Skin in the game: UMMen ‘man up’ for Christ

Largest men’s retreat South Carolina has seen

By Jessica Brodie

MYRTLE BEACH—United Methodist Men are on a roll in South Carolina, and the momentum only continues to grow.

That’s what men’s ministry leaders are saying after a wildly successful Men N Ministry spiritual retreat in February that outdid the bishop’s own goal for the event, plus brought hundreds of men into new relationship with Christ.

“I am just awestruck at what’s been done in South Carolina in just three short years,” Herman Lightsey, president of South Carolina Conference United Methodist Men, said at the men’s retreat. “It just tells you what you can do with lay and pastor and bishop leadership. We want to be the men of the church. We’re not there just to meet or eat or barbecue. We want to be out there discipling.”

The retreat, held at Christ United Methodist Church in Myrtle Beach, drew more than 850 men from every district in the conference, all committed to putting what Lightsey and his team call “skin in the game.”

“It’s more than we’ve ever seen before,” Lightsey said.

The growth has the men more than a little wowed—two years ago, they saw 150 at their retreat. Last year it was 500, more than they’d ever seen before. This year’s 850 is more than five times their 2013 attendance. And the revitalization of their ministry is even getting national attention; in March, the South Carolina UMMen were named the top conference in the United States by the General Commission on UMMen.

“In South Carolina, we want to reclaim the power of grace, the power of love and the power of joy. We want to not just be satisfied with where we are. We want to reclaim our families for God so that we may be the people God wants us to be,” Holston told the packed theater at Christ UMC. “We want men to say ‘I’m going to step out on faith.’ You’re being challenged to be more than you ever thought you could be, think higher than you ever thought before.”

The Men N Ministry retreat was a weekend dedicated to deepening men’s personal walk with Christ—a next step after 2014’s theme on “taking the plunge” with Christ. Held Feb. 20-22 at a church that formerly housed the Gatlin Brothers Theater, the weekend lineup included speakers, workshops, outreach ministries, a Run for Christ 5K, contemporary worship, altar calls and more.

Key speakers were Adrian Despres, head chaplain of the University of South Carolina football team and evangelist for Kingdom Builders Ministries; the Rev. John Ed Mathison, author, former pastor of the 7,000-plus Frazer UMC, Montgomery, Alabama, and head of John Ed Mathison Leadership Ministries; Michael Belk, producer, Christian art photographer and writer of “Journeys with the Messiah;” and South Carolina UMC Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston.

‘Tired of men being sissies’

The weekend kicked off with wisdom from Despres, who used plenty of humor and straight talk to get the men to commit to their next step for Christ and be the kind of man God wants them to be, not only in the world but in their families. He made the men shout words of praise and, at one point, serenade their wives, many of whom were in the audience with them.

“I’m tired of Christian men being sissies,” Despres said to laughter and applause. “Men need to brag about their wives!”

He told men they need to “man up” about being a good husband and about being a passionate Christ-follower. As a young man, he once trained so hard to be a starter as a freshman on the football team that he threw up, then got right back up and kept training.

“I would even brag about it—that’s awesome! I threw up! No pain, no gain, and I had a passion for it,” Despres said. “That’s what passion is.”

When it comes to God, we need to be the same way. And if we’re not, then we’re not 100 percent committed. He said 99 percent of people go to church today and don’t share the Gospel, yet half a world away, in Egypt, people today are suffering and dying for Christ and singing joyful songs about it.

Despres said the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 2:10, “That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

“It’s about rejoicing,” Despres said—not going through the motions, half-heartedly singing hymns.

Then he made the men get to their feet and shout, “I love Jesus and I want to be passionate for him.”

The men did so with gusto, their shouts so loud the room reverberated with the noise.

The four chairs

The next morning, Saturday, Despres used four chairs to illuminate where men are in their commitment to Christ. The first chair represents someone so deeply in love with Jesus that they get a little crazy sometimes with their zeal, they spend time reading the Bible and consider it a privilege, they believe in hell, they can’t seem to hide their passion.

The second chair represents someone who is a Christian, but they’ve gotten a little used to God, a bit complacent, maybe even apathetic. They get uncomfortable being around the first chair, think things like, “Oh, they’ll settle down eventually.”

The third chair he called the “most dangerous seat in the house.” These people are often churchgoers and have been baptized and confirmed, but they simply don't care much about Jesus; they just simply do what they have to do.

The fourth chair is someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus.

Despres begged the room to get in the first chair with him and others who passionately love Christ.

“Surrender!” he said, inviting people to identify which chair they are in, and if they are in the third or fourth chair and want to make a commitment to Christ, to come down to the front and be part of a massive altar call. Those in the second chair were urged to get on their knees and submit themselves to God.

The room was filled with hundreds of men at the front turning their lives over to God, many with tears streaming down their cheeks.

Forget ‘business as usual’

Mathison took the crowd to new understanding by talking about transformation and focus. Mathison, who saw his church transform from 400 to nearly 9,000 people in his time there and now makes it his life’s work to help others live into God-sized dreams, began Friday by talking about a man with no legs who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for charity. When asked why he wanted to do it, the man said, “I wanted to see if God could use me to redefine the possible.”

That’s the crux here, Mathison told the room: when you have skin in the game, you want to do things like this. You want to give your whole life to Christ and see what He can do through you.

“The biggest problem in The United Methodist Church is we put parameters on what God can do. God can do anything!” Mathison said.

Other countries are often so enthusiastic about God that they take huge risks and, consequently, achieve huge things for God, like the young church in Chennai, India, that serves 42,000 people. We sometimes mistakenly think that America is the spiritual leader of the world, “But there are more countries sending missionaries to the U.S. than we’re sending out,” he said.

But the impossible can be redefined, Mathison said: “We’re not going to settle for business as usual.”

He said we should remember three things on our path to transformation: God can do anything, we should bring it all to Jesus, and all things are possible to those who believe.

“When we open our hearts and receive him, unbelievable things can happen,” Mathison said to fervent applause.

The next morning, Mathison began with a story about how once, in his local church, he popped into a Sunday school room and saw the children had constructed a model church. He picked it up to look at it, and one of the kids said, “John Ed, please be careful! You’ve got our church in your hands!”

Those words have stuck with him a long time, he told the room: we all have God’s church in our hands. What are we doing with it?

After all, he noted, “If it doesn’t happen in the local church, it won’t happen.”

He encouraged the room to understand what is changeless (the man Jesus Christ, the message He brought and the mission of the church to make disciples) and to leave those things alone. Instead, we should focus on what can change: our mindset, our methodology and our ministries.

“Biblically, every layperson, every believer is a minister, and we need people stepping out to serve,” Mathison said. “When the church turns lay people loose, amazing things happen.”

A photo book for God

Belk’s session Saturday morning started with the showing of his video on the making of his “Journeys with the Messiah,” a photographic collection that attempts to tell Gospel stories in a fresh, simple and powerful way that brings true relevance to Scripture. Belk took a hiatus from his 30-year career as a fashion photographer to create the book, which he considers a highlight of his life.

Belk talked about his faith journey, notably how he found God in the midst of a deep period of intense darkness. He turned his life over to Christ, but he didn’t feel he’d given enough. God had put the idea for the Gospel photo book on his heart, but there never seemed to be the time.

“When I turned 60, I finally said to my wife, ‘What if I die this year? What would I say to God about why I hadn’t done this project?’”

The book was shot in Matera, Italy, where “Passion of the Christ” was filmed, and Belk told the stories behind the photos, like the shot of the rich young ruler talking to Jesus next to his Ferrari, a handful of beggar children surrounding them.

“If I never do another creative piece, I go in peace for having been part of this,” he told the crowd.

A throng of people lined up outside his booth at the retreat, asking questions about the experience and buying the book.

Dreaming big

Preaching the session Saturday night, Bishop Holston drew from Joshua 1:3-9, which urges people to be strong and brave, do not fear, for God will be with you wherever you go.

“This weekend is about trying to fulfill promises to God,” Holston said, telling the crowd they are not promise-breakers but promise-keepers and men of God. “We’ve made promises we’ll go back and take our churches where they’ve never been before. We’ll be men in ministry because we are a ministry field of God.”

Sometimes we are not the men we say we are, he said, and our promises falter. But take heart: God has already paved the way; it is now up to us to put skin in the game and fulfill those promises.

“You’ve got to come to God yourself,” Holston said.

Sometimes we don’t come—not because we don’t want to, but we, like the church, are paralyzed in yesteryear. But God said “I can do,” so do not be afraid, Holston said.

“Now is the time to pick up the mantle and know God’s already provided. We will be the people God’s called us to be. … We just have to let God have full reign over our life,” Holston said. “It is time to stand up, South Carolina. It is time to stop being afraid.”

Holston told the room that next year he wants to see 1,500 men at the retreat—10 times the number at the 2013 retreat and three times the number at the 2014 retreat. The 2016 retreat is set for Feb. 19-21, again at Christ UMC, and will feature the Rev. Mike Slaughter, author and pastor of Ginghamsburg Church, one of the largest and most influential UMCs in the nation.

“Dream dreams bigger than ever before,” Holston said to booming applause and whistles. “We’re saying ‘we can do it!’ ‘You can’t stop me!’ And that’s the promise.”

For more photos from the men’s retreat, visit To learn more about men’s ministry efforts, visit

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