This weekend twenty-four years ago, the first ‘Autumn Soul’ weekend for Youth Fellowship groups of The Methodist Church in Ireland took place in Bangor, Co. Down.
Run by a group of young volunteers overseen by David Neilands and led by Julian Hamilton from the Department of Youth and Children’s Work (now IMYC), we took over Wesley Centenary Methodist Church for a weekend. We plastered the Epworth Hall with billboard posters, set up the band in a corner, and away we went. Gordon McDade was the speaker, there was an acoustic worship session led by Jools and the Team On Mission, and just over one hundred young people and leaders booked in.
The second year, we did the same preparation, but at about 3pm on the Friday afternoon realised there were going to be more people than the hall could hold – we moved into the church for two years, then we had to move again to a bigger building because the sanctuary couldn’t hold us either! This year, the 25th Autumn Soul will be happening entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic, and many Methodist churches in Ireland will be streaming the Sunday morning session as their service for the day – no one single sanctuary could hold all the people that will be participating this year!
It was a privilege to be part of the team that prepared the first Autumn Souls, and to lead the band for the first nine years. There was a thrill involved in relying on the Spirit’s whispers – coming to the end of the speaker’s talk, walking up to our instruments in front of hundreds of people, still not knowing what song we should sing next. It was a joy to see young people – mainly young Methodists! – praise God with energy, passion and heartfelt devotion. It was humbling to experience the moving of the Holy Spirit as people returned to Jesus and committed to serving him wholeheartedly.
Of course, a lot of life has happened in the meantime. ‘Soul Purpose’, as the original Autumn Soul Band became known, ended up leading all-age worship with Castlewellan Holiday Week for over a decade. And today, we are no more, apart from occasional one-off events (though I do keep thinking about running ‘Living Room Worship’ from our church, with only the band in the sanctuary!)… Things have their season, their time for energy and fruitfulness, and then they often end or morph, and new things begin.
The morphing of Autumn Soul this year – and in fact, of many local churches, shows that the creativity and spark of the Holy Spirit is still present. Twenty-five years ago, the IMAYC (Irish Methodist Association of Youth Clubs) weekends were beginning to diminish, with no sign of anything coming to take their place. The weekend travelled to a different location every year. I have some great memories from being involved in some of those final years – Emmaus singing ‘Tetelestai’ and ‘Trust, Surrender, Believe, Receive’ in a packed Portora assembly hall, Enniskillen; some friends excitedly teaching us this great new song they’d heard during a break at Alexandra College in Dublin: ‘My Jesus, my Saviour’. But many of the Youth Clubs around the island were closing, and IMAYC closed with them, along with the roles of National Youth President and the World Action Team (anyone recall ‘Survivalive’?!).
The danger comes when the fluid movement of the Holy Spirit is taken for granted and everything solidifies. Just take a look at our Methodist movement here in Britain and Ireland – a world-changing, dynamic movement that planted seeds of revival all around the world but is at the point of death (hopefully, re-birth) in its home nations.
The call is for every generation to praise God ‘for all that is past, and trust Him for all that’s to come’ – to celebrate what our forebears have been inspired by God to do, but then to read the culture and rely on the Holy Spirit for direction about what’s next. Twenty-five years ago, the people who closed the IMAYC weekend launched something new, that in the space of five years had double the impact. The people who ended the Shell Weekend (the last event had twelve children attend) didn’t know what would happen next, but in time ‘Soul Mates’ was born.
As a denomination, we are in a place, right now, where we must listen to God closely and obey his direction. This pandemic is giving us an unexpected moment, in over two hundred locations across our island, to die or be reborn. The passionate, energetic and heartfelt worship of Autumn Soul, Soul Mates and Castlewellan Holiday Week is rarely seen in Methodist Sunday morning services. Our Bible study groups are often great for gleaning knowledge and encouragement, but don’t seem to launch us into mission the way Methodist classes used to. Prayer meetings can be so dull but they used to lead members of Wesleyan bands to confess their sin to one another and be challenged to greater love and works in Christ’s name. Will we seize this moment to become again – for our time – what Atkins calls a ‘warm-hearted, broadly evangelical, disciple-making movement’?
My heart yearns to see not only the next generation of young people but also the members of every generation, hearing the call to complete surrender to God’s Kingdom, and empowered for the long haul of missional discipleship. But I am weak, I get caught up in unimportant details, I lack discipline and find comfort in doing things the way they’ve always been done. Come, Holy Spirit, break into your church and set us free!
Discover more about Autumn Soul at www.imycd.org
I found the music of Emmaus after all these years!