The Consumer Church

Shelia Heaton and her husband Colin agreed to talk about why they are Methodists believing they had little to say.

The majority of people I have met in the church have things in common with them. Their parents had a huge influence on their faith.

My mother, her father, his father, his father, his mother’s father were all Methodist ministers. I am sixth in a line. Faith was something I could not shake but I took my sweet time taking possession of it. I was 25 when my faith found its peculiar home in the Methodist church. It took three more years to discover its particular home in the Methodist Church of Great Brittan and Ireland.

It is certainly not the only story, but it is a common one in churches. Parents have come during my ministry hoping to pass on to their children what their parents gave to them of a church experience.  Members look into the empty spaces in pews and see their ancestor’s imprint. Faith can be a familial experience.

Colin and Shelia have a Romeo and Juliet like church background. They were married in the Anglican Church to please her father but found a home together in the Methodist Church where Colin’s family belonged. They courted in the church; found love together, raised their children under church influence and they still obviously love one another often finishing each other’s thoughts.

Their church home is owed, one might think to this heritage, the family tradition. Maybe, but also they could have chosen any direction to pursue their faith. The one they chose is owed largely to the welcome they received in the churches they mention. They have felt most welcome inside Methodist walls.

Not everyone can say the same. Something clicked for them. They made friends where they chose to attend and near the end of their story, they dropped a real heavy thought about Methodist Identity. Their current church is the product of three declining churches choosing to join together. This is not an uncommon story.

Many communities, even small villages had multiple Methodist chapels in its heyday. Practical decisions have been made to join together in many places sometimes joining very different Methodist outlooks.

If you try and tell a church council what to do as a minister, they tend to vote you down. I proposed we buy Methodist Worship books in one chapel. I thought, as our name was on the title of the book, it was not an item for discussion rather just ratification. Boy was I wrong.  After a far too lengthy debate, my proposal was thrown out and it took me a year to get the votes in order to buy these books. I was told, “Boy, some of us have come from the Primitive tradition. We do not want to use a book. That is what we brought you here for.”

I am still sometimes wet behind the ears, but back then you could pour a glass of water from that part of my anatomy. When I learned about the strong Primitive Methodist tradition in the area I served and the mix of the congregation weighted toward that Primitive side, I slowed down all of the Wesley references and focused more on other things.

When Colin and Shelia came to a church made from three different chapels, with three different backgrounds, what let them know they found a home was that you could not detect where people formerly worshiped. They had all accepted one another. They were one Methodist Church, one people united in following Christ better, one group of friends in faith. They found their home belonging to that same oneness, a oneness in God.

Quad Questions:

1 Cor 12:12-27

12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.

15 Suppose the foot says, “I am not a hand. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 16 And suppose the ear says, “I am not an eye. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If the whole body were an ear, how could it smell? 18 God has placed each part in the body just as he wanted it to be. 19 If all the parts were the same, how could there be a body? 20 As it is, there are many parts. But there is only one body.

21 The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. 23 The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honour. The private parts aren’t shown. But they are treated with special care. 24 The parts that can be shown don’t need special care. But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honour to the parts that didn’t have any. 25 In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy.

27 You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.

 

Almost every Methodist Church has people in it from different backgrounds. Whether these be, social, economic, racial, gender or any other classification, difference is a part of what makes us special. How difference can come together as one can be the reason a Colin and Shelia may choose to come to your church or not.

What is it like in the place that you worship? Are you authentically valuing each other’s differences? At the same time, are you striving for oneness?

 

Reason

In Notes from an Underground Man, Dostoyevsky muses as the central character about how people perceive him or don’t really. There is a long section about the quality of the collar he has on his overcoat. How if he had a fine beaver collar it would make him visible.

In a consumer society we often think about the trappings of things as defining us: how nice is our car, clothes, house, how recently the kitchen was updated, what holiday we went on this summer… all seem to define how we think others see us.

It is not a universal problem, but one that exists. The reverse can also be true. People can be judged badly because they have bought a new car… My wife remembers feeling like former school friends didn’t like her after she went to university.

Much of this is about how we perceive ourselves or how we think others perceive us.

How do you think God perceives you? How about your church, what do you think God thinks about your church? Are you truly welcoming and warm? Would that extend to all people?

Tradition

One of the Wesleyan sayings I often share is about communion. He advises Methodists take it as often as they can but at least four times a week.

As a minister I have felt the guilt of not offering that many opportunities knowing, if I did, only a few people would value the effort. The expectation in my churches is only the opportunity to take communion each month.

How often when we break bread do we remember Jesus?

If we are warming the hearts of those that visit our churches with our hospitality and welcome, are we taking them to lunch, buying them coffee or cooking their dinner?

If we did these things are we also communing with God or is that only happening at an altar?

Experience

You may have attended a few churches that did not feel right before you found the one that did.

Remember and list the things that you did not like about the churches you never found a home in.

List the things you do not like about your home church.

Why do you choose to come?

Is it about what we like or don’t? If so, is that any different than any other consumer choice?

Fiona Returns Home to Seedfield

Fiona grew up in a Methodist Church but found herself drifting to a non-denominational church for a time. We did not fully discuss the reasons. As a Chaplain to the Manchester Universities I found it very difficult to compete with some of less denominational traditions that had rock bands, commercials on screen for their announcements and a critical number of university aged people to be friends with.

Fiona looked University aged to me when I saw her banging the drums in a service I participated in at Seedfield Methodist Church ( http://www.seedfield.co.uk ) . This is because as my eyes get older, they see young professional aged, intelligent, competent and capable people as younger than they are.

Statistically our church has really old eyes. I heard one leader quote that when you reduce our statistics the Methodist Church is well into our seventies. It is why so many people refer to me as young man. Either that or have failed a wisdom test when I have done something outside that church’s normal practice. Despite looking and feeling old, people perceive me as young. Methodism can be better than a young or old place. It can be a home where people can live across difference.

People make a home in the Methodist Church. Sometimes they move away. Sometimes they move back home. Does it still feel like home if it has moved on in some way?

One of my churches ran a very popular Messy Church but we struggled to get the Church Council to see it as successful because the families were only coming quarterly and on Saturdays. When I offered the long term view of the investment, they understandably respond that there are not many years left to see the investment mature. When you are in your seventies, it is unlikely you will invest in a bond that takes years to show results. You do that while you are working. But if you invest in something for short term gain and it does not perform as you expect it to, you can loose all you have saved those many years and it hurts.

If you are impatient with the outcomes of your church programmes you are not alone. Why would the missing generation come to your church when the church the young people go to is down the road? Everyone has a car. We are consumers who at a click can compare all of the different shops that sell a similar product and we are used to choosing our preference.

Case Study:

We struggled to find a unique way to offer ourselves as a church on Oxford Road serving the Manchester Universities. We claimed to be totally inclusive, but found ourselves at odds with the more Evangelical students. By positioning ourselves against one theological identity, we lost our fully inclusive claim. When called on the discrepancy, I explained we are doing our best to be inclusive with integrity. We were also trying to be our best with integrity. It was an identity which resonated with a certain type of faith seeker more than another type. By being the best God made us to be, we attracted others who saw the need for our shared theological expression. If we failed to find a place for every voice to share in an inclusive church, people saw the discrepancy. Our quality picked us up, but our inconsistency let us down.

Two penny advice:

Do what you do to the very best of your ability. Worry less about what you think you should be. Our church is broad. We should not be modelling ourselves on trends, but on quality; not on age but on effort. The church is a unique place where people in their 70’s can find genuine friendships with teenagers. To live together, the home adapts, the people are made better through relating and compromises are made. Try to make a home that people will find welcoming and adaptable.

Do not keep things the same or move forward without direction. Make the place people will find to inhabit in your church as heavenly as your are able. Just make space for God to be there and be open to the direction the Spirit helps you choose to shape it. Do not expect that you can copy a church down the road and achieve what they have, be your best possible self. There is a community of people that will want to find a home with you because you are making it the best possible one within the gifts and abilities God has given you. Leave spaces open, truly open so that when new people come they can find their own spot in which to serve. Let the nature of the home change naturally and may Christ be the decorator of each heavenly room (John 14:3).

However your church defines its identity, do not be satisfied with the least possible effort to gather for an hour on a Sunday. Had Fiona discovered her home church to not have a place for her when she returned she would not have been there beating energy and Spirit into drums and from the rhythms made, into at least me. Be thankful to all of those adding their gifts and talents into your home church.

 

Quad questions for taking it deeper or discussion:

Matt 22: 36-40

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

 

This can be your text for quality assurance. It does not test the way you express your faith in God but in the way you love God and the way you show it.

Do you/your church love God with your all… heart soul and mind? How do you show it?

Every church I go to can show ways it has loved its neighbour either through giving, hospitable welcome or in the community/social justice work you engage with. Some choose to go to church because of the way that group of people have shown love to them.

If your church is your home, will you welcome your neighbour into it? Can they find a home there or is it your home they are living in?

Is the neighbour allowed to change the way you do things, the services you offer, the way you present yourself? Do you love the neighbour as yourself?

I travel and see churches who remember the better days, who apologise for the people on holiday and whatever other reason numbers are down. Some buildings look neglected; so too do some hurts in the worried creases in the faces looking back at me.

How well do you love yourself? Jesus predicated love of neighbour on love of self. How well do we follow his greatest commandment in full?

What is the quality of service that we offer in the church to our neighbour?

What is the quality of service that we receive ourselves?

What can you or we do to help things to be better?

If we love God but think badly about ourselves, no matter how much we love our neighbour, we are not participating fully in what Christ commands us to be. Respond.

Reason:

Descartes is credited for the existential claim, “I think therefore I am.” Against the sceptics, he realized that if they agreed they thought… they would have to agree in God. It rested on thinking and being able to imagine perfection with that thinking mind. If they can conceive of the notion of perfection and God is all perfect, then non-existence would be an imperfection. If thinking brings you into certainty of your being then you are a small step away, for those that follow the French philosopher’s line of thought, from accepting God which brought you into being.

What do you think you are? Are you a man or woman, failed or good, a banker or teacher, Christian or other…?

What do you think your church is? Does thinking relate to your being?

If you think your church is one thing, say a welcoming sanctuary and your neighbour thinks it is something else, say a place she does not know why she comes to then what is your church?

Can you think your church into a better way of being?

Can thinking in this way also be prayer?

 

Tradition:

“We have always done it that way,” often heard and always a minister’s least favourite phrase unless they are saying it. But do you know why you do things that way?

I often joke that if someone says at a bus stop, “Lord in your mercy,”  I will turn  and respond, “Hear our prayer.”

I do it from pattern, from habit and that is not an all bad thing until I fail to internalize the importance of the response. When some goofball in a plastic collar leads a prayer in front of you and asks you to respond, you are ratifying their words. You are making them your own in the eyes of God. You are participating in that prayer not just responding to a call. If you do things in your worshipping life, make sure the reason behind it is clear and it speaks to the people you hope to attract and inspire. Traditions can enliven as well as stifle. Drum beating may not be popular everywhere, but is awesome in its place so thank you Fiona.

List your church traditions.

Does the way your church experience its traditions have real meaning to the church?

Would a visitor understand this meaning?

What can you change or tweak to make your traditions communicate their purpose better?

Experience:

Have you left a church? Has one been closed down that was dear to you? Are there times you would like to leave your church? Reflect quietly and look in deep.

How does it feel?

Wolfe says you can never go home again because time changes all things that were once familiar. When that special person passed away or the charismatic leader you that truly understood you moved away, the church changed.

Do you change in relationship with your church?

When a church has grown or become more vibrant, sometimes people feel they lost what they once knew as familiar. Loss can be experienced in what others may call success! In a smaller church some have found a deeper connection to the congregation and to God. There is not one direction to travel. What is your story, your journey?

What would be your best possible church?

If you or your church feel stagnant,  can a change in direction be helpful to your spiritual needs? If one influences the other, can a change in you improve your church?

You giant nerd

Geek, dweeb, nerd and all other kinds of chides were thrown my way when I was young. Being fairly intelligent, at least smart enough to earn good grades, put me above the firing line. My eldest is now in school facing his own brand of being picked on. In trying to advise him how to survive childhood I tell him to concentrate on making good friends, building good relationships and to let the stuff people say slide off you. But if Methodism is an example of how to live, I am steering him wrong.

He should live proudly as the fine young man he is becoming and claim anything people try and say about that. Embarrassingly, I am telling him to try and fit in and one time I asked why he didn’t bop the boy picking on him in the nose.

At Christ Church College in Oxford University, John Wesley organised a meeting for friends that struggled with the way normal students lived their live. He observed most going to church on a Sunday and only living out their faith for the hour they sat in the pews. He gathered friends who shared a common interest in living out every minute for God. They were dubbed, probably by students teasing them, The Holy Club.

Early into taking possession of my own faith, one informed by a long family connection to Methodism, I learned the way students teased the boys in the Holy Club. By rule they eat, by rule they drink, by rule they do all things but think. They were called Methodists because they had a method for living.

They claimed the chide, they strengthened the way they supported one another, they firmed up their relationships and many went on to do great things. Because they claimed it, maybe instead of letting it slide, the teasing lost its sting. People are proud to be Methodists.

At Standish Methodist Church, a former minister called in the DMLN to meet with a group of church leaders keen to explore new ways forward for their congregation. They expressed an interest in developing small groups and support networks. After looking at resources, they decided to try Step Forward, a discipleship oriented study guide put together for the Methodist Church by the Guy Chester Centre. I met with a few in the group after leading a service there. The video is a sample of the people looking at growing as disciples in small groups as a way to move forward in faith. Each answers in his own way why he is a Methodist. http://www.methodist.org.uk/deepening-discipleship/small-groups/key-resources/step-forward

Quad Questions to discuss or take it deeper:

Scripture:

Matt 18: 15

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

2 Kings 2: 23-24

He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.

These passages highlight a range of responses to being teased. I imagine conflict in your churches have been resolved by a similar range of action. I know some metaphorical bears who have torn up a

church. Congregants have fled and the church is in wreckage, but it is such a human instinct to want to hurt those that hurt you.

Congregations have been brought together through conflict. Getting strong leaders to work alongside each other rather than against each other has produced growing congregations.

Growing more skilled at building relationships and navigating conflict will have a positive impact on the future of your church. Can you think of other scriptural examples that affirm or refute this statement?

Check out Growing through Conflict for more help and advice.

http://www.methodist.org.uk/learning/network-regions/north-west-mann-region/news/growing-through-conflict

Reason:

In St Augustine’s confessions, as a boy he takes an apple or pear or some kind of fruit off of a tree owned by his neighbour. While writing as an adult he is still struggling with this sin he had not yet fully resolved. The example of his seemingly benign inner conflict is very real to him as he writes it. He is keeping a young concubine at the time, but he seems truly worried about this fruit.

How do we truly help people get over what they believe separates them from God?

What if the things you learn about people in a small group, in a more intimate setting, conflict with how you think people of faith should live?

Some think the way Jesus offers is wider than others. Some think it is different paths to the same place. What do you think and how do you move forward when your thoughts do not fit in the same way with others?

Tradition:

Band groups have been around since the Holy Club and a group formed in Cliff College are drawing renewed emphasis on how accountability groups can help your relationship with Christ Jesus. http://inspiremovement.org/wordpress/

Find out more how to become involved formally, or simply get together with one or two close friends. Ask them about their faith life. Listen to their responses. Pray together. Be deliberate about bringing faith into the conversation.

Experience:

Were you ever or are you picked on. How do you handle it?

I am growing increasingly concerned I am telling my child to let things slide off him that he will instead internalize. I am also worried I will be called into question if he does not internalize things but bops someone.

Discuss adversity in your childhood. How was it best faced?

Are there things lurking inside that you internalized and never resolved?

How do you bring your faith into the ways you face adversity?

Reg throws me off balance

teaching about Calvinist Methodism

John Wesley’s Sermons 55, Paragraph 1, On Trinity
Persons may be quite right in their opinions, and yet have no religion at all; and, on the other hand, persons may be truly religious, who hold many wrong opinions. Can any one possibly doubt of this, while there are Romanists in the world For who can deny, not only that many of them formerly have been truly religious, as Thomas a Kempis, Gregory Lopez, and the Marquis de Renty; but that many of them, even at this day, are real inward Christians And yet what a heap of erroneous opinions do they hold, delivered by tradition from their fathers! Nay, who can doubt of it while there are Calvinists in the world, — assertors of absolute predestination For who will dare to affirm that none of these are truly religious men Not only many of them in the last century were burning and shining lights, but many of them are now real Christians, loving God and all mankind. And yet what are all the absurd opinions of all the Romanists in the world, compared to that one, that the God of love, the wise, just, merciful Father of the spirits of all flesh, has, from all eternity, fixed an absolute, unchangeable, irresistible, decree, that part of all mankind shall be saved, do what they will; and the rest damned, do what they can!

John Wesley offered many gifts to the church, but none that touches the troubled greater than Prevenient Grace. Imagine a child still born and a church that teaches its soul would not enter heaven as it had not been baptized. The church can and has taught this and other dogmatic propositions to its own decline. It has also taught a counterpoint to every dogmatic idea and our church father has much to offer to this particular discussion. Though he derived much of his teaching here from Jacob Arminius, he is credited for lifting the profile of Previenient Grace in theology. His counterpoint relates to when and where God’s love stretches and how it can trump the thoughts and structures of organized religion.

Prevenient Grace is how God loves us before we can know anything about it. This love is surely stronger than any tradition that might make a parent worry for the soul of their child, God’s child too. This concept was in direct conflict, I had learned years ago, with Calvin’s theories about predestination. Prevenient Grace Vs Predestination is like a theological prize fight. I had not imagined the two could fit together until I met Reg. If you were chosen before you were known about (over simplification of predestination), it would seem God loves some more than others. Some are chosen some are not. For Wesley, God’s love extends more evenly and widely.

I met Reg at the Bolton Mission and he explained his background in a Calvinist Methodist Church. I did not know such a thing existed. In his story he explained its background in the preaching from the great George Whitfield and how the movement spread through Wales and still exists in pockets. His story brings about how two contrasting theologies can find a shared identity; about how we discover who we are as a Methodist people through the friends we make along the way and that we are proudly rooted in a heritage of sharing faith with evangelical zeal, but not the heavy handed kind.
Everyone can teach us something. When we share our faith more openly we rebuild and revitalize our church unless the way we share turns people away. Adopting a learning attitude, one that transcends theological conflicts and is open to where people are rather than where the church was is all a part of what you will hear Reg share.

Quadrilateral Questions

Scripture:

Romans 8:29-30 (NIV)

29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Jeremiah 1:5a (NIV)

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew[a] you,
    before you were born I set you apart;

These are not the proof texts of the two concepts but exist among others to strengthen either theological position. Notions like even you are saved, God knows every hair on your head and that you are truly formed in the image of God would suggest an intimacy that God shares even with the unlikely person writing these words.

Can you be secure in God’s love if you are predestined to reside in it or not? Sometimes we feel more glorified than in others. How do we resolve the down times? Does predestination pressure you not to have down times?

 

Tradition:

Predestination – though it is a liberating concept taken in certain ways, the basic premise is that all things are known to God, even the future. What happens is God’s plan. People who are elected will be saved. They are already known to God. The way we live in the world might reflect if we have been chosen or not but we can not know of God’s choices until they are revealed.

Prevenient Grace – One can likely think of many scenarios where things have gone wrong, that God’s love seems scarce in the face of difficulty is a common experience. The fact that God’s love is never scarce but even existed for you before you can know anything about it is a challenging thought. You are always loved by God even when it is difficult or impossible to see is a very Wesleyan position.

Discuss or consider ways in which these two positions can be in conflict. In what ways can they be harmonized?

Reason:

Shelia has just performed her second infant burial in the same village. Though the ritual gives some solace to the family, the pain on the day was palpable.

Is there anything that can be said that might help the family?

What types of things might you say or do if you were the minister?

Experience: Recall or share a time when you felt fully loved by God. If there is a time when this love was not as obvious, share the experience.

Consider how many people feel they have no place in church because they do not perceive the love God has for them.

Can love be shared better in our church? How?