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Familiar Florida face offers Annual Conference keynote address

Familiar Florida face offers Annual Conference keynote address

LAKELAND -- In introducing Annual Conference keynote speaker Jim Harnish, Bishop Ken Carter remarked on a longstanding tradition of inviting someone from "at least 100 miles away" to deliver the signature address. 

Jim Harnish gives keynote at Annual Conference 2013
Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish addresses the Annual Conference 2013 opening crowd. Photo by Dave Walter.

Rev. Dr. Harnish is senior pastor at nearby Hyde Park UMC in Tampa. He also is a popular writer and co-author with Rev. Justin LaRosa of "A Disciple's Path," used as a study guide by many United Methodist churches.  He has been a member of the Florida Conference for 43 years, and Carter said he has known and been impressed with Harnish for a long time.

"Sometimes God's greatest gifts to us are right in our own back yard," Carter said.

Harnish's years as a Florida United Methodist put him in a good position to “preach to the choir” about what it means to be a Methodist and  "Becoming Disciples," the title of his sermon. His message was sprinkled liberally with quotes from sources as diverse as Methodism’s founder John Wesley to television talk show host Jon Stewart.

Harnish invoked the passionate message of Wesley to “do all the good you can” and contrasted that with Stewart’s comparison of Methodism to an easy diploma mill university.  He quoted Stewart as saying, “You just send them 50 bucks and click ‘I agree' and you are saved.”

Harnish asked the crowd, “Which will we be? ... On fire with a Wesleyan passion to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Or will we live up to Jon Stewart’s impression of Methodists who make being a disciple so easy that it hardly makes any difference at all?”

His advice?  It comes from the Apostle Paul in II Timothy.

“Wake up the fire-breathing beast within you!”  Harnish said, urging listeners to get busy doing the work to which God has called you.

“My conviction is that The United Methodist Church in Florida is not in decline because we don’t know what our mission is but because we so easily lose our passion for doing it.

Display of "A Disciple's Path" in Cokesbury store at Annual Conference
"A Disciple's Path," co-authored by keynote speaker Jim Harnish, is among books by Florida clergy available in the Cokesbury store at Ministry Expo during Annual Conference. Photo by Susan Green.

"It’s not because we don’t think making disciples is a good thing to do but because we are so busy doing so many other good things that we never get around to doing the main thing Jesus told us to do,” Harnish said.

Again invoking Wesley, Harnish reminded his audience of doctrine, discipline and spirit, calling them the kindling that keeps the fire-breathing beast alive in Christ's disciples.

“Our doctrine reminds us of who we are and why we are here. ....[Our doctrine] reminds us of who we are and my experience is that when we proclaim it, practice and live it, there are a lot of people out there who will say, ‘Where have you been all my life?  That’s exactly what I’ve always wanted.’”

Then he brought in the discipline aspect of becoming disciples.

“Mission comes first, but methods really matter, no surprise to us,” Harnish said, reminding listeners that methods have always been a trademark of the denomination.

“The question for each congregation is: What is the method by which we enable people to take their next appropriate step as followers of Jesus Christ?”

But he warned that doctrine and discipline only define the method for engaging people.

“It’s the Spirit that keeps the fire burning,” he said.

He urged his listeners to work with one another to rekindle the inner flame, saying, “May the Spirit of God wake up the fire-breathing beast within our hearts and our congregations so that we can be about the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

"And that may be what it means for us to say, ‘I am a Methodist.’”

-- Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.