For the pioneers of the Primitive Methodist movement, mission was a verb. Travelling preachers such as William Clowes “missioned” a town or village. They would choose public spaces such as large market-places, farmers’ fields, barns, sheds, factories or any other convenient location and use that space for open-air preaching. Mission was the activity of the missionary; mission was what the missionary did.
The movement was a dynamic missionary movement. A missionary, noted one historian, “was simply an open-air preacher. The only instruments he carried were his bible and hymn book and possibly the innocent staff or umbrella.” The missionary and his helpers would sing as they made their way to the preaching spot. The preachers were surprisingly effective. They were bold in proclaiming the gospel and their pointed sermons were just that – they made a point, and lives were changed as men and women who were used to cursing and swearing, violence and drunkenness became followers of Jesus Christ.
William Clowes, the leading apostle, missionary and evangelist of the movement often preached to thousands at a time in the towns and villages he missioned. In 1821 he preached in Northallerton in the open air to about a thousand hearers” . Later that year he preached morning and evening, at Darlington. The evening crowd was estimated at two thousand people. In 1822 he records in his journal “On Monday evening following, at Howden Pans, I preached in a timber shed to about a thousand persons.” Later he “opened a large room for preaching at South Shields; in the afternoon it was crowded, and in the evening vast numbers could not gain admittance”
The missionary preachers “opened up” a town or village in this way. They made new converts and gathered them into a local class (roughly equivalent to a modern home group or small group). A number of classes formed a society, and the local society formed a chapel in the course of time. Changed lives led to changed communities, and the effect of Primitive Methodism rapidly expanded across England in the decades from 1820 onwards.
It is time for us to mission our nation and for the gospel of Christ to transform those whose lives are being wrecked by the evils of our day and generation. Let me name just a few: alcohol abuse, addiction to illegal drugs, the enslavement of pornography, broken sexuality, violence, and relationship breakdown. It is time for mission to become a verb.