LAKELAND—A trip to England three years ago dramatically changed Janet Earls’ mindset of what it means to be a church.
Earls, the director of Congregational Vitality for the Florida Conference, was raised with the American definition of church, a place to gather for worship Sunday mornings.
She said her visit to England with Bishop Ken Carter and other conference leaders was a welcome awakening.
“We didn’t see any kings or queens or palaces,” Earls said. “We visited six cities in nine days to strictly meet people who do missionary work in their communities.”
The Florida Conference contingent was interested in learning more about the innovative methods used by the Methodist Church in England to reach people, including the Fresh Expressions movement that took root in England in 2004.
Carter, who later co-authored the book, “Fresh Expressions: A New Kind of Methodist Church For People Not In Church ,” with First United Methodist Church of Miami Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Audrey Warren, wanted to see for himself what the churches in England were doing to maintain their relevancy in today’s culture.
The knowledge and experiences they brought back to Florida will be the focus of the Florida Conference’s second Missio Ecclesia conference scheduled for Feb. 22-23 at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland.
The conference topic is “The Missional Church and Innovation in a Changing Ecosystem.” In addition to Carter, speakers will include Rev. Martyn Atkins, a religious contributor to the BBC, board member with Fresh Expressions Ltd. in England and author of several publications on revitalizing the Methodist Church.
Earls, who serves as the coordinator for Missio Ecclesia (meaning: “church on a mission”), said the Florida Conference launched Missio Ecclesia in 2016 as a way to bring together leadership teams composed of clergy and laypeople to discuss ways the Church can maintain its relevancy in the 21st century.
This need has become more critical in recent years as church memberships decline, forcing some churches to close their doors, she said.
In the past, Earls noted, packing the pews was never a problem. In most communities, the church was the focal point, the place where residents gathered to worship, socialize, support one another, pass on their beliefs to the next generation and minister to the sick, poor and elderly.
“The traditional church attractional model worked many years ago, but that is no longer the culture of society,” Earls said. “People spend their time in three places: first is home, then work or school and third is the place where you spend the rest of your time. For some people it’s church, but today that’s only a small percentage.”
In England, Earls said they encountered people who saw church in an entirely new way.
“The people who do missional work in England feel that church happens all week long,” she said. “Sunday is just a day to celebrate and worship.”
Among those missionaries was an urban street pastor and missional team that trolled the seedy side of downtown on weekends from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. They offered food and clothing to the homeless, rides home to the inebriated customers pouring out of the pubs and clubs, “whatever they (could) do to help,” Earls said.
Earls was impressed with the impact they were having on their community. She said people on the streets have begun looking out for one another. Additionally, the presence of the missional team has reduced crime in the community so much that the local police awarded them a grant to continue the work.
“Just as Jesus did, they go to where the people are,” Earls said.
Earls offered the lesson they brought back from England is that people still need faith and want to be part of a community. They have simply changed the way they fulfill those needs.
“Research shows that a person has a life-changing event every 18 months,” Earls said. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we getting out in the community and making ourselves available to those people who are experiencing a crisis? Are we Christlike to the people in the community? Or do we just wait at the door of the church at 11 a.m. Sunday morning and expect people to show up?’”
|Embracing Fresh Expressions, the Florida Conference regularly holds gatherings in coffee houses, parks and other settings. Shown here is a popular Fresh Expression called Beer and Hymns, which meets monthly at a local brewery in Jacksonville.|
Earls said the intent of the upcoming conference is to share the lessons learned in England and inspire church representatives to take up the mantle.
Rev. Debbie Allen, senior pastor of Community United Methodist Church of Fruitland Park, is also hoping the gathering will ignite enthusiasm in the conference’s provisional pastors.
Allen is the conference coordinator for the Florida Conference Residents in Ministry program, which provides professional support and training to provisional ministers during the first two years of their pastorships.
“We always have a retreat in the spring, and this year’s topic is how to better understand the Wesleyan philosophy, what we believe as Methodists,” Allen said.
About 50 provisional ministers from across the state will meet for a day and a half to discuss the basic tenets of the Methodist faith with Dr. Paul Chilcote, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, along with veteran pastors who have expertise in different aspects of ministry.
Afterward, the novice pastors will attend the Missio Ecclesia conference to gain a better understanding of how those beliefs apply in today’s society.
“The reason we decided to wrap our retreat around Missio Ecclesia is it’s a natural extension of our retreat discussion: what we believe and how our theology impacts us,” Allen said.
Earls said Missio Ecclesia is open to everyone, but it’s her hope that clergy and laypeople attend together.
“When you learn together as a group and take it back to your church, there’s a greater likelihood of implementation,” she said.
Earls expects about 200 people to attend the conference, which runs from 2 p.m., Feb. 22, to 3 p.m., Feb. 23. Anyone interested in attending Missio Ecclesia can register by clicking here.
--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance journalist based in Valrico.
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