On fire to serve
As I look out upon you today, the words of a gospel anthem written by Albert Goodson in 1963 come to mind. I pray these words help stoke the fire within you for greater service in God’s name.
The hymn declares: "We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in His holy word; He’s never failed us yet!"
Indeed it is not by our own strength that we find ourselves here — it has been by leaning upon God, who has blessed us and all along the way has kept our passion brightly burning to love God’s people.
When this land was called Indian Territory, there were people of the Wesleyan tradition who had in mind a plan, a course of action to spread the Gospel of Christ to all the people living here. Consequently, they stepped out in faith and sparked fellowships in the most unlikely of places.
A few weeks ago I asked our archivist Christina Wolf to list for me some of those places where their journeys led those early, eager Methodists — sites that now represent the oldest worshipping congregations in our Conference and our state. Even though records are spotty prior to and right after the Civil War, the Methodists’ mission to reach people with the message of Christ took them to Eufaula around 1848, Fort Gibson in 1866, Canadian in 1868, Okmulgee in 1869, and Sallisaw and Tishomingo in 1870.
If those first Methodists had not been burning with purpose and mission, we would not be here today, with over 200,000 disciples worshipping in 511 congregations in all 77 counties. Because they were on fire to serve, we are building on a spiritual foundation established 172 years ago.
Oklahoma continues to be one of the strongest conferences in our denomination, and yet there is so much more for us to do.
In 2008, this Conference had in mind a plan, and at our annual gathering in Tulsa, everything changed! Like those early Methodists, we embarked on a course of action to minister more effectively in all places to touch more people who need to know Christ’s love for them. We called it our Strategic Plan, and we sought God’s blessing on the work we planned. Simply put, that Plan calls us to greater service in order to:
1. Grow healthy congregations, reaching out to a younger and more diverse population;
2. Start new faith communities, all varieties;
3. Raise up a new generation of spiritual leaders; and
4. Connect Oklahoma’s churches to mission that is larger than they can do by themselves.
Here are some of the positive outcomes already achieved.
We aligned our Conference structure to accomplish those goals we set, as well as our Conference staff positions.
We are dedicating almost $1 million annually to the New People New Places ministry, through our Apportionments, so churches of all sizes and in all areas of Oklahoma can have a partner as they make new disciples.
The Conference also has shifted funds in the Apportionments to enable us to launch six new faith communities since 2008, and be engaged in three other development projects. The new church starts are: Lawton Community, Edmond Summit, Glenpool Living Water, Mosaic, Edmond Connect, and St. Luke’s Edmond. The three development projects are: The Christ Experience, post-tornado support to Cross Timbers in Moore, and establishing a Church Planter Residency program at Edmond Acts 2. There are seven more church starts planned in the near future.
We have sent 117 excellently trained, newly ordained clergy into our churches, and Oklahoma’s United Methodist seminary, Saint Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University, is a major participant in equipping new pastors and laity in practical ministry. We are entering the fourth year of a special training academy, where gifted laypeople are instructed in becoming bi-vocational pastors — which means they keep their full-time jobs while pastoring some of our smaller or more rural churches.
The Conference also has created a comprehensive plan for Hispanic ministries; reorganized our Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries and our Camping programs; and the Circle of Care, our ministry to at-promise children and teens, has expanded dramatically.
Let this heartwarming work cause your witness to blaze brighter to serve God’s purposes. We’ve come this far by faith, trusting God, as that gospel song says. Let us resolve to keep going. There IS so much more for us to do.
At the past Annual Conference, you overwhelmingly voted to reduce the number of districts from 12 to eight. I am here to report that the work you commissioned us to do has been completed, and the charge of serving God meaningfully in this new alignment awaits us.
In each of these eight new districts, the leadership of laity and clergy at the district level and among churches grouped by affinity as Missional Areas can brainstorm, design, and implement ministries and partnerships that best fit their region.
Our rationale is to get as many people as possible involved in disciple-making. We want more laity and clergy blazing new paths for people to encounter Christ!
Our Book of Discipline states that The United Methodist Church’s ongoing mission is "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," and "local churches provide the most significant arena for disciple-making."
We must not be complacent about this. It’s not just a statement in our Book of Discipline. We truly must be on fire to serve.
Let me tell you why.
The church — the universal body of Christ — is experiencing dramatic change in the United States. Like many denominations, United Methodism has been showing a declining influence.
If Christ’s church is to survive, we must be relevant for people living today, while maintaining the integrity of our faith and beliefs from our past.
A recent Pew survey states: "The number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing." The percentage of younger adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped. And the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular" has jumped significantly.
This is a wakeup call to all of us!
In Isaiah 6:8 there is this moving passage: "Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" Isaiah said, "Here am I. Send me!"
We are living in an age when we need people who are asking, "Is it I, Lord?"
Since 2010, total worship attendance in our local churches has declined from more than 56,000 people worshipping weekly to just over 50,000, according to Conference records. That’s a loss of more than 5,500 United Methodists in four years!
This startling statistic is unacceptable!
On any given Sunday, fewer than one-fourth of Oklahoma’s United Methodists are at worship. Do you wonder why I want to make increasing our worship attendance a priority?
Let this be a starting place of conversation. How do we address falling worship attendance? Make a note: All worship does not have to take place on Sunday mornings. Creativity, flexibility, and dogged determination will be required.
Our Conference also tracks professions of faith, and I’m delighted at that statistic for 2014. For the first time in many years, we have recorded an increase, however small. This shows promise for new United Methodists, new people on fire to serve God in Oklahoma. I believe the upturn is a result of our new-church starts and the increasing boldness of congregations to risk themselves to develop new sites and different ways to reach out.
But I know we can do better.
Let evangelism also be a topic that deserves the attention of those charting the course for each new district. I do not doubt there will be a variety of ideas that spark innovative evangelism and inspire worshippers.
Are we seeing success in any other areas of ministry? The answer is yes! Statistics prove we are advancing in Spiritual Formation, as measured by ongoing classes and small groups that promote spiritual vitality and discipleship.
And Oklahoma continues to be a denomination leader in Missions. We have doubled the number of people who take part in mission projects, from fewer than 13,000 in the year 2010, to about 25,000 last year.
We’ve come this far. Let us remain committed to Spiritual Formation and Missions, and become more intentionally focused on worship and evangelism. I believe gains in Stewardship will follow. We must prepare our churches for the next generation of believers.
God is directing us. This is my vision — and I hope it is yours as well. Let us be a strong body of Christ, excelling in all areas of church growth and effectiveness, bringing the life-saving message of Jesus Christ to those who have yet to know him! I envision stronger congregations, led by passionate clergy and laity — all on fire to serve!
As I close, let me address the obvious: After 11 years, I find myself entering my final year as your bishop. A YouTube video that I happened to see shows the end of a race that took an unexpected turn. One runner, from Oregon University, was well ahead — so far ahead, in fact, that he began signaling the crowd to cheer for him. He was confident of victory.
But a runner from the University of Washington kept his eyes on the finish line, and he won that race at the last second.
Going into my last lap, my pledge to you is to finish strong, running through the tape and not to the tape! I owe this to you, Oklahoma United Methodists who keep the fire burning for Christ. Most importantly, I pledge this to God. In the words of the Apostle Paul: "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me to do."
Dee and I thank you, Oklahoma, for allowing us to work alongside you. We know our time with you grows short. Yet, together, we press on! (Excerpted)
Bishop Hayes, left, embraces guest preacher/teacher Jorge Acevedo as Annual Conference begins.