Taking Church to the World (by Alan Ward)
There was once a man who grew up going to church. His father was an Anglican priest and little John followed in dad’s footsteps. But he came to a point where he realized that “church as he knew it “ was not working. It was supposed to welcome the world into a God-centered community of love and grace, and then send them forth to share what they had experienced with a “starving” world. Too often, though, that was not what happened. The church was inward-focused and created “barriers” that cut people off from God rather them allowing them to experience God.
So John did what he could to “be the change he wanted to see in the world”. Many people didn’t feel welcome in the church, so he and his brother Charles decided that they would go preach to them where they were—the fields, the bars, the brothels, the coalmines, the prisons, etc. As they did, they got to know the people. They listened to them talk about their lives, their struggles, their dreams, their aspirations. Charles composed lyrics lifting praises to God based on melodies that people were already singing in these places.
As a priest, John had spent many years learning about God—but now he was living God as he never had before. There came a point where his actions got him in trouble with the church “authorities”. He was no longer welcome to preach in the very church that had once ordained him, but John was undaunted, saying: The world is my parish.
The man I am speaking of is none other than John Wesley—founder of Methodism. His Methodist movement didn’t seek to start a new religion—there were already plenty! No, John just wanted to “fix” the church he loved and had given his life to serve, so that it could remain relevant in the world and fulfill its mission of sharing the Gospel with the world.
Maybe Wesley wasn’t all that much different than some of us today. I suspect many of you reading this piece have something in common with John. Like me, you’ve grown up in the Church and you may have a special place in our heart for a particular local church. We want the Church (and our church) to go on so that our children might be able to worship here if they so chose.
But we also know that something’s not working. As was true in Wesley’s England, it is a time of huge political, social, and economic upheaval in the world around us. The ground beneath our feet seems to be shifting (sometimes literally). The world has changed but it seems that too often the church has not. Rather, the Church becomes a stalwart defender of the status quo and a place where we go to escape the world rather than being sent forth to engage it with the Way of Jesus. From time to time, we emerge from our holy huddle to engage the world, but the gap between us (the Church) and them (the world) widens daily.
Church as we “traditionally” define it becomes less relevant to the common person every day. You need only look at the athletic fields, Walmart’s, and Cracker Barrel’s filled to the brim every Sunday while many churches sit half-empty.
We see all this and we don’t particularly like it, but we aren’t all that sure what we can do about it. We know something is terribly wrong but we’re not sure what, and how to fix it? It feels a bit at times like being on the sinking Titanic. The iceberg has done its damage. Is there any hope of stopping us from sinking completely? Should we deploy the lifeboats and save ourselves? Wouldn’t it be easier to abandon the sinking ship, and leave the world to fend for itself? Why go to all the trouble to reach out to them? They know where our church is; they drive past us every day.
Maybe Wesley had many of the same thoughts? He might have felt the pang of despair. He might have felt like he was just one person. What could he possibly do that would make a difference? Many of his Anglican peers were wiling to accept the status quo as the “way things were and there’s nothing we can do”. It would have been easy for John to do the same thing.
History shows us that Wesley didn’t give into what David Burke, pastor and youth leader, once called “stinking thinking”. And the world is a better place because he didn’t. It seems that John was cut from different cloth than the average person. Every now again throughout history God raises up people like John Wesley and the “Methodists” who followed him, and accomplishes great things through them. Like Queen Esther, they seem to be placed in just the position they need to be for “such a time as this”. They usually manage to “break the mold” because they struggle with all that they have, and all that they are, to overcome that terribly strong force of human nature—the inertia of the way we’ve always done it—long enough to do something new.
So Wesley couldn’t do it all (he knew that was God’s job!) but he made a wholehearted commitment to do what he felt uniquely gifted and called to do.
For example, the spiritual practices (or methods) Wesley developed during rigorous academic study at Oxford earlier in his life came in handy as means to help ordinary men and women connect with God. He sought to create a theology that was well-reasoned and thoroughly immersed in God’s divinity and yet utterly practical and doable in the midst of daily life.
Wesleyan theology seeks to provide guidelines for pursuing practical divinity. To Wesley, all the academic knowledge about God in the world wasn’t worth much if it didn’t help ordinary folks experience God in the midst of daily life.
Wesley tried to organize the church hierarchy to help facilitate practical divinity. There were larger groups called societies, that met to teach doctrine, but more important were the classes, small groups met together to build relationships and pursue matters of the heart. These groups of ~12 people often asked a series of 10 probing questions to each other. Answering those questions helped build relationships and strengthened bonds of accountability among the group. The general idea of the societies and classes was that those further along the journey would mentor those who were just beginning. One can think of the image of a group of people ascending a mountain together. Ideally, we would always be helping someone up (i.e., mentoring) someone and also being helped to go higher ourselves (i.e., being mentored).
So what can you do at “such a time as this”? What does God ask of your church right now? That is something you must determine. God’s call to each one of us (and to our churches) is unique to our time and place—as it was for Wesley in 18th century England and for others throughout history. One size definitely will not fit all. You must tailor your response to the unique needs of your community. You must get much better acquainted with the place you call home.
As United Methodists of Dundalk and Edgemere (UMODE) in Southeast Baltimore, we have spent the last few years discerning the answer in our own context. The five churches of UMODE have hired a youth and young adult pastor to work for us. She has spent the last six months forging relationships with the people walk the streets and frequent the coffee shops, Laundromats, and other gathering places throughout Dundalk and Edgemere. In her travels, she has met many in our community who have a deep interest in discussing matters of spirituality and theology but who, for any of a host of reasons, no longer feel comfortable or welcome in “traditional” church settings. She has been doing good work—even though some of it has not been immediately visible up until now. She assures us that there is harvest to be had for the Kingdom of God; now we need workers to go forth and bring it in.
And we have created a means to try and reap that harvest. We are following in the proud tradition of the Wesley’s and trying and take church to the people of our community. We’re moving out of our comfort zone, moving beyond the “traditional” definitions of Church as a place you go, and getting back to its roots as something we are—an outpost of the Kingdom of God in a hostile world. We have started The Village—a gathering happening on the second and fourth Thursday of each month at the a coffee shop in historic Dundalk. Our initial gathering was a blast; 72 people came throughout the evening as well as others who stayed on the fringe, not yet sure if they were “invited”.
We intend to make it clear through our Love, Understanding, Peace, and Encouragement (L.U.P.E.) that all are truly welcome in God’s village.
As we sang songs, heard poetry and spoken word, and enjoyed food and fellowship we felt God with us, Christ in us, and the Spirit on the move. And that was just the first night! We are excited to see what God has in store and we continue to do church in The Village.
I’m not sure, but somehow I think maybe John is looking down on us and smiling at us right now ? More importantly, I’m pretty sure that God is smiling too.
Alan Ward writes about Science for NASA, but his true passion is to write to further God’s Kingdom. Many of his articles discuss aspects of discipleship and spiritual formation — in particular how our life experiences shape the person we become. He is husband to Laurie (a United Methodist pastor) and father to Brady and Becca. Read his blog at: http://bigalscorner.blogspot.com.