Why the United Methodist Church Should Consider Virtual Appointments
By Rev. Kyle Ivy, Whitehall UMC, Louisville, Mississippi
I love to read about John Wesley's (eventual) enthusiasm with field preaching, a concept that is mostly lost in contemporary Methodism.
Rev. Kyle Ivy,
Where would John Wesley go to preach the grace of God in 2013? Would he go to the local mall and preach in the food court? Would he go into a local factory and proclaim Jesus over the thunder of industrial machinery?
Every Thursday night, we carry our daughter, Marion, to ballet class. We and the other parents wait patiently and quietly for the 45-minute class to finish. Do we share in small talk about local politics, religion or even our children? No. We all sit with our mobile devices, staring into an oblivious glow, exploring the newest frontier--Cyberspace.
How big is this new territory? Facebook reported more than 600,000,000 daily users in December 2012, making it the third largest country in the world by population. Obviously, there is tremendous potential to spread scriptural holiness on the Internet, but what are practical ways the Church can get involved?
We are strangers in the strange land of cyberspace. The Church is largely unequipped to navigate the terrain. I believe we can learn from secular success stories on effective means of gaining an audience. Facebook is an effective means of networking; however YouTube is a much more effective way to develop versatile content.
Here's an example of the power of this medium. (NOTE: I do not recommend you view the channel--it is often vulgar and sometimes blasphemous.) A man names Ray William Johnson opened his YouTube account in 2007 and began producing his own homemade show called Equals Three. He produces a weekly video that is consistently under five minutes. Each is humorous, witty, engaging, and short enough to watch in passing. Today, Ray William Johnson enjoys over 7,000,000 subscribers with weekly viewers somewhere between 3-4 million people.
Can you imagine? Let's put this into perspective: As I am writing this article, The Associated Press just released a story indicating that Judge Judy is in the #1 Daytime TV slot with 10.1 million viewers. Granted, Judge Judy has three times the viewership ofEquals Three; however, Judy's annual salary is $45 million. I doubt Ray Johnson has that kind of overhead. Moreover, what kind of resources would the church have to invest to reach 3 million people by traditional means? Network television is apparently not an option, but YouTube suddenly sounds manageable.
I don't know if a weekly church presence akin to Ray William Johnson would ever reach 3 million viewers, but is it beyond the pale of imagination that one might reach 3,000? What kind of resources go into reaching 3,000 people each week in a traditional church setting? We're talking about a multi-acre campus with multiple staff positions costing 10's of thousands of dollars just to pay the electric bill. If anything, 3,000 viewers ('hearers') on YouTube are 'small potatoes.'
In a 1908 speech to the General Conference, President Theodore Roosevelt said "the nation owes a debt of gratitude to the Methodist Circuit Rider...whose movement westward kept pace with the movement of the frontier." We must once again answer the call to keep pace with the movement of the frontier.
The internet is an uncivilized world that needs the powerful witness of the modern-day Circuit Riders. This is why I believe the United Methodist Church should mull the possibilities of Virtual Appointments. We should find those individuals with the appropriate gifts/graces and then provide the necessary resources to develop and promote quality online content.
Would this be an extension ministry? Would this be part of new-church development? How could it be funded? How do we find the ministers with the proper gifts and graces? I'm not entirely certain, but I know it will be easier than the task of Circuit Riders who rode out into the frontier on horseback. At the very minimum, individual churches should empower their ministers to reach out into cyberspace for the salvation of souls.
Still, 'field preaching' is not effective without societies. Quality online content is not enough. We must also embrace the power of social networking to build up a next generation class meeting, and what medium has more potential than online social platforms like Facebook, Google+, Skype, etc.
Whitehall UMC in Louisville, MS has taken on this task through the development of an online ministry called the FreeMinuteMessage (FMM). The videos are based on Ray William Johnson's editing style. We attempt to summarize the Sunday sermon with a witty, humorous, and very brief video. FMM is still in early stages, but viewership has exploded. Whitehall enjoys 60-70 in attendance on Sunday mornings. The FMM viewership last week reached 3,800 (reaching 49 states and 28 countries) at the writing of this article. Keep in mind, 3,800 does not take into account how many people watched it together, and we only get credit for the first time a person watches, even if they show it to 5 more people.
The Methodist Revival can begin anew when we acknowledge the world is truly our parish. We must not be limited our conventional boundaries and methods. As Wesley said of field preaching, "I see no other way to preach the Gospel to every living creature." In fact, "what building could contain such a congregation?"