By Jessica Brodie
MYRTLE BEACH—One thousand men spent three days rooting themselves in the Lord. And at the end of it all, they emerged transformed, fired up and ready to take the church in a bold new direction.
Men headed to Christ United Methodist Church in Myrtle Beach Feb. 17-19 for the annual men’s ministry spiritual retreat, said to be the largest gathering of its kind in the denomination. Hosted by the South Carolina Conference United Methodist Men, this year’s conference carried the theme “Rooted.” The conference was far more than a conference, organizers said, but rather a conduit to turn men into true disciples committed to spreading the Good News and fulfilling God’s Great Commission.
“It’s about getting men back in church,” conference UMM President Herman Lightsey told the packed auditorium Saturday night, “to let men do what God has intended for them to do.”
There is so much talk about the UMC being in decline, but if men will just do what they’re supposed to do, Lightsey said, we won’t hear about decline but instead booming, powerful growth.
“I have a fervent belief if we get men back in church doing what God intended, then the Methodist church is going to blow this planet away,” Lightsey said. “The reason ladies have to do so much is because men don’t.”
South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston applauded the men for taking the bold step of being at the retreat and urged them to do all it takes to be the people that God needs them to be. “Your churches need you. … The world needs for you to stand up and be counted,” Holston said. “You have a mandate to go and be God’s people and be the witnesses God has called you to be.”
The weekend featured wisdom from a slate of speakers, each of whom shared thoughts on growing closer to the Lord and how to mobilize your church to be better disciples: the Rev. Jim Cowart, Romal Tune, the Rev. Darren Hook, the Rev. Roland Noland, Bishop Jonathan Holston and more.
An after-Jesus experience
The Rev. Darren Hook, pastor of Covenant UMC, Greer, opened the conference, sharing how everything in his life changed when he took a leap of faith and answered God’s call. Hook had been a successful salesman living in Easley with his young wife, but God had other plans for him. As he grew in his Christian walk, God began to lay on his heart a call to ministry that grew stronger and stronger, and eventually he couldn’t deny it anymore.
“God began to mess with me,” Hook said, and finally, he surrendered. “We took one step of faith, and He opened up every door imaginable.”
He served churches in Seneca and Abbeville, growing the church in Abbeville from 65 to 300, and then he felt God calling him elsewhere: to a small church on the east side of Greenville called Covenant. At the time, Covenant was in five years of decline, with few young families and no real vision of what it was trying to accomplish, Hook said.
“I prayed, ‘Lord, you’ve got to give me a vision of what you want at Covenant,’” Hook said.
God did: Covenant would be a church that reaches families with children. Ten years and a lot of hard work later, Covenant was named the sixth fastest growing UMC in the denomination, with a huge number of young families driving the growth.
“God changes people’s lives. I have a before-Jesus and an after-Jesus experience. Before, I was miserable, looking for love in all the wrong places, trying to find my identity in all the wrong places,” Hook said. “The greatest experience a person can have is coming into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And for me it has changed my life. People are lost without him and found with him. I don’t know about you, but it dictates everything I do.”
On Saturday, Hook took his message even deeper and talked about the point of his entire ministry: winning souls for Christ. It all starts with being born again, being saved.
Often in the UMC, we don’t talk about being born again or saved. But it’s the crux of our faith, and we shouldn’t assume everyone has truly been born again in Christ.
Hook urged the men to embrace the simple ABCs of being born again: A) Accept faith. Admit you are a sinner and need a savior. B) Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, believe He is God in the flesh and that there’s only one way to the Father: through the Son. C) Confess it with your heart, mouth and mind.
At Hook’s urging, the men brought slips of paper forward listing names of people they want to see become born again, and the crowd collectively prayed for them. He said his own parents did the same for him when he was a wayward boy, and their prayers worked. We have an obligation to do that for others, he said.
‘God redeems the dream’
Romal Tune, international speaker and author of “God’s Graffiti,” brought a message Saturday night about holding fast to our dreams, urging men to understand that when our dreams are from God and we are rooted in God, he will redeem our dreams for His purpose.
Tune began by drawing from Joseph’s story in Genesis. Joseph was a dreamer, but his family hated his dream, and his brothers hated him so much that they sold him into slavery. But while Joseph didn’t give up on the dream and ended up doing great things for God and God’s people, many men do give up the dream, and it turns them into bitter, angry men of despair.
“Every single one of us has been given a dream,” Tune said, but many times, the people we love most are the very ones who kill our dream. “And there’s nothing more harmful or more dangerous for a man as when someone kills the dream.”
But a man without a dream is a man discouraged.
Tune shared about how he grew up in a difficult environment in Southern California. His mother was an alcoholic, and he and his father had much strife. Over and over he heard that he was not good enough, not wanted, not destined for greatness. Eventually he turned to the only people who offered him true family and support: a gang that valued him and showed him love.
But it doesn’t matter where we come from, Tune told the men, or what those around us say we can or cannot do.
“Believing what other people say stifles what God wants to do—but does not stop what God wants to do,” Tune said. “I’ve learned that when you are rooted in Christ, God is a redeemer. God redeems the dream.”
In Jeremiah 29:11, God says he has plans for each of us.
“You were birthed and born as a dreamer,” Tune said. “For us, it’s a dream, but for God it’s destiny. And it’s never too late to dream.
“You have barely scratched the surface of who God has truly intended you to be in the world.”
He said our destiny is not determined by what happened in the past but is determined by God, and we need to focus on that promise.
“The enemy cannot steal what God wants to give you,” Tune said. “As godly men who are rooted because of the cross, the redeeming power of the cross, there is always grace.”
And redemption starts with grace, he said.
It’s time to let go of the past and stop letting it dictate who we are today, Tune said. The parts of you from the past are still there, filled with insecurity, arrogance, brokenness and pain, but the shame is no longer there because of grace.
Only then can we be all we can be for Christ.
Loving people in their brokenness
The second time Tune spoke, the next morning, he shared the story of Jephthah, from Judges. It was a story Tune said he could easily relate to; like him, Jephthah came from a rough childhood. Jephthah’s mother was a prostitute and his brothers drove him away; he found a new family elsewhere in a band of scoundrels—much like Tune himself found family in a gang. But Jephthah eventually returned to his family and found triumph for God.
Tune said the church has to be a place of grace and family for all people, especially those who are broken.
“So many young people flee to the wilderness,” Tune said. “So many people have been labeled and judged because of the wrongdoings of people in their family, and they flee to the wilderness, the streets.”
He said growing up, he wished people in the church would have shared God’s promises with him rather than judging him. He came to the church finally because of a girlfriend, and once he did, it wasn’t long before he was called to the ministry.
“Maybe if we just love people—stand with them in their brokenness, listen to their stories, share their testimonies—they’ll come asking, ‘What must I do to be saved?’” Tune said. “So many people outside the church just want to be seen and know that they matter.”
Battleships, bows and arrows
Jim Cowart, pastor of Harvest Church, Georgia, spoke Friday night, focusing on how the answer to everything, hands-down, is always Jesus. He said if churches can keep Jesus at the center of all they do, focusing on the Great Commandment (love God foremost and love our neighbors as ourselves) and the Great Commission (go make disciples) then we can be a battleship for Christ instead of merely a cruise ship. A church that is a cruise ship is all about programs and entertainment, about keeping people happy, but a battleship church is all about the mission and the commander (Jesus).
He urged men to be dangerous—not in the bad, harmful way, but by being willing to step up and take risks for the church.
“Some people go through their whole lives being extremely careful, tiptoeing around, only to come to the end of their lives and die anyway,” Cowart quipped. “There’s a difference between being nice and being a Christian. You can be nice and go to hell. I believe God is looking for men—and women, and teenagers—who are going to be brave enough to follow him.”
He said if a church is going to make a difference, it must grow deep, live strong and take risks for Jesus, to wake up and be on fire for Him and truly live the Great Commission.
He concluded his talk by showing the crowd a bow and arrow, noting his new hobby is horseback archery. He said an unstrung bow is no danger. A strung bow is a step up; it indicates intention. But putting an arrow on the bow is a game-changer. It shows someone is committed; someone is ready to take action.
“I think the devil laughs when we go to conferences. He even laughs when we string up the bow. But I think the devil gets worried when I say I am what I am and I give myself to Jesus,” Cowart said. “Folks, that’s putting an arrow on the bow.”
He urged the men to put their faith into action and be a battleship, an arrow on the bow for Christ.
The next morning, Cowart continued his message, this time illuminating the next steps in how to be that battleship. To get there, churches need a vision rooted in the Great Commandment and Great Commission and need leaders who steer their battleship past all the excuses and toward the vision.
“If you want your church to change you have to grow. You need to know where you are, where you want to go and develop a strategy around how to get there,” Cowart said, noting sometimes our facts are brutal and painful—what is our attendance; why aren’t people coming—but they have to be addressed.
“I think we have it backwards. We expect pastors and staff to do all the ministry and the laypersons to do all the leading,” Cowart said, but we need to empower the church to do ministry. “Leaders don’t get stopped at the ‘buts.’ Leaders find a ‘so’—but we don’t have enough money; so what are we going to do to raise the money? We don’t have enough people. So what are we going to do to get them here?”
Even small and simple can be great for God
Earl Bradshaw, pastor Mill Grove UMC, Indian Trail, North Carolina, shared next about how everyone has different gifts, and they can all be used in different ways to serve the Lord.
“Some people seem like they’re successful in anything, but on my best days, when I get it right, I have to work really hard to be average,” Bradshaw said, calling himself a “simple guy.”
But he said if we use our God-given talents and gifts, we’ll do great things for the Kingdom. That applies to churches, too—so many churches use the excuse that they are too small and can’t compete with the mega-church down the street, but little churches can double in size. Little churches can feed people. Little churches can attract people who need grace, can save someone destined for hell and give them an eternity with Jesus.
“Church growth is messy and hard. But it’s worth it,” Bradshaw said. “And it’s way better than hearing, ‘You wicked and lazy servant.’”
He shared how a woman, Jennifer, had three kids from three different fathers, but she found grace in one of his churches and began inviting her friends. Nineteen of her friends have so far been baptized and become believers.
“We suffer from a disease called laziness. We have good lip service, but we don’t do anything about it,” Bradshaw said, noting that if we do nothing, nothing happens. “If we’re not willing to share the good news of Jesus Christ because we don’t want to feel awkward or look like a religious fanatic … then we don’t really love him.”
He urged the crowd to “get off your backsides and go win people for Jesus Christ.”
The first Adam or the last Adam?
Robert Noland, author of “The Knight’s Code” and other books, spoke next, talking about how men need to learn how to stand up for God and be obedient. He shared how in Genesis, God told Adam there is one law (don’t eat from that tree) before he even created Eve.
“We lay all the blame at Eve. But God told Adam first,” Noland said.
Noland said he gave Adam three jobs: Provide truth for his helper, protect her and prioritize her, which he said is the truth for men today, as well, and what they need to do for their wives. He said God wanted Adam to step in the middle between the serpent and his wife.
“God intended for Adam to protect his bride, purge the enemy and pursue God’s glory, but Adam didn’t do any of those things. His one action? He ate,” Noland said. “The first battle a man ever dealt with he lost by not ever lifting a finger.”
He asked the crowd how many battles they all lose daily because they won’t lift a finger—not that they took the wrong action but that they won’t take any action at all.
But he said where Adam didn’t take action, Jesus did. He picked God’s will over his own.
“How many decisions would we make in our lives to not just eat if we say, ‘God, not what I want here but what you want’?” Noland said. “Every day when we get out of bed, we have an opportunity to say, ‘Am I going to act like the first Adam, or am I going to act like the last Adam?’”
It all comes down to obedience, he said.
‘Failure is not an option’
Bishop Jonathan Holston preached Saturday night, drawing from the food miracle illuminated in Matthew 14 where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish.
He said we need to be like Jesus has called us to be.
“So often, we feel like we are a failure because don’t have all the numbers … we compare ourselves to people around us,” Holston said.
But there’s no failure in God.
“Failure is not an option. You have a mandate to go and be God’s people and be witnesses God has called you to be,” Holston said.
He said we’ve got to discover our “why” in order to do what we need to do.
“When you know your ‘why,’ your ‘what’ has greater impact because you’re walking toward your purpose,” Holston said.
He urged men to stop settling for mediocrity and to be committed to their mission for Christ.
“There’s a difference between being compliant and bring committed, which is doing more than you’re ever asked,” Holston said. “Now is the time for the men in ministry to stand up.”
He told men to heed the conference’s theme: to root themselves in Christ and then grow deep.
Hook closed Saturday worship with a message about recommitting to Christ. He takes groups frequently to the Holy Land, and every time he goes, God gives him something different and new in Scripture.
What God gave Hook this year is that there are three types of people: The first type is those who are alive and awake and born again and saved, who God has touched. The second type is those who have never yet been awakened and have not yet experienced the transformation of Jesus Christ. But the third type is the type who once experienced the love of Jesus Christ and were on fire for Him, yet are now asleep.
Many within our churches are the third type, Hook said.
“If that’s you, reconnect to the body. Reconnect to your church,” Hook said. “I never find a Scripture where Jesus says, ‘Retire. Stop talking about me. Your work’s done.’”
He challenged the men to explore where God is calling them to serve and do it.
“Wake up,” he said, and stay awake.
The evening closed with Holy Communion.
Orangeburg District Superintendent Frederick Yebuah preached the Sunday morning sunrise service. With a message titled “God’s Original Plan for Men,” Yebuah taught that men by grace are given an irrevocable position with an indispensable purpose, which requires an irrefutable partnership with Christ. Men are called be priests and prophets of their households, church and communities, Yebuah said. They are called to teach, give guidance and bless. They are priests only because of their connection to Christ or because they are branches of the true vine. And because the vine is holy, the branches must be holy, as well.
Also over the weekend, a host of leaders led workshops on real-world topics designed to help them take next steps in increased discipleship in their churches, such as missional outreach to fire departments/police; engaging and motivating millennials and younger men; practical steps for growing a small church; and more.
Men were urged to take what they learned and put it in practice in their church. They were also urged to attend one of four Teaching Church events scheduled for various locales around South Carolina this year.
The Teaching Churches will dive into Noland’s “The Knight’s Code” and how this applies to men’s ministry in local churches. They are as follows: May 6 at Trinity UMC, Aiken; May 20 at Woodland UMC, Rock Hill; Aug. 12 at Canaan UMC, Ridgeville; and May 19 at Windsor UMC, Columbia. The events will all be held 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and include lunch and the book for $25. For more information: www.ummsc.org.
Also coming up is the National Gathering of United Methodist Men, set for July 7-9 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Holston will be one of the speakers and is asking South Carolina men to gather and attend; he hopes 200 men will join him. To register or for more information: gcumm.org.