One of the problems with Methodism arises from the way that preachers operate, moving round a Circuit. There are 14 churches in my Circuit, and of course I'm in a different church every time; churches have a different preacher every week. It's not easy to lead worship in a congregation you only know superficially, and see once in several months!
The result is we drift to the lowest common denominator, the one-hour hymn sandwich, and it's extremely hard to break away from it. I vaguely remember the odd attempt by one church to maintain some continuity by giving preachers texts to preach from, but it didn't last long. One church went all charismatic for a while, with masses of choruses, but there were a lot of tensions, and it fizzled out in the end. There's only one church in the Circuit which has tried to maintain its own distinctive style for the entire 24 years I've been in Birmingham, and that's my own.
It started simply enough. We shared a minister with another church with a 9.30 service - I think; it was very early anyway - and it was hard for him to get to my church for eleven. So we started with a few minutes of choruses, led by the stewards. Eventually, we decided it wasn't right that leading worship should be restricted to the few, so we opened it up to everyone. Some of the people who screwed up the courage to take it on went on to become stewards themselves, and bit by bit we reached a situation where most people get involved with leading worship.
At the same time, the makeup of the church was changing. When I arrived in 1987, there were slightly more white people than black. As time passed, the number of black people increased, as did their influence in the church. When a volcano erupted in Montserrat, a lot of the refugees were housed locally, and the church suddently became about 80% black; this has remained roughly the same since. A significant number of Caribbean people are from Pentecostal backgrounds, and we have a fair few Africans. They're used to longer, noisier services, and like the service to be a bit more than a one-hour hymn sandwich. We've also made a practice of stopping for a cup of tea and buscuits after the service, which has made a big difference. A church is a community after all, and if we don't spend time talking to each other, we can't function.
Unfortunately, our slightly longer service sometimes causes conflict. Of the four ministers we've had since I've been here, one didn't want us to have choruses at all when he was taking the service - he once told me he didn't feel it was 'really worship' - and another always wanted us to start before eleven, and only have a very few, so that he could finish at twelve. There have been occasional conflicts with Local Preachers as well. One once wanted to take over the choruses himself, as that it could be 'part of the service', and never mind the person who'd prepared to do it. I was stewarding, and didn't let him; it would have been gross discourtesy, and it's already part of the service anyway! Then there's the odd one or two who think we should finish exactly on the hour; one once stopped for a cup of tea, then started a row with us about it. This is, of course, the problem. There will always be those who want the short, easy service, and will try to impose it on others.
The service is becoming more of an issue as one member's children, now in their 20's, have moved to another church because it has livelier worship. So how do we liven things up more, with all the drawbacks of the Methodist system? Naturally, it's landed on my plate for the moment. We can't start the choruses earlier, since we've asked about an earlier service, and only two people wanted it. The only option I can see is to tell the preachers that while the service starts at eleven, we want them to start at quarter past. Their hour would then end at quarter past twelve, and that would at least give us a slightly longer service without - hopefully - anyone wanting to hurry us up. We could then talk about where to go next.
We're not going to solve this in a day; we're also starting a Sunday School soon, and so one question is how to involve the kids in the service. I know from experience that they can do far more than just take the collection round, despite the efforts of the odd one or two who - inevitably - want to keep them in 'their place'. Bit by bit, if we keep going, I think we'll continue to make progress. It comes back to basic principles. The church is the people, not the minister or the preacher, and the peoples' will must prevail, or the congregation will fade away, and the church end up closing.