At a recent gathering of the Guild at Sidmouth I gave the background and motivation behind the project that I am involved in that town. I am now six months into a two year project engaging with the wider community and finding opportunities for faith exploration. Part of the motivation came from statistics available to us all. In recent years the membership of the Methodist Church nationally has dropped, from 2006 – 2019 it has declined from 263,000 to 169,000. That is a drop of 94,000 people in 13 years, and sadly that trend continues at a pace. When assessing the situation within this circuit there are some churches that are bucking the trend but the majority mimic the national statistic.

Now you might not think that change is needed, and we just need to do what we are doing better, but the goal posts have moved and the community has disengaged from traditional church. It is not dissimilar to the youth culture explosion of the 60’s that broke free of the shackles of expectation from parents and their peers that preceded them. So the language, music and influences of the youth sub-culture is different from the parents who brought them up. No longer do you need to follow in your parents steps with regards to job, politics and religion. Instead the youth are free to think for themselves and make their own mistakes. Sadly the sub-culture of the church has remained in a time vacuum that no longer connects to the generations below our own.

If we assume that we have something to offer the younger generations but retain the language and trappings of the established church then our words and actions will not be heard. I recall a project that I was involved in whilst at college. Three of us were tasked in going into the local high school and ministering to the year 11 group. Now please note this was inner city Birmingham with a diverse cultural background and boys that were full of testosterone. It was not an easy place to be but I loved it. The rule was that we didn’t instigate a faith conversation at any time. Every week we would sit in their physics lesson and just be. Once they had got past the fact that we were not assessing them, conversations started, including faith conversations and some of them deep. First though they had to accept us, trust us and welcome us on their terms. At the end of the year I was sad when it concluded. My only agenda in the classroom was to listen, to leave aside my preconceived ideas and quick answers to standard questions. The young people dictated the agenda, questions and relationship, and as a result we all grew from the experience.

This can cause a problem and may be perceived as a precursor to radical change. However I distinctly remember sitting in a chapel in North Yorkshire on an away day when the then principle of Cliff College Martyn Atkins was leading a session. He talked about parallel church. This is the understanding that rather than starting a revolution within the established church to bring about change it is better to start a new church in parallel to the existing and allow the established church to evolve over a period of time. That is my intention within Sidmouth.

So my time is spent instigating opportunities for faith exploration in a language and environment outside of the church. This type of work is not a quick fix but rewarding all the same. Over the next few months there will be a series of “pop-up” churches within the community. I am facilitating Sidmouth Bread Church that commences at the end of April, but we also have a Forest Church and a Beach Labyrinth planned as well. If any of those trials have traction then we will extend their life. Equally if they have merit in Exeter then I will happily port them across, whatever happens I will keep you posted.