Bring Back the Circuit Rider

Part 1 “The Lost Genius of Early Methodism”

In A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions, I suggested we need to rethink and reemploy the tradition of the circuit rider.[1]

In response to the missional imperative, John Wesley, and the early Methodists in eighteenth century Britain innovated the practice of traveling place to place to plant and oversee new Methodist communities. These itinerant Methodist apostles did not have the proper Anglican credentials, and they often invaded the parish territory of the ordained priests. Wesley assembled, trained, deployed, and oversaw a small army of lay preachers and leaders.

On the other side of the pond, it was Francis Asbury, the founding bishop, and Harry Hosier the founding evangelist of American Methodism, who further established the practice of circuit riding. Hosier, also known as “Black Harry” was a freed slave, illiterate, never formally ordained, and yet was known as the greatest orator in America. His preaching helped the Methodists become the most prominent denomination in the country. This dynamic duo traveled hundreds of thousands of miles and preached tens of thousands of sermons throughout the vast expanses of a fledgling nation.

Circuit riders in early frontier Methodism were assigned to travel around defined geographic territories to serve as clergy to emerging settlements. They planted and oversaw new congregations, riding on horseback between these distant churches, carrying only what could fit in their saddlebags. They traveled through dangerous terrain, braving the elements, preaching every day in whatever homes, fields, and public spaces were available. Serious injury and death were constant possibilities. Many had their teeth removed and wore wooden dentures to avoid potential dental complications on the road.

This is not exactly the equivalent of itinerancy in Methodism today, where clergy travel a circuit of established churches with guaranteed appointments and salary standards.

Part of the now lost genius of early Methodism was twofold:

  1. Circuit Riders: The unflinching tenacity of these traveling, apostolic, priests whose primary role was missionary in nature.
  2. Lay Ministry: The circuit system required the so-called laity to step into ministry leadership positions.

In between visits from the circuit riders, it was the “ordinary” Christians who were responsible for the everyday work of ministry. This was an awakening of the “priesthood of all believers” (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers)—the whole people of God.

Today, there seems to be a clergy caste system, where the highlight of a lay person’s life might be serving on a committee, overseeing an existing ministry, or reading liturgy in a worship service (usually predetermined by the clergy person). Resourceful lay persons find innovative ways to serve, but the real “pastoral stuff” is left to the professionals with their advanced degrees. Emerging generations are responding with a resounding “no thanks!” to this social contract.

Thankfully, Covid-19 has thrust the church into a new missional frontier. This new space has primarily two dimensions one that is digital and one analog. The digital is a kind of wild, wild west right now, where missional innovators are living into new ways of being church. In a post-Christendom society, analog consists of church buildings that sit mostly empty. A system that was already backwards and failing has been more fully exposed. Yet some pioneers are forming new Christian communities out in the first, second, and third places of the larger context, with people who don’t go to church. This activity often leads to the renewal of the existing congregations, a phenomenon I call “re-missioning.”

Perhaps it is time for us to rethink the idea of itinerant clergy serving circuits? Rather than understanding itineration in the institutional sense of being sent annually from one local church to another, we could recover the apostolic genius of the circuit rider. Local clergy now find ourselves in communities where we need to be both missionaries and pastors. New strange kinds of circuits are emerging, consisting of traditional congregations and fresh expressions that form in analog and digital spaces.

On Sunday mornings, Jill and I join our team for the 9am worship experience at Wildwood UMC. Every aspect of the service, including the preaching, is carried out by teams of lay leaders in a co-creative and shared leadership approach. We then drive the 30 minutes to Ocala, where the 11am worship experience of St Marks takes place in the same way, teams of laity working together. While this is happening, another team of laypersons distributed across multiple states are conducting online worship experiences in a 1300-member community called the Living Room Church. Throughout the seven day week, both pastors and lay persons are offering digital worship experiences, devotionals, prayer times, yoga church, tattoo talks, and spiritual conversations. A daily study through the whole Bible called the “Daily Dose” is led by Adam Fike, another lay minister!

There will increasingly be less full-time “professional ministers” and more bi-vocational and co-vocational missionary-pastors. The future of the church is simple, lay-led, and free. Perhaps in this new space, we need a fresh take on a vintage tradition… the minister as “circuit rider” and a true “priesthood of all believers.” In this series I’ll explore what that could potentially look like!

[1] A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions,105.

1 thought on “Bring Back the Circuit Rider”

  1. Pingback: Bring Back the Circuit Rider – Rev. Dr. Michael Adam Beck

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