Many people want to impact their world for the sake of God’s mission but are unsure where to begin, especially when today’s churches face unprecedented challenges. Church participation has shifted dramatically in the last year and, when looking at empty pews, many faithful churchgoers are asking, “When will people come back?”
As the effects of the pandemic continue to manifest themselves in new and unanticipated ways, I have heard Christians in different parts of the church and the globe express a persistent concern. They wonder when things will go back to “normal” for their local church community. Frequently, they mean, “When will people come back inside the doors of our sanctuaries?” In this case, uncertainty is the only certainty. However, this crisis presents unique opportunities for mission and ministry. Though we cannot control the complexities of our current context, we can answer the needs in innovative ways. We can look to our past to teach us how to communicate this truth now and in our unclear future.
Missional ministry is about going where the people are. It is much easier to throw open the doors of the church and shout, “Come on in!” However, mission requires movement—of both place and heart. This is the example of Scripture and of the Methodist revival.
We see this in Acts 16 when Paul and his companions are in the city of Philippi. When they did not find a synagogue for worship, they were forced to adapt. They moved to where the people were. They went outside the city, to the riverside, “where we supposed there was a place of prayer” (v. 13). There he shared the gospel with Lydia. Her conversion was an important catalyst to the work of the church in that region. The Scriptures are full of such accounts.
The people called Methodists have a strong history of going where the people are. John and Charles Wesley, among other preachers of the time, were concerned about the lack of participation in the life of the church. For them, the problem was complacency. In the spring of 1739, the Wesleys agreed to move from the traditional church buildings that brought these Anglican ministers some level of prestige, and to “be more vile” by preaching outdoors. Their willingness to preach in open fields, market squares, and industrial centers helped fuel a revival among the nation and made Methodism what it is today.
Going “where the people are” continued as Methodism took hold in the American colonies. Preachers employed a practice of “circuit riding” to keep up with the movements of the people as the nation grew. These young ministers followed the expansion of the population. Francis Asbury was a leader among them. He covered 270,000 miles on horseback and on foot as he preached 16,000 sermons. Asbury’s journey records his preaching “in a tavern,” “in a tobacco house,” and “from a wagon, at the execution of prisoners.” Asbury and the circuit-riding Methodist preachers knew how to take the gospel to the people.
These lessons are applicable today. Rather than growing anxious about a need to return to worship, discipleship, or evangelism as an in-person-only activity, it is important to embrace the opportunity of easily moving to where people are today. People have not merely disappeared; rather, they are increasingly online. Before 2020, the number of devices connected to the internet was already twice that of the global population. Our internet-connected devices are everywhere—from our cellphones to our coffee makers to our medical devices. The pandemic has only accelerated our digital migration, by choice and by necessity. The influence of the pandemic is going to continue, to some degree, for the foreseeable future. As a result, people are moving more of their lives online for comfort, for safety, and for their livelihoods. If you haven’t already, it is time to follow them there.
John Wesley’s journal tells us that he had to overcome his own pride and misunderstanding, that “I … thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” He chose the more effective method of taking the gospel message where it was needed most. He trained and empowered people who were called by God to share the gospel in the various places where the people already were. He used the tools of his time to meet the most pressing needs of the cultural moment. Today, with relative ease we can enter the various online communities that people inhabit. For many, this will require hard work, new skills, and unique innovation. For some, this will require becoming “more vile.” However, may we who follow Jesus in the way of the Wesleys follow their example. Mission-minded, faith-sharing movements will embrace the opportunities that today’s online environment provides.