What can we learn about congregational revitalization, Fresh Expressions, and evangelism from the Methodist Church in Britain? Trey Hall shares insights on these subjects drawing from his experience in the United States and Great Britain.
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What can we learn about congregational revitalization, Fresh Expressions, and evangelism from the Methodist Church in Britain? In this episode, Trey Hall shares insights on these subjects drawing from his experience in the United States and Great Britain.
Douglas Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, Director of the Lewis Center, and your host for this talk. Joining me is Rev. Trey Hall, who is Director of Evangelism and Growth for the Methodist Church of Britain. Our focus for this podcast is creating vital congregations. Trey, welcome to our conversation today.
Trey Hall: It’s great to be with you.
Douglas Powe: I want to begin, Trey — of course, I know you from the time we spent together years ago on Emory’s campus. For those who don’t know you, they hear about you being in England and that seems strange if you’re from America, so can you share a little bit about your professional journey and how you ended up in this position?
Trey Hall: Yeah, yeah. So, I’m in Britain, but I still say “y’all,” so I’ve got my deep Southern formation there.
Douglas Powe: I like it.
Trey Hall: I’m trying to convince all the British Methodists that y’all is the most inclusive way of referring to the people of God, so I still have a lot of work to do to get people there.
Douglas Powe: So, how’s that going for you?
Trey Hall: I think they’re open to it. It’s become a little bit of a joke in the Methodist Church in Britain, but you know we’re playful with it. Yeah, I’m a child of the South, grew up in Memphis and then went to seminary at Candler, where we met. And then my home conference is the Northern Illinois Conference. I served there for 15 years as a pastor of a suburban church and then a pastor of not an inner city but a city church and then help start a new multi-site church there in Chicago. So, most of my most of ministry in the States was as a church planter. And then I fell in love. Before I started working in Northern Illinois, I had an internship with the British Methodist Church straight from Candler — which was a wonderful time here serving a circuit in British Methodism. Fell in love with a Brit. We moved back to the States in our 20s, had our life there, and then it was time for me to follow my spouse, so we moved back to Britain. And then I started kind of doing coaching for pioneers, which is the term in Britain for church planters — pioneers and church planters. And then I started working for a British Methodist district, which is sort of like a conference in United Methodist kind of speak. And I did that for a few years, helping them think about church planting, pioneering, and evangelism. Then the British Methodist Church — the Methodist Church in Britain — started a new kind of emphasis on evangelism and growth here about four years ago now. So, I was stationed — appointed — to that role.
Douglas Powe: Great. I appreciate that quick synopsis of what you’ve done. For those who don’t know, when you planted a church here in the United States, it was going extremely well before you left to do other things. I’m excited to have you in the position you’re in and to be able to help think about the work of evangelism in the British context. Let me begin by asking, given the context of Britain and you’ve also been in the context of the U.S., can you share a little bit about the British context and the similarities and differences you see with the U.S.? In some ways they’re probably similar, but they also are very different in some ways, so can you just share a little bit about the similarities and differences.
Trey Hall: Sure. Well, there are lots and lots of cultural differences between Britain and the U.S., and I think some of those things sort of sit underneath the surface. There’s a phrase of “being separated by common language.” We have a similar a similar language in English, and it’s used differently. Obviously, American English is different from British English, but there are loads of cultural differences, like there would be between any countries. I think the general step I would sort of observe is that Britain, like much of Western Europe in terms of its relationship to church, to Christendom, to organized religion — however we want to talk about that — is just several decades ahead of where the U.S. is. But 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.
Interestingly, and I don’t know if this would be similar to the States, within the folks who identify as Christian, 51 percent sounds like a lot, in some ways, to the British context. In American context, probably the number would be much higher. But within that 51 percent, only a third of those folks marked “Christian” because they believed in the teachings of Christianity. Other folks marked the “Christian” box because they were baptized Christian as a baby or because this is a Christian country. So, in some ways that are similar to the U.S., there is a cultural Christianity, but I think that it’s waned quite a bit here. That’s the trend line of U.K. Christendom. Now one of the things we are seeing though — and we see this in the States as well — is that, though those religious affiliation numbers are going down, there is a marked interest in spirituality among the younger and rising generations. The same kind of census data reflects — and I don’t mean that everyone is saying that they believe in a Christian spirituality, but there is, you know, an interest in the paranormal or people 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, which is sort of interesting. So, as religious affiliation declines, spiritual interest seems to be increasing.
Douglas Powe: Thank you for that and that is helpful. I want to sort of unpack one piece of that before we move on. So, the religious affiliation is declining. Certainly, we’re seeing that here also to some extent in the U.S. context where mainline denominations have been in decline for quite a while in this context. The reality is that even some nondenominational decline is also happening now because of the trend lines you talked about, that have already occurred in the British context. But sticking with the mainline for a minute, the religious affiliation, given that you are affiliated with the Methodist Church of Britain, how are you all dealing with that aspect — the challenge of connecting with people? How do you balance those things?
Trey Hall: Well, I think the answer is: in a number of very different ways. The Methodist Church in Britain is different in its relationship to culture — British culture — than the United Methodist Church relates to U.S. culture. Here the dominant church is the Church of England, the Anglican Church. When I was in the States, I felt like the United Methodist Church was one of the larger Protestant denominations. And I always felt for my Episcopalian colleagues. You know, they had a beautiful tradition but were, in terms of numerical adherents, much smaller obviously. Here it’s sort of a flipped script. 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 up. So, here Methodists are a free church — that’s what the Methodist Church is called here, a free church or a dissenting church or a nonconformist church. Now within Methodism there are loads of different strands, as it as in Methodism across the world, but I just want to say that Methodism occupies a much smaller footprint. That said, the Methodist church a few years ago began paying more attention to these numbers that we were describing and, I think, 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 talk about helping 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 about helping established, maybe more traditional, churches stabilize and renew themselves by God’s grace and find a stability. So that’s one thing. But also talk 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.
I think about a term that we use a lot here, which is a term that was I think was first used by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the term “mixed ecology.” I really like that term as just a statement of reality. 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. Hopefully I think it’s always been the case, if we’re honest, that the church has 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 in now with the numbers that we just described, I think there’s even more of a need for that kind of mixed ecology approach, not as a desperate approach but one that is really life-giving, really creativity and energy inspiring. I think for ministers and missionaries and lay and ordained folks — for 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 — not even one horizon, it’s all these different horizons, all these different kind of groups. It can be seen as desperation. But where I love to live is in this space of one size has probably never fit all. It certainly doesn’t fit all now, and that’s a beautiful thing. The Methodists are just trying to live in that mixed ecology space. I think we’ve always hoped, as a church, and we’ve always tried to do that. In the past two or three years, we’ve made a concerted effort to lean into that, to “norm” mixed ecology. So that’s a lot of what my work is, alongside diverse leaders across the church here in Britain.
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Douglas Powe: Let’s unpack that a little bit more and let’s start with established churches. How do you work with established churches? Established churches in your context are much older than established churches here, of course. How do you work with them to talk about how the context around you is ever changing? Tradition of course is critically important, but you also have to find ways of sharing tradition, maybe in updated modes. So how do you help those individuals that have firmly been planted for a number of years to start thinking differently about what it will mean if they want to continue to be vital moving forward?
Trey Hall: Well, in a number of different ways. I think one is just starting with prayer and prayer walking or prayer in community. Do our churches, our Christian communities that inhabit buildings in particular places, do they know and love the communities of which they’re part? This is basic stuff. This is foundational stuff. But sometimes the foundational and basic stuff is stuff we avoid or just don’t pay attention to. How do churches spend time in their communities kind of consciously? We really encourage people to do their 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, just to build those relationships. What do Christians notice as they as they walk their neighborhoods?
I know there’s a woman in a city not too far from here, a little village actually, and she started walking every morning, 6:30 in the mornings is what she does, and she has made loads and loads of friends as she’s walked every morning at 6:30. And the little village church that she’s part of has grown. It’s not tripled in size over the past two or three years, but it’s grown by many. A number of those folks are people that have come because of my friend’s walking the village. So, it’s that kind of stuff. Now the prayerful walking doesn’t always lead to church growth, but it does lead to kind of an understanding of the context. So, there’s that. It’s just knowing your context, and there are loads of different ways to do that.
I think another thing is thinking 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. We know the language and, thanks be to God, the first language you know is a wonderful thing to have. We can play with different idioms and the thought world with so much flexibility and ease when it’s our first language.
I think one of the things we know is that for folks who have not come in contact with church — 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 be learning Christianity as a second language really. So, I think that the established church, who loves the expression of Christianity as the first language, has got to learn to be at least a translator. There’s that, the translation. And perhaps it’s not just translation from first language Christianity to second language Christianity but also may be to learn a new language together. And I think that is again really challenging. It’s tough to learn a second language. It’s tough to teach a second language. But I think it comes down to a couple of things. One is a conceptual kind of approach. If we are — and this is sort of a basic thing — but if we are going 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 practice talking about those beautiful things not necessarily throwing that language out, but 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 is in terms of that second language is being able to talk about our own spiritual experience. If I were using the first language, I might say to give testimony to our experience of God — what it’s like to undergo God, one scholar has said. What does it feel like right now, not 10 years ago or 20 years ago, or 40 years ago, but right now, what is it like to be undergoing the living God? And I think that kind of question, that testimony, is not only one that is offered to people who are not Christian 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 kind of increase in spiritual interest among people generally in the U.K. at least and the U.S., too. To ask people to talk about their spiritual lives — we can do that, even with folks who aren’t in our kind of religious group. One of my colleagues on the Evangelism and Growth team in the Methodist Church here has taken to asking 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 really ones that might feel naturally really beautiful to us; some of them might feel really fringe to us or sort of extraordinary. But I think loads of people are happy to talk about that kind of thing.
Douglas Powe: Yeah.
Trey Hall: Can established churches go into that sort of language play, which again is about concepts but also spiritual experience? To the extent that we are, as established and committed Christians, willing to go into that “re-languaging,” and that language school will be better at not only offering Christ to people who haven’t experienced Christ yet or maybe did and have for lots of reasons not been part of the Church, but also that we might ourselves — this is one of my big things— we might also 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: That’s helpful. I appreciate that response. I really appreciate thinking about the first and second language because I think you’re right on target. Here in the U.S., I think that more and more 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.
Trey Hall: Like we talk about teaching Spanish as a second language, what does it look like to teach Christianity as a second language?
Douglas Powe: Yeah. That’s good. Sticking with the mixed ecology, let’s now talk about fresh expressions, which started in England. Of course, it’s come here also to the United States. Fresh expressions being the thinking about 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: Well, the fresh expressions movement did indeed start here in England, and it was an ecumenical project by the C of E — the Church of England — and the Methodist Church. We’re really proud — it’s one of the things that British Methodist are really proud of — that the project started ecumenically here with the C of E. And it’s wonderful to see it coming into its own in the U.S. context in different ways.
So, for those of you who are listening who don’t know fresh expressions, it really is a broad spectrum, as you said, Doug. It’s really communities of Christianity, communities of spiritual exploration, that are designed particularly by and for people who are unaffiliated, people who are not currently part of the church. Across the spectrum, a fresh expression might be a really big kind of worshipping community; it might be a really small micro church. It might be a social enterprise that has a discipleship pathway built into it. It’s sort of the sky’s the limit really. Here in the British Methodist Church, we started using the language of new places for new people to describe that spectrum. Here fresh expressions often refers to a really, really small micro church or micro experiment which is really beautiful. The small is beautiful. But it can sometimes refer only to that, and so we wanted a broader term to hold, for Methodists at least, all these different kinds of experiments and modalities for creating new faith community, new spiritual community, for people who are unaffiliated, again, across the spectrum.
What we’re looking for in the folks who start those is many of the things that you will know about in the United Methodist Church, around a love for people who are not part of church, a natural connection to folks who are not part of church. 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 maybe are willing to even think about church beyond the church building forever, permanently. People who like starting new things. People who are really, really interested in moving beyond the one-on-one relationship at the beginning. It’s really, really important 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.
And we found, in the British Methodist church unlike the United Methodist Church, most of the pioneers, as they’re called here, are lay folks. Now there are some ministers, 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 those Wesleyan roots, absolutely. And I think it’s a wonderful thing. I think it means that there’s a gift in that, there’s a joy in that. I think there’s a challenge in that, too, sometimes around the recognition of the ministry. I think even in the British Methodist Church, which has that rich DNA of being a lay movement, I think sometimes we all have times where clericalism overrides what the Spirit’s doing in lay leadership. We really guard against that. But I think sometimes that does happen, but we love that 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 are in the present all working together. I always say that lay folks are also reminding ordained folks what their ministry should be more like more of the time. So, yeah.
Douglas Powe: That’s great. Well, Trey, as we get ready to bring this to a close, I want you to look into your spiritual crystal ball and think, about 10 years from now, where you would like to see the Methodist Church of Britain move, given the work that you’re doing — if you could just paint a picture. Maybe I’ll give you two questions. If you can paint a picture, where you would like to see it move and where do you think it will be at that point in time? I’ll let you think about it in both ways.
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. Everybody is an evangelist we say in the British Methodist Church — that we might lean into that. And I think the sense that we are all called to be evangelists across the diversity of the human spectrum can release, instead of a few evangelists for a church, it can release thousands and thousands of committed Methodists to be evangelists.
In that commitment to be evangelists, I think an expectation that we, in our evangelism, will be evangelized alongside the people that we are in relationship with. Sometimes God will evangelize us in the process of being in evangelism. Sometimes the folks that we go out to evangelize will evangelize us so that in that mutuality, that reciprocity, we expect God’s goodness. We expect to hear it from others as much as we expect to speak it to others, and that we will all live that out together. I think that mutuality is so crucial.
I think 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 sort of a core practice as well, of discipleship going out routinely, turning over every stone, asking people for coffee, you know, building that kind of relationship building 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 “Well, of course, this is just what we do because you know we’re Methodist. We’re Methodist Christians. We plant churches. We start new Christian communities.”
I would love to see the church just 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. I think one of the things that’s most exciting right now, in my opinion, in the world 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?
Yeah, I just 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 and in ways that might sort of be outside of our norm, to just simply norm the weird. You know I was talking about, in some ways, you don’t want the church to be weird and you don’t want the church to be odd and sort of negative but to norm. You want the church to be distinctive, and I think we have a lot to learn from folks who are kind of at the margins and from these burgeoning movements.
Douglas Powe: Trey, thank you so much. This has been wonderful. It was great to get a glimpse into your world and the work that you’re doing. And I’m excited. I think you paint a picture that seems very possible, given what is taking place right now. So, appreciation for your sharing with us today.
Trey Hall: My pleasure.
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