To Be Where the People Are

The last two days of our Wesley Heritage Tour with EO were exciting opportunities to look at the inception of the Wesleyan movement and seek insights for application to the current Wesleyan movement (more specifically through the United Methodist Church & the Central Texas Conference.  Perhaps the highlight for me was visiting the “New Room” in Bristol. Early in the Wesleyan movement, the Methodists focused on the working class city of Bristol.  Two “societies” came together to build a new room (actually a building with a worship space, apartments for traveling preachers and meeting rooms) in the heart of Bristol.  It is still there not only as a piece of venerable history but also as a current mission post in the city of Bristol.  In the center of the perhaps the busiest shopping area, the New Room stands out as an oasis.  Warmly welcomed by David Worthington, Manager of the New Room, we encountered a sense of energy and purpose there which was not commonly present in other Wesley heritage sites.  (Time prohibited us from really investigating and understanding the New Room’s outreach ministry.)  [David will be with us in Central Texas at Texas Wesleyan University on the evening of October 13th.  Dr. Jesse Sowell will be hosting his brief time in our area.] The contrast between the old parish churches (like St. Mary de Crypt & St. Andrew’s in Epworth) is worth deep reflection.  Rather than an idyllic setting, the New Room is located where the people are.  It’s plain, versatile interior exhibits a marked contrast with the stone and stain glass of the historic village church.  I found myself reflecting on the difference (and conflict) between traditional worship and (so-called) contemporary worship.  The New Room represented its day’s version of contemporary worship.  Instead of insisting the people come to us (or them), a hallmark of the Wesleyan movement was a willingness to go where the people are.  Indeed out of Whitfield’s preaching and through his instance, John Wesley took mission outreach a step farther than even the “contemporary” New Room.  Wesley first engaged in “field preaching” on April 1st in 1739.  Appropriately his first text was from the Sermon on the Mount!  Writing of the occasion, John Wesley could not help but comment that he “submitted to be more vile” by preaching outdoors.  Heitzenrater notes, “By this method, the gospel could be brought to the people where they were, to people who could not or would not go to a church at the appointed hour for services” (Richard Heitzenrater, John Wesley and the People Called Methodists, p. 99).

Wesley took the commanding mission (and commission!) to spread the gospel through making disciples way beyond radical hospitality.  He went where the people were out of love of Christ and love of those who have no relationship with the living God as Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.  What is the equivalent of the New Room and field preaching for us this day?  I believe the same living Lord who called Wesley and early Methodists calls us today.