Opening address by Carolyn Lawrence, Vice President, Methodist Church in Britain at the virtual Nigerian Methodists Chaplaincy’s 6th AGM/Conference on Saturday, 1st August, 2020
Greetings! : I’ve visited several African nations but sadly never yet been to Nigeria. Always feel at home on African soil. Spent a few years worshipping in the Pentecostal church, where I was baptised and filled with the Holy Spirit and feel most comfortable with worship in an African context – often a bit stiff and starchy in the UK! Particular interest in Nigeria and hope that one day I can visit some of the Nigerian fellowship groups and meet you in real life.
I’m going to spend a few minutes explaining how I got to this point and sharing some of my hopes and dreams for the coming year and for the Methodist Church.
How I got here: Methodist Conference 2019 – working with GR – job to help look after our overseas guests and to coordinate the Global Relationships Fringe event. Little did I know that by the end of the week I’d have been elected as the next Vice President of Conference!
Not something for which I was searching or pushing, but have increasingly felt that it was a call God had laid on my heart over the past couple of years. I had told God that I was willing to serve in this way if by doing so it would bring glory to Jesus.
The thought of offering for VP again hadn’t occurred to me but Mark and I agreed that whilst I wouldn’t push myself forward, if someone asked me to stand again I would take that as a sign from God and test the call. As it turned out, at least 10 different people asked me if I would stand again so about 4 hours before the deadline for nominations, my form went in the box and the rest is history!
I couldn’t believe that God had chosen me for this awesome and wonderful task, especially now as we face such uncertain and challenging times in our church, in the nation and the world at large.
However, it seems that God must have a plan in this for me and the church so it is with a sense of excitement and terror that I now find myself preparing for what lies ahead. Like Esther, I believe that God has called me to this task ‘for such a time as this’ and will be relying on the prayerful support of others as I prepare to be obedient to whatever God calls me to say and do.
Hopes and dreams for the year ahead: The title for our year is from some of Wesley’s last words, ‘The best of all, God is with us.’
During our year of office Richard and I want to look at growth – both personal growth in discipleship and also church growth – some things we planned will necessarily be very different now but the theme is still timely and quite prophetic as we learn how to be church in a different way and seek to encourage people in all their fears, uncertainties and as they build resilience in their walk with Jesus.
The verses that I believe God gave to me for this year are – Isaiah 43 vs 18,19
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
Little did I realise just how prophetic those words would turn out to be as we all seek to do new things and find new ways of being the church of Jesus Christ in our communities!
I had the privilege of visiting Brazil before the lockdown where the church is growing at an amazing rate, as I know it is in many African nations, and hope to share some of the key principles of growth that I learned from the Methodist Church in Brazil. I want to encourage churches here that growth is possible and that God still has a good plan for the Methodist Church in Britain.
Liverpool Resolutions: Part of the reason for this theme of growth, is inspired by the fact that 2020 marks the 200th anniversary of the resolutions made by the Methodist Conference in Liverpool in 1820.
Liverpool Conference of 1820 – unprecedented situation that Methodist membership was in sharp decline. Previous year had recorded a loss of 4,688 members.
What was to be done? Enshrined in the minutes of that conference was a set of resolutions on pastoral work as it was seen as being vital for the health and holiness of the church.
As a result of these resolutions – next three years – remarkable turnaround that would eventually lead to the tripling of the movement in numbers over the following eighty years.
These resolutions give us a wonderful example of how a declining church can turn around and begin to grow, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The full resolutions can be found in CPD volume 1 – I have seen many of these resolutions reflected in the strategy of the Brazilian Methodist Church and also some of them are going to be reflected in the God for All and Methodist Way of Life projects launched this year.
The resolutions can be grouped into seven main headings:
RENEW THE PREACHERS – focus on saving souls and shepherding the flock. to be paramount
RENEW THE PREACHING – The preachers committed to renewing their preaching. The content of their preaching would be refocused on the vital doctrines of the Christian faith. The method of their preaching would be evangelistic, experiential (practical), and zealous.
They would strive for clarity and simplicity while applying the doctrines of faith to people’s lives. When visitors were present, they would pointedly and passionately offer an invitation to receive Christ.
The practice of Field Preaching was reclaimed. Wesley had started out in the highways and the hedges and called his preachers to proclaim the Gospel outdoors twice a day wherever a crowd of twenty or more people could be gathered. Maybe today we’d have to socially distance for a while but maybe outdoor preaching is the way to go!
Wesley had called those who wanted to keep the meetings indoors “lazy Methodists.”
PRAYER AND FASTING – A special day of prayer and fasting was called across British Methodism for a reversal of the decline and the renewal of the movement. The preachers recommitted to leading quarterly days of prayer and fasting, prayer meetings and Watch Nights (all night prayer events).
NEW PLACES FOR NEW FACES – Extension of the work was to be the job of every preacher. They were not only to tend their circuits, but they were to rebrand themselves as Home Missionaries and begin ministries in new places.
Capable lay leaders of the more established circuits were to be employed in preaching in rural locations. New classes were to be started in neighbourhoods as a strategy for involving new leaders and reaching new people. Prayer meetings, likewise, were to be held in homes of various neighbourhoods as a sort of nursery to develop new societies and leaders.
RECOMMITTMENT TO CHILDREN AND YOUTH
“Let us at least in every large town establish weekly meetings for the children of our friends according to our ancient custom and let us pay particular spiritual attention in public and private to the young people of our Societies and Congregations.”
Wesley had insisted that each preacher be personally involved in the ministry of teaching children. In light of the decline recorded in 1820, the Liverpool Conference commissioned a new catechism to be used with young people. The training of the rising generation would no longer be neglected.
CULTIVATE THE EXISTING MEMBERSHIP SPIRITUALLY – The preachers recommitted to visiting the sick, the “careless”, and the lukewarm. Class leaders were to recommit to visiting the members in their care weekly and enquire personally about the spiritual state of each. This would free the preachers up to visit those who had gone AWOL. During pastoral visits, families were to be encouraged to practice private spiritual disciplines. The public spiritual disciplines of worship, Sabbath-keeping, and Holy Communion were to likewise be publicly encouraged.
RENEWAL OF TEACHING – They pledged to avoid small-minded arguments over theological minutiae. There was a “spirit of strife and debate” that had crept in and the 1820 conference was committed to driving this out.
Administrative sloppiness was corrected, especially as it related to organizing the spiritual care of the people. There was a renewed effort to make meetings “interesting and appropriate to… the state of the people.” The need was recognized for high-quality, relevant, and practical instruction.
CONCLUSION – At the subsequent conference in 1821 and 1822, the preachers revisited and reaffirmed the plan that had led to a numerical turnaround.
The first-ever Methodist turnaround strategy was an unqualified success. The movement tripled in numbers over the next eighty years and proved it could continue without the direct leadership of its founder. Of course, decline eventually did come to the British Methodists and has continued since the dawn of the 20th Century.
John Wesley claimed to not fear the eventual disappearance of the Methodists. He preferred this to their continuation as a lifeless institution:
‘I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.’
I hope that during my year of office I will have the opportunity to encourage people in their discipleship especially as we navigate these uncharted waters and maybe to challenge some of the things that have hindered spiritual growth and maturity individually and as churches.
I have a real passion for reaching out to those who don’t yet know Jesus and also, as a teacher, to help people grow and develop in their faith through finding freedom in Christ from all the baggage of the past, through prayer, study of the bible and through being constantly filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
I pray that over the coming years there will be people who come to know Jesus for the first time, people renewed and encouraged in their faith, people receiving healing and wholeness and being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit so that they become disciple making disciples. I also long to see individuals who have been transformed by Jesus, going on to transform their communities, villages, towns and cities and even the world!
I also have a heart for the Global church and love engaging with our sisters and brothers around the world and learning from their cultures and expressions of faith as well as their unswerving reliance on God and his word – I would love to encourage churches to see the broader picture of the global church and to share some of the amazing stories from my time in Brazil.
I know that there are many of our partners in the Methodist Church around the world who must be looking at the church in Britain in despair and I really believe that we need the input of our global church partners now more than ever. We have so much to learn from our brothers and sisters from churches that are growing and flourishing – such as Nigeria.
We recognize afresh that the church belongs to Jesus who said, ‘I will build my church’ – thank God that it doesn’t just depend on us pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and trying harder!
As Esther pleaded with those she knew to stand with her in prayer and fasting, I implore those of you who have the gift of intercession to stand with Richard and Sue and myself and Mark and cover us in prayer over the coming months especially as we navigate our way through new ways of conducting the presidency and new ways of being church for the glory of Jesus and the extension of his kingdom here on earth.