When John & Charles Wesley took the Good News to the working poor of England, they received no encouragement or support from The Church. Good church people and church authorities thought that preaching in the fields and in mining villages was vulgar and inappropriate. The word of God, according to proper church folks, should only be preached from a pulpit in a church. Official reprimands were issued. John and others among these “field preachers” were barred from many pulpits for these practices along with their unpopular messages.
Regrettably part of their opposition was based on an aversion to “those people,” referring to people who had migrated from the country Side. There the village church was in the center of town life, literally and figuratively, In London where the churches were cathedrals, their shabby clothing and limited financial resources simply did not fit in with the educated, wealth church goers.
These migrants entered an entirely different economy when their arrived in these cities and mining towns. In the countryside, they grew or raised a significant part of what they needed and bartered for others things. Selling something they produced or made earned them money to buy the few things they could not grow, made or barter. Once in the city, their earnings from a factory or mining job was what they had to live on.
In those days, there were no laws to prohibit extremely long working hours. A 40-hour work week and weekends off were unknown. Even young children worked to help support their families, and education was a luxury. Debtors’ prisons were a reality for many.
All of this meant that the growing population in the cities were unchurched, uneducated and unable to rise above the poverty level. In those days, health care in these communities was scare, and there were no protections for workers from dangerous environments or duties. Life spans were short.
The Wesley brothers and other members of the Holy Club they organized at Oxford did not limit themselves, therefore, to the care of souls. They knew that physical needs and hardships made hearing the gospel as good news rather unbelievable. So, their ministry was to the real material needs of the people they served as well as what we would call evangelism and Christian education. Thrift institutions were established to help them learn how to manage their money. John Wesley even wrote a book of medical and healthy living advice. They also visited people in prison, providing prisoners and their families with help.
The bands and classes they established (what would be called small groups or covenant discipleship today) taught literacy as well as scripture. In these small groups people were prepared to go to church: spiritual preparation along with what we might call basic hygiene and etiquette.
The Wesleys and those who joined their Methodist movement were not popular among people who exploited the working poor either. They were attacked by tavern owners and others who profited from the hopeless situation of the poor, encouraging them to “drown their sorrows” in alcohol, and flaming the hope of increasing their wages through gambling. And when I say attacked, I mean with fists and rocks. Being run out of town was common with or without a beating first.
When the Methodist movement came to the US, there were similar issues among the general population. To be sure, churches were uncommon outside the cities, and circuit riders covered dozens of churches spread across hundreds of miles. Lay preachers (both men and women), called exhorters, kept the preaching going; but communion was only possible when an ordained priest (who we call elders today) were present. As a result, the sacrament was offered quarterly, or even less often. Camp meetings were a major evangelism tool across the country side.
It may seem that we are light years away from the birth of Methodism, but today there are a many people in the communities that surround NFUMC who have are without means and have no relationship with a faith community. The church is rarely at the center of a community’s life. And, that is true for many churches.
Our Global Board of Discipleship has focused attention on the fact that there are many people just outside our campus with the #SeeAllThePeople initiative. Dr. Junius Dotson who heads the board has assembled some outstanding materials to help churches see all the people that are around them, and make disciples of Jesus Christ. A number of you picked up some of these materials from the North Georgia Conference table that we had in the sanctuary last month.
In conjunction with this, you may have heard of Fresh Expressions, a movement that began in the UK in the Anglican church, and was introduced successfully in the US in the Florida Conference. Much like the early Methodist movement these fresh expressions of church, take the gospel out to people where they are. These non-typical settings, bring church to places that are as different as the fields of Wesley’s day. The point is to gather with people at a point of need or around an activity or interest that important to them. The goal is to bring people into relationship with each other, with Christ, and eventually to lead them into a life of discipleship. The success of these efforts is amazing and inspirational. Some examples have been shared on our UNFUMC Facebook page. Both these initiatives provide an avenue for evangelism for our times.
The question for us is simple. Will we be a part of this great awakening!