Bishop Jones Leads Lay Academy on Evangelism to Strengthen Congregations
By Lindsay Peyton
While a Pew Research Study shows that about eight-in-10 African Americans identify as Christians, statistics are rising for those who identify as religiously unaffiliated, increasing to about 18 percent. In fact, the average worship attendance for majority of the African American United Methodist Churches in the TAC has fallen below 250.
“For years, the African American Church has played a significant and visible role in the rich history in the Texas Annual Conference,” Bishop Scott J. Jones said.
Keeping that strength and vibrancy is the basis of the Bishop’s African-American Church Initiative (AACI) Transitioning Toward the Future. His upcoming Lay Academy on Evangelism is one of many programs included in the initiative.
The Bishop’s Lay Academy on Evangelism is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Nov. 9 at Jones Memorial UMC, 2504 Almeda Genoa in Houston. A second event will be held in Tyler at 9:30 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Feb. 8 at FUMC Tyler, 2107 Woodlawn St. Both events include lunch and are free.
“I’m planning to address the why and how, the reasons, methods and goals,” Bishop Jones said. “We’re recognizing that evangelism is always about the people, and people in different places are different.”
For example, he explained that methods for evangelism may be different in a rural congregation than in a church in downtown Houston – even if their principles are similar.
Jones formerly served as the McCreless Associate Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, where he focused on teaching courses in evangelism and Wesley studies.
Dr. Elijah Stansell, treasurer and AACI leader of the Texas Annual Conference for the UMC, explained that Jones’ expertise in the subject will be a highlight.
“Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the world is straight from the gospel text,” Stansell said. “For Bishop Jones to give key elements of how that can be done will be exciting. It’s going to be a very motivational talk.”
He explained that the event is especially designed for clergy and lay members of African-American churches.
The Lay Academy will be an ongoing effort. Next year, Bishop Jones will focus on discipleship.
Jones announced the AACI during Annual Conference. His effort to strengthen African-American churches follows a multi-pronged approach. The Lay Academies provide congregants and clergy an opportunity to directly connect with the Bishop.
District-wide meetings were held in August and September. Rev. Robert Besser, the conference’s director of congregational excellence, explained that each of the nine districts met with pastors and lay leaders to learn about the Bishop’s initiative and provide input.
Already a number of the churches have expressed interest in becoming a part of the effort.
The next step is to begin a consultation process with teams in the conference.
Four congregations expect to begin a consultation process with teams in the conference this fall, Besser said.
“Then, for each quarter next year, we’ll consult another four,” he said. “Our goal is to do 16 churches a year.”
After the consultation process, the churches can immediately assess ways to improve.
Already, the churches have begun looking at their history, their levels of engagement and membership.
“It will be different for each church,” Besser said. “Our priority is to use that to see who is most in need that we can get to right away. Then, in January, we can see who are the next four most in need.”
Besser explained that the AACI is a top priority for Bishop Jones. “He’s been looking at decline of African-American churches not only in the U.S. but specifically in our conference,” Besser said. “Bishop Jones wants to take the lead and help African-American churches transition towards the future.”
The objective is to help both the churches and the communities they serve grow stronger together.
“I have a deep concern to strengthen the African-American Methodist churches – and that means reaching more people and more young people,” Jones said.
The effort includes building educational opportunities for African-American clergy as well, he said.
Another aspect of the AACI includes growing the We Love All God’s Children program and Freedom Schools in the summer.
Still, Jones explained, the AACI is only in its beginning phases. As the consulting teams continue their work, a greater sense of what area needs are will emerge.
“The church plays a special role in the Black community and holds a place of respect,” Jones said. “It can be used as a base to help people grow spiritually.”
At the same time, the African-American churches still face challenges and racism in Texas, he said. Some of the congregations are also dealing with declining membership and resources.
“The Black community has a set of needs that differ from the needs of other communities,” he said. “That is why the health and strength of the church is so vital.”
For more information, and to register for the Bishop’s Lay Academy on Evangelism, visit www.txcumc.org/aaci.