6:00 P.M. EST March 16, 2010
A mother reads from the Bible with her children at a service at Theressa Hoover United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark.
A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.
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Once-dormant ministries have come to life. New tithers have helped double the weekly offering. The average number of worshippers has increased from 115 to 175 at Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.
And there’s more.
The 135-year-old black church recently had to add portable walls in its fellowship hall to create multiple classrooms for a suddenly burgeoning Sunday school, including a new young-adult class. The congregation hired a new music minister, tripled the size of its chancel choir and started holding prayer meetings in the front yard and doing “prayer walks” around its inner-city neighborhood.
The good news at the 135-year-old black church is in part the result of a partnership with the Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century initiative, the denomination’s primary African-American church development program.
“Rev. (Fred) Allen and SBC21 lit a fire under our folks, and it’s still going,” said the Rev. Angela Hardy Cross, who came to Lennon-Seney in June 2009. “Our future goals are no longer far-fetched dreams for us. We’re excited about what God is doing in and through our church.”
The Rev. Fred Allen discusses ways United Methodist black congregations can use technology to create and share their message.
A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
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Reaching local churches
The pastor gave her glowing report earlier this month at the SBC21 National Summit in North Charleston, S.C. The gathering drew about 100 local, regional and churchwide leaders concerned with strengthening and developing African-American churches.
The initiative, now in its 14th year, is strengthening its collaboration with annual conferences by engaging them as full partners in planning, holding and promoting training events.
Such events are typically sponsored by a few dozen teaching churches, known as Congregational Resource Centers. Teams from selected partner churches come to these centers to learn lessons in creative worship, stewardship, evangelism, community outreach, church administration and other topics.
SBC21 is taking its show on the road by bringing teams of experts to training events hosted by conferences and jurisdictions, especially in areas where there are no Congregational Resource Centers.
These jointly sponsored, local “traveling CRC” events make it affordable for more church teams to benefit from the training offered.
“I’m excited about pursuing a conference partnership with SBC21 to resource African-American congregations here,” said the Rev. Lillian C. Smith, Eastern Pennsylvania Conference director of connectional ministries. “We don’t have a CRC currently. An SBC21 training event in our conference would be more cost effective because more congregational leaders could attend and learn.”
The efforts are bearing fruit.
In January, Allen, SBC21 executive director, came to Lennon-Seney with a professor from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington to teach members about Christian education and nurturing effective, committed leadership. John Tate, treasurer of the Holston Annual Conference, also came to teach and promote financial stewardship principles.
The Rev. Angela Hardy Cross.
Last October, a team from the church learned to praise God in new ways, led by top musicians and worship leaders from across the nation, at the SBC21-sponsored African American Music and Worship Explo held at Lake Junaluska, N.C.
“We experienced an excellence in worship rarely seen among local churches,” said Cross. “We came back inspired to seek excellence in our own worship efforts.”
As a result, church members sought and found a new music minister and purchased copies of “Zion Still Sings! For Every Generation,” the new United Methodist songbook of diverse African-American music ranging from traditional spirituals to contemporary Christian rap.
Elsewhere, four pastors led workshops at an Effective Leadership for Church Growth training event sponsored in January by the North Alabama Conference. Another joint event, focused on developing effective outreach ministries, is planned for July in the neighboring Alabama-West Florida Conference.
Allen reports that at least three more conferences have requested training events since the summit. Twenty-four of the 26 conferences that sent representatives to the summit have signed partnership covenants with SBC21.
Several attendees said they expect the new emphasis on conference partnerships and joint events will promote the initiative more widely and perhaps lead to recruitment of more SBC21 partner churches.
Bishops Jonathan Keaton and W. Earl Bledsoe distribute communion at the SBC21 National Summit in North Charleston, S.C. A UMNS photo courtesy of Toska Medlock Lee.
“I look forward to reintroducing SBC21 to many churches here,” said the Rev. Ken Nelson, a congregational specialist in the South Carolina Conference, where 269 of the 1,100 churches are African American.
Nelson, who works primarily with black churches, conducted four listening sessions with lay and clergy leaders recently. The experiences led to the development of a comprehensive plan and plans for a conference summit on the black church in September.
Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe, who chairs SBC21’s national coordinating committee, sees more collaboration with annual conferences as essential. He pointed to several reasons, including shrinking funds and the need for SBC21 to get involved in starting new black churches with the help of Path 1, the denomination’s emphasis on planting “new churches to reach new people.”
“The biggest challenge we face comes from congregations that want funding to continue doing what they have always done,” Bledsoe said. “We will need to make some deep changes in the ways we go about doing church in the future. It will require a lot of patience, prayer and conversations
with each other to get to the place where God is calling us to go.”
*Coleman is a freelance writer based in Washington.
News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.