27 February 2002
New forms of church needed in a new missionary era
New and different forms of church are the almost certain outcome of work that Methodism is to do to bring Jesus Christ to communities that have become removed from traditional church life in Britain.
Many people who come to faith through the ministry of evangelists will not readily join a traditional church. Such people are likely to have little basic Christian knowledge, and long-established methods of "calling people back" to join an existing congregation are likely to have little impact on them. As a result, a new model of evangelist is required to deal with a "new missionary era", recommends a report welcomed by the Methodist Council last weekend.
The Church has almost no chance of influencing certain groups who have little contact with many churches, such as the under 40s and people from other faith communities, concludes the report. "It
is increasingly important that we identify, train and support the ministry of those with cross-cultural evangelism gifts to establish new congregations in these communities. These new churches will bear little resemblance to traditional Methodist churches."
The report, penned by the Methodist Secretary for Evangelism and Church Planting, the Rev Graham Horsley, says evangelism - or 'making more followers of Jesus Christ' - is not about confrontation with a stranger, but takes place in "a deepening personal relationship with one or more Christians".
More evangelists are needed to work closely with existing churches as well as helping to establish new ones. Their role will include "personal faith-sharing", "building mission-minded congregations" and "developing specific evangelistic programmes" such as the successful 'Alpha' courses.
The report stresses that evangelism is one of the most urgent priorities facing the Church. It accepts that many churches and individuals "have neither the confidence nor the skills to engage in this process. In its recent history, the Methodist Church has been very effective at demonstrating the love of Christ in practical ways, but much less effective at explaining the source of that love".
"To put it bluntly, the survival of the Methodist Church rests on our ability to persuade people to become followers of Jesus Christ," argues the report.
Evangelists need to be both active themselves as well as encouraging others: "Training others to do what one does not do oneself or being a 'lone ranger' with no interest in encouraging others to share in the evangelistic calling of the whole church should be discouraged." The role of the evangelist needs to be formally recognised, supported and held accountable by the Methodist Church, says the report, which will be considered by the Methodist Conference in July.
If accepted, work will be undertaken to bring the role formally into the Standing Orders of the Church. Methodist districts and circuits are encouraged to recognise and commission individuals - who may be ministers or lay workers - as evangelists using a prescribed commissioning service. In particular, districts that have not yet appointed a District Evangelism Enabler are asked to make such an appointment an urgent priority. Less than half of all districts have such an appointment, while only just over one in ten circuits have appointed a lay worker to evangelistic work.
An evangelist's work will be reviewed every three years and a central register of evangelists will be established. Discernment of someone's vocation as an evangelist will take place through the Church's one-year foundation training scheme. Suitable candidates will then go forward for specific training as lay evangelists as part of a programme being piloted by the Church in the next year.