"Remember Baptism and Be Faithful" Offered as a Roadmap to Increase Church Vitality

Date Posted: 6/9/2011

The 2011 gathering of the Texas Annual Conference shined the spotlight on the challenges facing the conference and denomination, while simultaneously testifying to God’s ability to sustain and strengthen the church.


Although declining membership and worship attendance coupled with a historically low apportionment payout of 84 percent, all seem to be bad news. The good news continues to be that God is faithful. Hence, the conference theme: “Remember Your Baptism and Be Faithful.”


A fountain flowed from center stage, throughout worship and business sessions, to remind participants that the power and presence of the Holy Spirit was imparted to all believers through the waters of baptism and still dwells in and among all who believe. And, the spirit is eager to usher in transformation and change that glorify God.


Bishop Janice Riggle Huie’s Episcopal Address called for change in order to curb the “creeping crisis of relevancy” and general decline. “When one part of the connection is frail, the whole body is weakened,” she said. “The United Methodist Church in the United States is our mother, and our mother is not well.”


Among the things crippling “the mother” is the church’s inability to attract younger generations like Jacqueline Gunner, a 30-something-year-old delegate from St. Paul’s UMC Port Arthur. Having been raised in Methodism and now worshipping in a church that is just shy of 100 years old, Gunner can testify to the travails of transformation.


“I’ve seen how, when a church is stuck in traditions and doesn’t evolve with time, you lose out,” she said. “I’m trying to find new ways to re-energize my church to get more people who look like me.”


Gunner’s cause is not unique, given that the average age of United States citizens is 35 and the average age of United Methodists is 57, according to a recently released video from the General Board of Health and Pension Benefits, which Bishop Huie utilized during her presentation.


When asked why she doesn’t simply move to another church (or denomination) with more young adults and young leaders, she responded without hesitation: “I’m loyal… This is my church. Why go somewhere else and start anew? This is my home.” Drawing from true-to-life experiences, Gunner said: “I just renovated my bathroom at home. It cost money, but I’m not going to move because my home needs some renovation.”


What Can the TAC Renovate?

Renovation is a key to revitalization. Or, as Conference Lay Leader Leah Taylor stated: “A vital disciple is a changed follower of Christ.”


In her Episcopal Address Huie explained the denomination’s Call to Action recommendations in light of transformation already occurring in the annual conference. She further explained the church’s “adaptive challenge” of “increasing the number of vital congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” “The entire United Methodist Church is fishing in a sea of change,” Huie said.


 Taylor noted that the Call to Action “gives us a tool to use as we look at how we might change for the future.”


“We already hold the key to change lives and we don’t have to go far to do it,” Taylor continued. “There are countless ways for us to be the hands and feet of Christ. Right in our own backyard, there are people who are hurting, wanting, searching, needing… Jesus can transform our lives and the lives of others again and again.”


To do this, lay and clergy leaders and the churches they serve must be spiritually renovated in order to transform the communities around them.


Keynote speaker Rev. Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection spoke to this as well: “Change, innovate, improve or die,” he said while holding an iPod and a 45 LP record in his hands. Tracing music’s evolution from records and 8-tracks to the iPod, he demonstrated the need to continue advancing in ministry. Hamilton’s discussion also explored the qualities of good leaders, which include integrity, authenticity and passion. Passion is among the things that will help clergy and laity avoid negative, “downward spiral thinking” and learn to “radiate possibilities.”


Despite the less-than-stellar statistics, Huie commended the gathering to consider the infinite possibilities before them. “We may not have as many resources as we’d like, but what we have is sufficient,” Huie said. “God is not finished with us yet!”


New church starts remain an area of ministry that embodies new possibilities as new places of worship are developed for new people. Three new churches chartered this year: Hope Community UMC, whose pastor is Rev. Jack Womack; Lakeside UMC, whose pastor is Rev. Stephen Rhoads; and The Watershed UMC, whose pastor is Rev. Matt Neely.


These three churches along with other new church starts in the conference report worship attendance of about 2,500, which offsets the decline in attendance in the TAC. One hundred percent of the new churches reported at least one profession of faith in 2010-2011; whereas, 63 percent of all TAC churches reported a profession of faith, which is still well above the denominational average of 47 percent.


“The Texas Conference is leading the church, and I’m grateful to be your bishop,” Huie said, while also challenging the conference with the question: “In a sea of change, what is the risen Christ asking of us?”


The answer: spiritual maturity; urgent desire to spread the Gospel; costly courage and spirit-led adaptability. “Facing the turbulent sea, I believe God has already prepared the leaders we need,” Huie said. “You, my friends, are those leaders. This year we are called to act – to throw our nets on the other side of the boat, to throw our nets into deeper waters.”