facebook script

Can't find something?

We're here to help.

Send us an email at:

[email protected]

and we'll get back with you as soon as possible.

Will we go to where the people are?

Migrant children holding water bottles

Rev. Dwayne Bagley, superintendent of the Greater Southwest District, illustrates how churches in his district are compelled to take the gospel into their communities.

Superintendent, Greater Southwest District

One of the best things I did when I began my tenure as the district superintendent of the Kalamazoo District in 2016 was to take a tour of the entire district. I visited every church in the expanse delineated by the Lake Michigan shoreline, Interstate 69, the Allegan County line, and the border with Indiana. I made my journey in late July and early August when the fields adjacent to so many of our rural churches were ripe for harvesting. In the amber waves of grain, I saw a metaphor. Everywhere I looked, it was harvest time, except in our churches. That vision persisted when I toured the newly created Greater Southwest District in 2019 and the even greater Greater Southwest District in 2023.

What has also persisted throughout my tenure as district superintendent are the questions church people ask: How can we get young people to come? What can we do to attract new people? Where are all the children and young families? The answer I repeatedly offered, framed in dozens of variations of strategy and theme, was a singular imperative: Go.

That suggestion has elicited countless responses. Some may have the ring of familiarity. The same concerns are raised even on the other side of enduring the creation of a new Michigan Annual Conference, rounds of redistricting, the travail of COVID-19, and the whirlwind of disaffiliation. We hear even the most faithful of church members say, “We are tired, weak, and worn.” To them, we might respond, “Let the joy of the Lord be your strength.” Others continue to say, “You don’t understand. The opportunities here are so limited. Some harvest fields have been paved, and others have been lined for children’s soccer matches. People are so distracted and busy.” To them, we might suggest that they go to the margins of the harvest field, to the fringes, to the very edge. That’s where we’ll find the widows and orphans trying to sift through the fragments to put their lives back together. That’s where we’ll find the person with a heroin addiction who has lost hope. That’s where we’ll find the victim of sex trafficking who needs healing. Out on the edge of the field, far from where life’s crowded ways cross, we’ll find the least, the last, the lost, and the left behind in abundance. They are waiting for the blessing the people called United Methodists have been entrusted to share. But for them to receive, we have to be willing to go.

For the longest time, God’s people have treated the task of making disciples as if they were tending to a well-watered garden walled off from the rest of the world. We have thought that those who wished to experience what we have to offer would compel themselves to climb over our walls, knock on all the doors until they found the right entrance, and navigate their way through an array of stairwells and hallways so that they might join us in fellowship and help themselves to a Styrofoam cup of free-trade coffee. Individuals on the outside looking in are no longer compelled to come to us, but the Spirit of the living God calls us to go to them.

Some churches in the Greater Southwest District have taken faithful first steps. Out of necessity, many churches crossed the digital divide during the pandemic. At least one church has gone a step further to engage people where they are. Each Sunday after completing the in-person service, Cassopolis UMC records a second worship service designed to connect with participants online. In Portage, Chapel Hill UMC embraced the support of a refugee family from Afghanistan by sending volunteers to stay with the family’s four girls while their mother attends English as a second language classes. In Van Buren County, Townline UMC has a Hands of Jesus ministry, which goes out each month to serve the elderly, those with a disability, and those financially or physically unable to complete projects around their home. All these examples offer signs of hope for the continuing United Methodist Church in Southwest Michigan.

I could give more illustrations of individual congregations. In addition to these, a new initiative in the district wishing to connect with the Latinx community in Southwest Michigan began in the summer of 2022. In partnership with the Michigan Conference New Church Start Committee and the Committee on Hispanic/Latino Ministries, we appointed two pastors to establish a new outreach. Because of a legacy gift designated by Lifespring UMC, we are now able to fund full-time ministry for both pastors. So far, this work has connected with dozens of individuals in Van Buren County and is on the verge of establishing a community center in Paw Paw. Last summer, our missionary pastors responded to the gospel imperative to go where the people are by visiting 250 migrant labor camps in the region. Shared community meals and gifts of water bottles handed out to children became a means of grace.

Even this tentative beginning has inspired this district superintendent to trust that there is a new future for United Methodists in Southwest Michigan, even in the aftermath of disaffiliation. That future is possible if we remain faithful to respond to the same gospel imperative placed before the church of Jesus Christ in every age. It requires a willingness to do a new thing, an openness to become part of what our God is already doing, and more than a bit of fearlessness. The question before all of us is not, can we go or should we go but will we go?

Last Updated on May 15, 2024

The Michigan Conference