LUTZ — When people attend the annual Real Ideas Conference, they arrive with expectations, said Bill Hoopes, conference director.
Real Ideas Conference
They either have been to the conference before or they have heard about it, and they expect to pick up practical suggestions to address challenges facing their church, Hoopes said.
“Really, what we’re about is the nuts and bolts,” he said.
Initiated nine years ago by Rev. Matthew Hartsfield, lead pastor at Van Dyke Church, Lutz, and Rev. Jorge Acevedo, lead pastor at Grace Church, Cape Coral, Real Ideas aims to blend inspiring messages and practical advice to help pastors, leaders, volunteers and church staff take steps forward to help strengthen their congregations.
This year’s conference, scheduled for March 5-6 at Van Dyke Church near Tampa, features a preconference slate of workshops featuring eight choices, messages from six keynote speakers and more than 50 workshops.
The preconference event allows participants a chance to go deep on a topic, while the conference workshops cover a broad range of issues.
Participants can select workshops that follow a particular track or sample a broad array of subjects.
“Some people want to come and specifically learn more about missions or outreach,” Hoopes said. “Some people are very interested in children’s ministry or technology.”
Real Ideas covers everything from preaching to recruiting volunteers to using social media to connect with a new generation.
One breakout session, led by Taylor Foley of Grace Church, Cape Coral, focuses on “Engaging Unchurched Youth.”
It’s an issue that Foley, director of youth ministries, is passionate about. He has watched young people leave the church when they grow up. It’s a national trend and one that churches cannot ignore, Foley said.
There are two basic ways to combat the problem, Foley said. One method is to find ways to stay connected with youths, so they don’t leave the church.
The other is to reach out to youths who do not belong to a church and take an interest in them through programs in local schools, clubs and organizations and by developing relationships, so that they’ll want to visit the church.
Churches “can’t just focus on people within their walls,” Foley said.
When youths decide to visit, he added, the church must be ready.
“The No. 1 way (to attract unchurched youth) is to just create an environment where everyone is welcome,” he said.
Corey Wolloff, director of high school ministry at Van Dyke, will lead sessions on reaching the post-millennial generation in a social media age and on avoiding burnout.
“We are dealing with a group of students for whom social media is not only the norm, but the expectation,” Wolloff said, via email.
“Communicating biblical truth to this generation will have very unique challenges and struggles. … Now could be the time to leverage the influence of social media for the cause of the gospel.”
|Jim & Jennifer Cowart|
On the issue of burnout, he plans to remind those attending, “As ministers of the gospel, we are designed and called to pour ourselves out deeply for the people of God, yet we should never forget that in order to be poured out we must be filled up.” And he plans to offer strategies to address that.
Like the workshop presenters, the keynote speakers also will provide diverse perspectives, Hoopes said.
Rev. Dennis Blackwell, senior pastor at Asbury UMC in Woodlynne, N.J., will speak on “The Power of the Gospel to Change Lives.”
Blackwell’s church was designated 15 years ago as a Congregational Resource Center for Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.
The pastor was scheduled to speak at Real Ideas before incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, heightened racial tensions nationwide.
The timing of Blackwell’s appearance was not related to that national discussion, Hoopes said, but he believes the conference will benefit.
“We feel that Rev. Blackwell can really speak to some of these issues and help us,” Hoopes said.
“Rev. Blackwell is very involved in coalition within The United Methodist Church, of trying to reach out and bridge different areas,” Hoopes said. “He’s a dynamic preacher also, so we also anticipate that he’s going to bring a fiery message that’s really going to get us stirred up and charged up.”
Another keynote speaker is Jessica LaGrone, the first woman dean of the chapel at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.
“She’s involved with a lot of younger, future leaders within the church, so she brings that perspective into our conference,” Hoopes said.
Jim and Jennifer Cowart, who lead Harvest UMC in Byron, Georgia -- one of the nation’s fastest-growing churches -- will talk about making church relevant and attractive in today’s society.
Hartsfield and Acevedo, the other keynote speakers, will talk about “Spiritual Friendship.”
“It’s easy to be in the ministry and just kind of be out there doing your own thing,” Hoopes said. “But how do we hold ourselves accountable? Who are we in relationship with?”
The conference attracts participants from across the southeastern U.S., with the majority coming from Florida.
While it is hosted by Van Dyke, a United Methodist church, the conference welcomes other denominations, Hoopes said.
“This really is meant to be an interdenominational conference. We’re really trying to connect with other churches,” he said.
Last year, the conference featured nationally known speakers Ken Davis and Bill Hybels and drew a record crowd of more than 600. But this year, event organizers are going back to basics, targeting the practical needs of typical congregations.
“There are a lot of churches that are struggling,” Hoopes said. “The average church in America is still 100 people or less. The majority of churches might have one paid position and the rest are volunteers.”
-- B.C. Manion is a freelance writer based in Tampa.