Features, Highlights

The Methodist Church in Singapore: Institution or Movement?

Methodism was a movement, not an institution—we have been reminded of this again and again. Most recently, Bishop Emeritus Dr Hwa Yung, who spoke at Aldersgate SG 2019, referred to a Methodist Message article from June 2016, “Rethinking the Methodist Church in Singapore”, by Mr Tan Gee Paw, member of Barker Road Methodist Church and former Public Utilities Board Chairman. Mr Tan noted that “in the history of the church, rapid socio-economic changes have always required a fresh direction for the church to avoid its becoming fossilised.” Observing that the Methodist Church in Singapore was at a crossroads, he asserted that “in such rapidly changing times, we need to de-institutionalise more and become more of a movement.”

A movement is marked by an attractive and clear unifying vision for a shared future, as well as a strong set of values or beliefs. The vision is well articulated so all members of the movement can understand it and pass it along to others. A movement has no organisational structure but consists of a group of people united by their desire to achieve something, and coming together to find any way they can to get it done. What unites a movement is a common vision or goal.

On the other hand, an institution begins when members of a movement begin to add rules, regulations and procedures to prevent something bad from recurring. The institution’s rules hold it together. Members may have a slightly different version of the vision but what unites are the institution’s rules. Thus, the institution’s purpose is to define what it does and the way it is done.

Institutions are structured, making it hard to change because of a felt need to conserve and preserve what has taken time and effort to evolve. Often, there is concern over encroachments into one’s turf, causing some to become protective and suspicious of others coming near their area of responsibility. Positions and power may be jealously guarded.

In an institution, directions and guidance come down from the top. In a movement, ideas come from all over; anyone or any group can come up with one. In movements, achieving the vision is more important than giving or saving face, so people are on the lookout for like-minded others, and collaborate with anyone sharing the basic vision and values. A movement is thus able to generate its own resources, recruit its own members and participants, and especially, in the process, raise up new leaders.

Clearly, authority and discipline have their place in ministry work. Thus, a strong movement will be one that is somewhere between a do-as-you-please and a disciplined organisation.  The movement leader’s job is to steer the ship safely between these two poles, while ensuring the ship stays anchored by its core values.

At this point in our structural review, some small groups are meeting to share about their ministries and look for ways to reduce duplication or work more effectively together. As they talk, they have realised their common vision. As relationships are built over coffee, they see opportunities for missional unity, the possibility of sharing resources, and coming together in interest groups focused on shared passions. Generous flexibility and innovativeness needed to make us a movement again are not far away.  As a church ministry staff prayed at the end of a session, “May this review provide the space and room for us to move together for the glory of God.”

By the Structural Review Task Force

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