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Shaping the Future

Last May, at our assembly in Dundee, I was inducted as President of the Congregational Federation. This was a tremendous privilege, and I am finding immense blessing as I travel around the country visiting our churches.

Janet WoottonThe assembly was full of hope in the future. The previous two gatherings had been contentious, as we grappled with recent difficult decisions. We were at a turning point in our life together as churches, and there was a great deal of hurt and anxiety. Voices were raised. We reached a crisis point. But we agreed a way forward, through which we would work together to find God’s way for us. We began with a series of ‘Open Space’ events, inviting people to consider the question: ‘How can we shape the Congregational Federation for the future?’

These were very successful as events sprang up all over the country. People were eager to engage with the question, and we have some powerful ideas from this ‘snapshot’ of our churches. At the same time, we asked a small group to examine recent reviews. These had consulted very widely and engaged with many more people than was possible in the Open Space process. They add depth to the snapshot.

This is all part of a process leading to a thorough review of our constitution and our administrative and support structures which will inspire and enable the vision that God has for our churches in the future.

After all, we are coming up to FIFTY years old as a fellowship of churches so it is time to rethink and look forward.

The theme for my presidential year has been ‘Shaping the Future’ and the heart of what I have been doing is travelling round our churches, leading worship, joining in festivals and celebrations, sharing meals, and learning what God is doing among us here and now. This is a wonderful experience! And I find that there is lots of hope and vision for the future.

Two of the churches I have visited had closed - and reopened. They are open again, not because they are stubborn and refuse to accept the inevitable, but because their local communities want to engage with them. It isn’t just more of the same. The closure has enabled community and church to reflect on their mission, in their own context. There may be a long way to go, to achieve their vision – but there is vision there.

On the other hand, I have visited churches that I have known and loved for years. Yes, many of the people who were there then are still in the congregation, familiar faces and voices. But between them are empty pews. The church often still feels comfortably full, certainly not empty, but there are very few younger people, even people in their middle years, and the burden of church life falls on fewer and fewer active church members.

We need to keep our eyes on God’s call for the future, to be alert to hidden decline, and open our minds to new possibilities. There is a group in CF exploring Pioneering Ministries and new ways of being church. New pathways through training and accreditation provide for different kinds of ministry. Many of our churches are engaged in really exciting forms of outreach and worship.

All this should be very amenable to our congregational way, where we are free to respond to the Mind of Christ in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, speaking through all our members. With (ideally) no hierarchy, we are free to respond to God’s leading through young and old, established church folk and newcomers. We should expect the gifts of the Spirit, and Wisdom to fill our worship, our mission and church life.

Everywhere I have gone as President, I have handed out bright cardboard stars, and invited people to write down what they think is the special treasure, or gift, that congregationalism has to offer the wider church – not that we are unique, or better than anyone else, but that we have a particular way of serving God, that has its own distinctive value.

And the answers come! We are in no doubt! The words of that last paragraph but one are taken from those stars. As each person has a direct relationship with God in Jesus, so each person’s voice is valuable, in the freedom God gives us.

So Hallelujah – and let’s shape the future, together with God.

Janet Wootton