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Summit on the Black Church: Hundreds gather to explore building bonds and bridges in this state

By Jessica Connor

COLUMBIA – Seeking fresh ways to build bonds and bridges with diverse populations in South Carolina, nearly 250 people headed to the state capital Oct. 11-13 for Summit on the Black Church 2012.

It was a time of brainstorming, reflection, growth and transformation that featured five dynamic plenary leaders, powerful worship, inspiring song and eight workshop opportunities.

Plenary leaders included Jennifer Davis, Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Dr. Fred Allen, the Rev. Jasmine Smothers and Dr. James Salley. The Rev. Vance P. Ross was the banquet speaker, and the Rev. Stephen Handy led Thursday evening’s worship. New S.C. Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston led the closing worship and sending forth.

Attendees got a surprise visit Friday morning when Congressman James Clyburn, who represents the 6th District of South Carolina, popped in and recounted tales of civil rights advocacy in South Carolina for the crowd. “So much of who I am is shaped by my birth and my relationships in The United Methodist Church,” he said.

Here are a few highlights of the jam-packed three-day event:

Congressman James Clyburn: ‘An instrument’

Clyburn told stories Friday morning of his encounters with the late Rev. I.D. Newman, particularly one time when Clyburn was planning to participate in a civil rights march, but not wanting to go to jail. Newman asked him to lead a group of students in the march, but instead of turning around when asked to do so by police, they decided not to – and were arrested. That time in his life had a powerful impact on him.

“Things mess up. The church has a role to play,” Clyburn said. “Your role, my role may be different, but if we both do our best to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of the roles we have to play in society, things will work well.”

Speaking on the need for people and the government to care for the “least,” Clyburn spoke up for food stamps, which he said are not there to supplement; in most cases, food stamps are the only source for hungry people.

“People say, ‘That’s the role of the church; the church is supposed to feed them,” Clyburn said, shaking his head. “Come on. If they come to you hungry, naked, sick, you feed them, clothe them and provide healthcare!”

The room boomed with applause.

“I consider myself an instrument,” Clyburn said in closing. “When I walk on the floor on the House of Representatives, I remember. I am an instrument. People sent me there to get things done for the community. You as faith leaders have roles to play. I as an elected official have a role to play. We should complement each other.”

Dr. Doug Powe: Reaching new generations

Powe, who serves as the E. Stanley Jones Associate Professor of Evangelism and Black Church Studies at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas, spoke to the packed crowd Friday about how African-American congregations can navigate multiple generations.

Powe explained four major generational categories:

• Civil rights generation, which he called critically important – people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. “They had a different vision for society: where we could create the beloved community and the church could impact society and make a difference, where people could live together,” Powe explained, noting this generation enjoys a strong personal connection with the senior pastor and likes to meet at church to accomplish things.

• Black consciousness generation, including people like Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey. Powe said this generation has an emphasis on afrocentricity and asks questions like, “Why are we hanging up a white Jesus in our black churches?” This generation typically views the church as a place for the community to flourish.

• Integrationists, including people like President Barack Obama, Tupac Shakur and Erykah Badu. This generation is a challenge to the church, as during their time, people began to move away from their home community and driving back in to the church. This generation signifies strong female leadership, the rise of the word “spirituality,” fewer children and a distancing of those who remember the struggle of the civil rights movement.

• Hip-hop generation, with people like Beyonce Knowles, LeBron James and Serena Williams. This generation has no memory of the civil rights movement and grew up on commercial music rather than church music. Technology, multicultural thinking, social media and seeing the world in gray (not black and white) are hallmark traits. This generation does not need a strong connection to the senior pastor, enjoys megachurches, does not like to meet and would rather do something than talk about it.

Powe said the older generations need to look beyond things they do not like about the younger generations, such as music, and mentor and walk with these young leaders as they step into their journey.

“We have to do a better job of seeing the faith part and less the traditions,” Powe said, noting that we also need to c
hange our mindset about certain styles and manners we don’t like. “It’s hard to mentor to a group you don’t approve of. … But we need to.”

Dr. Fred Allen: All about SBC21

Asking the attendees to step up and recognize their role as leaders, Allen explained several aspects of Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century. Allen said SBC21 is a gathering of leaders to deal with, dialogue, challenge and encourage one another to reach a maximum and optimum of our commitment to building and strengthening the black church within the denomination.

Allen said SBC21’s goals for the next quadrennial include leadership development, especially with an academy of interns; church growth, to include increasing the number of congregation resource centers and annual conference partner trainer events; engaging in ministry with the poor; proven hospitality extended to youth and young adults; and Africa/diaspora – expanding SBC21 to be more global.

Allen also discussed changes and opportunities ahead, plus the concept and process of SBC21.

The Rev. Jasmine Smothers: Building Bridges

As associate director of Connectional Ministries at the North Georgia Annual Conference, Smothers told stories through her lens as a dynamic young pastor. Smothers will often visit churches without letting them know she is coming, and she tries hard to visit the church as a true newcomer, noting what visitors might see if they were curious about the church. She will drive around the neighborhood, check out signage, go to the bathroom, see how far the nursery is from the sanctuary, see if it is obvious how to get inside the church (not the “secret” door all the members know about), etc.

When she goes in, she sits in the back pew.

“People say hi,” she said. “But they say, ‘Hi, welcome to our church,’ and keep on going, not, ‘Hi, how are you?’ or sit down next to me – or, dare I say, explain to me how the worship service works.”

She said the church needs to do much more to be truly welcoming to the younger generation.

“I am a part of a generation that doesn’t do church, doesn’t like the church, doesn’t want anything to do with church people and barely wants anything to do with God … that’s what we’re up against,” Smothers said.

She said that when she went to kindergarten, that was the first year children learned to read on computers.

“We played games and were told to color outside the lines and think critically, and then I come to church and they tell me to sit still and be quiet and be seen and not heard,” she said. “This is the society and church we are up against. In school, they’re telling me I can be whoever I want to be. The church is telling me it’s not your turn, be still, be quiet, be invisible.”

First, she said, the church must build bridges. Then it needs to honestly assess their situation and ask hard questions: What am I willing to give up to have younger people come to my church?

“We started inviting folks in before we were inviting them to anything at all; we have to get our stuff in order first,” she told the crowd.

After all, young people don’t need the church to belong. They already have a group thanks to Twitter, Facebook and Starbucks. But they will come for other, deeper reasons.

“My generation is not going to show up every Sunday. We may forget to tell you when we’re sick or in the hospital. We’re not going to call the senior pastor. We’re not going to miss a Sunday and make up our tithe the next week,” Smothers said. “But we’re wired for discipleship.”

For more scenes from the Summit on the Black Church, go to www.umcsc.org.

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