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The Challenge of Change

By Mark Meatcher.

Working as a minister is challenging enough, but when the context in which you are working is one of decline and the church appears to be unhealthy, the task would appear, at first sight, to be made more difficult.

On my journey to ordination as a minister within the United Reformed Church (in recent years statistically one of the faster declining denominations in the United Kingdom), I had the privilege of visiting many churches. I realised very early on that there was a mentality within a lot of the churches that was focussed on trying to keep their particular church from closing, or trying to ensure that the way that they (whoever ‘they’ happened to be!) did things should be maintained, as it was, for ever and ever, Amen…

It would have been very easy, early on in this journey, and soon after in my subsequent ministry as an URC minister, to be extremely discouraged by this response, and others like it, that have been encountered. For example, in our denomination when invited to preach at another church, you are often sent a letter explaining the normal form of service that is followed by the church, together with a very friendly letter (or e-mail these days) advising that you, the leader of worship, should feel free to change that church’s standard order of service in any way you would like to. In practice, however, if you actually do change anything you are asking for trouble…! Why is that? In many churches there is a reluctance to do anything different from what has always been done, or what appears to have been always done.

However, such a comment indicating a negative approach does not give the whole picture. The fact of the matter is that, in the majority of our churches, people have given their lives, and in many cases a lot of their long lives, to faithfully worshipping in those churches, to supporting those churches financially, and in various other practical ways. What has happened is that they have simply run out of the energy and ability to be able to do much else other than attend worship on a Sunday morning.

Sadly, enthusiasm for change has been crushed in many places a long time ago, whether by dominant leadership informing somebody that they couldn’t do something, or a controlling personality in the local church doing everything and not allowing others to act, or by a whole host of other reasons.

Although enthusiasm may have fallen to a low level in a lot of churches, there does remain a cry from the hearts of the people for someone to come and help them, for someone to be able to give time to support what they genuinely perceive to be the work of God in the area they live in, or seek to serve. While this can often be seen to be a cry for help simply to carry on Sunday services in the way in which they are ‘done’ at the moment, that cry is still there. Even if it is a cry for help, rather than change, it is a cry that should be heard and responded to.

Much of my work in the past twelve months has been concerned with trying to encourage the people within the churches I serve, and within the wider church, to share their own stories and, in particular, to encourage others to share stories of where growth has occurred within the church. In sharing stories, I have hoped to help enthuse people to begin to look again to God for strength, support and encouragement, rather than become focussed on decline and demoralising statistics.

What has been learned over this period and what can be shared that may encourage others?

The congregations are often in a different place from the community around them.

In my own churches, it is a struggle to help the congregation to engage with the community around them. We have a generation gap that is developing, such that the people that are regularly, faithfully, attending worship are nearly all retired, while the community in the surrounding area is still very mixed age-wise. Because there are very few members within the churches aged under 60, this means that, when families come into the church, there is a cultural clash that has to be overcome before any meaningful dialogue can be had.

We are working at meeting people where they are, rather than expecting them to be faithful worshippers on the first occasion they enter the church building. This is frustrating and difficult for a lot of our older members to cope with, but some of them are trying to learn how to communicate with new, younger people.

There is still a desire in people to look for ‘God’.

The number of people who have approached me to ask for infant baptism in the last couple of years has increased significantly. I believe that there is still some kind of wish, or desire, within the population to connect with ‘God’. How the population actually perceives God is difficult to work out. However, it is clear that there is an acknowledgement that somewhere ‘out there’ there is something, or someone, bigger than them, wiser than them, and that somehow they need to recognise the presence of that something.

People have questions that they want answered

One of the most useful things that we have done in one of the churches I serve, is to create a time and a place where people can ask questions. We have not pretended to know the answers, but have merely invited people who have questions to come along and ask them, to make space for all those present to talk about them and to try and work through what the answers may or may not be. Perhaps the church has for too long tried to tell people what they have to believe, rather than given them the space and the freedom to receive revelation directly from God about what they need to believe, and how they need to live.

Acknowledging that we are all different, that we have different needs, and appreciate different things, and that we learn in different ways, is something we have struggled with. Our congregations, in the main, grew up in an age where they were lectured to from the front as to what they had to believe, whereas the world today is much more accustomed to more interactive ways of learning.

As a result, when trying to lead a church, there is often a clash between what the congregation has grown up with and is familiar with; and what people within the local community assume to be the norm. Television, film, the internet - all these things have changed our expectations about life. All have brought with them more knowledge, but that knowledge does not necessarily bring with it the wisdom and understanding that many within the world are looking for. There remains a gap to be filled, the gap that exists within us all until we find God, or perhaps more accurately God finds us, and it is in finding the ways and means to help fill that gap that the church needs to be committed.

These are simply a couple of observations about working, in general, with an ageing Christian community in a denomination that is struggling to survive in many ways, but where, even there, new life and inspiration can be found. Nevertheless, the challenge of change, or the challenge to change, remains.

As has more recently been stated in the Church of England report ‘From anecdote to evidence’ []:

“Just as willingness to change and adapt was associated with growth, the survey findings point to evidence that unwillingness to change by congregations leads to decline.”

All of us find change difficult, but some people are able to adapt quicker than others. The challenge for the church of today, and the challenge that will be there for the church of tomorrow, remains what it probably always has been – namely to stay in touch, or to get in touch, with the people that it says that it wants to lead to Christ.

May God grant us the ability to do that.

Mark Meatcher

Minister of Christchurch United Reformed Church

Ministry Today

You are reading The Challenge of Change by Mark Meatcher, part of Issue 60 of Ministry Today, published in April 2014.

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