Open Ears: Hearing from Change-Makers at M-LAB


By Sybil Davidson

M-LAB (Movement – Learning Action Board) was created to bring together United Methodists to incubate and prototype new ideas that will shape the future of our church.

Participants in the recent three-day M-LAB event in Tampa were inspired and challenged by speakers and teachers, as well as by the others in the room.

Jason Demeo of We Are Curio, an innovation studio based in Florida and a member of the M-LAB design team, walked participants through hands-on activities, teaching them techniques and design thinking.
The design team also invited nationally recognized, provocative change-makers to speak. They asked them to address critical questions like, how do people with very little power make change? What do you wish clergy and church leaders knew?
Andre Henry, a young theologian and activist, challenged the group to articulate a gospel that makes sense in our context. He anchored his message in a word from a friend: “We want to see the presence of God in the land of the living.”
He spoke about where faith intersects racial justice.
“We need more subversive liturgy. What we’re doing Sunday isn’t enough,” said Henry. “Make the connection between loving your neighbor and showing up for your neighbor.”
There is no movement if people don’t think change can happen or if they think the way things are is legitimate, he said.
To the clergy, Henry said: “We need you. You have the resources. No one else will do this. You have influence, communication networks, phone numbers and emails. You have money (give or take) and access to the most important resource - the way people think.”
He shared that there’s a connection between social justice, social change, and creativity.
Henry also shared that his own experience as a community leader hasn’t been flawless.
“We underestimated how much time it would take to build trust,” he said, admitting that his group should have spent more time eating pizza together.
“You build unity by building trust and you build trust by listening to each other,” said Henry. “We need to practice listening respectfully. Listen to each other’s prayers.”
Cole Nesmith, founder of The Creative City Project, spoke to M-LAB about transforming and designing culture.
“Designing culture means caring about the culture more than you care about your opinion,” he said. He spoke about radical service, about shaking the establishment, and about talking about things people care about.
Nesmith warned of building walls of opinion between ourselves and others.
“Some of the things we are talking about are irrelevant to the people outside the church,” he said. Instead build bridges. “Move from the church bubble into the world.”
He explained that helpful, valuable content is the best way to create a funnel into your organization. The wrong question is, what do I want to say. Instead ask, what is my audience looking to experience.
Most importantly, designing culture means showing up, including showing up to community meetings and the “state of the city” address. At community meetings, he notices there aren’t many religious leaders in the room.
“It’s where decisions are made and we aren’t showing up,” said Nesmith.
He joked about how parking is a hurdle to people attending some Orlando events. “It’s dumb that you’re worried about parking, but that doesn’t matter. I still need to help you overcome that hurdle.”
In addition to the keynote speakers, Bishop Bill McAlilly of the Tennessee and Memphis Annual Conferences, Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Conference, and Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Conference addressed participants as a panel and individually.
“One of the most powerful moments was when the bishops gave this broad permission,” said Hillary Demeo of We Are Curio. “They said, we invite you to try and fail, and try again.”
At night the bishops prayed over the pastors and encouraged them.
“My advice to you as pastors is to pray to the Holy Spirit for direction, tell people about Jesus, and lead your people well,” said Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson.