One of the grandest gatherings of Free Methodists in history will take place in Florida in 2015. It certainly will not be the biggest. I have attended some very large Free Methodist events in other countries. It will not even represent the largest body of Free Methodists to host a conference. There are far more Free Methodists in other countries.
But it may just be one of the most significant and diversely represented events in our 155-year history. July 13–16 in Orlando, Florida, is when and where we will host the 37th General Conference of the Free Methodist Church – USA.
Some of you reading this have attended more general conferences than the seven that I have had the privilege of attending. Others reading this are not sure what a general conference is and may not have heard of the Free Methodist Church though this article appears in our denomination’s magazine. Whether you have attended a dozen or none, you may want to put this on your calendar and come. The fact that every Free Methodist is invited is one of the many reasons this conference holds great significance. General Conference 2015 is for everyone who loves God, loves people and desires to see more and better disciples in this world.
We will be gathering to worship God, celebrate what He has done and is doing in our ministry family, look forward together, resource both clergy and lay members to better serve God and reach the world, be inspired by incredible stories of transformation, meet and network with like-minded people, better understand our beliefs and commitments in this rapidly changing world, and transact some family business in the process.
Sounds like a lot? It is. Sounds like it is for more than a few elected leaders to enjoy? It is. In fact, it is our hope that at least one person from every Free Methodist church in the United States attends, and it is our hope that all leaders attend.
I mentioned what we will be doing. But some may ask: “Why do we do this?” “Why is this done with just our ministry family — the Free Methodist Church?” “Why do these occur at intervals of about four years?” These are all reasonable questions.
Why not hold general conference every year if it is such a spectacular event? Why not hold general conference once a decade and do it up right if it is truly global in scope and attendance?
We self-mandate that we hold such an event to elect our leaders (bishops and board representatives) and make necessary changes in our denomination as well as review and periodically restate our beliefs and commitments in ways that speak with clarity to our culture and ourselves. These are all necessary. These are the businesslike elements that make general conference necessary. None of this is boring or irrelevant. To the contrary, who leads and to what we commit ourselves matter intensely.
As we elect, clarify and rearrange, we must not forget why we do this. General conference is not held simply to feel good about ourselves or even celebrate what we have accomplished by the Spirit of God. General conference allows us to align ourselves with God’s purpose for us. Through general conference, we do whatever we can to see His kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In so doing, we remind ourselves of who we are, where we have come and how we can do God’s will better in the future.
This is why the business portion of our gathering cannot consume the majority of our time together. Legislation and elections do not make disciples, equip leaders or inspire a new generation of servants of God. Prayer, worship, learning, strategizing and guidance (by those who have lived fruitful lives filled with fruitful ministry) will help us make disciples and impact the world.
This church has a rich history. It has proclaimed holiness of heart and life. It has advocated for the poor and marginalized. It has proclaimed freedom from slavery and equality of all persons. It has unapologetically defended the equality of all people to serve, lead and be cared for. It has exercised its message in a holistic way. That is our DNA.
From Grace Allen’s 53 years of sacrificial service in Africa to Jake DeShazer’s harrowing experiences turned into inspiring ministry, the loving hand of God has been seen around the world through humble servants of God. From Roberts Wesleyan College to Seattle Pacific University and all colleges and universities between, our institutions of higher education have been instruments in producing world and national leaders in church, business and politics. From the birth of ministry to and advocacy for children around the world to the thriving ministry of International Child Care Ministries, the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45) have been cared for. Revivals have spotted our history.
Ralph Messner, John Baker, Hubert Wash and Frank Van Valin sing at General Conference 1969. (Photo courtesy of the Marston Memorial Historical Center)
More to Come
Those stories continue to unfold. New expressions of holiness and sacrifice can be seen today in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and, yes, even North America. The best is not necessarily behind us. There is much still to come.
God’s favor is on this part of His family. Free Methodist churches continue to see lives transformed as a result of God’s ministry through them. Free Methodist colleges and universities continue to serve the church and the world with excellence. Missionaries, pastors and lay leaders continue to model sacrifice and holiness. New partnerships continue to unfold to meet global need and advance the gospel of Jesus Christ in holistic ways.
Only in this once-every-four-years event will you be able to see the sights and hear the sounds and meet the people engaged in all of these kinds of ministries. They will all be represented. The best of what we do and are about will be taught, discussed, planned and resourced in those four days. Leaders and experts in various fields of ministry will teach you how to do ministry with excellence. You will see pastors, superintendents, missionaries, college presidents, bishops, church planters, leaders from other nations, theologians and leaders of ministries in every field of ministry imaginable — all under one roof.
Some may ask, “What can I possibly contribute to this? ” The answer is “much in every way.” If you are able to attend, you can learn, worship, participate, pray and connect right alongside hundreds of others. You will have a voice. You will be encouraged to worship and pray and express your spiritual gifting in some way. If you are wondering if there is something more tangible that you can do to minister rather than attend a large gathering, the answer is yes. Many are already registered to participate in one of the many mission trips that will commence from Orlando before general conference and conclude at general conference. If you are able, go. Go either to or through Orlando to experience or do ministry.
If you are unable to attend, you can pray, encourage others to go and then apply the many tools that will emerge from the event. This event will not be an end in itself. It will begin a new day of ministry together.
Matthew Thomas has served as a Free Methodist bishop since 2007. His previous roles included pastor, church planter, missionary and superintendent. To read more from Bishop Thomas, visit<br />fmcusa.org/matthewthomas.
So what is general conference again? It is the one, single event where you can see and engage with what God is doing in your entire ministry family, beyond your local church.
Speaking to a pastor who had an illness that was no longer impacting his life, I asked what had happened. He said, “I was healed at last general conference when the prayer team prayed for me.”
Speaking to a young church planter, I asked when he sensed God’s leading to plant churches. He said, “At general conference in Rochester.”
Speaking to a pastor from a minority race, I asked why he is so much more engaged denominationally. He said, “At general conference, I came to realize that this is not only my ministry family, but what others from my race should embrace as theirs.”
General conference is about business — the Lord’s business and a whole lot more.
Join the Set Free Movement and the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium Freedom Network for the Freedom Summit, July 10–11, 2015, at the Caribe Royale in Orlando. Worship in the direction of freedom with artists like chart-topping Christian band Remedy Drive. Gain insights from leading abolitionists working with International Justice Mission, World Hope International and others. Learn how you can be an agent of hope and healing and end modern slavery. Go to freedomsummit15.com for more information or to register.
LODGING AND REGISTRATION
General conference attendance continues to increase, creating a need for larger venues. This need — coupled with the fact that General Conference 2015 is an international event with global impact — led to the selection of the Caribe Royale All-Suite Hotel and Convention Center, 8101 World Center Drive, Orlando, FL 32821.
The Caribe Royale is perfectly situated to facilitate both the mission trips and GC15.
Act now to ensure you’ll have a seat and a suite in Orlando. Two-bedroom villas are sold out, but there are still suites available. The lodging price is $112 a night for a suite with two queen beds in a bedroom plus a pullout sofa, refrigerator, microwave and desk in the living room. A suite holds a maximum of 6 people if at least 2 are children.
General conference registration includes a combined form for both lodging and attendance. Through Dec. 31, 2014, registration is $149 for a delegate or exhibitor and $99 for everyone else. Beginning Jan. 1, 2015, registration is $199 for a delegate or exhibitor and $129 for everyone else.
Go to gc15.org to register.