United Methodists Join Forces to 'Turn Worlds Upside Down'

February 07, 2009

By Jeanette Pinkston and Erik Alsgaard*


Feb. 6, 2009 | JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (UMNS)    

What happens when nearly 14 million United Methodists around the world focus on a single idea with four "themes"?


Denominational leaders pray that in the next four years some amazing transformations will take place - around the corner and around the world.

The four areas of focus adopted by the 2008 General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, were rolled out in earnest at the quadrennial training event for annual conference leaders Jan. 29-Feb. 1 in Jacksonville, Florida.


More than 1,200 leaders [including 20 from the California-Nevada Annual Conference] gathered for the "Living the United Methodist Way: Turning Worlds Upside Down" event to learn how their respective places of ministry can connect with others to transform themselves and the world.


Susan Ruach, chairperson of the design team and staff member at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, said the event's goal was to give participants "the big picture" of the four areas of focus, which are the centerpiece of the denomination's ministry for the next four to eight years.


"My prayer, my hope, has been that this event will really help us as The United Methodist Church to come together and move forward in God's vision," she said.

The four areas - leadership development, church growth, ministry with the poor, and global health - were introduced in plenary sessions, followed by workshops on each topic.


Texas Bishop Janice Riggle Huie illustrated how the emphasis was formed through intense Bible study, prayer, and conversation, and she invited the leaders to "move out ... of our little boxes" and follow "where we believe the Spirit is calling us." If the church did that, she said, United Methodism would once again become a movement.


Held every four years, the quadrennial training event is jointly planned by the boards of Church and Society, Communications, Discipleship, Pension and Health Benefits, Global Ministries, Higher Education and Ministry, Christian Unity and Interreligous Concerns, Religion and Race, Status and Role of Women, United Methodist Men, Publishing House, and Finance and Administration, along with annual conference leaders.



Florida Bishop Tim Whitaker led participants on a trip down memory lane, noting that a loss of memory may lead to a loss of one's identity. "If a group begins to lose memory of its origins, it loses its identity," he said. "We need to change, but we must change and do so without losing our identity."


The bishop showed how Methodism's John and Charles Wesley articulated a clear theological vision, often encapsulated in their hymnody. The Wesleys' strong Trinitarian roots forged a theology that said that the living God is acting in history for our sake; that transforming the whole creation starts with transforming the individual; and that a theological vision without a community in which to live it out is no good.


Jay Williams, [left] a 27-year-old seminarian from New York, offered his thoughts on developing church leaders from the perspective of one who is in the process of being developed himself.


"Some folks just aren't leaders," he said. "Leadership is a gift of the Spirit. If we force people into leadership, the imminent result will be utter disaster."


Williams, who led his conference's delegation to the 2008 General Conference, stated three theses on living the United Methodist Way.


"First, death is not always a bad thing," he said. "It's time to let deadly practices die. Some of our churches have been struggling to die for decades.


"Second, our primary task is to be a Christian, not United Methodist," he said.


"Too many of us can talk about strategic plans but too few of us can give a witness. Too many of us know the Book of Discipline and the rules of polity, but not the Bible."


And the third thesis, he said, is that in order to lead, one must follow. The church needs to develop a culture of apprentices and followers of leaders.


New places for new faces

The Rev. Thomas Butcher, executive officer of New Church Starts and coordinator of Path1 at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, said that his mission is to lead a movement that starts new churches - re-evangelizing the United States.


"From 1870 to 1920," he said, "the Methodist Church started one new church every day. Starting new churches is the most effective evangelism tool we have. We want to get to the point in the future where we are starting one new church every day."


That's the vision of the Path1 team, the group charged with recruiting, training, and providing resources for 1,000 new church planters to start 650 churches in the next four years. One-half of those churches are targeted to be racial/ethnic congregations.


The Rev. Candace Lewis, pastor of New Life United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, started her church in a storefront in 1996. Lewis was fresh out of seminary and knew only two people in Jacksonville. "And neither of them joined the new church," she said with a laugh.


The new congregation started in an urban community and its parking lot was its mission field. "When you're committed to reaching new people for Jesus Christ, you have to try just about anything," she said, and that included carnivals in the parking lot, concerts, picnics, fellowships, a health fair, and "heavenly harvest," an alternative to Halloween trick or treating.


"Most of the people who came were not part of a church or The United Methodist Church," she said. "We had contemporary, excited worship with people lifting hands; they weren't getting arrested, they were just excited to be praising God."

Four years ago, the congregation moved into a new building. The former Baptist church [building] is now proudly United Methodist with more than 200 members.


Even with all the excitement of starting new churches, the challenges the denomination faces today are real, according to the Rev. Bener Agtarap, [right] new church system strategist for the Board of Discipleship.


Agtarap spoke about how the church in his home country of the Philippines learned to grow again. "Prior to the 1980s, most congregations in the Philippines had no program on mission or evangelism," he explained. "Most pastors had no training in mission evangelism. We had more clergy employees than clergy evangelists; more local pastors and fewer mission pastors."


Further, there was no clear policy at the annual conference level to promote mission evangelism. "What if every annual (regional) conference had a policy that every local church had a mission to start a new church?" he asked.


That was the question asked in the Philippines, and the church responded. In 1984, the church declared the province of Cavite as its mission field. Churches in metro Manila started 30 new churches in Cavite between 1984 and 1999.


Then there is the story of Oak Cliff United Methodist Church, Dallas, Texas.


"Two minutes from closing," by the pastor's own admission, with the endowment used up and the people gone, the church decided to change drastically.


The Rev. Diane Presley, the church's pastor, told the seven-year story of this church that could be almost anywhere in the United States. She said there are three things that any transforming church needs to have: a stable financial base; a vision to nurture; and "You gotta have people."


Ministry with the poor

The Rev. Ed Paup, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, [below] told participants that "it cannot be business as usual if we intend to make ministry to and with the poor a priority."


While many United Methodists are not poor, he reminded listeners that "more than 80 percent of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. The poorest 40 percent of population accounts for only 5 percent of income."


The church can do three things, he said: listen to the poor themselves, not just to the statistics; accept the poor - which implies seeing them and acknowledging that they exist; and serve the poor - responding to needs, spiritual and physical.


Noting that The United Methodist Church has hundreds of effective ministries with the poor in place, Paup noted that the church today is "neither without model or practitioner." Nevertheless, to make a difference, United Methodists - who make up about .002 percent of the world's population - must collaborate in new and sometimes strange ways.


"If we do this in a way that I believe God calls us, we will see a renewal in The United Methodist Church and a new sense of relevancy in the world," Paup said. "The transformation will take place individually, then in our congregations, and then in our conferences."


An offering raised nearly $8,000 for the North East District Outreach Ministries of the Florida Annual (regional) Conference. Participants placed money and checks on a table at the front of the stage as the praise band from New Life United Methodist Church [below] provided music.


Global health

From the beginning of the Methodist movement, John Wesley recognized the correlation between poverty and health, said the Rev. Larry Hollon, top executive of United Methodist Communications. "Wesley's holistic theology led him to engage with individuals and systems that dealt with health care systems," he said, noting that one of Wesley's first ministries was a health clinic for the poor.


Preventable diseases are taking a terrible toll on people around the world, Hollon said, but added, "We believe we have the power to make and create change."


A central partner and inspiration behind the denominational effort to eradicate malaria using bed nets, United Methodist Communications has begun creating wide-ranging conversations on the global health initiative.


"Bed nets save the lives of children in malaria-affected areas of the world," said Hollon. "But it is not only about bed nets. It is about training community health workers in participatory health care ... it is about providing life-enhancing education through radio, mailings, and other communication tools ... it is about enlisting and deploying new missionaries for global health ... it is about enlisting health champions and parish nurses in each annual conference."


The Rev. Gary Gunderson, senior vice president for Health and Welfare Ministries for Methodist Healthcare in Memphis, Tennessee, sounded a hopeful note. "We have science to drastically reduce, if not eliminate, the worst offenses of justice and poverty globally," he said.


"In just 100 years, the average human life span grew 37 years, a miracle John Wesley would not been so bold to pray for," he said. "God's abundance is far greater than imagined. In most of the world, we are already winning and we have hardly gotten our act together. In Africa and South Asia, we have only begun to fight."


Dr. Cherian Thomas, a physician who is executive secretary for the Hospital Revitalization Program of the Board of Global Ministries, said that issues of poverty and global health require partnerships. "We have United Methodists in Pittsburgh who are helping fight cholera in Zimbabwe," he added as an example. The key to moving forward is investment in ideas and people, he said.


"We have to train people in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. We have to have people to move forward," he said. "We need to develop programs as well as people. It's not money we need, it's ideas and investment in people. This is my dream for today and for years to come."


The Rev. Gary Henderson, executive director of the Global Health Initiative for The United Methodist Church, challenged the participants to provide a "healing ointment" to the world.


"If we are going to turn the world upside down, this will require resurrection faith," he said. "We hope that the clear ministry areas of focus would ignite a passion in you ... a resurrection faith."


*Pinkston is director of media relations for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn. Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference in Lakeland, Fla.