More than 200 participants gathered at Camp Sumatanga to learn about programs for church growth at the annual training event sponsored by Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century (SBC21). The weekend event focused on providing exceptional and effective ministries to children, youth and young adults. Participants were offered a choice of four workshop tracks designed to enhance their congregations' ministries to a new generation of believers, in addition to some important training for Safe Sanctuaries provided by Emily Nelms Chastain from the Conference Office of Connectional Ministries.
Those gathered enjoyed a "Methodists Have Talent" show to kick off the weekend, with young singers and dancers performing for the large crowd. Emcees Claudia and Robert Lewis from House of Restoration UMC introduced acts including dance teams, soloists and rappers from local congregations, all praising God with their performances. Unlike a typical talent show with a panel of judges, this event was a showcase of talented acts who received affirmation from the approving audience.
Dr. Richard Stryker, Conference Executive Director of Ethnic Ministries, was pleased to see people of many different ages at the event. "Some have told me that they were inspired by the intergenerational nature of the event," he said. "We will discover spiritual leaders from all age groups. This event is a part of moving us in that direction."
Melanie Gordon, Director of Ministry with Children for the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD) of the United Methodist Church, led two sessions for those who work with children. One of the new programs she shared is "Follow the Wesleys," a fun campaign for children utilizing a set of Flat Wesleys for congregations to use for two weeks and then send them to another church. Using the hashtag #FollowtheWesleys on social media outlets, the Flat Wesleys, modeled after the popular children's character Flat Stanley, can be followed throughout their itineracy until they take a sabbatical in September. Click here
to read more about the program.
Rev. Angela Johnson, who led the sessions for those who work with youth, was impressed by the number of young people who showed up—and stayed—for the weekend. "I was amazed at the youth and children involvement," she said. Many people will say, 'Our youth and children are the future of the church.' I would say that the youth and children are our church right now. We must meet them where they are, and be in ministry with our young people. The North Alabama SBC-21 did a great job including people of all ages. I was delighted to be a part of the event." Rev. Johnson, Associate Pastor and Youth Minister at Lithia Springs United Methodist Church and as the Campus Minister at the Wesley Foundation at Georgia State University, thought "SBC-21 was incredible!" The youth workshop included scenarios, small group discussion, using hashtags, and learning about social media, and taught attendees some key points:
- Meet youth theologically.
- Meet youth where they are (the skate park, mall, school, church, parking lot, etc.
- Youth ministry includes the family—a youth minister or volunteer is not just doing ministry with only the youth
- Youth ministry includes the team—being the church and raising a child as a church community
- Youth ministry is about including all people (no matter their sexual orientation)
- Meeting young people in their comfort zone
While youth workers were learning in their workshops, the youth attendees were learning as well. Rori Blakeney, a staff member of the Southeast Jurisdiction's Young People's Ministry team, led youth from North Alabama in defining their role in creating and sustaining the church. "I was impressed with the participation, especially the intergenerational approach to the event," he said. "It was a clear signal that strong churches make room for all generations at the table."
Working in small groups, the youth created poster board presentations representing their churches. They learned about denominational resources such as the Youth Service Fund, Youth 2015, the national gathering of United Methodist youth, and the Leadership Lab. "
Often, churches look at doing ministry for children, youth and young adults, but this training set the expectation that churches must be willing to do ministry with these age groups," said Blakeney. "It underscored the nature that strong ministry is rooted and grounded in forming gift-based partnerships. In the Just For Youth session, I wanted to dialogue with the youth about how they perceive their local churches. An outgrowth of this dialogue was helping youth understand they have a role in creating the church."
Rev. Ron Bell of The Arise Church in Wilmington, Delaware, led the sessions for ministry with young adults. Using research-based interpretation on the needs and realities of 18-35 year olds, Bell is experiencing success with some outside-the-box practices, many of which are devised to connect with this age group. The material was presented with the intention of helping churches understand, engage and minister to a generation in crisis. "I hope the workshop answered the question, where are all the young adults and why won't they come to our church?" said Rev. Bell.
Rev. Bell also praised the success of SBC21.
"The secret to such a well developed and executed inter-generational training experience like this past weekend can be found in only one place...good leadership."
SBC21 leaders were also pleased with the turnout, the diversity, and the workshop leaders. "This year's annual event was truly a testimony to the new life many of us are witnessing in our black churches," said Rev. Dedric Cowser, event convener. "Our workshop presenters were phenomenal and provided us with innovative methods to enhance our ministry with young people. Most of all, they challenged us to think outside the box."