What can we learn about congregational revitalization, Fresh Expressions, and evangelism from the Methodist Church in Britain? Lewis Center Director F. Douglas Powe Jr. interviews Trey Hall, a Methodist pioneer, church planting strategist, and evangelist.
Douglas Powe: Can you share a bit about your professional journey and how a child of the American South ended up serving in Britain?
Trey Hall: I’m in Britain, but I still say “y’all.” I’m trying to convince all the British Methodists that y’all is the most inclusive way of referring to the people of God. I’m a child of the South. I grew up in Memphis and then went to seminary at Candler, in Atlanta. My home conference is the Northern Illinois Conference where I served for 15 years as a pastor of a suburban church, as a pastor of a city church, and then helped start a new multi-site church in Chicago. So, most of my ministry in the States was as a church planter.
Right after seminary, I had an internship with the British Methodist Church serving a circuit in British Methodism. I fell in love with a Brit. We moved back to the States in our 20s. But after 15 years, it was time for me to follow my spouse, so we moved back to Britain. I started coaching “pioneers” which is the term in Britain for church planters. And then I worked a few years for a British Methodist district, which is sort of like a conference in United Methodism, helping them think about church planting, pioneering, and evangelism. And then about four years ago, when the Methodist Church in Britain started a new emphasis on evangelism and growth, I was stationed or appointed to that role.
Douglas Powe: Can you share a little bit about the British context and the similarities and differences you see with the U.S.?
Trey Hall: There are lots and lots of cultural differences between Britain and the U.S., and some of those things sort of sit underneath the surface. There’s the phrase “being separated by a common language.” American English is different from British English, but there are loads of cultural differences, like there would be between any countries. In terms of its relationship to church, to Christendom, to organized religion, Britain, like much of Western Europe, is several decades ahead of the U.S. The trends seem to be the same. In the U.K.:
- 51 percent of folks identify with Christianity, which is down from 60 percent 10 years ago,
- 38 percent identify as having no religion, which is up from 32 percent 10 years ago, and
- 53 percent of those in their twenties identify as having no religion.
So, that gives you a sense of the British public and how they identify in terms of religious affiliation.
With the folks who identify as Christian, 51 percent sounds like a lot in the British context. In American context, the number would probably be much higher. In Britain, within that 51 percent, only a third marked “Christian” because they believe in the teachings of Christianity. Others marked the “Christian” box because they were baptized Christian as a baby or because Great Britain is a Christian country. As in the U.S., there is a cultural Christianity, but that has waned quite a bit here. That’s the trend line of U.K. Christendom.
Now one of the things we are seeing here and in the States is that, though those religious affiliation numbers are going down, there is a marked interest in spirituality among the younger and rising generations. There is an interest in the paranormal and talking about being spiritual but not religious or another kind of spiritual phenomenon. There’s an interest that is higher in the rising and younger generations than in the previous generations. So, as religious affiliation declines, spiritual interest seems to be increasing.
Douglas Powe: Given that religious affiliation is declining, how is the Methodist Church in Britain dealing with the challenge of connecting with people? How do you balance decline and engaging new people?
Trey Hall: We do this in a number of very different ways. The Methodist Church in Britain is different in its relationship to British culture than the United Methodist Church relationship is to U.S. culture. Here the dominant church is the Church of England, the Anglican Church. When I was in the States, the United Methodist Church was one of the larger Protestant denominations. My Episcopalian colleagues had a beautiful tradition but were, in terms of numerical adherents, much smaller. Here the Church of England is the main church and understandably as the Church of England and because of how Britain’s constitution works — to the extent there is a constitution — their church and state are ostensibly joined. So, here Methodists are a free church — a free church or a dissenting church or a nonconformist church. Now within Methodism there are loads of different strands, as it is in Methodism across the world, but Methodism occupies a much smaller footprint. A few years ago, the Methodist Church began paying more attention to these numbers that we were describing and realized that there was not one solution or one way of more fully engaging these trends.
How have we done it? We’re trying to help established churches get really clear about what their context is, what their mission is, how to engage in their communities and make friends with people they haven’t made friends with before and to help established, more traditional churches stabilize and renew themselves by God’s grace and find stability. We are also talking about new forms of church, church planting, pioneering, Fresh Expressions, and all the different ways of being church or being religious community that may or may not call itself church.
A term that we use to talk about our reality is “mixed ecology,” which I think was first used by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Much more than the Church, we human beings are a mixed ecology. Organizations are a mixed ecology. That is a way also of talking about the Church’s mission and ministry. The Church has hopefully always been a mixed ecology and has served God and glorified God and served God’s people and reached out to the world in really different ways. But in the state that we find ourselves now with the numbers that we just described, there’s a greater need for that mixed ecology approach, one that is really life-giving, creative, and energy inspiring. It is critically important for ministers, missionaries, lay and ordained folks, people across the theological spectrum and across the ecclesial spectrum to know that their gifts are needed and valued and can be engaged and deployed in all these different horizons and kinds of groups. The reality is that one size has probably never fit all. It certainly doesn’t fit all now, and that’s a beautiful thing. The Methodists are trying to live in that mixed ecology space. In the past two or three years, we’ve made a concerted effort to “norm” mixed ecology.
Douglas Powe: Established churches in Great Britain are much older than established churches here. How do you work with established congregations to talk about how their context is ever changing? How do you help individuals who have firmly been planted for a number of years start thinking differently about what it will mean if they want to continue to be vital moving forward?
Trey Hall: Do our Christian communities that inhabit buildings in particular places know and love the communities of which they’re part? In order to do this, we start with prayer and prayer walking or prayer in community. This is basic and foundational, but sometimes we avoid it or just don’t pay attention to it. How do churches consciously spend time in their communities? We encourage people to do prayer walks, to knock doors, to introduce themselves not as people who have all the answers but as people who want to learn about what their neighbors are anxious about or worried about or need prayer for, in order to build relationships. What do Christians notice as they as they walk their neighborhoods?
There’s a woman in a little village not too far from here, and she has made friends as she’s walked every morning at 6:30. And the little village church that she’s part of has grown over the past two or three years. A number of those folks are people who have come because of my friend’s walking the village. Now the prayerful walking doesn’t always lead to church growth, but it does lead to an understanding of the context. Congregations must know their context, and there are loads of different ways to do that.
Another thing is to think about Christianity as first language and Christianity as second language. For those of us who have been part of the Church for a long time and maybe been born, baptized, and raised in the Church, Christianity is our first language. We know the concepts and the language, and we can play with different idioms and the thought world with flexibility and ease. For people who are in that 51 percent who’ve had no contact with organized religion or Christianity, Christianity will not be their first language. If they are to become people who explore grace and eventually become Christian, they will learn Christianity as a second language. The established Church, who loves the expression of Christianity as the first language, has to learn to be at least a translator and maybe learn a new language. Learning or teaching a second language is tough. If we are to take the words and concepts that we love and know like our breathing (grace, salvation, transformation, communion, eucharist, all the language of faith), can we translate that language into a vernacular? Are we skilled? Can we “skill up” to be able to do that translation more regularly?
The second thing in terms of that second language is being able to talk about our own spiritual experience and give testimony to our experience of God. What does it feel like to be undergoing the living God? That kind of question, that testimony, is not only one that is offered to people who are not Christian and who may be exploring grace but a way of receiving from people who are living in the community who may be exploring grace, exploring Christianity, or not.
I mentioned earlier the increase in spiritual interest among people generally in the U.K. at least and the U.S., too. We can ask people to talk about their spiritual lives, even those who aren’t in our religious group. One of my colleagues on the Evangelism and Growth team in the Methodist Church asks people, “Tell me about something spiritual that’s happened to you lately.” And people have an answer to that. Now, some of those answers are ones that might feel naturally really beautiful to us; some of them might feel really fringe to us or sort of extraordinary. But loads of people are happy to talk about their spiritual experiences.
Can established churches go into that sort of language play around religious concepts and spiritual experience? To the extent that established and committed Christians are willing to go into that “relanguaging” and that language school, we will be better at offering Christ to people who haven’t experienced Christ yet or have not been part of the Church, and we may receive Christ in ways we didn’t expect from people who are living in our neighborhoods who are not part of our religious group.
Douglas Powe: I appreciate thinking about the first and second language because I think you’re right on target. And here in the U.S., we need to start thinking in that same manner. We have taken it for granted that everybody knows the Christian language, but that certainly is not true today in ways that it was at one point in time.
Fresh Expressions are ways to create faith communities that may look more like traditional churches but also don’t look like traditional churches. They are expressed in various forms and fashion. How are you working to create these Fresh Expressions of faith communities? And who do you find to start these communities?
Trey Hall: The Fresh Expressions movement started here in England as an ecumenical project by the Church of England (C of E) and the Methodist Church. It’s wonderful to see it coming into its own in the U.S. context in different ways. Fresh Expressions are communities of Christianity, communities of spiritual exploration, designed particularly by and for people who are unaffiliated, people who are not currently part of the Church. Fresh Expressions often refer to a really, really small micro church or micro experiment, which is beautiful. A Fresh Expression might be a really big worshipping community, a really small micro church, or a social enterprise that has a discipleship pathway built in. In the British Methodist Church, we started using the language of new places for new people to describe that broad spectrum. For Methodists, this broader term holds all these different kinds of experiments and modalities for creating new faith community, new spiritual community, for people who are unaffiliated across the spectrum.
We are looking for people with a love for people who are not part of Church, a natural connection to folks who are not part of Church to start new places for new people. People who enjoy talking about big deep spiritual issues. People who go where people are living their lives and are more interested in making community and space where they are living their lives as opposed to trying to get them to come to a place where religious people are living their lives. People who are happy in spaces beyond church buildings and are willing to even think about church beyond the church building permanently. People who like starting new things. People who are really interested in moving beyond the one-on-one relationship at the beginning. We need people who can move beyond the one-on-one sort of pastor/pastoral/chaplaincy kind of relationship into creating community around a big idea, around a spiritual process.
In the British Methodist Church, unlike in the United Methodist Church, most of the pioneers are lay folks. There are some ordained ministers who are pioneers, and we want to see more ordained ministers who are pioneers, but it started mostly as a lay movement.
Douglas Powe: Going back to Wesleyan roots.
Trey Hall: Going back to our Wesleyan roots. There’s a gift in that, and there’s a joy in that. There’s a challenge in that, too, sometimes around the recognition of the ministry. Even in the British Methodist Church with rich DNA of a lay movement, we have times where clericalism overrides what the Spirit’s doing in lay leadership even though we guard against it. Lay folks are reminding us of what the Church of the past has been like and what the Church of the future can be like if we all work together. Lay folks are also reminding ordained folks what their ministry should be more like more of the time.
Douglas Powe: Look into your spiritual crystal ball and think where you would like to see the Methodist Church of Britain move about 10 years from now. Where do you think it will be 10 years from now?
Trey Hall: I would love to see a church that commits to evangelism as a core part of our discipleship, that it’s not something for only a particular theological orientation but something that we all are committed to. In the British Methodist Church, we say everybody is an evangelist. I hope we lean into that. We are all called to be evangelists across the diversity of the human spectrum, and this can release thousands and thousands of committed Methodists to be evangelists.
As we live into our commitment to be evangelists, I hope we will expect to be evangelized alongside the people that we are engaging. Sometimes God evangelizes us in the process of being in evangelism. Sometimes the folks that we go out to evangelize will evangelize us so in that mutuality, that reciprocity, we expect God’s goodness. We expect to hear God’s goodness from others as much as we expect to speak it to others, and that we all live that out together. Mutuality is so crucial.
I would love to see churches established and new places for new people be really, really committed to developing one-on-one relationships in their community and making that a core practice of discipleship — going out routinely, turning over every stone, asking people for coffee, building that kind of relationship into their discipleship. I would love to see church planting and pioneering become a top priority for every district’s mission strategy, that it would be not only a sort of an optional extra but would be what we do because we’re Methodist. We’re Methodist Christians. We plant churches. We start new Christian communities.
I would love to see the Church take missional risks to go where the people are. And this could be community festivals, sports, sports clubs, all the places where people live their lives, the margins, the economic margins where people are impoverished, and not just to go and to be in mission to these places, but to expect God, to ask God, to show us the leaders that God is raising up already in those places. One of the things that’s most exciting right now is seeing all these movements for social change, for environmental justice, for social transformation, and seeing how many of the leaders are young and more able to talk about transformation in multileveled and wonderful kind of ways that acknowledge past oppression and liberation as something that God’s offering to us. I’m interested in how these movements credential their leaders. And I look forward to how the Church can learn from those movements as we welcome younger and more diverse leaders that God’s already raising up in different places and different parts of God’s creation. How can we learn from them?
I pray that we’ll be able to go where God leads into the big gritty questions and not be afraid of people talking about their experience of God in ways that might sort of be outside of our norm, to just simply norm the weird. You want the Church to be distinctive, and we have a lot to learn from folks who are at the margins and from these burgeoning movements.
- “Lessons from the Fresh Expressions Movement,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Luke Edwards
- Increasing Active Engagement Video Tool Kit
- How One-to-One Conversations Reintroduced a Church to Its Neighbors by Travis Norvell
- Taking Church to the Community Video Tool Kit