Conference shares 'real ideas' for strengthening congregations

Rev. Matthew Hartsfield speaking
Rev. Matthew Hartsfield, Van Dyke Church pastor, opens the seventh annual Real Ideas Conference at his church in Lutz. Photo by Derek Maul.

LUTZ – For the seventh year, two Florida Conference churches that have blossomed from dozens to thousands of worshipers and developed highly active ministries to match invited others to join them in devising jumpstarts along the road to discipleship. 

About 300 registered attendees, plus more than 120 volunteers and guests, flocked to Van Dyke Church last week for the 2013 Real Ideas Conference, co-sponsored by Van Dyke and the multi-campus Grace Church of Cape Coral/Fort Myers.

Organizers said church leaders from across the nine-state Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference were invited.

Rev. Matthew Hartsfield, Van Dyke senior pastor, said the purpose of Real Ideas was to present church leaders with the tools they need to turn things around back home.

“I want to see every church inspired and equipped,” Hartsfield said before he took the stage for the conference keynote address.

“There’s no competition. We could fill every church 10 times and there would still be work to do.” 

For two days, speakers and workshop leaders supported that goal. Hartsfield opened this year's conference with a discussion of “Seven Mistakes that Hold Us Back.” 

Van Dyke intern Taz Zentmeyer
Taz Zentmeyer, Van Dyke Church ministry intern, addresses the crowd at the annual Real Ideas Conference in Lutz. Photo by Derek Maul.

“There are three varieties of congregations represented here today: churches that are hurting, those stuck in neutral, and those moving in the right direction, looking for a little more jet fuel to keep them going," Hartsfield said.
“It’s all about implementation and execution when you get home. We have goals, we have strategies, but then we get yanked back. I want to help you to get unstuck.”

He drew his keynote message from Ephesians 3:14-21  and listed seven common mistakes church leaders make:

1. We stay on our feet: Churches forget the admonition to “kneel before the Father.” Prayer is foundational, Hartsfield said.

2. We forget who made us and our church: When we remember who we are, and whose we are, we can move forward from a position of strength, the speaker said.

3. Living with a scarcity mentality: “We’re too quick to put limits on God,” Hartsfield said. When we fail to believe in “God’s glorious riches,” then we become hoarders who presume to “say no for God.”

4. Keeping Christ from feeling at home at our church: “Christ becomes lost in the clutter,” Hartsfield said. “We relegate Christ to just one more program. But Jesus is the only thing.”

5. Forgetting how much God loves you and your church: “God is head-over-heels in love with your church,” Hartsfield said. “God believes in your ministry.”

6. Growing a self-powered church: “It’s God who is able to do immeasurably more,” the pastor said. “But we make the mistake of saying, ‘God is not able.’ We may not say it out loud, but our ministry gives it away.”

7. Thinking small: “This is similar to living with the scarcity mentality,” Hartsfield said. “We think small all the time.” 

 Group from Tennessee at Real Ideas Conference 2013
The staff of Kodak UMC in Tennessee enjoy a lunch break with Rev. Melanie Fierbaugh, lead pastor of Wellspring UMC, Tampa (center), during the 2013 Real Ideas Conference at Van Dyke Church. Photo by Derek Maul.

Hartsfield closed by praying that God create a sense of disequilibrium in participants, so they would realize how far out of balance “business as usual” is from the startling truth that “God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”

Karen Peel, Real Ideas director, said she has seen pastors attend the conference and return the following year with their entire church staff.

Bradley Hyde of Kodak UMC in eastern Tennessee is a good example, returning this year with eight staff members and lay leaders.

“It was worth the drive down just to hear [Grace pastor] Jorge Acevedo’s workshop this morning,” Hyde said. 

Acevedo’s presentation, “Vital: Churches Changing Communities and the World," was one of seven  workshops offered before the keynote presentation. Topics ranged from “Connecting Newcomers” to engaging people through new technologies.

Patti Nemazie, director of Reach and Send ministries at Grace Church’s Cape Coral campus, offered a training session on “Storying,” the art of biblical storytelling.

"Orality is the fastest growing movement in evangelism today," she said. "Seventy percent of the world's population are oral learners, but 90 percent of Christian workers still present the gospel via literate, non-story means." 

Patti Nemazie, story workshop at Van Dyke
Patti Nemazie

The session included tips on giving life to a story by using gestures and voice and asking listeners where they see themselves in a story.

Larry White, pastor at Myakka City UMC, attended with his wife, Rebecca.

“My great-grandmother was Creek Indian,” he said. “I come from a tradition of telling stories.”

The workshop resonated with Janell Lockhart from Lutz.

“Storying is an engaging art form for me as a youth pastor,” she said. “It’s another tool in my tool belt.”

Other pastors attended to hone their natural preaching style.

“Jesus was a storyteller,” said Pastor Richard Stauffer of Bayshore UMC, Tampa, “and I’m a narrative preacher.”


* Derek Maul is a freelance writer based in Brandon, Fla.

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