Where are the people
Dr. Rob Haynes
Many people want to influence their world for God’s mission, but are unsure where to begin, especially when today’s churches face unprecedented challenges. The church’s participation has changed dramatically in the last year, and, looking at the empty benches, many faithful visitors to the church ask, “When will the people return?”
As the consequences of the pandemic continue to manifest in new and unexpected ways, I have heard Christians in different parts of the Church and the world express persistent concern. They wonder when things will return to “normal” for their local church community. They often think, “When will people return to the doors of our sanctuaries?” In this case, uncertainty is the only certainty. However, this crisis presents unique opportunities for mission and service. While we cannot control the complexity of our current context, we can respond to needs in an innovative way. We can look back on our past to teach us how to convey this truth now and in our uncertain future.
Missionary service is going where people are. It is much easier to open the door of the church and shout, “Come in!” However, the mission requires movement – both places and hearts. This is an example of Scripture and the Methodist revival.
We see this in Acts 16 when Paul and his companions are in the city of Philippi. When they could 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 river bank, “where we thought there was a place of prayer” (verse 13). There he shared the gospel with Lydia. Her conversion was an important catalyst in the work of the church in that region. The Bible is full of such reports.
People called Methodists have a strong history of going where people are. John and Charles Wesley, among other preachers at the time, were concerned about the lack of participation in church life. For them, the problem was complacency. In the spring of 1739, the Wesleys agreed to move out of the traditional church buildings that had given these Anglican ministers a certain level of prestige, and to be “sneaky” by preaching in the open. Their willingness to preach in open fields, markets, and industrial centers helped revive the nation and made Methodism what it is today.
Going “where the people are” continued as Methodism reigned in the American colonies. Preachers used the practice of “circling” to follow the movement of people as the nation grew. These young ministers monitored the expansion of the population. Francis Asbury was the leader among them. He traveled 270,000 miles on horseback and on foot while giving 16,000 sermons. Asbury’s journey records his preaching “in a tavern,” “in a tobacco house,” and “from a chariot, at the execution of a prisoner.” Metbist preachers Asbury and Circuit Riding knew how to convey the gospel message to the people.
These lessons are still applicable today. Instead of becoming concerned about the need to return to worship, discipleship, or evangelism as just a personal activity, it is important to take the opportunity to easily move to where people are today. People have not only disappeared, but are increasingly online. Before 2020, the number of devices connected to the Internet was already twice as large as the world’s population. Our internet-connected devices are everywhere: from cell phones to coffee makers to medical devices. The pandemic has only accelerated our digital migration, by choice and as needed. The effects of the pandemic will continue, to some extent, in the foreseeable future. As a result, people spend their lives more for comfort, security and earning a living. If you haven’t already, it’s time to follow them there.
John Wesley’s diary tells us that he had to overcome his pride and misunderstanding that “I … thought saving souls was almost a sin if it wasn’t done in church.” He chose a more effective method of retrieving the gospel message where it was most needed. He trained and empowered people whom God had called to share the gospel in various places where people had already been. He used the tools of his time to meet the most urgent 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 innovations. For some, this will require them to become “sneaky”. However, can we who follow Jesus on the path of the Wesleys follow their example. Mission-sharing faith-sharing movements will embrace the opportunities offered by today’s online environment.