Practical Divinity: Vision and visibility, then and now

Andrew C. Thompson

Andrew C. Thompson

Times, they are a-changin’.

The past 25 years have seen advances in technology that have dramatically changed our daily lives. Many of those changes affect the ways we communicate with one another. Both the Internet and the devices we use to access it have become fixtures in our lives in a way we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago.

One challenge local churches face is how to keep pace with the level of change so they can reach both their own members and the unchurched people in their communities.

This is a question of both vision and visibility. How well do we communicate our vision? And how visible are we making it to others?

As unlikely as it may seem, there are insights to be had by looking at the way 18th-century Methodists asked these questions about vision and visibility. The time period and the technology were different then, but the need to focus and flex according to circumstances was similar.

Vision

The vision of the early Methodists can be seen in the way that they locked in on what they believed the word of God was calling them to be about. The Methodists envisioned a world where all men and women encountered the transforming grace of God. They wanted hurting, broken and sinful people to experience the wonder of salvation here and now.

We can find that vision articulated in the “Large Minutes,” a collection of pastoral advice and doctrinal teaching used by the Methodist movement under John Wesley. Wesley’s own counsel to the Methodist preachers in the Large Minutes is clear: “You have nothing to do but to save souls,” he says. “Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those that [need] you, but to those that [need] you most.”

Also present in the Large Minutes is a kind of mission statement for the early Methodist movement. In answering the question about the reason God has had for raising up the Methodists, the Large Minutes state, “to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”

There are other ways to understand the vision of the early Methodist movement, of course. Wesley often summarized the three main doctrines of Methodism as repentance, faith and holiness—a kind of shorthand for how one experiences the joy of salvation. The key is that however it was stated—through mission language, practices of ministry or doctrine—the point was always to express clearly what it meant to move toward the vision God had given the movement.

Visibility

As the vision of the early Methodist movement was being articulated, its visibility was pursued in a whole host of ways so that the vision could start to become a reality on the ground. One of the most obvious ways was the missional spread of Methodist preachers themselves. By establishing a circuit plan and then deploying preachers strategically, Wesley was able to constantly press out into new areas of activity.

Less obvious is the way in which Methodists used the cutting-edge technology of the day—mass-market printing—to carry their message to a wider audience. Wesley published sermons, doctrinal essays and his own journal as a way to reach thousands more people than would ever hear his voice. In the 1770s, he began publishing the Arminian Magazine on a monthly basis as the voice of the movement. In addition to his own writing, the Arminian featured testimonies and letters of other Methodists known to live exemplary lives.

What can we learn?

Vision and visibility were a large part of the Methodist movement’s success in the early years. There are many parallels with our own situation, from which contemporary churches can learn a great deal.

For example, think about the multi-level challenge today of simply identifying a church’s vision for its own mission and ministry. Is it business as usual? Or does work need to be done to specifically name what it is your church should be focused on? We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the need to form “vital congregations.” But how should a church capture its own vision of what that will look like within its context?

In the 18th century, there were plenty of competing visions that the early Methodists had to buck against. One of the most compelling was the vision that the Enlightenment was holding up for society, which had a boundless confidence in the godlike power of Reason and in the progress of human society as propelled by human beings themselves. Another vision was of a religious situation that was largely moralistic in tone, and which certainly avoided the kinds of religious enthusiasm that had gripped various parts of Britain in the previous century.

In other words, it wasn’t easy for the Methodists to cast their vision of the transforming power of God’s grace and the incredible experience of present salvation. They had to maintain a laser-like focus, and they also had to make creative use of vehicles like mass-market publishing, whose potential they themselves ended up revealing most fully.

How much these early Methodist examples will teach us depends on how seriously we take them. In a changing world with many options for people to choose, we need to be keenly focused on what it is we believe and are offering the world. We also need to use all the means at our disposal very strategically, where those are “old media” or “new media.”

Church-by-inertia just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Our spiritual forebears knew as much in their own time. Now it’s time for us to learn the same thing.

The Rev. Dr. Thompson serves as senior pastor of First UMC Springdale. He can be reached at www.andrewthompson.com.