Methodists in Britain have been told by their president that the future holds a mixed prospects for both renewal and demise for. The Rev Dr Martyn Atkins was speaking at a large Pentecost rally in the heart of the capital.
The denominational head's comments came during the Pentecost Festival in London over the weekend
Dr Atkins, who takes up a new post as general secretary of the Methodist Church in September 2008, admitted that the denomination faced some tough challenges ahead.
These include a serious drop in the number of members entering Methodist circuits – the area groupings of Methodist churches served by teams of ministers.
A report in The Times last week cited controversial forecasts from think tank Christian Research predicting that the number of Sunday churchgoers would drop to below 900,000 by 2050 if current rates of decline continue.
Dr Atkins said, however, that he was not alarmed in the face of such statistics, saying that they failed to take into account the growing numbers of Christians who are worshipping outside the traditional Sunday service model.
Such new forms of church attendance include rising numbers worshipping at house and cell churches, mid-week worship services, Fresh Expressions of church, youth conferences and events like Pentecost Festival.
“One of the things we are beginning to see is that an increasing minority of Methodists are finding the focus of their Christian life nurtured in environments that are different from the kinds of congregations that produce the statistics in last Thursday’s Times,” he told the audience.
Martyn Atkins acknowledged, however, that attendance patterns across the Methodist Church were extremely diverse and that some churches adverse to change were indeed likely to face extinction.
He declared: “There is an enormous amount of new energy and health and excitement going on in our Connection alongside a huge amount of nominality and jadedness. We really are a mixed constituency in that respect,” he said. “There is the Methodism that is tired, jaded, increasingly disconnected from the world in which it lives.”
Such churches are “poor models of inherited traditional church”, Dr Atkins continued.
“I started the year feeling that there was no hope for such churches, that they are going to become extinct, and I end the year ever more convinced that that is the case," he said.
“If Methodism equals the worst kind of poor, nominal, tired, non-innovative, unwelcoming, unfriendly, Protestant, cerebral ghetto…then there is no hope for renewal, none at all. Where churches are too much like that there is consistent evidence that they will not survive.”
Dr Atkins also said he was aware of the challenges being presented to Methodism by the growing number of Christians attracted to worship within larger churches, a relatively new development occurring alongside the rising popularity of small house and cell churches across the country.