General Conference Laity Address
Presentation Date: Fri. May 13, 8:45-9:15am
Good morning! I am Dr. Scott Johnson, I am one of six laity representatives addressing you today from across the global connection. I am the conference lay leader from the Upper New York Annual conference. It is an honor to be one of your presenters this morning….(PAUSE)… Jesus is clear, “19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Our Lord’s Great Commission is one of the central aspects of our faith, and as United Methodists we have made it our mission. We make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. While there are so many bright spots and every reason for continued hope, it’s clear that more must be done. The statistics speak for themselves, and do not bear repeating here. The message we bring today is one of hope. We, laity in leadership in our beloved church, are energized and prepared to answer this challenge in new ways.
Everyone gathered here knows the amazing joy of knowing Jesus as Lord, Savior, and friend. Maybe we met Him through the power of His healing touch at a time when our body was failing. Perhaps it was His comforting embrace during a time of deep sorrow or grief. As the saying goes, it could have been a time when He made a way when there was no way. He worked a miracle of provision, and you saw things in a new light. Some have just always known His presence as a constant, close companion. Many of us have known Him in all of these ways. No matter how He came to us, we said yes, opened our hearts, and gave our very lives to him. Now, we are forever changed and take our place in the long line of those known as disciples of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!
Our ongoing challenge comes from the need to embrace all that our discipleship entails. It would be wonderful if discipleship was only about the joy, peace, and wonder. But, we know that following Jesus isn’t all mountaintop moments, praise songs, and church dinners. Jesus strips away all of our pretense, pushes us past our limits, and reveals our sinful, willful selves. Scripture is full of examples of times Jesus challenged the disciples for their lack of faith or their lack of understanding. The stories of Jesus’ replies to those who wish to follow Him in Matthew 8:18-22 show the challenges of being a disciple. Whether it’s a matter of personal holiness, faithful obedience, or authentic love for neighbor, we have all fallen short of the glory of God despite our best intentions and claims of discipleship.
The challenges facing the church are, in part, the result of our failure to live the discipleship we claim. Paragraph 127 of the Book of Discipline states that “the witness of the laity, their Christ-Like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and the United Methodist church will fulfill its mission.”
This bold call to ministry for all members of the church is not embraced by everyone. We know that there are parts of the connection who are content to leave the uncomfortable conversations about Jesus and the difficult work of ministering to those who are hard to love to others. Some of us have been willing to accept this behavior because of fear. Far too often we will settle for people willing to fill pews and offering plates, hoping that “the Jesus thing” happens at some point. We have valid reasons for that, but our Lord demands and deserves better. We tolerate a level of engagement that neither Jesus nor John Wesley taught. We have respected one another’s privacy to our collective detriment.
What’s interesting about this challenge is that it reflects the opposite of what’s happening in many thriving churches. There is clearly a sense of a standard. There is an expectation of growth and accountability. So, this is the problem we want to confront today. Given that we know that Jesus demands much from His disciples, given that we claim that the ministry of the laity is the primary means through which the church will fulfill its evangelistic mission, then we, the laity in leadership in our faith communities, are prepared to go further and go deeper.
We stand here as disciples, and a disciple is not motivated by self-interest or conveniences. The mission and the challenge before us are not for the timid or the weak.
The world is hurting. The confused youth in our communities, the hungry families in our cities and towns, the flood and earthquake victims looking for help with rebuilding are desperately seeking help and meaning.
Many of these sisters and brothers will only be introduced to Christ through a conversation with someone who cares enough to share the truth and love of God. Most times that will be a layperson telling their story. This is how we begin the process of making disciples—we PROCLAIM the gospel, seek, welcome and gather persons into the body of Christ—This is hospitality.
My name is Warren Harper. I am the conference lay leader from Virginia Annual Conference and one of my greatest joys in life is being a grandfather. I learn a lot from my grandchildren.
When my one and a half year old grandson Chase wants something, he becomes a messenger proclaiming the good news: he declares, he announces, he makes known his desires, and he gives out this agonizing screech that drives my inner ear about nuts. Chase is proclaiming.
As you and I proclaim the gospel and we seek those that are lost and hurting right around the corner from us we require honesty with ourselves and determination. It requires that the call in our own life comes alive in the spirit of Christ. It is a call not only to the Great Commission, but also to the Great Commandment—to make disciples through love in authentic relationship with God and neighbor—it is how we exercise hospitality. Hospitality is reaching out and receiving new people and means for people to explore a relationship with Jesus. Through hospitality, one encounters and responds to the call of God and finds a sense of belonging among the church body when we, as disciples, proclaim the gospel, seek, welcome and gather persons into the body of Christ. Such a call will take us possibly around the world or quite simply maybe just next door.
Yet there are brothers and sisters who will not take their place in this process. They only give and serve when it is easy or convenient. If there is a task or a need to be met and we only give what we are willing to spare, is that Jesus’ love? Are we present only when there is nothing else we could be doing or we have done all of the other activities first, are we modeling Christ-like love? If we make a point to honor every obligation before we do the tasks we’ve pledged to our ministry, are we saying that Jesus is Lord? Discipleship is not just about “helping out” when we have the time or the energy; it is about offering Christ. Are we offering opportunities for persons to make a commitment to Christ through baptism by water and the spirit, profession of faith, and for growth in personal holiness through relationship with Christ and others?
We, as United Methodists, have been called to lead persons to commit their lives to God. Are you here today because someone offered you Christ?
I am! I am Brian Hammons, the conference lay leader from Missouri Annual Conference and let me tell you, I’m EXCITED to be a Methodist! Or more precisely, I’m EXCITED to be a United Methodist Christian!! If you are too, say AMEN!
I grew up in the church. I was baptized and married in the church. I’ve been a part of the Methodist and United Methodist church all my life, connected with congregations wherever I’ve lived. I can’t even begin to list all the ways my family and I have connected with people, worshiped, grown, and served. So many memories, friends, activities, and connections that have become part of me because I was offered Christ. And of course, because of this I’ve met Jesus and continue to see Him through the Methodist community of faith.
Let me ask you -- How does your church offer opportunities for persons to make a commitment to Christ? Are we as a church still relevant, speaking God’s truth in today’s culture? I believe we can still be relevant if we hold true to our foundational commitment to Jesus Christ. Yes, we sometimes get hung up in bitter disagreements over several issues and it seems sometimes that there is nothing to be excited about. O, but I AM excited to be part of the Methodist movement today. 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!
My name is Holly Neal and I am the conference lay leader from the Tennessee Annual Conference. I am standing before you today because I believe we have a purpose! We have been called to nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace, such as Wesley’s Christian conferencing. 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. So now I ask you, if John Wesley walked into our General Conference right now, would he recognize us as Methodists who live out their beliefs? Would he see our passion for justice? Would he recognize our repentance?
Friends, I believe John Wesley could spot us from a mile away! During this General Conference, Wesley would see that we are sincere in our repentance of past and current injustices waged on Sisters and Brothers within these walls and outside these walls. He would see us struggle with the toughest questions of our day like restructuring, guaranteed appointment, same-sex unions, and he would see us continue to love each other at the end of the day.
Away from this wonderful space, John Wesley would also see United Methodists handing out sandwiches and handshakes in the park. He’d recognize our lay people at community meetings striving to end gang violence. He might even see us downtown on a cold winter night sharing warm clothing and open hearts with anyone outside. That burning desire to serve Christ as we put our faith into action is what would tell John Wesley that he is indeed with kindred spirits.
What we have just heard is discipleship in action. These are sisters and brothers with jobs, children still at home, and parents. They have the same 24 hours in a day as all of us. The difference is that at some point in their journey they decided that Jesus’ call had to be answered and other things must be put aside. These disciples made their love for Christ enough of a priority to rearrange some of the things they did so that they could serve Him in righteousness and truth. There is no doubt that they’ve experienced countless challenges in arriving at this point; some of them related to the ministry, some of them related to the balancing of personal and professional lives with the call of God on their lives. The key being that Jesus made a way, and they followed. These are our sisters and brothers who are helping transform the surrounding community, and the world, through engagement.
We are called to send persons into the world, to engage with the world as they live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel. Now, God, new people, and these disciples are all blessed by these ministries, and the world will be and is being transformed.
I am Simon Mafunda from the Zimbabwe Annual Conference and I want to say that it is time we come out of our comfort zones and go out there and make Jesus Christ known. A dear friend shared the following reflection written many years ago. “As I set in the midst of the international community, among the delegates at the UN conference on the law of the sea (UNCLOS) I could not help but feel that this is the way you must want your children to be. Not all the same color, not all speaking the same language, not all thinking and feeling the same, not all dressing the same but in the spirit of goodwill for all and for compromise working on a treaty that everyone could live with………. I could not help but to think about how diverse the group was. So many different cultures, ideas, governmental interests, economic differences yet they care about each other as people………. they care about peace and world order and their brothers and sisters around the globe enough to compromise in order that the community wins.
It is not about distance, it is not about economic situation, it is not about color but all about love. We can indeed transform this world by being the feet, hands, ears and eyes of Jesus Christ. Let us each play our role as God expects us to. You are the hope for someone out there. You are the change someone is desperately waiting for. Together let’s imagine a world without poverty and hunger, without war and hostility. And imagine with me a world where a mother in Zimbabwe is able to get a vaccination for her child who has malaria. Let’s imagine a world where we have empowered people to farm and provide food resources to their own communities and no one ever goes hungry. Matthew 28 verse 19 commands us to “therefore go” and make disciples. Remember YOU are God’s strategic plan to change the individual, the church and the world!
Sisters and brothers of our United Methodist Church, and our partners, are actively pursuing new and exciting ministry paths. We have taken tiny steps to clean water, shelter, disease control and elimination, as in the case of Ebola and Malaria to name just two. At risk children and families living in poverty need more than our attention. They need us to create relationships and to share with them the Christ that leads us and we need to serve with a giving, loving heart.
Relationships created at the local church level are critical to our ministry. Churches need to be continually encouraged to foster new relationships with our neighbors and test the waters of our local town, county, city, state, federal government and worldwide organizations to partner together to provide the hope for tomorrow. HOPE—it’s what discipleship is all about!
Discipleship Ministries has spoken of the process or method of discipleship as H.O.P.E. We extend hope through hospitality by proclaiming the gospel, seeking, welcoming and gathering persons into the body of Christ. It is HOPE when we offer Christ, leading persons to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and profession of faith in Jesus Christ. We deepen HOPE in persons as they find purpose in life as disciples by nurturing them in Christian living through the means of grace. And we unleash HOPE through engagement when we send disciples into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop structures that are consistent with the gospel.
We as United Methodists are called to change the world by offering H.O.P.E. with the love of God experienced in and through Jesus Christ. May this be true.
My name is Courtney Fowler, the conference lay leader for the Great Plains Annual Conference. My heart is full because as we gather here today, we hear the prayers of those people around the world who are praying for us today, who are praying for the work of the General Conference, who are praying for the future of our church, the future of our denomination and the future of the faith we hope to pass along to our children and the next generation.
Let us now join together with our brothers and sisters around the world as we lift our voices in our own language in prayer for the work of this general conference…
Let’s pray together …. (Or Lord hear our prayers)
[pause for 45 seconds]
We hear also, the painful cries for God’s presence, the suffering of his children at the hands of children. Let us now say, “We hear you brothers and sisters. We hear you in every country, in every city, in every town, in every village and in every neighborhood, every home and in every heart who cries out for Jesus.” The message we hear today is urgent: “Therefore, Go.”
We must go and welcome the stranger into our church. 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. God has called us to put love into action as grace-filled followers of Jesus Christ: Let us love, let us worship, and let us GO!
Jesus is clear; we are ALL to go make disciples…to proclaim, lead, nurture and send ourselves out into the world to bring people back into relationship with God, making the world a much better place. To be sure, if we are faithful to our call, the world will be transformed! So the message we bring today is a vision of a church on fire for our God.
Today your lay leaders pledge that we will go…we will go into the world and make disciples.
We will go into the world to model and explain the meaning and method of discipleship as HOPE.
We will extend hospitality, to offer Christ to all.
We will define purpose and engage with people where they live and struggle.
Jesus has changed us, and he has charged us and so WE GO!