Big Society, growth and a friendly welcome are hot topics for Methodists

It was a busy week for the Methodist Church this week as it met in Southport for its annual Conference.

Proceedings came to a close on Thursday after five days of discussions and debates that looked at how to be a more welcoming Church and what the Big Society means for Methodists.

In his inaugural address to the Methodist Conference, the Church’s new President the Rev Lionel Osborn challenged the assumption that the Methodist Church was welcoming.

He spoke of the need for churches to develop pastoral relationships that went deeper than a 30 second chat with churchgoers as they walked out the door after service.

“The number of times I’ve heard people say ‘we’re a welcoming church’ and the number of times I’ve wanted to ask ‘Who told you that?’. For the aspiration and the reality may be two different things,” he said.

“A relationship that does not have a pastoral element to it is hardly worthy of the name.”

Mr Osborn said that churches could build relationships with their community in small as well as big ways, as he spoke warmly of churches that have welcoming teams ready to greet newcomers and praised a neighbouring Anglican church that decided to keep its doors open every day.

“Whilst I am concerned about what is happening at the front door of the church, I’m equally concerned about what is happening at the back door: those who slip away due to our pastoral neglect or remain but feel disappointed or uncared for," he said.

General Secretary the Rev Dr Martyn Atkins took an honest look at the challenges facing the Methodist Church as it seeks to grow.

He spoke of the need for change, including to the physical make-up of the Church, if it is to fulfil its calling in contemporary society.

“We unquestionably have too many church buildings: too many in the wrong places, too many unfit to sustain our life as a discipleship movement shaped for mission today," he said.

“We too readily associate the sustaining of the life of our chapels with the work of God’s kingdom – these often overlap but they’re not the same thing.

“A more sacrificial, strategic approach is needed. Our churches must not exist simply to perpetuate the status quo, but to provide a place where people can come to faith and be nurtured in their journey with Christ.”

Later in the week, Conference expressed serious reservations about the Government’s Big Society initiatives but ultimately concluded that churches should not walk away from the opportunity to serve their communities.

“We are already seeing the impact of spending cuts on local charities, hitting the lives of the most vulnerable and making the changes promised by the Big Society harder to deliver," said Rachel Lampard, Public Issues Policy Adviser.

"Even if the emphasis on local decision-making and volunteering isn’t a cynical cover for spending cuts it certainly makes the 'new austerity' politically possible.”

She went on to warn that the Big Society could end up reinforcing existing fault lines between wealthier and poorer communities.

“Not everyone will be able to join in the Big Society and benefit from its opportunities to the same degree,” she said.

“Communities that lack resilience, confidence, practical and inner resources will be less able to participate, and may end up in competition with more articulate and powerful communities.

“The Big Society will look very different in Kensington and Chelsea than it will in Kensington, Liverpool.”

In spite of these concerns, Ms Lampard advised against disengagement.

“Methodists don’t walk away because things get difficult. We are called to continue engaging, identifying who needs us and who we can work alongside.

"We are called to live out our faithful, long-term commitment to others. This has to be part of our mission as active followers of Jesus Christ.”