As we celebrate laity weekend, I wanted to take a moment and share how vital laity have been to the Methodist movement. In the early days of Methodism in America, preachers were given a circuit. For this reason, many times there were called circuit riders.
From 1773 to 1790, the population in America multiplied as did the circuit system of American Methodism. “Most circuit-riding preachers offered the only religious services available” to many of the people they served.(1) These circuit riders often served an area that encompassed anywhere from 200 to 500 miles. One rider, Elijah Woolsey took nearly nine weeks to travel his circuit near Albany, New York. The trip lasted nearly nine weeks and he traveled almost 800 hundred miles.(2)
The local congregation was dependent upon the class leaders. Each church was organized with classes (small groups), bands (accountability groups), and societies (worship services). The class leader served as a lay pastor. He or she would step in for the circuit rider when he was gone on his circuit. The class leader would visit new families, the sick, and other class members. He or she was also responsible for helping make sure a class member didn’t slip away from the society.
Dr. Kenneth Kinghorn describes the American movement’s balance when he writes,
“As American Methodism grew, it produces an army of circuit riders and lay preachers. These Christian workers labored sacrificially in their efforts to take the gospel to every soul in the land.”(3)
Today, our laypersons in the church are still just as important. Although most of our churches have a resident pastor, we still have the itinerancy system. The role of the laity helps ensure the church’s work continues when God moves a pastor to a new place.
God has called us all to do the work of creating disciples. We as Methodists work together, clergy and laity, to fulfill this mission.
(1) The Heritage of American Methodist, Kenneth Cain Kingdhorn, p. 52
(2) Ibid. p. 52
(3) Ibid. p. 152