ORMOND BEACH – When is it OK to skip Wednesday night Bible study at the church in favor of karate?
Maybe all the time, Rev. Michael Beck, pastor at Wildwood UMC, told a crowd of about 50 gathered Tuesday at First UMC, Ormond Beach, for a Vision Day with Fresh Expressions US.
He said he recently changed the name of his congregation’s evangelism committee to the Fresh Expressions Committee and advised members that if they had a favorite activity to do in the community that could be used to spread the gospel, it might be more important than faithful church attendance.
“Don’t come to church on Wednesday night,” he said. “Go and be the church in those places where you are.”
Beck, whose ministries include Bible study at tattoo shops and a “Burritos and Bibles” group at Moe’s Southwest Grill, is one of those pastors who get the concept of Fresh Expressions, said Gannon Sims, communications and ministry formation director for Virginia-based Fresh Expressions US.
He and others from Fresh Expressions US came to meet with clergy and lay members of the Florida Conference on the eve of the conference’s 2015 annual meeting, scheduled to open today at Bethune-Cookman University. Florida United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter has embraced the concept of Fresh Expressions, a movement that began in England, and the concept is expected to be a major theme of this year’s Annual Conference.
Also sharing their story of new and different worshiping communities were Rev. Patti Aupperlee, pastor of First UMC, Pahokee; longtime Pahokee church member Lynda Moss; and Chad Stoffel, whom Aupperlee met about three years ago as he led worship in a nearby community for sex offenders. He and others from that community have since been embraced as Thursday night worship leaders at First UMC. The congregation also offers a monthly birthday celebration and movie night for the former offenders, whose terms of release from incarceration often include travel restrictions and who may be ostracized by family and friends.
“Everybody you look at, you see the image of God,” Aupperlee told the group. “We don’t throw away the children of God.”
Although that church’s ministry pre-dates the conference’s partnership last year with Fresh Expressions US, it epitomizes a fresh way of reaching people in ways that hark back to Jesus’ time, said leaders of the Christian movement that reaches across denominations.
“These are really the stories we want to tell,” said Rev. Audrey Warren, who has been spearheading the Fresh Expressions effort in the Florida Conference.
Moss, who has been a member at First UMC, Pahokee, since 1960 and played the organ for worship services since 1966, said she learned about sex offenders joining Thursday night worship from her daughters after they attended. She remembers storming into Aupperlee’s office to object, and she remained adamantly opposed for about six months.
She said she came to an Ash Wednesday service led by the newcomers and sat scowling, with her arms folded. But then something changed.
“God laid it on my heart, just ripped it up, and said this is the way it’s going to be.”
She said she approached Stoffel after the service, and she could see the fear. Then she told him she wanted him to come sing in the church choir.
Today she’s not only a champion of the First UMC ministry and a surrogate mother and grandmother to some of the men from the community, she also is chairperson of the Miracle Village Ministries board that founded it.
For his part, being accepted as a worship leader at First UMC has reopened a door that Stoffel thought was forever closed. He said he grew up involved in church youth groups and mission trips and had always dreamed of leading worship.
“I think God created me to lead worship,” Stoffel said. “As a result of choices I made, the results were devastating.”
Aupperlee said the church is careful to follow ministry protection guidelines, but she and Moss said the experience has opened their eyes to stereotypes about sex offenders that don’t hold true. Conditions applied to their release often have little to do with public safety, Aupperlee said, and the isolation they experience can be heartbreaking.
She said she is glad that movie nights and similar outreach efforts are being recognized as “fresh expressions.”
“It’s exciting to watch people fall in love with Jesus every day,” she said.
Sims said Fresh Expressions US is looking to Florida United Methodists to help mold the Fresh Expressions effort, even as it embraces other denominations.
“What’s brilliant about the situation in Florida is we have a bishop who is championing this,” he said. “The Florida Conference will be able to help shape this movement.”
-- Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.