Summit offers real talk on vitality in the black church

By Jessica Brodie

For more photos from the event, view the Advocate's Flickr album here.

How can we connect missing links to make a unified, powerful whole—and do it in a way that glorifies God?

That was the gist of a three-day Summit on the Black Church in Charleston this fall attended by hundreds of lay and clergy United Methodists from across South Carolina.

With the theme “The Missing Links: Real Talk for the Black Church,” the summit featured a host of church leaders there to usher in a fresh spirit of vitality, including South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, Virginia Resident Bishop Sharma D. Lewis, Rev. William T. Chaney Jr., Dr. Tonya Lawrence Miles, Dr. Henry Masters and many more.

“We’ve come to this summit—a peak, a place, a pinnacle where we can look out and see—and we have so many things to talk about,” said the Rev. Millie Nelson Smith in her welcome on Day 1, Oct. 25. “I believe God has given us the leadership that we need. It’s up to us to take the first steps.”

After a hearty introduction from her longtime friend and fellow bishop Holston, Lewis took the stage to preach opening worship on stirring up our gifts so the Holy Spirit can move.

Drawing from 2 Timothy 1:6-7, where Paul reminds his young mentor to “stir up the gift” that is within him, Lewis preached on how we live today in critical times, when we still witness racism, sexism and bigotry.

“The body of Christ is becoming weary and stagnant,” Lewis said. “People don’t know what to believe anymore. The fire for the church, I feel sometimes, has gone out.”

But the world cannot be allowed to water down our fire, she said.

Instead of worrying about being labeled “charismatic” or “different,” we need to be more concerned about what will happen to our fire if we grow lukewarm.

“To stir means to agitate, shift, disrupt, wake up, get up, fire up, shake up, motivate, stimulate and excite!” Lewis preached to resounding amens. “I ask you this afternoon: What things are you agitating? What things are you disturbing, disrupting… or is it business as usual?”

Lewis explained how Timothy was once on fire for God, but he allowed his fire to go out, which was why Paul was writing to his young friend. Like Timothy, we need to fire up our pilot lights again. We must recognize that we have a gift—not just a personal skill set but an actual, spiritual gift bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit. And we must make a conscious effort to utilize our gift for the common good of the body of Christ.

“I believe that we need a movement,” Lewis said to wild applause. “We need a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit—a fresh fire and a fresh wind.

“Come on, South Carolina, stir it up!”

No quick fixes

In the opening plenary Chaney, of Path 1, UMC Discipleship Ministries, talked about how vitality is no longer present in the black church. Somehow, the culture shifted so that

27 million African Americans are not in church on a Sunday morning, Chaney said, “And we’re too comfortable saying that’s OK.”

Chaney said quick fixes don’t work; we cannot program our way back to vitality. Instead, we need to be about discipling and making disciples of Jesus Christ.

He said this starts with being in relationship with the communities that surround our churches, then shifting our thinking from fixing churches to true discipleship. In Luke 9:1-6, Chaney said, Jesus modeled discipleship, then discipled people and sent them out, then gave them authority, then coached them to maturity.

It takes time and it takes risk, but the payoff is crucial.

Chaney talked about how he started leaving the house every Monday night to watch football, but there he found an unlikely place to be a community pastor: in local sports bars.

“We have to learn how to build relationships, model discipleship, send them out to do ministry and coach them to maturity,” Chaney said. “If you do not engage in change immediately, the history and the legacy of the black church in America will die.”

He said right now, churches are having their very own “Kodak moment,” reminding the crowd that once Kodak was on top of the camera game. But it ignored digital photography, and that was its demise.

“The past is our foundation not our destination,” Chaney said. “Stop walking around being afraid.”

Reclaiming all generations

That afternoon, Dr. Tonya Lawrence Miles, director of the office of religious Life and Chaplain at Clark Atlanta University, taught on how to revitalize the church through spiritual formation with young people—something rooted in relationship and grace.

“Young people are turned off by the church today,” Miles said, recalling how when she first started attending church as a young woman, she had more people comment on how she wasn’t wearing nylon stockings than ask how it is with her soul. “They want to know Jesus Christ, but they can’t and won’t because of us.”

She urged the room to reclaim all generations in the life of the church, not just making sure there is one young person on the team. It’s an intentional effort but one that reaps great rewards.

Unique conundrum

The next morning, Dr. Henry Masters, editor of By Faith Magazine
, led on leadership and stewardship.

“The black church faces a unique conundrum,” Master said. “The money it needs is largely in the hands of baby boomers, while the participation they need must come from the millennials. The millennials, however, have some real issues about the relevancy of the church and our understanding of who God is and what God is doing in the world.”

Masters said we can spin this any way we want, but the reality is our churches are disappearing.

“We can have real talk, tough talk, but we have got to find a way to deal with the realities of the situation,” Masters said.

He delved into examples of leadership using Joshua, who was forced to be strong and courageous. Joshua kept God first, he led by example, he stayed focused and resilient, and he put the needs of his own people higher than his own.

He said we need to be like Joshua, whether that’s in leading our churches forward or cultivating stewardship. Both begin when we model ourselves what we seek.

Much more

Many other educational opportunities rounded out the three-day summit. Bishop Holston preached at a Bishop’s Luncheon (see article by Dan O'Mara, here), and three leaders (the Rev. Jeannette Cooper, the Rev. Angela Ford Nelson and Carolyn Little) taught on creating worship experiences that truly help people connect.

The Rev. Cathy Mitchell, the Rev. Steve Patterson and Cynthia Williams led a panel discussion on conflict on Day 3, and the Rev. Jeffrey Howard led a youth session on “It’s Your Church Now.”

For more photos from the event, view the Advocate's Flickr album here.

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