ORLANDO—The fate of the Methodist Church rests with individuals willing to do things differently in the face of staunch resistance to change.
That was the message from keynote speakers, the Revs. Elaine Heath and Kevin M. Watson, delivered during Friday’s session of the Florida Conference.
|Rev. Elaine Heath, dean of Duke Divinity School in Durham has invested years researching reasons for declines in churches in the 21st century. She believes today's religious crisis is simply part of God's plan.|
In keeping with the conference’s theme, “Revive Us Again,” Heath and Watson discussed what they believe it will take to reinvigorate churches in the face of dwindling membership and drained coffers.
Heath, the dean of the Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, spent years researching the reasons for the decline of churches in the 21st century. She believes today’s religious crisis is simply part of God’s plan.
Throughout history, she said, church reforms have been introduced by innovators who often faced resistance and sometimes persecution for proposing changes to the status quo.
Among the most noteworthy was Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who faced harsh criticism in the 16th century for advocating that the Bible be printed in a language the lay person could understand.
“The printing press had just been invented, so it was possible to mass-produce the Bible for the first time,” Heath said. “That changed everything. Suddenly, average people were able to read the Bible in their own language.”
Uptight and obsessed with making lists, John Wesley was an unlikely trailblazer for God. However, his belief that anyone, not just members of the clergy, could be a disciple for Christ led to the founding of the Methodist Church in the 18th century, Heath said.
Today, modern-day Luthers and Wesleys are reviving the church with revolutionary concepts such as New Monasticism, Mission Ecclesiology, Fresh Expressions and the Missional Wisdom Foundation, she said.
“In the 1950s, they’d build a church, and it would immediately fill up,” Heath said.
Those churches are now closing their doors.
“That’s where many churches are today. We’re in a full-blown systems change” that leads to chaos and confusion, Heath said.
Despite the inevitable anxiety, this is a time of hope, Heath said. Chaos and confusion “are the building blocks that God uses to create something new. They are God’s playground.”
Heath said she witnessed one of these God-designed transformations in Cornwall, England, where a small Methodist church once overflowed with the faithful. But 12 years ago the membership had dwindled to 10 elderly people.
The church overlooked a beach that had developed into a mecca for surfing enthusiasts. So the congregation decided to connect with them.
“They hired two surfer dudes with some lay theological training to serve as pastors of the church,” Heath said.
The new pastors promptly cleared out the pews and replaced them with comfortable sofas surrounding a fireplace. Then they nailed 12 surfboards painted with the names of the 12 disciples to the ceiling.
Over the next decade, the church narthex was turned into an artisan bakery and coffee shop, and the basement was transformed into an art gallery.
Now the church, renamed Tube Station, regularly welcomes 200 people each Sunday for worship.
Instead of focusing on making a profit, the church members became prophets, taking the word of God to the people, Heath said.
It’s seemingly small, simple changes that can have the biggest impact when it comes to reviving a church, said Watson, a professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
He’s studied the innovations of John Wesley and has written several books on Wesley’s groundbreaking methods of building faith through Wesley’s concept of “Christian conferencing.” Christian conferencing consists of small, intimate group meetings, called “class or band meetings,” in which members discuss their relationships with God, seek advice, confess their sins and ask for forgiveness.
In addition to promoting a closer relationship with God, Watson said class and band meetings ensure that no one in the church is overlooked or lost.
“We need to return to and reclaim Christian conferencing,” Watson said. “The class meeting was at the epicenter of the explosive growth of American Methodism.
“We also need to move from information-driven small groups to transformation-driven small groups,” he added.
“Methodists have no more tested, proven and practical step towards revival than the class meeting,” Watson said. “We can’t revive ourselves. We need to look to the Lord to spark the flames of revival.”
Friday Morning Plenary Session
|Voting members at Friday's plenary session passed two resolutions. Conference attendees supported Florida's "Drive Safe Sunshine State" campaign, and a second resolution committed to eliminate racism and violence directed toward newly arriving migrants worldwide.|
Friday’s morning plenary session included voting on discontinuances and a memorial service held in the Sabal Ballroom.
Rini Hernandez, South West district superintendent, led Friday morning’s report of the dean of the cabinet and voting on discontinuances. There were motions for the discontinuance of 16 churches.
“God is not done with us,” Hernandez said. “There is a future for the United Methodist Church in Florida.” He went on to emphasize a future that will include new starts and Fresh Expressions that will make the conference “less institutional and more missional” in years to come.
He also stated the future will mix traditional churches with Fresh Expressions—there are currently more than 80 across the state from downtown pubs to coffee houses that will create a “more pure expression of today’s church shaped by the gospel.”
Carter prayed for fruitfulness and growth in our communities across the conference in the days ahead.
Following is a list of the discontinuances that were approved by voting on Friday:
North Merritt Island, Atlantic Central
Palm Bay, Atlantic Central
Shingle Creek, East Central
Friendship, Gulf Coast
Ft. McCoy, North Central
St. Johns, North Central
Asbury, North East
Bowden, North East
Glynlea Grace, North East
First Lake Butler, North East
Mt. Moriah, North East
Trinity St. Augustine, North East
Bayshore Tampa, South Central
Lakewood Park, South Central
Trinity Plant City, South Central
First South Miami, South East
The bells also tolled in remembrance for friends and family members lost during the past year. Candles were lit for 25 clergy and 34 clergy spouses. In a sermon led by Walter Monroe, South Central district superintendent, there were prayers for strength and redemption.
“We’re celebrating the dear lives of our friends and loved ones,” he said. “In pain, may we find comfort. In sorrow, may we find hope. In death, may we find resurrection.”
Reflecting on the journey of life, Monroe described the importance of pausing for a moment to remember our loved ones and the privilege of knowing and sharing life with them.
On Friday afternoon, two resolutions passed. The first supported the “Drive Safe Sunshine State” campaign, which calls for drivers’ licenses for Florida drivers, regardless of immigration status. The second resolution, presented by Janet Horman of Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), committed to eliminate racism and violence directed toward newly arriving migrants worldwide and opposed policy that excludes refugees solely on the basis of their religion or national origin.
--This report filed by D’Ann Lawrence White and Doug Long