In my lifetime, I have heard all sorts of reasons advanced for the decline of the church, including the Methodist Church. of which I am a part. Television. Sunday sport. Broken families. New atheists. World War One. The Swinging Sixties. Postmodernism.
And it’s largely bunk.
We aren’t being killed by outside forces, we’re doing a pretty good job ourselves. Our story is one of slow motion suicide.
In a blog post on the 100 Movements website, missiologist Alan Hirsch cites Rodney Stark and Roger Finke‘s book ‘The Churching of America‘ regarding what happened in American Methodism. Two factors stopped growth:
- The professionalisation of the clergy in the wake of scorn from established denominations.
- Membership of a class meeting or band (the classic small Methodist groups) became optional.
Both of these are discipleship issues. Ministry was to be conducted by the professionally trained – every-member ministry was undermined. Basic discipleship patterns became optional.
When did this start? The first factor happened in 1850, the seconAnd I’m pretty sure from my church history lectures under the wonderful Peter Williams at Trinity College, Bristol, that the same can be said of British Methodism. He spoke of how ‘Methodism got rid of its wild men’. (I never lived that one down.)
What will it take to reverse these disastrous moves? There are strong vested interests ranged against both. Some ministers like the ‘job description’ that keeps certain things more or less exclusively theirs. Too many church members think appointing a minister means they’ve bought a dog and don’t have to wag their own tail.
And we want to be so welcoming and – yes – inclusive that we’re all for lowering the bar on commitment.
So what do we do? We tinker with the institution. The words ‘deckchairs’ and ‘Titanic’ are rarely far from my mind. We tell good news stories where we can find them, in the hope that we will shout them loudly enough that we can pretend reality isn’t real.
Anything less than a re-engagement with a Wesleyan DNA will mean that we expire with a whimper.