The Rev. Dr. Kevin James says being a Christian is more than showing up at church on Sunday mornings.
James, senior pastor at Palma Ceia United Methodist Church in Tampa, opened the Black Church Symposium gathering Dec. 11 at the Life Enrichment Center with his vibrant preaching style. He was one of more than 200 people who attended the meeting designed to enlighten, encourage and endow black church members to partner with Conference entities to reach high levels of effectiveness.
Worshippers of all ages engage their faith in community at the recent Black Church Symposium. Photo by J.A. Buchholz.
Referring back to his text, James said he was reminded that all people are unworthy to untie the sandals of Jesus Christ. “I thought it was all about me, but thanks be to John (the Baptist) who teaches us it is about Jesus Christ,” James said, emphasizing the simple message of the wilderness preacher who tireless called people to repent because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. “Even after being imprisoned himself, John the Baptist did not waiver in his beliefs because he knew that it wasn’t about himself but about Jesus Christ.”
He continued, “I’m here to tell you that there will be moments when you will be at the apex of the mountain. “There will be times when you will be down in the valley but if you just hold on, God will be there.”
James closed by relaying a sentimental moment experienced by the Rev. Michael Frazier, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, Tampa. Frazier was on the phone with James when Frazier’s young daughter walked into the room with her father’s shoes on her feet.
“Daddy, I’m standing in your shoes,” the little girl said to Frazier, who repeated the sentence to James.
As he concluded the story, James suddenly slipped a large pair of shoes on his own feet.
“These are not your shoes,” he told the crowd. “These are your daddy’s shoes. In Christ I live, in Christ I’ll die. Give God the glory.”
After the spirited sermon by James, the Rev. Harold D. Lewis Sr., Director of Black Congregational Development within the Center for Congregational Excellence, gave the order of the day and introduced the panelists. They included the Rev. Dr. Fred A. Allen, the national director of Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century; the Rev. Candace M. Lewis, a member of the Florida Annual Conference who is serving on the Path1Team of the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville; the Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, Florida Conference South Central District Superintendent; Rev. Dr. Geraldine McClellan, former Florida Conference District Superintendent and pastor at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church in Gainesville; Rev. Dr. Joreatha Capers, pastor at Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Miami and president of Florida Conference Black Methodists for Church Renewal; the Rev. David Berkey, director of Florida Conference Camps and Retreat Ministries; Melinda Trotti, director of the Florida Conference Children Coalition and the Florida Conference Lockmiller Grants; and Tammy Fisher, from the Florida Conference Office of Justice and Outreach.
Lewis began her time with the audience by giving them a brief overview of the different segments of the American population. She talked about the Silent Generation, the Builders, the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. She played a commercial that was specifically designed to tap into the core beliefs of Generation Y, featuring a video for the Soul car depicting hamsters driving in contrast to their peers using an out-dated mode of transportation. The music playing in the commercial was an old-school hip-hop song.
Lewis then asked a member of Generation Y what she thought of the commercial, and the young woman replied that it was about choice. “Choice” was the key word for Lewis because she said just as people are presented with choices in so many areas of everyday life, they have an equal amount of choices when it comes to where to worship. She encouraged those in attendance to remember the past but embrace the future, and asserted that many African-American churches are being held hostage to an era that has come and gone. Using the example of the rotary phone, Lewis noted that many households do not even have landlines but use cell phones instead.
“Isn’t it amazing how we’ve grown?” Lewis asked. She said that in order for the church to maintain its relevance to its community, it must embrace the future by welcoming young adults and children. “God wants to do a new thing in our churches. We need to acknowledge that.”
Allen said The United Methodist Church cannot afford to lose any more members, noting that the denomination has also seen more than 400 congregations close since 1968. The mentality that some members and non-members possess, he said, is that the church is more concerned with raising money to preserve the infrastructure than to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
“If we are obedient to God’s call to ministry, everything will come,” Allen said. “We do have some unhelpful and unhealthy structures. There needs to be some restructuring so that we can accomplish what God wants us to accomplish.”
After lunch the panelists came together to answer questions from those in attendance. Berkey and Trotti talked about the possibility of churches hosting day camps during the summer, as well as mission interns; and encouraged churches to consider becoming a federal feeding site during the summer months.
McClellan talked about the difficulty churches sometimes face when a new pastor is appointed to the church. She suggested that clergy and laity work together as a team to create a strong, thriving church.
Lewis once again encouraged churches to make room for teenagers and young adults. She said it is key to have young people engaged in the process of what they would like to see happen in church, so that they can feel good about attending but also so they will be excited about inviting their friends.
Capers said that despite obstacles facing the African-American church, she is hopeful for the future. “It is an exciting time to be in ministry. Nothing is too hard for God, let’s do it together.”
Trotti encouraged the churches to reach out to Conference staff and use the connection to their church’s benefit.
Ashley Parnell, a member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Lake City, said the day surpassed her expectations.
“I see a vision, one goal, one purpose and that is moving forward to the future,” Parnell said.
Joann Brookins, a member at Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Miami, was equally pleased with the presenters and overall message of the day.
“It was so educational,” Brookins said. “I felt the Spirit of God. I am on fire to do what God has called us to do.”
Lewis said the day was designed to be a culmination of four black church presentations he has been delivering throughout the conference since October 2010. He said the attendance of 225 people showed that there is a hunger for information and guidance with African-American church. The African-American church doesn’t have to function as an island but can feel part of the connection and gather strength in numbers, Lewis added.
“It’s nice to come together, to have dialogue and to listen,” he said. “We came together, provided resources for them to use in the future. The churches and members now have to use them.”
News media contact: Gretchen Hastings, 800-282-8011, firstname.lastname@example.org, Lakeland
*Hastings is executive editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.