Those arriving at the Real Ideas Conference at Van Dyke Church in Lutz came with different aspirations.
Pamela Moore of First United Methodist Church in Naples was seeking to learn more “about how to create a praying church.”
Pastor Robert Cox of Grace Church in Greer, South Carolina, was looking for guidance in managing his growing church through change.
|Pastor Bo Sim and lay member Liz Taylor of Clearview UMC in St. Petersburg came to work on team building. –Photo by B.C. Manion|
Pastor Bo Sim of Clearview United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg and lay member Liz Taylor came to work on team building.
And, David Butera, a pastor from Rhode Island, was seeking advice on how to best spiritually help people recovering from substance abuse and transitioning from prison life.
Those were just five of more than 300 people attending the conference, co-founded 10 years ago by Matthew Hartsfield, pastor of Van Dyke, and Jorge Acevedo, pastor of the multisite Grace Church in southwest Florida.
In his opening message, Hartsfield acknowledged the many different needs of conference-goers.
“You may be coming from some very different backgrounds and very different circumstances and settings, but I believe we’re coming from three different places,” Hartsfield said.
“Number one, you might be coming here hungry. You’re hungry for the Lord, you’re hungry for ideas, you’re hungry to take it to a whole other level,” he said.
“Some of you are here and you’re hurting. You may feel a little beaten up or battered or bruised,” he said. “Your soul is a little tender right now.”
Others, he added, “feel hopeless.
“You might be ready to throw in the towel. You feel like your church is hopeless, that you are in a hopeless setting,” he said.
The challenges are real, Hartsfield said, noting that he wouldn’t whitewash the facts or offer rose-colored glasses.
“The culture is shifting.
“The percentage of people unaffiliated with any faith, doubled from 1990 to 2009,” Hartsfield said, adding that during the same period, the number of self-described atheists and agnostics grew four-fold.
The number of churches that close each year ranges from 4,000 to 7,000 – and just 18.7 percent of Americans attend church on any given weekend, Hartsfield said.
Besides those who don’t align with any religious affiliation, demographers also have identified a category they call “the dones,” Hartsfield said. “They’re over with it. They’re done.”
In a study of 51 metropolitan areas of one million people or more, the Tampa Bay area was identified as the second least worshipping metropolitan community in America, Hartsfield said.
On top of that, as aging Baby Boomers die, demographers are predicting a death tsunami in future years.
“That sounds very encouraging, doesn’t it—the coming death tsunami,” Hartsfield said.
The United Methodist Church is feeling the effects, he said. It has an increasingly older membership and aging leaders. It also has declines in the numbers of professions of faith, worship attendance and baptisms, as well as growing financial burdens accompanied by decreasing revenues.
|Pastors Jorge Acevedo and Matthew Hartsfield. –Photo by B.C. Manion|
These are the realities, Hartsfield said, “I want you to start right from that place.”
Then, he challenged those gathered: “Are you ready to bow out or break through?
“Are you ready to make excuses or move mountains?
“Are you ready to stay ‘safe’ or storm the gates of hell?”
Things may seem impossible at times, Hartsfield acknowledged, but he added: “You are never helpless, when you are with the Lord.”
Acevedo prayed with those gathered.
“Lord, there are some of us for whom the dream has gone dim. There are some of us for whom the vision has been lost. And we need these days, not so that we can fill out a notebook, but that we can have an encounter with you,” he said.
The two-day conference, which ends today, offers workshops on such topics as organizational management, social media, children’s ministries, mission trips and other aspects of church life.
It also featured four keynote speakers, including co-founders Hartsfield and Acevedo, as well as Matt Keller, pastor of Next Level Church in Fort Myers, and Bryan Loritts, pastor for preaching and mission at Trinity Grace Church in New York.
The aim of Real Ideas, Hartsfield said, is “high inspiration, deep information.”
Despite harsh realities facing America’s churches, Hartsfield offered encouragement.
“I believe that God loves you so much, and your church so much, that he will meet right where you are. But also because he loves you so much, he will not leave you there. He will take you to a completely different place.
“Whether you’re hungry, whether you’re hurting, whether you’re hopeless—I believe that God has something very specific for each and every one of you, in a unique way. Turn your radar on. Open up. Be receptive to what God might be doing.
“Even though your church may feel dead, I believe in the resurrection,” Hartsfield said.
– B.C. Manion is a freelance writer based in Tampa.