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'Come to Jesus' meeting draws encouraging crowd

'Come to Jesus' meeting draws encouraging crowd

LAKELAND – More than 2,200 people participated in at least one event at Annual Conference 2013, making up a crowd that's believed to be a significant increase over last year's event. 

Preconference registration table at Annual Conference 2013
Registration workers keep up a steady pace starting with preconference Wednesday for the Florida United Methodist 2013 annual meeting. Photo by Susan Green. To see more photos from Annual Conference 2013, click here.

The number of voting members checking in at the registration table nudged up from 1,710 last year to 1,723, comprising 891 laity and 832 clergy members. At least 500 guests also attended one or more parts of the annual meeting at The Lakeland Center.

Even more people peeked in on the proceedings via live Web streaming, with a total of more than 5,800 watching parts of plenary worship sessions, celebrations and business sessions as of Monday.

Twitter updates by conference goers reached more than 50,000 other users of the popular social media site.

Attendees are encouraged to complete an evaluation of the event.

In the meantime, informal feedback indicates that new features intended to get more Methodists involved in Annual Conference were popular, particularly two days of putting together nutritious meal kits for people in need in the Caribbean.

More than 1,500 volunteers spent at least an hour packaging meals to be distributed by Stop Hunger Now, a global hunger relief organization with United Methodist roots. The effort exceeded its goal, ending with 101,306 meals for distribution in Haiti and other impoverished places. 

Lauren Weaver
Lauren Weaver, 12, shares her story of starting a ministry for the homeless with a crowd gathered for the Friday afternoon session of Annual Conference. Photo by Armando Rodriguez Jr.

Also popular this year were the personal testimonies of Florida Methodists from different walks of life about their journey toward discipleship. Speakers took the stage or shared their stories through video-recorded messages at different points in the Annual Conference agenda.

Florida United Methodist leaders, including Bishop Ken Carter and Lay Leader Russ Graves, made special efforts to include young adults in the Annual Conference program. The event continued a past practice of recognizing diversity by opening or closing sessions with prayers in the native languages of others.

Graves introduced two new associate lay leaders, Rachael Sumner and Derrick Scott III, both young adults. During the laity session, Sumner called on conference members to recognize the perspective of young people whose priorities may be different from generations past.

"Young adults see the community as the mission field," Sumner said. To encourage future generations to follow Christ in a church environment may mean relinquishing some traditions that no longer appeal to budding disciples.

Sumner asked, "Do you love your traditions more than you love your children?" 

Delegate speaks to insurance changes at Annual Conference 2013
Voting members debate some recommendations during business sessions of Annual Conference 2013. Photo by Dave Walter.

Not all was rosy, however. On Friday, Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, dean of the Cabinet, cited statistics that show church membership, worship attendance and professions of faith declining by 2 percent to 3 percent across the Florida Conference, which encompasses most of the Sunshine State.

She reported the closing of three churches in the past year: Oak Crest UMC, Jacksonville; Mount Sinai UMC, Dania Beach; and Nocatee UMC.

One new church was chartered: LifeSong UMC, Orlando.

Austin said "gut-wrenching change" at the Florida Conference resulted in the creation of some new departments and the elimination of others, a move that she acknowledged has met with mixed reviews. 

A move to phase out health insurance subsidies for future clergy retirees stirred debate, as did a resolution that would have published a statement that The United Methodist Church in Florida encourages all pregnant women considering abortion to first obtain an ultrasound. 

"Do you love your traditions more than you love your children?"

The resolution, put forward by Pastor Dusty Bailey, Florida Lifewatch state coordinator, failed after one speaker suggested information about abortion alternatives like adoption should be included and another said the statement "shames a woman that has already made a decision."

During closing worship Saturday, Bishop Ken Carter likened Annual Conference 2013 to what his family calls a "come-to-Jesus" meeting.

"In our family, a come-to-Jesus meeting takes place when you've got to resolve something. … You can't pretend it away. You have to deal with it."

The bishop drew on the biblical account of Jesus approaching his disciples after his crucifixion and resurrection. He noted that Jesus asked the apostle Peter, who had denied him three times, "Do you love me?"

"The come-to-Jesus meeting we need to have is the basic question Jesus is asking us: 'Do you love me?'" Carter said. 

Rev. Robert McMichael with Jarvis Wilson behind, music leaders
Rev. Robert McMichael of Marietta, Ga., foreground, and Jarvis Wilson lead Annual Conference 2013 attendees in jubilant song. Photo by Armando Rodriguez Jr.

In the Bible story, the disciples had fished all night without catching anything. Jesus suggested that they cast their nets to the other side of the boat, and a miraculous catch occurred.

"Sometimes the church tries something different, and it's called change," Carter told the crowd.

"I confess to you that change is not easy. … Sometimes it might be easier to run away and hide and give up or go fishing."

"Some of us … have been working very hard, and there's not much to show for it. Maybe we're almost ready to give up on the church, on ourselves, on the call. And the voice says simply, 'Cast your net on the other side of the boat.' Fish in waters no one else is fishing in."

Although disciple-making methods change, Carter noted that the mission does not. He adjourned this year's Annual Conference with the exhortation of Jesus to Peter: "Feed my sheep. Follow me."

* Susan Green is the editor of Florida Conference Connection. Freelance writer Anne Dukes contributed to this story.