asian church has seen 6-700% growth where there has been a decline of 40% in the UK up to 1996. Further investigation suggests, with the age profile here, a question over whether or not the church will still exist in 20-30 years. The credibility gap between church goers and those who never cross the threshold is growing, with the institutional church generally being the last place that people look for answers to their search for spirituality and reason; the culture gap has never been greater. It is reported that an irate Methodist described how "Christianity is being excluded from Christmas".

What is the Church for - what is it meant to be? Neil Richardson described his hope for the church by developing the answer "the church is meant to to be the One, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". These four characteristics must not be denied if there is to be any hope for the future of the Church.
One: we are to work together, in unity, ecumenically. And not like the examples of the chapels where families remain irreconciled for generations, or the chapel of just five members all over 80, complete with a three way split which had lasted since their school days...
Holy: set aside for God's purposes rather than just keeping the show running.
Catholic: meaning universal, open to all of whatever colour or background, financial status or belief. A story was heard of the new member asking the minister about joining the church, only to hear the minister say that he had been trying to join it too.
Apostolic: we need to hold fast to the need to preach the Gospel freshly to each generation.
Failing to stay true to each of these four characteristics will jeopardise the future of the Church.

Three Strategies for Recovery:
Managerial: the need to redraw the boundaries, improve efficiency, strip out committees - and perhaps set up new ones
Contemporary worship: recognising that relevant contemporary worship isn't just changing the tunes and adding puppet shows
Unity: working ecumenically isn't simply forgetting differences and merging; if one lifeless church joins another lifeless church the result is one big lifeless or struggling church.
These strategies need to work together to help recovery, but they still need an overall direction and purpose to make any lasting difference. The church has to be true to itself to have any chance of survival. The church has to recognise how it is different to all other organisations around us. We are called to be different, not superior to others. If God is real, if God is as he is in Jesus, then there is hope.

Dr Richardson provided examples of these issues: the village church and chapel in North Yorkshire which have joined together, using the two buildings for separate purposes for the united congregation; the way we can all encourage one another by affirming and strengthening each other; the realisation and proclamation of the liberal and the evangelical together to say "I need your faith to make my faith more complete", and recognising that certain issues of the day are not divisive, such as the "gay issue".

Following a recent trip to Hungary and Serbia, Neil applauded the way the Methodist church is reaching out to others - notably the Romany people there. He is encouraged by what he has seen, but all the more so by knowing the fundamental conviction that the Church will survive simply because God wants it to. It may not necessarily be the Methodist church, the Anglican church or the wider church in the UK, but the Church will survive. There is no doubt that we will all fail at the things we're supposed to be and do, but if we leave it in God's hands then the church will survive.

The Spotlight then turned for questions from the audience:

Q: Spirituality: how will the current interest in spirituality impact on the Christian Church and how should we respond?
A: The Church has changed throughout history; it is up to us to establish common ground when talking with those interested in things spiritual.

Q: Selfish or selfless? The balance between loving self and selfishness - how can I love others as myself without the selfishness of self survival?
A: Loving self and loving our neighbour belong together; selfishness and loving neighbour don't belong together. Jesus reminded us that "whosoever loses his life will save it"

Q: On Catholicity meaning inclusiveness: how do we respond to those who have felt alienated by inclusive language in the prayers and services?
A: Firstly, inclusiveness is about "whosoever will come"; secondly people have the right to leave if they wish.
We need to recognise that the Bible is both exclusive as well as inclusive. To be true to our faith we need be both inclusive and exclusive. We tend to define ourselves in the same ways that the world defines itself ("I support Leeds United", for example). The Bible show how the early Christians were called the "brothers and sisters", "the way" but there was no comparison, no competition.

Q: Would Jesus recognise the Church as being built on the foundation he wanted?
A: Christianity transforms itself regularly and has done since its start. We need to be real nowadays about money, resources, personnel and buildings. It is recognised that some people's faith will not survive the closure of a building.

Q: Is the Alpha Course the answer?
A: Dr Richardson has no personal experience of an Alpha course, but is aware of the materials; some of it is appealing and useful - it is good to have the opportunity to share over a meal. He suggests that it may be narrow in its theology, and he considers that it is not the solution since the resulting church growth would be more than we have seen to date.

Q: What does "the church being true to itself" mean?
A: It needs to be true to its vocation; it should be united not divided; holy; catholic and apostolic - fulfilling the mission that Christ entrusted to it.

Q: How do we help those looking for spirituality to find Jesus in intimidating buildings like these?
A: We need to be affirming, welcoming, hospitable and ready then to share our faith where possible. We need to examine how we use Seeker services to make them welcoming.

Q: Has the church forgotten its purpose and that Jesus said that he will be with us to the end of the age?
A: That's why the theme of this talk was "hope". Whatever the events on the space-time continuum and its end, we need to affirm how we will be with God and it is he who will have the last word.

Q: Considering the needs of the young folk who have heard of the creation and virgin birth but have little time for readings and sermons, how do we make what comes from our pulpits more acceptable to them?
A: It could be better to start with the purpose of human beings. Bible readings are still vital, but I avoid paraphrases since they can be so far from the original text.

Q: What can we learn from the persecution seen in places like China?
A: The Church thrives on persecution - but don't look for martyrdom or confrontation. We in the West need to tackle apathy.

Q: Apathy and mockery: we're surprised by the level of this challenge and contemporary services won't change that.
A: There may be no easy or instant solutions, but remain faithful and don't get hung up about results. Do the right thing: listen and pray, don't do all the talking and do try different things to welcome folk in.

Q: What about midweek services?
A: There are good examples in Barnsley at the moment, but we cannot abandon the Lord's Day - most important in a secular society.

Dr Richardson concluded with the exhortation that "We'll never get back to 'where we were', we need to work on new things to attract new folk and we need to hand the faith on to the next generation. Our younger folk need to hear the natural, real testimony of our adults. If our faith doesn't make us more compassionate, then our faith is empty."

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