African American leaders in UMC embrace change to reach new generation


    “Jesus loves winos,” exclaimed the Rev. Rudy Rasmus, pastor of St. John’s UMC in Houston, at the 2013 Convocation for Pastors of African American Churches. He used the term literally and figuratively as he told the nearly 500 hundred pastors, seminaries and lay leaders the story of St. John’s, a model case study for the Convocation, which focused on the theme “Shifting Wineskins: Education, Adaptation, Transformation.”
      In 1992, he went to St. John’s, a decaying church in downtown Houston, with 9 members. The church has grown to more than 9,000 members with around a third of its membership being homeless or formerly homeless. It houses several ministries – Meals that Heal, The Bread of Life and The Art Project, Houston -- designed to reach winos, people who are often marginalized in the life of the church.  St. John’s reaches a cross section of people with its invitation to join the love revolution.
        Another case study closer to home is Impact Church.
       Started in January 2007 with a core team of 25, the church located in Atlanta’s West End is reaching a new demographic – the young tech-savvy, multi-cultural urban dweller. Its slogan is Doing Church Differently. Six years later, with 1,200 regular weekly attendees in three services and more than 100 volunteers, the church has acquired a 76,000-square-foot warehouse property on 10 acres of land.       They expect to open Phase I -- a redeveloped for 21st century center devoted to transformative ministry, social outreach, business incubators and community services to children, youth and families this summer.
     “Our focus is mission-based as opposed to maintenance-based,” said the Rev. Olu Brown, pastor and organizer of Impact Church. “We teach our congregation to live out a proactive ministry agenda targeting people and their life issues while helping them realize their God-given potential,” Brown explained.
     Both congregations are examples of how the church can adapt to reach new people and new generations.
     That was a primary focus of the three-day meeting held in Atlanta in January at the Marriott Atlanta Airport.
     The Rev. Vance P. Ross, pastor of Nashville’s Gordon United Methodist Church, and the Convocation’s convener, said the convocation’s planning team asked the question, “What do pastors need for the 21st century?” 
     Seeking to assure relevance for this day and time, the team turned to the book, “New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations” by Dr. F. Douglas Powe, E. Stanley Jones, associate professor of evangelism and associate professor of black church studies at St. Paul School of Theology. 
      Powe, a plenary speaker, identifies four groups of people -- Civil Rights generation (1921-1940); black consciousness (1941-1960); integrationist (1961-1980) and hip-hop generation (1981-present). Powe argues that in order for the black church to survive it must expand its methods of reaching people.
     In addition to Powe’s work, the convocation tackled the issue of mass incarceration. 
    To further delve into relevance for pastoral ministry, Professor Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness,” also served as a presenter. She now holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State. Alexander, a Stanford Law School and Vanderbilt University graduate, was the law clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.“
    “Alexander's book addresses the systemic causes of absence, unemployment, underemployment and criminal stigma among black men,” Ross said. “Alexander gives clear and thoughtful evidence that this nation has re-created Jim Crow segregation by building a framework for criminalizing men of color in exponential numbers.”
       Alexander addressed the convocation followed by a panel discussion with local church leaders who are engaged in prison ministry. 
       “I think Michelle Alexander’s presentation gave people a passion to go back into their community to do something about this mass injustice,” said the Rev. Aleze Fullbright, associate director of the Center for Leadership Development in the North Texas Annual Conference.  “It talked about social holiness something that we often miss.  For some, it was a personal conviction for not understanding and ministering to those come out of the prisons,” she said.
      In addition to Rasmus and Brown, plenary speakers at the biennial event included the Rev. Felecia Laboy, senior pastor at Maple Park United Methodist Church in Chicago and the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, senior Pastor at Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. They were six, two-hour workshops led by some of North Georgia clergy including the Rev. Dr. A. Elaine Crawford, associate pastor at Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta; the Rev. Walter Kimbrough, pastor of Columbia Drive United Methodist Church in Decatur, and the Rev. Michael McQueen, pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Alpharetta.
     Preachers included Ross, Dr. Frederick Haynes, senior pastor of Friendship West Baptist of Dallas Texas and Michelle Watkins Branch, Ph.D. candidate at Garrett Evangelical Seminary and assistant pastor at St. Mark United Methodist Church, Chicago, IL
      “You can’t miss the Convocation.  It is a must,” said Fullbright. “It is always about the connectional church and networking.  It is a time to be encouraged, to pray together and to be energized.”