June 01, 2016
The May 13 laity address included lay leaders from the Upper New York, Virginia, Missouri, Tennessee, Zimbabwe and Great Plains conferences, with each sharing a sense of urgency for the people in local churches around the world to do more to share the love and mercy available to all through Jesus Christ.
“Our ongoing challenge comes from the need to embrace all that discipleship entails,” said Scott Johnson, lay leader from the Upper New York Conference. “Now, it would be wonderful if discipleship was only about the joy, peace and wonder. But we know that following Jesus isn’t all about mountaintop moments, praise songs and potlucks.”
Johnson told delegates and guests that despite many encouraging signs within the church, the denomination’s statistics — presumably referring to declines in worship attendance and membership — show we need to do more. He bluntly addressed the laity in the audience.
“The challenges facing the church are, in part, the result of the failure to live the discipleship we claim,” Johnson said.
Too many members of the church, Johnson said, are willing to sit on the sidelines of ministry, due in large part because of the discomfort many people have in sharing their faith in Jesus. He also noted the difficult work from which some people shy away when ministering to people who are more difficult to love than others are.
“Some of us have been willing to accept this behavior because of fear,” he said. “Far too often, we will settle for people willing to fill pews and offering plates, hoping that ‘the Jesus thing’ happens at some point. While we have valid reasons for that, our Lord demands and deserves better.”
The remainder of the address provided thoughts of how to change the status quo, using a model shared by United Methodist Discipleship Ministries. Components include showing hospitality, offering Christ to others, providing purpose in life and engaging with the world around us.
Showing Hospitality, Offering Christ
Warren Harper, lay leader for the Virginia Conference, told the story of his 2-year-old grandson, Chase, who Harper said proclaims vibrantly whatever he wants to share with others. The willingness to speak up while following the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:16-20 is a form of hospitality because such actions help introduce new believers to a relationship with the Savior.
Harper said through hospitality, people encounter God and can find a sense of belonging in the local church.
“Such a call may take us possibly around the world or, quite simply, maybe just across the street,” Harper said.
Johnson moved the presentation from the initial introduction to Christ to offering Christ’s love to the world. He said, too often, people only serve in ways that are convenient for them. He questioned if some members of the laity are present only when they have nothing else to do or only when they have completed other, less difficult tasks.
“Discipleship is not just about helping out when we have the time or the energy,” he said. “It is about offering Christ.”
Brian Hammons, lay leader in the Missouri Conference, encouraged those in attendance to go back to their local churches and offer opportunities for congregations to commit themselves to serving Christ. He started his presentation by stating emphatically that he is excited to be a United Methodist Christian, and he encouraged others to be excited to be part of the connectional church as well.
He said the church could remain relevant if it holds true to the foundational commitments to Jesus.
“I am excited to offer Christ because I believe that God’s Spirit is very much alive and moving, connecting our past with a hope-filled future — giving us purpose,” Hammon said.
Holly Neal, lay leader in the Tennessee Conference, said nurturing people through worship, sacraments and spiritual disciplines provides purpose.
“We are called as a church to help persons find a sense of purpose in life as a disciple by learning what it means to live out one’s belief through acts of piety and mercy, sharing one’s faith and engaging in service,” Neal said.
She recounted some of the many mission opportunities provided by local churches, such as providing clothing and shelter for the homeless, as well as working to end gang violence.
Engaging the World
Once people meet Christ and receive an opportunity to serve and find their purpose in ministry, Simon Mafunda said lay members must engage the world around them.
Mafunda, lay leader in the East Zimbabwe Conference, said engaging others means being willing to step out of comfort zones to make Christ known to others. He shared a quote from a friend who — detailed an encounter with delegates at the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. The friend encountered people of varying races, speaking many languages — all acting in a spirit of goodwill.
“It is not about distance. It is not about economic situation. It is not about color,” Mafunda said. “But it is all about love. We can, indeed, transform this world by being the feet, hands, ears and eyes of Jesus Christ.”
Courtney Fowler, lay leader in the Great Plains Conference, culminated the laity address by leading the General Conference in a time of prayer and reminding lay members of the importance of being involved in ministry. She said as people of the church hear the cries for God’s presence around the world, laity must play a large role in bringing the love and mercy of Christ to every town, village, neighborhood and home.
“We must go and welcome the stranger into our church,” Fowler said. “We must go and welcome the poor into our midst. We must go and feed the hungry. We must go and offer healing to the sick and those who suffer. We must go and seek out those who are lonely. The needs are great. We hear you calling us, and we must go.”