‘Offering pastoral support and advice to evangelicals, who can often feel isolated within Methodism and face particular pressures.’
In from the cold
In the past twenty-five years I have become aware of two significant changes in Methodism. In the first place, evangelicals are more visible in the mainstream of national Methodism, as evidenced by considerable numbers of first Headway, and now MET members and sympathisers, in key Connexional leadership positions. Secondly, and perhaps because of the first, I have noticed a less defensive and more gracious and compassionate voice being heard from the evangelical branch of Methodism than was sometimes the case in the past. And I rejoice in that.
In spite of that encouraging shift in climate, I am aware that there are still evangelicals in our church today, both in leadership and in the pew, who continue to feel isolated and misunderstood, who struggle with being criticised, marginalized or ignored because of their adherence to the core beliefs and values of the evangelical faith.
What causes the isolation?
It seems to me that there are several reasons why evangelicals feel isolated and under pressure within Methodism; one is people openly opposing what we stand for; another is apathy. There will be church people who strongly disagree with our core beliefs and values, and say so loudly and clearly, while others in this postmodern climate really don’t think it matters what anyone believes or does! I’m not sure which is harder to cope with – downright opposition, which is painful but can be faced, or a laissez-faire approach which says anything goes, and is hard to confront! Church leaders at every level, as well as church members, can feel hurt, bewildered and isolated when it seems that no one else has the same - or sometimes any! - passions, beliefs or standards. When we feel isolated we can become discouraged, depressed, disenchanted or defensive, responses that can result in increased isolation. We withdraw from the struggle, opting out of decision-making processes, or we become angry, speaking in ways we later regret, thus alienating still further the people around us. It takes a great deal of grace faithfully to continue doing what we believe God has called us to do, where he has placed us, when it seems as if we are in a minority of one. Consequently some evangelical Methodists feel so alone that they struggle to stay in the denomination.
In a church with an evangelical leadership with a focus on applied biblical preaching and a passion for sharing and showing the good news of Jesus in the community, evangelicals can feel safe, liberated, and able to worship and serve. (Though just imagine how isolated a Christian with a different outlook would feel in that kind of church!) But the reality is that the vast majority of Methodist churches are not theologically uniform; most have a mix of people with different emphases, passions, opinions, approaches and preferred practices. And so we all need a big dose of grace and wisdom if we are to worship and serve God effectively as the Body of Christ in a mixed church community.
Isolated in leadership. When a minister is the only one on the leadership team who believes the youth worker should resign because he is having an affair, or when she is the only one who resists having yoga on the church premises, or when he is not re-invited because of his view on the authority of Scripture, that minister will feel isolated and under pressure. On questions of core beliefs and values, when there are pressures from like-minded people to be more outspoken, and from those of a different persuasion to be more pastoral, an evangelical leader can feel trapped in the middle. When there are pressures from card-paying evangelical church members to change the way things are done, and from others an insistence that it’s fine as it is, an evangelical leader can feel deeply frustrated. Such confrontations over core values, behaviour and church practice cause hurt and a sense of isolation. An evangelical leader with a pastoral heart sits between a rock and a hard place! Being accused on the one hand of compromise and on the other of bigotry or arrogance is not conducive to peace of mind or effective ministry!
Isolated in the pew. For church members who find the preaching shallow or contrary to biblical teaching, there is a frustration that can prevent them from worshipping; for them the sense of being called to that particular church comes at a cost. A home group leader with a passion for Bible study and prayer is deeply discouraged when the reply to her enquiry about why members attend the group is that the majority are there primarily for the company. A church member becomes defensive and angry when informed that his belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman is outdated. A family worker with a heart for evangelism feels like giving up when church members complain that they are distracted by lively young families in church. A circuit steward on the invitations committee who would like to invite a minister with an emphasis on the centrality of the Cross becomes disheartened when others on the committee suggest that that is not a priority. When at a Church Council one person suggests holding a guest service to which non-church people could be invited he is deeply frustrated when they demand to know why he wants to bring strangers into the church!
Reader, do you recognise any of the above? If not, you are most fortunate, and probably you worship in a Methodist church which upholds the authority of Scripture, prays for revival, spreads scriptural holiness and emphasises the centrality of the cross!
People feeling isolated are in need of pastoral support, and sometimes, advice.
So what does and could MET offer to those who are struggling? Methodist Evangelicals Together is people! Every person needs to feel valued, heard, and accepted, and we can all do that for each other! We can:
- be alert to the signs that someone is feeling undervalued, misheard, or rejected, and offer a word of encouragement.
- listen, without interrupting, and without talking about ourselves and our own situation.
- offer to pray with them, and continue to pray for them.
- when we see them subsequently, remember to ask how things are going, and listen attentively to the answer.
- keep in touch by email, Facebook, a note, a phone call.
- form local groups where people can meet together for mutual support, with no need to be guarded in what is said, knowing that others have similar beliefs and values.
- catch up with each other at events like ECG, Spring Harvest, Cliff Celebration.
- encourage isolated evangelicals to attend such events, and offer to meet them there.
- admit our own sense of isolation and frustration, and seek support from others.
- encourage the provision of seminars at big events on issues such as handling conflict, dealing with difficult people, maintaining integrity without giving unnecessary offence, how to apologise when we have caused offence, how to accept an apology.
- offer to be present when someone needs to tell another something hard to hear.
- encourage people to explore a call to preach, be a worship Leader, attend the Methodist Conference, take up a role where their voice can be heard.
- gently challenge when we sense there is a tendency to judgmentalism, or needless confrontation, or when evangelicals claim to have a monopoly of truth.
- pray for wisdom as to which battles to fight, and which to let go.
- be gracious when someone who is deeply hurt decides it is right for them to leave
MET members are doubtless doing many of the above around the country when they spot the need. In his role as Development Worker, Paul Wilson is offering support, advice and encouragement, and enabling supportive networks to be set up. But more can be done; evangelicals are still feeling isolated and under pressure, so let’s make good use of Paul’s special gifts, and let’s all determine to encourage each other as we continue to serve our Lord and Saviour within the Methodist Church.