The Methodist Conference meets from 30th June to 7th July in sunny Southport and the agenda can be downloaded from the Conference website. It’s been years since I was last at Conference; one of the things that has changed is that the size of the agenda has grown from two to three volumes and now weighs in at a mighty 900 pages.
One of the reports that caught my eye is ‘Statistics for Mission’, which presents a wide variety of statistics for the period 2007-2010. The figures make for sober reading: a 10% decline in membership, 12% drop in the community roll and a 5% drop in attendance at worship (which would have been worse were it not for the increased popularity of midweek worship services). Looking back over a slightly longer period we are given the alarming statistic that “The change in total attendance all week between 2004 and 2010 is a drop of 22%”. Over one fifth of our congregations has disappeared in less than a decade!
Of course it is not entirely doom and gloom and the authors of the report are keen to accentuate the positive:
“We are often easily led into believing the statistics the Church collects represent a picture of decline. However, by looking also at measures of church life other than Sunday attendance and formal membership, the hope of the Research team is to show a more rounded picture of church life, and offer a voice of hope.”
So we are told
“In 2010, 133,000 children and young people were involved in Methodist, church-led activities outside of regular worship; 67% of Methodist Circuits reported a regular activity which they considered to be a fresh expression of church; Methodist churches offered worship or fellowship in 41 languages.”
It is the last statistic that I found particularly interesting. 125 churches run or host Methodist worship or fellowship in a language other than English or Welsh, over a quarter of which are in the London District. The most frequently stated languages are Zimbabwean/Shona, followed by French, Korean and Punjabi. Six churches offer worship or fellowship conducted in British Sign Language. I have long been convinced that the Methodist Church has to offer a greater opportunity for people to worship in their mother tongue and our failure to do this in the past has contributed to the loss of Methodists to Pentecostal churches that have been doing this for years.
In addition 165 churches run or host Methodist worship or fellowship “using English or Welsh for ethnically distinct congregations or groups”, a third of which are in the London District. I wasn’t surprised to discover that the three main groups are Ghanaian (33%), Zimbabwean (27%) and Nigerian (22%). Again I am generally supportive of such initiatives, which can undoubtedly be a source of strength and support for their members, and on the basis of the old Church Growth principle that ‘like attracts like’, a source of growth. As long as potential dangers (such as divisiveness) can be overcome – and with careful planning this is possible, the most prominent model being the Ghana Methodist Fellowship, which is explicitly not a separate gathered church but encourages its members to be fully committed to the life of their local congregations.
So, some interesting stuff – and I haven’t got time now to comment on Fresh Expressions or youth and children’s work. The authors are surely right to speak of hope; for these are signs of life, if not yet real growth. Size isn’t everything of course, but if Methodism is to have a continuing existence, future Conference reports will have to demonstrate that such initiatives are starting to have a positive impact in halting decline.