Editor’s note: Many readers of this magazine participated in General Conference 2015, but many were not able to attend this global gathering of Free Methodists in July at the Caribe Royale All-Suite Hotel and Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. Rather than merely providing a news recap of GC15, the Light + Life staff asked the three Free Methodist Church – USA bishops to share their perspectives about general conference. We hope this article will help GC15 participants see the ongoing results of their involvement while giving other readers knowledge of how God worked through general conference and the multiple ways the conference will continue to shape the church’s future.
A NEW BEGINNING OF SORTS
By Bishop Matthew Thomas
General Conference 2015 was a unique experience for me and others with whom I spoke. If you missed this one, make plans for the next one in 2019. We came together to reconnect with our whole ministry family, renew relationships, reaffirm our identity, respect our church’s history, and review our commitment to mission and vision for the future of the Free Methodist Church. We did all of that in the context of seeking God in worship and prayer, learning together in strategy groups and deliberating on matters important to us all. And it didn’t hurt to do so in an enjoyable environment conducive to building families and relationships.
This might have been the most invigorating event I have ever attended in the Free Methodist Church. There are several reasons. It was the most well-attended denominational leadership event I have experienced in nearly 37 years of ministry. Leaders attended from North, Central and South America along with Asia, Europe and Africa. It was also one of the most diverse groups assembled in the Free Methodist Church – USA. The Free Methodist Church is a beautiful collage of races, languages, cultures and ages. Most were well-represented.
Standing out more than anything else was the presence of and openness to the Holy Spirit among us. We sought the Lord together. God moved us. God moved in us. God is continuing to move us more deeply to love and serve Him and others. There was not a spirit of regional superiority or hesitancy to learn and grow. Everyone was open to learn and breathe deeply of the truth and presence of God. The Spirit touched old and young alike. Lay and clergy were united in mission.
Optimism filled the air. It was not a wishful thinking kind of optimism. This optimism was fully aware of attacks upon the Christian faith, the growing antipathy in culture to the church in general and the social upheaval, racial tension and moral crises facing church and society. Our eyes are wide open to the challenges and the need for change, even in us. The optimism that comes from the Spirit of God reminds us that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Even our partners who tended booths and spoke about their ministries were not vendors per se. They were fully engaged in the ministry of the Free Methodist Church, not leveraging opportunity to sell products and services but truly desiring to work with the church to assist us in fulfilling our call to love God, love people and make disciples. Ministry lunches and desserts were inspirational whether celebrating missions, children, racial diversity, institutional connection, women, men or youth. It was clear throughout the convention center that God’s goodness has been palpable in the Free Methodist Church, and His call to service is being lived out in a wide array of ministries.
Central to the daytime work were the skill-filled presentations of the Strategic Priority Groups (SPG) that informed and equipped attendees and conference delegates in nine very important areas. We are all now more aware of how we might become globally engaged, develop leaders, be healthy, embrace people not like us, multiply ministry, partner with other ministries, grow in size and fruitfulness, minister in urban settings, and disciple others to become more like Jesus. Each session offered takeaways that will most certainly help us be the church God intended us to be.
One first-time attendee from Michigan said, “The strategy sessions that I attended were great! I felt that the facilitators, team leaders and all the contributors put together valuable, informative and inspiring presentations.” A pastor from California said after attending the sessions, “I feel more equipped to lead the church than ever before.”
It should not be forgotten that one of the most instrumental parts of any general conference is the processing of important resolutions impacting our governance, faith and practice as Free Methodists as well as the election of our bishops and board that serve the church between each general conference. The conference members took the majority of one day handling important matters and did so with grace and unity. In an era when grace and unity do not typify denominational gatherings, it was apparent that God was in the midst of the business sessions. One first-time delegate said, “I thought something as emotionally charged as sexuality would produce conflict. Instead, though differences of opinion were expressed, there was a deep respect for those who shared their thoughts, a commitment to the Scriptures and to ministering grace in our communities that prevailed even in the final, approved resolution. I have never seen anything like this.”
I am grateful for the more than 2,200 participants at General Conference 2015 and the complementary mission trips. I have many new friends among them. The staff members of the Caribe Royale agree. One of the convention directors told us that she was personally touched by this unique group of people who blessed her and their entire staff. Well done, friends, walking in the light.
So what does this mean for us moving forward? After GC15, we know more fully who we are. Now we must live up to our identity. We know what to do. Now we must do it. We know better what this family is like. Now we must support it. We know how great the need is. We must seek the aid of the Spirit and pray that God’s will would be done in the Free Methodist Church and that His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).
BECOMING WHOLE CHURCH
By Bishop David Kendall
Granted, we named a goal for General Conference 2015 that sounded lofty or pretentious: To be whole as a church. By “church” we meant the FMCUSA and annual conferences but, most of all, local churches. We planned and prepared so that churches might pursue life and mission with Jesus locally and globally and thus become “whole.”
“Whole” does not mean perfect, as though finally we got beyond the point of no improvement. “Whole” does not mean complete, as though, henceforth, we shall lack nothing. And “whole” does not mean finished, as though we’ve arrived and can now congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments.
“Whole” does mean put together, resourced and led so that we can reach our full potential as people of God, individually and corporately. Therefore, to be whole means we are eager for any adjustment or improvement that helps us reach our potential. “Whole” means that, whatever need arises, we are connected in all the right ways, so need is matched by resources. “Whole” means no impediments or hindrances deter or divert us in pressing on toward all Christ wants for us.
The Apostle Paul wrote that Christ, the head of the church, provides leaders who prepare God’s people for their mission so that Christ’s body is built up, unified and “mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–16). We planned and prepared for General Conference 2015 with this goal in mind: becoming “whole church.” Lofty? Yes! Pretentious? I don’t think so. Here are several reasons why.
Only God can make “whole church.” Did God work to do so? We organized our gathering to allow space for worship, teaching, preaching, praying and responding to whatever God might do among us. In ways that seem uncharacteristic for general conference gatherings, the Holy Spirit moved among us in response to our worship and hearing God’s Word. Our responses came from simple appeals to love God, love people and make disciples. And hundreds responded. Our responses came from powerful and stirring teaching about discipleship, embracing all people, developing leaders and engaging the urban centers of the United States. These responses comprise the stuff of wholeness.
Only God can focus a people so that mission with Jesus becomes their passion. Feedback from the nine Strategic Priority Groups reflects growing singularity of focus and eagerness to pursue Jesus’ way and work in local and global settings. The several mission trips that 300 of our number experienced during the conference reflects this focus. I am confident that few returned from GC15 thinking about the changes we made to our official documents. Many returned with fire in their souls, ideas and strategies in their minds, and power to begin or deepen the work of Jesus for the sake of the world. It looks to me like emerging wholeness.
Only God can unite a people who in most respects have little in common. We’re still way too mono-cultural. Yet movement in the right direction could be seen, heard and felt at our gathering. An infant or child can be whole, with a lot of growing up still to do. So can a church. Redeemer God, being our helper, we are moving or being moved toward the great gathering around the throne that includes all kinds (Revelation 7:9–10). The movement is slow, but still from one degree of wholeness to another.
Only God can forge a way forward in the face of difficult and challenging cultural currents. We gathered in the shadow of Supreme Court rulings and social pressures fraught with both danger and potential. For two hours, we discussed and listened, we offered amendments and adjustments, and came to overwhelming agreement despite some considerable differences among us. This agreement flows from faithfulness to the Scriptures and to the ongoing mission of Jesus — agreement that signals whole-church consensus.
Only God can visit a people, meet their needs, and empower them to witness beautifully and compellingly to our world. Two telling experiences confirm God’s visitation among us in this way.
First, we concluded General Conference 2015 inviting the Free Methodist Church – USA to come to Jesus’ table and receive His gifts to make us whole. We had 20 stations at which two leaders — one from the United States and one from the international church — offered Jesus’ body and blood to all who came. We gave no instructions other than for the people to come to the station nearest them. The people came in droves, eagerly crowding in from this way and that. One server called it a holy chaos. At one point, several persons pressed in and reached for the bread over others, as if they believed Jesus were really there and as if just the slightest touch would make all the difference in the world.
Second, after the general conference was over and most people had left for home, there was a time of debriefing with the administration and staff of the Caribe Royale, where our conference was hosted. At the debriefing, they expressed amazement at the way our people related to them and one another. They felt respect, experienced generosity, observed thankfulness and cooperation, and there was … something else, something special. I believe that “something” was the coming together of a whole body that causes wonder, creates thirst and commends the only One who satisfies the thirst. It suggests the birthing of whole church.
ONE BODY RESPONDING
By Bishop David Roller
From around the globe and the far corners of the United States, delegates and participants funneled through the Orlando International Airport, not intent on seeing a huge mouse but intent on answering two questions. We all wanted to know, “Is this still my church?” and “Is God’s hand of favor upon us?”
Even the most stalwart Free Methodist wanted to see if the heart of our church could sing, cry and celebrate together in a real-world venue, a venue called the Grand Sierra Ballroom. Old-timers recalled that B.T. Roberts had converted a theater; perhaps God could move in a ballroom. Those newer to the movement wondered why we didn’t just call him Benjamin.
From the airport, it was on to the hotel. For a movement cradled in a tradition of simplicity, could we missionally and intentionally move into the kind of spaces that America inhabits? Or would chandeliers and patterned carpets somehow undercut our core identity? Turns out that nobody noticed the chandeliers; we were too busy exploring ministry together. Whether it was the nine Strategic Priority Groups or the evening services or the exhibit hall or the administrative meetings, the venue quickly “disappeared” and did what it was meant to do: enable the people of God to counsel together. It was common to hear people comment they were glad for a venue that helped us sleep well, eat appropriately and facilitate our work.
At one point, I was walking by the swimming pool area during the afternoon. It was a thoroughly modern American setting. A DJ was blaring music and trying to get folks to play a poolside game. I cringed inwardly, imagining some dear saints condemning us for trying to do the work of the church in such a pagan
environment. Then I took a deep breath and realized how perfect it was! We were doing church exactly where we should “do church.” For a people intent on penetrating the world with the good news, this was exactly where we should be. When the church gathers, it should be within eyesight and earshot of the brokenness and pain that Jesus came to heal. What good could it do to withdraw to some idyllic bubble and, from there, talk about invading the world with God’s love? This was a meeting in the middle of the messiness of America today.
Once the meetings began, we divided into nine Strategic Priority Groups. I visited all nine. Each one was different, but all were the result of months of preparation by leaders who had been charged with delivering implementable strategies to the church. As I ducked in and out, I saw small groups so intent in conversation that they were oblivious to the hubbub of a dozen other small groups around them. I saw videos they had produced, books they had written, surveys they had taken, and case studies and websites they had created. The energy of many of the denomination’s key leaders was uncapped in those nine rooms. It spilled out and drenched us all with their enthusiasm.
The final day of GC15 was dedicated to matters of polity and personnel, elections of bishops and the Board of Administration as well as consideration of resolutions deemed central to the church. All of this was done in a spirit of collegiality and submission to the Spirit. Even as the body debated and considered the problematic issues of the day, it was still one body. There wasn’t evidence of division. Somehow, in the middle of a country where rudeness seems to mark even things as mundane as a trip to the grocery store, hundreds of us listened to each other and thoughtfully guided the church through thorny issues with truth and grace. Against all intuition, the church was actually bonded together by carefully addressing what could have been divisive matters.
When the final day rolled around, the answers to our initial questions were yes and yes! Yes, this is still my church — still my church because we’re blessed to be a part of a movement that coalesces around being serious, yet joy-filled, followers of Jesus. We believe in transformation — not transformation into some stony asceticism but transformed by the renewal of our hearts into fullness in Christ, so that we can serve Him as He transforms our world.
And yes, God’s hand of favor is upon us. Often when we plan for an event, we pray that God will “show up.” Of course God always “shows up,” but there are certain seasons and times when the wind of the Spirit blows stronger. Then there are other seasons and times when God’s people respond quickly to any zephyr from God. GC15 was marked by both of those. The Spirit stirred us often, and we responded readily. That is a potent combination: God moving, His people responding. Time after time at GC15, the people of God moved quickly to respond to His call.
GC15 turned out to be a heart thing. The mark of GC15 was an affirmation for Free Methodists that we have not been distracted from our central calling, our calling to authentically and fully follow Jesus. This is my church. His hand is upon us.
BISHOP MATTHEW THOMAS has been an active part of the Free Methodist Church since 1979. His ministry roles have included serving as a pastor, church planter, missionary and superintendent.
BISHOP DAVID KENDALL is an ordained elder in the Great Plains Conference who was first elected to the office of Free Methodist bishop in 2005. He is the author of “God’s Call to Be Like Jesus” (fmchr.ch/dkcall).
BISHOP DAVID ROLLER served for 17 years as a Free Methodist missionary in Mexico and then for 10 years as Latin America area director for Free Methodist World Missions. He was first elected a bishop in 2007.