Faith and Life Research with Stephen Skuce kiwiconnexion practical theology
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David: Welcome along to Live On Air this evening.
I’m very pleased to be able to have with me the Reverend Dr Stephen Skuce.
Stephen: Yeah, so I’m an Irish Methodist minister and I’m one of those that became a minister
when I was relatively young. I did have a bit of a sort of a job or career before that,
but I try and sort of gloss that over, because I suppose my first job was as what I’d call
a professional gambler, and as a Methodist minister, being a professional gambler isn’t
really a great background. I was a currency trader for a bank. I worked for a bank for
three or four years, but then eventually decided gambling with people’s money wasn’t really
the job for a young Christian. So, I felt God called me into Methodist ministry, and
assumed I would stay in Ireland as a circuit minister, going around the various different
appointments, as you do. During my time training, my wife and I felt called to cross-cultural
service, and eventually – well, we felt called to the Caribbean – nice islands.
Well, indeed with the tragedies of the recent hurricanes, but nice islands, climate and
so on; who wouldn’t feel called to work in Barbados for a few years? Methodist Missionary
Society are one step ahead of people like me, so they appointed me to Sri Lanka. So
we ended up – we spent a few years in circuit in Ireland, then spent four years in Sri Lanka,
and like many people who do that sort of appointment, this is a life-changing experience. So I ended
up, for a part of that appointment in a [1:33] Methodist church, which on a Good Friday service
the building itself will hold about 800 people. There’ll be 800 people there. There’s normally
– you’d have about 1000 people going through the building at the various points of worship
and so on, during a Sunday. Great privilege to be there, and came back, worked in a university
in Ireland as a chaplain for awhile, and like a lot of people who go away from their country
and then come back, it’s hard to settle back. So, I ended up moving with my family to England
– Cliff College, I worked for a number of years – a Methodist Bible College, and for
the last three/four years I have worked for what we call the Connexional Team – the headquarters
staff of the British Methodist Church, with a slightly grandiose title of Director of
Scholarship Research and Innovation. So that’s the role that I currently do.
David: That’s a wonderful title, and we’ll come onto some of your research and what that
entails, and some of your research findings in a minute, but I wonder if we could just
go back to Cliff College, and for our New Zealand folk and others overseas, explain
to us what Cliff College is about. Stephen: Picture your old style late 19th
Century Methodist evangelist who produces an evangelistic newspaper and goes out and
about and gives this out and tries to start conversations with people about their faith,
or indeed from his perspective, their lack of faith. He then trains a small group of
people to help him distribute this newspaper, and lo and behold they start a small college
to train them; Cliff College begins founded by the evangelistic newspaper called Joyful
News. It really begins as a formal college in 1904, and it continues for the next, I
suppose 80 years – 75-80 years for a one year course training young men and women, normally
who come late teens/early 20s, normally with very little educational background. They’re
sort of, if you like, rough diamonds that then get polished at the college, and in many
cases become tremendous servants of God for the rest of their lives, and go into all sorts
of areas across the world. Some of them have ended up in New Zealand,
and they’re evangelists. Whether they’re employed as evangelists, or they’re a school teacher
or a clerk or whatever it is; they’re evangelists. Over the last 25 years, like almost all what
you’d call traditional Bible Colleges, we’ve had to change, and we now have people who
do an undergraduate theology degree, and it’s focussed on mission, but it go quite mainstream,
as well. We’ve got a part-time under-graduate degree in mission and ministry, which is a
sort of youth workers – children’s workers – those that work with older people; outreach
workers will do. Then we’ve got a masters in mission program, and a PhD program.
So, from moving from a Bible College where people came for one year with no educational
background, our biggest program today is our masters, and people do the PhDs. So we are
a little microcosm of the change in what you might call evangelical theological education
in Britain. We’ve moved away, I think unfortunately, but inevitably from being able to accept people
with no educational background to actually needing people to have a decent educational
background. Our college degrees are validated by the University of Manchester; we have to
meet their standards. So that’s the sort of world that we now live in. Previously it was
a simpler age but we all have to – you have to find new ways as circumstances change in
order to serve your present age. David: That’s a good line from a Charles Wesley
hymn, isn’t it; finding a way to serve the present age. That leads on quite naturally
to the fact that you are appointed as a researcher, and presumably that includes theological research,
church growth research, contextual Bible research. Stephen: So, the job I do was sort of a newly
created job. It came partly as a response to – Methodism used to be involved in 10-12
theological colleges in Britain. There were four or five colleges – some quite small,
but one or two larger, that we ran ourselves, and then there were another eight or nine
– seven, eight or nine colleges where we also – some of our people training for ordination
went, and we had tutors/lecturers there. So, about five or so years ago we withdrew from
most of those colleges, including closing two or three of our own colleges, and the
creation of my post was an attempt to – so, we haven’t withdrawn from theological education;
we’ve focussed our training of ministers in one college, and we work with lay people and
those already ordained, doing their masters and so on at Cliff College. So we’ve got two
colleges that we work with, but we need to keep in touch with higher education. We need
to keep in touch with research. So my job was partly to make links with lots
of universities and colleges, and sort of keep Methodism in touch with what’s going
on. The other part of the role is doing research projects that the Methodist Church asks for.
Now, the key is in the Methodist Church asks for; I don’t really have the liberty to just
research that I might on a whim think it would be a good idea if we can do a little bit more
about whatever the subject. So a lot of what I’m asked to do is looking at – it’s missiology
of one sort or another. It’s looking at the impact of church programs, church policies,
church decisions. We’ve had for generations, quite a sophisticated statistics department.
So we would maybe want to say, or others would point to us and say we’re as good as it comes
in the British Church at keeping our statistics – so my colleague, that’s their fulltime role,
and then there’s myself and another colleague who get involved in the – I suppose what you’d
call the church impact in missiological research projects. What we don’t do is do, if you like,
abstract theological sort of research – speculation and discussion. So you’re not going to find
us issuing papers on say Christology in the 21st Century. That’s not my area. We do have
a faith and order department, and our faith and order committee, and they will – in responding
to church needs, they’ll come up with our latest theological thinking. So I think my
research is primarily into the impact of different programs and policies that the church is undertaking.
David: That’s a very helpful response, and it leads me to ask how well is the Methodist
scene – how good – how vibrant is the Methodist scene in Britain? At least off the raw numbers
it appears to have either misplaced or lost some 300-350,000 members in say the last 20-30
years. So, there’s been a very sharp decline. I suspect that’s true of all the older denomination
statistics and what’s happening there. Stephen: To the early 1960s there were approximately
700,000 Methodists. Today, or rather last year – 2016 there were 188,000 Methodists.
So in the last 60 years we’ve lost half a million members. Now, we’re following a similar
trajectory to – well, the United Reform Church which came together from the Presbyterian
and Congregational, to the Church of England, certainly in regards to worshipping communities,
to a lot of their historic, old-fashioned denominations. I mean, whatever spin we want
to put on it, we are Victorian institutions that it’s quite complicated to join, and people
don’t join with as much enthusiasm today. So, we could talk for the next hour about
all the reasons why we’re declining, but in a sense we know a lot of these things. My
main interest is how do we respond to that? What’s the way forward? It’s not simply charting
the decline. What’s the way forward? So, about 10 or so – well, it’s probably 15
years ago, British Methodism brought in a program called Regrouping for Mission. Fifteen
years ago, British Methodism had probably 700 circuits – 600-700 circuits. [11:01] 700
of those. If you have got 1500 ministers, and you’ve got 700 superintendent ministers
– i.e. middle managers, for want of a better word, it’s unlikely, in my opinion, that if
you’ve got 1500 ministers on staff – if you’ve got 1500 staff, are 700 of them going to be
skilled middle managers? Chances are absolutely not. So, one of the challenges Methodism has
had is that we’ve had a few square pegs in round holes; we haven’t necessarily had the
structure that enables the [11:35] of all our colleagues. So, we’ve reduced the number
of circuits significantly, and that is an attempt to create bigger circuits that are
financially self-sustainable, but that have a critical mass of people to do mission.
So it’s not just a response to ministry or staffing. It’s not just a response to the
actual numbers of congregations. It’s trying to find a way in which we can create units
that have the ability to engage in good contemporary mission. Now, in some places we have joined
two or three circuits together. In some places we have joined up to 13 circuits together
to become one. This is complicated; you’ve got different structures come together, leadership
units have got to come together, styles of working have got to come together.
So after a two year research project, the profound insight from our grouping for mission
program is Methodism is a really good organisation – we have regrouped really well; Methodism
is currently really poor on mission – we have made almost no missional impact because of
this change. So the change is a structural change. It’s not denominational tinkering.
It is quite a bit a root and branch change, that has enabled the – I suppose what you’d
say, the institution. It’s given it another 10-20 years of functioning life, but actually
had made virtually no difference. In research [13:22] it’s made no [13:25] difference, and
noticeable difference in the impact of mission for the Methodist Church.
David: I think one of the fascinating things that’s come through answer of yours Stephen,
is the fact that there’s actually a considerable loss of membership, but the church is more
concerned at this stage about how it responds to that. As you said, we could do a lot of
crying over split milk, but you’ve got some answers. You’ve been doing the research. This
is what we’re really interested in. Stephen: Yeah, but I think I would need to
say that; does the church want to know the answers? It would not surprise you if the
Methodist Church had a risk register, and it would not surprise you, if we had a risk
register, that our main risk is failure to make more followers of Jesus Christ. That
imperils the entire future of the Methodist Church. So our main risks are not financial
– are not staffing – are not our church buildings getting a bit old-fashioned looking and so
on. Our real risk is failure to make more followers
of Jesus Christ. So if that’s our chief risk, are we putting the main amount of our resources
and thinking and so on into that? The answer is absolutely not. Now, at a recent conference
at – we were healthily shocked by our statistics, even though our statistics showed exactly
the same rate of decline as in the previous – we do it in three years blocks – as in the
previous three years, and the previous three years before that. So, we have known the problem
for – well, we’ve been declining since the 1960s, and we’ve been declining as percentage
of the population since the 1850s. So we’ve known all about this and we actually aren’t
doing a whole lot about this. So, in our rare little moment of sort of freedom
to act, which I slightly slipped through the bureaucratic system, but let’s not worry about
that – our research project, in one part of England, that was looking at growing Methodist
churches, because there’s currently a bit over 4000 Methodist congregations. The statistics
will show that 2000 of those are declining in sort of every area of life, but it’s a
more nuanced picture in another 2000 of them. For some your membership might be declining,
but actually your Sunday worship might be growing a little bit. In some it’s the other
way round. In a very small number your membership and Sunday attendance are both growing. Whenever
I was a circuit minister in Ireland, we were blessed to be in one circuit where our main
church did have quite a bit of growth. Again, when I worked in Sri Lanka, the denomination
was/is significantly growing there. So perhaps – I’ve had the privilege of being
involved where there’s been growing Methodism and I’m aware that most of my colleagues in
Britain have not had that privilege, and there’s a bit of a lack of confidence. So what I want
to do is tell the story of where there is growing Methodism, and what do we learn? What
principles are found there? So we have this at your screen, which was simply – it’s a
small research projects. This is available online. I chose the North-East of England.
There’ll be – some of our listeners here are perhaps originally from the North-East of
England, or have got some family here, so don’t be insulted by what I’m saying. I’m
from Ireland. It’s pretty miserable. I chose the North-East of England because it doesn’t
have any obvious advantages that means if a Methodist church is growing there, the rest
of Britain kind of discount that. So for example, there are growing Methodist
churches in London. Some of the older stark Methodist churches – Wesley’s Chapel, Westminster
Central Hall – have grown in the last 20 years from tiny congregations of 40 and 50 people
to now 300-400 people on a Sunday but a lot of that story is to do with migration. It’s
not only to do with migration, but a lot of it’s to do with migration into London, from
people from across the world. So, we can to one extent discount that story as relevant
for everywhere. So I wanted to find really ordinary Methodism, and where there was growth.
So anyway, the North-East of England which has got two Methodist districts; there are
a grand total of 293 Methodist congregations there. So, I won’t bore you with all the methodology,
but we ended up – we have a number of indicators of growth.
So it might have been membership has grown in the last three years or the last five years.
It might have been average worship attendance has grown in the last three years or the last
five years. We had about five different indicators of growth, and there were about 100 churches
met at least one of those indicators of growth, but when you crunch your stuff and you looked
at what you’ve got, we ended up with doing case studies on six Methodist congregations.
I’ll just glance back at [18:29] just to remind myself.
I do have one critique of my own work. There’s a big number of small Methodist congregations,
so of the six churches we looked at, one of those churches had eight members – there was
at least another one was the Luther. I’m just trying to find the right numbers. There were
others that were in the – there’s one had over 100 – there was a couple of them were
in the 60s or 70s. If you’re in England today and you’re a Methodist church with 60 or 70
people showing up on a Sunday morning, you’re in a relatively large Methodist church, even
though by other standards this is a small church; 60 or 70 is seen as – that is a thriving
Methodist church. David: That’s incredible.
Stephen: Well, yeah it is. It is. I mean, we’re denominational small churches. So I
think we ended up looking at slightly larger churches than might have been ideal, but anyway
that’s just a small, if you like, academic critique. What we ended up finding was there
were five factors that were found in these growing Methodist churches. Now it is obviously
not as simplistic as if you do these five things your church will grow, but what we
can say with confidence is these five factors were each found in all of the growing Methodist
churches that we looked at. So we can point Methodism in Britain to factors that will
be useful to growth. One of the reasons for doing this project is when you look at church
growth literature, there is lots of factors that are found in growing Methodist churches
– sorry, in growing churches, but some of this is entirely irrelevant to British Methodism.
So, a lot of standard church growth literature talks about longevity of whatever is the senior
leadership, whether that’s an individual or a small group – the longevity. That never
happens in British Methodism. So there’s no point in me pointing people to that. We all
know, and if it was that [20:44] we all know that some of Methodist structures are detrimental
to growth, but there’s no point in me simply regaling about things that I know [20:56]
British Methodism is not going to change. No matter it may be to change, I know that
these are things that will not change in the current generation. So the research might
have pointed to that, but what I didn’t want to do is produce research that was going to
be discounted by most of Methodism. So anyway, we created a project that was lightly defined
factors that were helping ordinary Methodist churches in a fairly ordinary context to grow.
So you don’t need to be in the suburbs with a great big car park beside a major arterial
road and all that sort of stuff. That might be another church growth literature. Our five
factors; the five factors were all very ordinary things. There was nothing – what it didn’t
say you must become conservative evangelical. It didn’t say anything about theological emphasis
at all. I don’t want to say that’s irrelevant in growing Methodism, but it’s not a significant
factor. So, the five factors – I’m trying to put them in the less academic language;
it was being welcoming and hospitable – being responsive to the needs of the wider community.
That’s your social gospel that we’ve been engaged in for – well, since Wesley’s time.
Making available intentional spiritual development opportunities; there are times when you ask
– you challenge people to take a further step in their faith. We are looking for commitment.
This is not your old style walk up to the front and give your life to Christ, but it
is making sure that people on a regular basis are aware that as I journey with Christ – as
I live out my life of discipleship there are moments when I sort of half get out of the
boat and step in the water, and we challenge people – we challenge ourselves to do this
– to live our life closer with Christ than we have before. Participatory and collaborative
leadership; in some Methodist churches the minister does everything – in some Methodist
churches two or three lay-leaders do everything. Neither of those are participatory or collaborative
leadership. Finally and at least as crucial as the others,
actively overcoming barriers to change; where there were problems – where there were challenges,
churches that grew took active steps to address those problems. They didn’t just sit back
and hope the problem went away or resign themselves to, well this is the way it’s always going
to be – it’s never going to change. They took active steps to overcome the barriers to change,
and lo and behold change happened. So that’s – from the North-East of England, those are
five factors that are found in growing British Methodist churches.
Now, whether that is transferrable to say New Zealand – I know from an Irish and Sri
Lankan background, there are different factors in Ireland in the congregation where I was
minister, when we grew I knew there were different factors involved there. Sri Lankan Methodism,
which has grown significantly as a denomination; again different factors that are found there,
and I would imagine for New Zealand there will be a different story, but there are,
if you like, core bits of Methodist DNA found in those factors that most Methodist churches
will think they’re doing, but in reality I’ll say to them, you’re not – you think you are,
but the problem is you’re not. David: Stephen, we’ve got some questions come
through from viewers. Max is asking; in the five factors – are there things that don’t
change? Are there some constants that are helpful for church growths?
Stephen: The five factors are not the only five factors that are found. There isn’t a
progression in them, in that you go through you need – the first two or three are the
ranking in this. It’s not that, and I can say that some are found to a higher degree,
and others to a lesser degree. So I’m not really sure how I am effectively going to
answer this. To me the fundamental thing that came out of it was these are very ordinary.
These are very attainable. There’s nothing – there’s virtually no change a congregation
would think we need to do in order to meet these, because yeah we’re all welcoming. No
church describes itself as, well we are an unwelcoming congregation. Being inclusive
is an absolute key sort of Methodist buzzword. Participatory leadership – things are just
– overcoming change. So we think we’re doing these, but the reality
is we’re not, and I think that – so, one of the risks of these findings are people saying,
well yeah we’re doing that and it’s not working, so therefore. So, my response is to start
to look more closely at each of the five factors with a congregation or with a circuit, and
help them to see; do you actually have participatory leadership – how does it work with those that
are ordained or fulltime lay-workers and lay-leaders – how does that relationship go – is one active
and one passive – is it participatory? In the churches that are growing, this was
found to a high degree; real proverb participatory leadership. So, none of the factors are more
important than any other, I think, and we could have used seven or eight factors, but
those were the five key factors. It’s trying to just help people to look at them more closely
and just ask the hard, critical questions and see, how do we help develop what we’re
doing in order to live out these? They are sort of more principles [27:10] rather than
things we must do. How do we live this out better as church community?
David: Stuart Mannins is asking; is there a progression in the five factors? From the
little that I’ve heard, just while you were talking, they do seem to be inter-related,
but what’s your opinion; does one progress to the next?
Stephen: No. I don’t think they progress to the next, but absolutely they are inter-related,
and [27:43] would use phrases like, it’s a virtuous cycle and they have to inter-relate
to each other. They can’t be stand-alone. So yeah, they do impact each other, but yeah
it’s not get the first two out of the way and then you can move onto the next one, next
one. It’s got to be all sort of – yeah. David: Yeah, I like that idea of the virtuous
cycle, or virtuous circle. I did a little video on that actually a few weeks ago, and
when one comes to understand the ethics and how normalcy can impact on itself if you like,
so the congregation becomes more and more ethical, the more and more ethics that it
practices. The congregation become more and more evangelical, the more and more it practices
being evangelical, and so on. No one thing can operate independently in terms of getting
that circle or cycle effect going. You need a lot of things interacting. Max has asked
about – you’ve mentioned meeting community needs – how do you go about measuring community
needs? Stephen: Well, in the issue of community needs,
this is one of the way in which I think British Methodism is actually quite strong. So, of
those 4000 Methodist chapels, I’m sure at least half of them – and I do mean half of
them, have got one or more community projects that they’re doing to help meet some of the
physical and emotional needs of people in the wider community. So, I live just outside
London, in a town that’s called Basingstoke. I’m looking at the moment at what is one of
the less beautiful Methodist churches in Britain. I don’t want to call it one of the ugliest,
but if there was a prize for it, it would certainly be a runner. This is a 1960s housing
estate, and the church which has got a congregation of about 25 or 30 – it’s quite a changing
congregation, but during – it’s very hard at times to get part of the car park here,
because throughout the day there’s a preschool group that meets sort of eight until five.
Every evening there’s various community groups use the premises. On a Saturday morning there’s
groups who use the premises. It’s in use all the time. So, a little small congregation
helping through facilities meet some of the community needs. It’s very common for our
tiny little Methodist chapels to have coffee mornings – to have mothers and toddlers – to
have food banks; that type of project. As another example; the little Methodist church
which I’m sort of connected with, with again 20 people tops – one of the couples out of
that church are largely responsible for the creation of a homeless shelter in our time,
which has been going for 30 years – meets the needs of probably 25-30 people now, and
this is a major project. Another couple in that church, every first Sunday they put on
a lunch for whoever wants to come, and a number of those are members of the church, and members
of the wider community – often people who are on their own or quite elderly.
They produce your standard good old British Sunday lunch, and people make small donations.
Those donations go largely to help a project in Zambia where it’s the rehabilitation of
prisoners. It’s not a particularly glamorous work; the rehabilitation of prisoners in Zambia.
So, you know, these are tiny little churches where the physical needs, emotional needs
of the wider community are being met from congregations with often 20 old people. So,
British Methodism is quite good at this. I think the answer – how do we measure the community
needs; if we’re not part of the community we won’t be able to measure the community
needs. We are not some sort of abstract body that comes from outside and looks at the local
community and thinks, well what do you need – and we’ll do a community audit and answer
one. If we have to do that, we’re not part of the community.
So, because in most cases we are part of the community, we know what the needs of the community
are, but also one of the challenges for Methodism is, what can we realistically meet? We know
the Gospel compels us to show God’s love to those around us, and at times we want to do
more than we can. So some congregations just have to be more realistic at what they’re
able to achieve, and to focus on one or two areas. One of the growing churches – what
they saw was in their local community, a very disadvantage area in the North-East; the local
Methodist deacon who called with a family that weren’t one part of the church, and realised
that when we went to the door there was no furniture in the home, or basically no furniture
in the home. Why is that? The bailiffs had come the day before. This was coming up to
Christmas; taken everything. There was a family – a mother with two or three children, and
almost nothing in the house. Surely we can do something to help.
So; church members – let’s raise a bit of money – let’s buy a bit of furniture. No;
church members and members of the local community with no connection with the church at all,
making a wider group, and being partners with all this, making wider groups involved in
what we’re trying to do. So that became – instead of just getting a bit of furniture and a Christmas
hamper for that family, it turned out, if I remember the details of the story any way
right, Christmas hampers for 10 families, and then it grew and it grew and it grew.
Then the classic thing starts to happen; people start to say, so why are you doing this?
Now, this is where British Methodism often fails; we are showing God’s love in the wider
community – people are being impacted in a positive way – some of their social needs
are being met – they recognise that the church is – these are good people – these are trying
to help me and those around me – these are good people. What British Methodism in the
last generation or two have been really poor at doing is being able to talk about our faith.
It’s not imposing our faith on others; it’s responding to questions we’ve been poor about.
That’s one of the areas that I’m trying to encourage us – many others are trying to encourage
us to develop. We had a conference report in 1999 – Time to Talk of God; it reminded
us that one of our key problems was we need more confidence to talk about our faith. We
still need a lot more confidence to talk about our faith, and that I think is one of the
challenges that we have – we need to overcome. David: Well, I think that’s a great note to
end on, because it has a challenge to it, Stephen that I think is replicated by findings
in the New Zealand Methodist Church over a number of decades; many in a congregation
are – not necessarily reluctant to share their faith, but not necessarily confident about
doing it. It’s become something that is less obviously well done, compared to say in previous
generations. So, there’s such a lot in what you’ve been saying. I really want to say,
thank you very much indeed, because it’s been a marvellous session, and I wonder if you
would mind at some point in the future if we came back and did some further work with
you, because there’s such a lot of good practical, applicable theology that makes faith in action,
that we could certainly use in discussions in our local congregation.
Stephen: Thank you very much. It’s been my great pleasure to share with you from a bit
of a distance away and this broadcast – it’s an excellent tool to help keep theological
conversations going amongst a group of people, and my privilege to share in this, and look
forward to doing so again if there’s any ever opportunity. Thank you.
Faith and Life Research with Stephen Skuce kiwiconnexion theology 2

Nothing distinctly Christian about the 5 Key Growth Factors. Are these factors primarily results or a primary cause? In my neighborhood in the USA, we have Buddhist temples that have all 5 factors, yet are not Christian. When one immerses oneself in the avalanche of Church Growth literature what is strikingly absent unless in passing, is any mention of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Yet in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is front and center while demographic studies, church growth studies and so on are glaringly absent. Just wondering out loud. Hmnn. Thank you for this!

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