Recent statistics seem to show that the Church as a whole is
loosing members less rapidly – “bottoming out” was the phrase used in the headlines. Well, I suppose it’s just as well or we’d hit the ground with a real thump as the organised Church collapsed. I know statistics can be helpful and challenging, but I’ve never laid too great a store on numbers, whether they were declining or growing. Of course I like to experience full churches and I rejoice when congregations are growing, but I firmly believe that quality is more important than quantity.
I believe it because it’s what I see in the stories of God’s actions in the world, in the Bible and in the history of God’s people. Gideon won his battle with greatly reduced numbers (God wanted 300 not 32,000 men). Isaiah speaks eloquently about the way God’s purposes will be fulfilled in the small remnant of faithful people. Jesus eschews popularity for the sake of calling only those who are really committed and, of course, at the moment of the supreme act of saving love, is alone on the cross with one or two at the most of his followers nearby. The Christian community began with small numbers of faithful people – as did the Methodist movement – and what mattered to both was not how to be popular, but how to be faithful and committed to living in God’s way in their world.
When numbers grow, there can often be a challenge to the quality of the Christian community. On my visit to China at Easter I discovered that, while the Church is growing rapidly, it is presenting a major problem because of the lack of well trained pastors and large numbers of new Christians with a lack of real understanding of what it means to follow Christ. Many of these new Christians have joined the Church because prayers have been answered by the healing of a loved one. While this is surely a more Gospel-orientated way into the Church than presenting them with the fear of hell-fire, there is the danger that they will fall by the wayside as the going gets tougher. Many of those who followed Jesus because he healed their sick deserted when the way began to get dangerous.
This is why I want to emphasise the vital need for the Church to support members of the Christian community in their discipleship. This is where the quality will count. For too long churches have lived as if people automatically grow in their faith and life of discipleship without putting much effort in. It’s no wonder the Church is thought to be irrelevant in western Europe – in many places it has become irrelevant because no-one actively expresses their discipleship in ways that others can see. What is needed is a Christian community committed to following the way of Christ in today’s world. What we have been doing is trying to build a well equipped Church organisation, and that is a very different animal. The focus of Christ’s ministry was God’s kingdom. Because of this he became unpopular with the religious leaders of his day. They saw him dismantling the carefully preserved structures of their religion, while he saw those structures as often preventing the experience of God’s rule. With Christ, the outcasts were welcomed as they were, no longer excluded until they fitted the pattern required by the religious structures.
We need to learn from this pattern of ministry in contemporary Britain. What I mean is that we are doomed to failure if all we concentrate on is how to enable the Church to survive. We have been too inward looking for ages. How many reports to Conference have been about restructuring of one sort or another as opposed to reports about living in God’s world? I know it is important to develop new ways of working, but unless their purpose is clearly and openly to enable the Church and members of the Christian community to engage with the issues of living in today’s world, we are wasting our time. I want to concentrate on what is done in the local circuit in its context.
For me the prime need is to develop ways of supporting people in their everyday discipleship. Offering pious platitudes from the pulpit is not enough, what is needed is encouragement in the hard graft of daily compromise and the challenge which the contemporary world presents to ethical and moral decisions. How do you express the love of Christ in your work situation? What is the Christ-like response in your life to genetic engineering or global warming? If we are called to express the reality of God’s rule in the world, these are the kinds of challenges we must meet – and there is no easy black and white answer. We must find a way of encouraging each other in the struggle of discipleship where what is right for one person or in one situation may not be so for another. My own belief is that we have to produce the same kind of support and challenge as was present in early Methodist class meetings. I don’t want to go back to the way things were, but the principles of engaging with Scripture, developing a relationship with the risen Christ through personal and corporate devotion and being accountable to one another for the expression of the Christian way in daily life have to be present in the Church today.
This is best achieved by enabling small groups to develop where love and trust become the basis of challenging and supportive relationships, where confidences can be shared, failures forgiven and realistic aims agreed. Such groups don’t have to be bound by denominational boundaries or even the boundaries of the Church. God’s call is not just to “religious” people. The Church as we know it, in its Methodist and other guises, may well not last more than another generation, but God’s kingdom will not fail and those who are committed to the Way of Christ will never fail. It’s the quality of our discipleship that will count, whatever happens to our structures.
The Revd Graham Carter is president of the Methodist Conference 2006-7 and Chair of the Darlington District
Headline Winter 2006/7 pp9-10