In 2016, I
took a trip made a pilgrimage that had a major impact on my life and especially my ministry. The Wesley Pilgrimage sponsored by United Methodist Discipleship Ministries took me and my fellow pilgrims around several places where John Wesley and others began what we know today as Methodism. One of those places was Epworth where John and his siblings grew up while their father, Samuel Wesley, served as rector of Saint Andrews Church in Epworth. After touring Saint Andrews and its rectory where the Wesley family lived we went on a walking tour of Epworth on our way to have tea at Wesley Memorial Methodist Church. One of the places we came to was the market cross at High Street. John Wesley used to preach here, in fact preaching at the market cross was a common practice for him. This was because the market cross was a gathering place for the people, where they would come to do their shopping and to meet with one another. With this in mind, it made sense for preachers like Wesley to gather people for worship and proclamation.
In other words, he went to where the people were rather than expecting them to come to him.
In 2019, we find ourselves in challenging times for those of us in ministry. The old ways of “doing church” are still alive but are barely hanging on by a thread. The idea that people will come to the church, while sometimes true, is often not the case anymore. Depending on who you are or what study you look at, there are many reasons for this including distrust of institutions, pain from previous negative experiences, and the church’s (speaking collectively) reputation for being judgmental and unaccepting of those who are different. Really, the reasons don’t matter. Nothing will change the fact that the days of people coming to church “just because” are over and they are not going to come back.
Truthfully, those days should have never been.
I shared with my congregations on Sunday that when Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28, he did not say anything about making disciples of the people who show up for worship at our campuses. Here’s what the text actually says – read it carefully. “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19 NLT) The keyword is “go.” The Greek language used here is used in an imperative sense, meaning that going is not optional. Further, Jesus did have people come to him but he always went to them first. The people are not going to come to us just because we have a nice building or a reputation for having vibrant worship (though those things are good). We must go to the people and give them the good news.
I say again: We have to get back to our roots.
The American church is in a challenging time but, truthfully, it’s a time that largely of our own making. We have forgotten why we exist. William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, is quoted as saying that, “the Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”We are more worried about our own survival as an institution and our own comfort rather than bringing those who are outside of our walls into the fold. We must remember our purpose and get back to it.
We must get back to our roots.
In the movie Sister Act, the nuns who Whoopi Goldberg joins as Sister Mary Clarance hide behind their walls because they are afraid of their neighbors. The neighborhood in which their convent is situated is not the best in the world, with adult stores and bars all over, along with homeless and poor people all around. Finally, they have a wake-up call and start ministering to their neighbors and otherwise being part of the neighborhood. The result was people learning to trust them and the church’s pews were packed during worship. You may be surprised to know that this exact same thing happens in real life everyday when congregations step out of their walls and go to the people.
I say again: It’s time to get back to our roots.
How can we do this? It’s simple, yet difficult: We have to be the church. We have to find our own market crosses and proclaim the gospel to those who are there. But, we don’t have to use a firey sermon like John Wesley. We do this by meeting needs, showing compassion, and accepting people as they are. We have to step out of our comfortable boxes and do some ministry. We have to stop expecting people to come to our buildings simply because they are there and we have to stop expecting people to be just like us, including how they dress and even how they talk. Change occurred because Jesus accepted people as they were without trying to put them into a mold.
I say again: It’s time to get back to our roots.