|Jeremy Hearn, left foreground, and Michelle Weger open the Annual Conference 2013 laity session with music while lay leadership looks on. Photos by Dave Walter.|
LAKELAND -- Don’t just sit there. Get out there and get going.
That was the overall message of the laity session Thursday at the 2013 Annual Conference, dovetailing with the event's theme, “Becoming Disciples of Jesus Christ.”
“There is a difference between being a believer and being a disciple,” said Alice Williams, East Central District lay leader, who compared that distinction to the difference between believing in the importance of education and being a teacher.
“Jesus didn’t say, 'Sit! Stand!' Or, 'Build a big building with a sign out front saying First Church. Do drop in.’ He said, 'Go. Make disciples.'”
Williams kicked off a laity session at The Lakeland Center that emphasized action, culminating with a challenge to Florida Methodists from Lay Leader Russ Graves.
“Are we being the disciples God has called us to be?” Graves asked.
“We live in a world that is hungry for answers to daily life issues. As we grow in the grace of Jesus Christ, we as His disciples are called to offer the same grace and love, the answers that so many in the world seek.”
The session also featured the introduction of two new associate lay leaders for the conference – Rachael Sumner and Derrick Scott III – both younger than 40 and charged with building relationships that will attract young adults and keep older ones energized and engaged in discipleship.
|From left, Drew Eales, Derrick Scott III and Russ Graves talk about how forging intergenerational friendships can be awkward at first but rewarding for both parties.|
The work ahead won't be easy, speakers told the audience.
Listeners heard the testimony of Jahil Witt, a sophomore at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. Witt described a childhood filled with abuse and neglect at the hands of caregivers. Even when he successfully graduated from high school with good grades despite a lack of support at home, his faith and hope were tenuous.
“It seemed like for every positive experience, I found 10 negative experiences,” he recalled, describing how he had five different homes in two months.
With only $80 in his pocket and no money for tuition and books, Witt found faith in Jeremiah 29:11. With the belief that God had a plan for his life, Witt traveled to Daytona to attend Bethune-Cookman, where he was taken in and surrounded by a community of Christian believers.
Christians have long faced a variety of struggles in their faith journey. Graves pointed to the history of the early church and the struggles of Christianity in China as examples of how the church body can overcome the challenges in making disciples.
“They possessed what we call ‘apostolic genius’ – the built-in life force and guiding mechanism of God’s people, a power that exists in Jesus’ followers even today. I refer to the underground church in China, to the movement of the Holy Spirit in Cuba and the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa,” he said.
|Rachael Sumner is the Florida Conference associate lay leader for reaching next generations.|
Sumner, associate conference lay leader for reaching next generations, suggested ways to appeal to young adults.
“Young adults feel disconnected from the church,” Sumner said. “They probably won’t meet in church buildings. But they are interested in building relationships. They want to be the hands and feet of Jesus. But they want to reach out in ways they can see they are making a difference.”
Graves acknowledged that reaching out in nontraditional ways will take many longtime Methodists out of their comfort zone but promised it will also have significant rewards.
He offered himself as an example. He said Scott, who has been appointed associate conference lay leader for intergenerational focus, once challenged him and others to strike up a friendship with a young adult.
“I offered my friendship to a young man, 24 years old, who was new in our community and I told him I would not offer advice unless he asked for it," Graves recalled.
"I would not box him in or try to instruct him unless he asked for it. I would be a sounding board and I would cover his back. To my surprise, he jumped at the offer.”
That young adult was Drew Eales, director of worship arts at First UMC, Melbourne, who later joined Graves and Scott on stage in a question-and-answer session on how to initiate intergenerational relationships.
Both Graves and Eales described an experience that enriched each other's lives in ways neither could have predicted. Graves even noted that his relationship with Eales has enhanced his relationships with his children and grandchildren in that he listens more.
“Russ is the only 60-year-old person that texts me and says, ‘You wanna hang out?’” Eales said. “If there were more people like Russ, it would just be amazing.”
To promote a commitment between generations, Scott asked session attendees to choose someone of a different generation and list the person by name on a card, promising to pursue a friendship "for Jesus’ sake.” Many attendees did so and dropped part of their cards in a collection basket as a sign of their commitment.
Graves encouraged both ends of the generational spectrum by saying, “There is no retirement in the Bible,” to the over-60 attendees. To the younger than 40-year-olds, he said, “You are not the future. You are today."
-- Colleen Hart is a freelance writer based in the Cocoa area.