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Wesley Fellowship: UM pastors hope to reclaim church in spirit of Methodism’s founder

By Jessica Connor

A group of committed, faithful South Carolina United Methodist pastors are starting a movement to reclaim and renew the church for the future, and they hope everyone will catch the spirit.

As numbers of regular churchgoers continue to dip across the nation, these pastors have decided they don t want to simply accept this as the way of the world. They want to borrow from the spiritual explosion that Methodism founder John Wesley ignited: the sense of intimate relationship with a God who understands; the sense of rebirth that stems from rediscovering holiness, a life of prayer, biblical witness and scriptural connection. It s not a pietistic God-as- faraway-and-uninvolved-deity sort of faith, but an active, spirit-filled evangelistic experience that is relevant to people s daily life.

They are calling the movement the Wesley Fellowship, and they want everyone to be involved for the sake of the Kingdom.

Most of our churches are private clubs with the veneer of religiosity; they are not churches. That s why we re dying, and I worry about that,  said Dr. Bob Howell, senior pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church in Summerville and chair of the Wesley Fellowship. If we can do anything in the Wesley Fellowship, it s to renew a sense of what it means to be a church of people who are living after God s own heart for the sake of winning other people to the Lord of life. 

The Rev. Dora Gafford, pastor of the Christ-Antioch Charge, Bennettsville, who is also part of the Wesley Fellowship, said the group hopes to put a lot of high energy  into uniting the denomination for Christ.

There s a real feeling of discouragement among Methodists all over the country because of the decline in membership, and we re looking for ways to get people enthusiastic again for preaching and sharing the word and winning the lost,  Gafford said. The church is the vehicle God has chosen to carry His word, so we cannot let the church continue to decline. It has to be our mission to keep the church alive and well and keep the message of Christ in the world and all of our community. 

After all, Howell said, in 20 or 30 years, he and others his age will likely be dead. And if they are not doing something now to raise, renew and revitalize the church for the younger generation, then they are failing the Great Commission.

What younger people are looking for is a relationship to Christ and a relationship to community that lives for Christ, not for institutions,  Howell said. And everybody knows that. 

The Wesley Fellowship is a growing group of pastors, many who have known each other for 25 years or more. They include men and women, some older and some younger, some who lead huge churches like Bethany and some who lead tiny rural congregations.

They re folks who know each other and know there are certain things that need to be done for the kingdom of God: That the church has to rediscover its own sense of why we re here,  Howell said. The truth is the church s mission is to make disciples. We say it in print, but we don t live it. 

The Rev. Jeff Kersey, pastor of Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, is part of Leading Edge, which comprises senior pastors of the 100 largest-attended churches in the denomination. Brainstorming and visioning with those pastors has been beneficial for him, and he feels the Wesley Fellowship can do something similar for South Carolina s UMCs, regardless of the size.

There s a great value in pulling together pastors who can share ideas of effective ministry, things that are working in our various places we serve, so we can glean from each other,  Kersey said. We can take the pulse of the church and see what s working, what s not working and what do we need to do. 

The Rev. Darren Hook, pastor of Covenant UMC, Greer, said he hopes the Wesley Fellowship will do just that. Covenant has been seeing major growth lately; 125 people have joined the church since January, and more than a third of those by profession of faith. Hook said Wesley Fellowship helps him and other pastors get more energized about new ways to make disciples.

I ve been a United Methodist all my 43 years “ my grandfather was a Methodist pastor, I was baptized in the Methodist church, I professed faith in the Methodist church “ but in my lifetime we ve lost over 3 million people,  Hook said. And some of us feel an alarm bell should have sounded a long time ago, but it hasn t. 

Gathering at Annual Conference to jump-start movement

The Wesley Fellowship started quietly “ a handful of pastors would get together once a month to pray, talk and share ideas. It started to grow, and this year, the group has decided to hold an inaugural gathering during Annual Conference for anyone interested. The group hopes the event will get more people excited about what they are trying to do for the Kingdom.

The gathering will be a celebration dinner Monday, June 11, at 5:30 p.m. at St. Paul UMC, Florence, featuring an address by the Rev. John Ed Mathison, who gets it,  Howell said. (See box this page for more details.)

Mathison, who led the 8,000-member-strong Frazer Memorial UMC in Montgomery, Ala., until his retirement in 2008, now heads the nonprofit John Ed Mathison Leadership Ministries. Mathison travels the nation teaching others best practices he learned in 45 years of ministry, and he will share many of those ideas with the S.C. Annual Conference.

Hook said Mathison is a phenomenal speaker who has done incredible things for the UMC.

If folks come and hear his excitement and enthusiasm, he will help encourage people to keep the main thing the main thing,  Hook said. The main thing, coming to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, is what we as United Methodists have always been about, but we ve kind of lost our focus. The main thing is saying, ˜Why do we talk about anything else besides Jesus? Why don t we lift him up? We are lost without Jesus, and when people come to come to know him as Lord and Savior, their lives are radically changed. 

Fellowship pastors hope to cement relationships at this first gathering, and eventually grow the group so members hold monthly lunches at the district level.

For more about the Wesley Fellowship, email howell@bethany-umc.com .

Wesley Fellowship Inaugural Gathering
St. Paul UMC
1629 West Palmetto St., Florence
A celebration dinner with address by the Rev. John Ed Mathison
Monday, June 11, 5:30 p.m.
Cost: $7 before May 15; $14 after
howell@bethany-umc.com

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