I believe that reclaiming our Methodist history can be the spark that ignites a new generation.
In the summer of 2012, I was appointed to the oldest Methodist Church west of the Mississippi river. It was started in 1806 by Elisha Bowman as mission post to the early settlers and traders in the Opelousas region. At that time the territory was not much more than a trading post to protect traders traveling from New Orleans to Natchitoches. Life was dangerous and sharing the gospel meant translating it into the language of the early settlers in a new world. The population was isolated and there was very little in the way of education.
Dr. John H. Wigger writes, “Early circuit riders were a different kind of clergy than had ever been seen in America, serving a rapidly expanding and spiritually hungry nation. They pursued their calling with remarkable zeal, forever changing the style and tone of American religion.”
Lately, I have found that my life is much more similar to Elisha Bowman’s. The culture around us has changed. We have new people in the community around us who are “nones” when it comes to religion. They weren’t raised in the church and their children have never set foot into a church. These new people are coming to church hungry for something transformative in their lives. These new people are bringing more new unchurched people with them! Our church is changing right before my eyes from good 3rd and 4th generation cradle Methodists to people who have never opened a Bible!
In seminary I was taught how to be a theologian, a pastor, and a preacher. In the past few months I have caught myself during my preaching talking about some deep theological concept. I would look out into the congregation to see blank stares coming back at me. These new people have no idea what a pericope is, much less what I am talking about when I refer to the eschatological dimensions of the Advent season.
I am discovering that what we need today is training in how to be a missionary.
Our new day calls for the ability to translate more than anything else. I am not talking about Greek to English, but the sacred into the ordinary. The new frontiers of Christianity require us to reclaim pieces of our circuit riding history and modernize them into today’s world.
There are three shifts in my ministry that have made a difference in this past year, and I want to share them because I believe they are shifts we will all be making very soon:
1. I started to see myself as a missionary first.
We have to see ourselves as missionaries to a hungry people once more. This means going into a community not just as the pastor of this church but as a change agent in this community. One of the biggest challenges I see is helping a congregation realize that they are the leaders of this mission movement. For me this means forming partnerships with mission organizations already active in the community – boys and girls clubs, junior leagues, united way, homeless shelters, food banks, after school tutoring programs, and other service organizations. Early Circuit Riders were easily recognizable around the community. For every person that attends your church you should know 2-3 more that don’t! We have to reclaim the identity and the mission of those early circuit riders.
2. I started seeing my church as a missionary outpost.
We are on a new frontier in the United States of America. The new default in the United States of America is quickly becoming, “no or marginal religious background”. They don’t want to become a member of the church just to serve on some committee. They want an experience that connects them to Jesus. We should be present in the community in new ways. I spend a good portion of every day in the community. We should visit people’s homes, businesses, and schools. We have to be present in high school football stadiums, back yard cookouts, and scout meetings. We also have to be present in the virtual community as well. Our churches need to be staging grounds for ministry, not destinations for ministry.
3. I started looking for opportunities to join others in ministry.
Local mission outposts can become connected to other outposts in the area for collaboration in ministry. We can no longer afford to be silo churches. Early outposts depended on the outpost down the way for assistance in times of need. Instead of two small youth groups, my church and the church in the next town are working together to have a large youth group! Instead of sending a team of 6-8 people to assist in a disaster recovery, we are partnering to send a team of 20! This is not us and them, this is us Methodists. We need to start seeing our clergy gatherings as opportunities to join in a missional renaissance.
For further reading check out:
Christianity Rediscovered by Father Vincent Donovan
The Open Secret by Lesslie Newbigin
Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America by Darrell L. Guder
Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Popularization of American Christianity by John H. Wigger