By Woody Woodrick
A seminary professor advised the Mississippi Conference on Monday to seek new ways to include young people in the church, and then that night a worship service showed what for that could take.
The Rev. Dr. Lovett Weems Jr. gave that interpretation of the eighth of his 10 Provocative Questions during the June 9 morning plenary at the 20th session of the Mississippi United Methodist Annual Conference at Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson.
That night, the Rev. Theon Johnson III of Canton, a seminary student, delivered a sermon that brought cries of “Amen!” from those in attendance.
Those two presentations highlighted the first full day of the Annual Conference.
Many in the church talk about being more inviting to young people and diverse people, but their actions often say the opposite, Weems said.
“Our rhetoric goes on about wanting more, younger people, but our actions don’t match that. Research shows that laity wants more young people, but they aren’t willing to change their worship or budgets,” Weems said to applause of the some 2,000 in attendance.
Johnson compared the passing of the Olympic torch from country to county to how God has called his people to be the light of the world. However, at the end of the Olympics, the torch is extinguished. “The torchbearers go home; the light does not shine again for that particular set of games for four years. Is this the light we carry into the world? I say no,” Johnson said.
He then traced the passing of the light from the beginning when God said let there be light through Old Testament times to the birth, ministry, death and resurrections of Jesus. He traced it through the disciples to today’s Christians.
“The light passes to those who love God and strive to live according to its mandates,” he said. “Creation still groans for the fulfillment and the Spirit of God is still calling people to work for the fulfillment of creation.
“We are witnesses to the workings of the Holy Spirit and disciples of Jesus Christ. Thus, we are called to carry God’s light into the world.
The service also included praise band music, an a’cappella choir and a dramatic presentation, all of which drew standing ovations.
The mission offering taken Monday night, which will support the Global AIDS Fund raised $89,605.
Weems, a Mississippi native is distinguished professor of church leadership and executive director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He developed his questions in a report commissioned by the Council of Bishops based on the state of the church report.
The eighth question of the 10 asks, “Can the church change to reach more people, younger people and more diverse people?”
Weems pointed out that in 1964, all the denominations that became the United Methodist Church peaked in membership. At that point, the average age of United Methodists was well below that of the general population. Today those numbers are reversed; the average age of United Methodists is higher than the general population.
Weems said part of the problem is attracting younger members is a reluctance for churches to change internally as they reach out. He said churches need to change inside an amount equal to the effort placed on attracting new members.
Churches that aren’t growing, Weems said, often make the argument that it shouldn’t be just about numbers. He said the opposite is true. He said numbers do matter because those who benefit most are those within the “numbers.” As an example, he used the Bible story of the lost sheep. While 99 sheep waited, the shepherd went looking for the one lost sheep. That sheep benefitted from the shepherd needing one more sheep.
Another concern, Weems said, is the growing racial diversity in the U.S. population. The percentage of racially ethnic groups in the U.S. population is growing, yet “no mainline denomination has demonstrated it can reach any group of people at the same rate as white people.”
While United Methodists have done well in become more diverse in some areas, Weems said professions of faith from African-Americans lags well behind.
Another area of diversity pertains to marital status. He said many churches don’t recognize that married couples are now in the minority in the U.S. while the number of single parents, singles or couples without children is growing.
Weems said one of the keys to grow churches is to connect with the community. “I encourage you to go back to your communities and get in touch with the community,” he said. “The longer a church is in existence, the more it loses touch with the community. Go back and fall in love with your community again.”
He said each church should ask: If this church closed today, who would miss it other than the members? He said churches should do a mission audit each year and ask that question, make a list of those in the answer and reach out to them. Repeat the process the next year.
“Vital churches connect people with God by connecting with the community. It’s not easy, but it is possible with the power of God,” he said.
Chester Clark of Mount Hermon United Methodist Church in Ackerman praised Weems. He agreed that older members tend to get set in their ways and are reluctant to change. “I suggest that the older generation take in the younger generation and train them. Then as they move on, the younger people can take their place,” he said.
Hillary Glover, 15, of lay member of the conference from Wheeler UMC, said even young people get hard-headed sometimes about having their way. “He had a lot of wise words about how people aren’t willing to change their services,” she said.
Weems is scheduled to take part in further discussions of his 10 Provocative Questions from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesday at the Clarion Hotel on Greymont Street near downtown Jackson.
Earlier in the day, the conference celebrated the ministry of 23 retiring pastors and their spouses. The service included video interviews featuring some of the retirees sharing stories of their ministry and what it has meant to them. The conference also remembered clergy, spouses and family members who had died during the past year. The Rev. Vicki Sizemore Tandy delivered the sermon.
The voting members also approved changes to the Standing Rules that pave the way for changing the order of the conference. That plan along with nominations was laid on the table and will be presented for final approval today.
The Council on Finance and Administration presented its budget for today’s approval vote.