By J. Richard Peck
FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS) - The 992 delegates gathered in 13 legislative committees following a day of speeches, presentations and reports on April 24.
On day two, General Conference began with the traditional Episcopal Address, delivered by Illinois Area Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher. The Laity Address was delivered by Lyn Powell, lay leader of the North Georgia Conference, and the first-ever Young People's Address was presented by six youth and young adults.
Most of the speeches tried to help delegates guide the 11.5-million member denomination to "A Future with Hope," the theme of the 10-day gathering.
Speakers lamented the loss of members in U.S. churches and celebrated the growth of churches in Africa and Southeast Asia. They called upon United Methodists in this nation to set aside their differences and to follow Wesley's three rules: Do no harm, do good and stay in love with God.
Christopher's message on behalf of the Council of Bishops was filled with songs and multimedia and multi-sensory images about how people received and experienced hope, gave hope, and were transformed by encounters with Christ.
"All around this world there is physical, mental and spiritual hunger for the bread of life," she said.
But, "in the midst of the world's hunger pangs we - gathered here and connected around the world - are the church of Jesus Christ," she said.
"Our fervent pursuit of being right takes priority over right relationship," she said. The disarray of the table, the fractured and ruptured United Methodist relationships, and "carefully calculated formulas of theology" make church members unable to hear and listen to the cries of a neighbor. "Our own need deafens us to the needs of others," she said.
Young People's address
The first-ever Young People's Address to General Conference was given by Becca Farnum, 17, of Mount Pleasant, Mich.; Kira Volkova, 24, of Kirov, Russia; the Rev. Annie Arnoldy, 29, of Grand Junction, Colo.; Andrew Craig, 16, of Denver; Matt Lockett, 20, of Seattle; and Jason Rathod, 24, of Hastings, Neb. They were chosen by the Division on Ministries with Young People, Board of Discipleship. The presentation included videos, photos, drumming and singing.
"We have shared stories of persecution, homelessness, and what it means to be a young person in a world desperately in need of Jesus," said Lockett. "What you do with what you have heard is really up to you."
"What I know about the church is that it yearns for young people," Arnoldy said. "What I know about young adults is that they yearn for a place to belong. This seems like a pretty fruitful situation."
The six concluded their presentation side by side on the stage and said, "Believe in us. Believe that the future of the church is in good hands. We're ready. The time is now. Let us begin."
Powell challenged lay members of the denomination to assume responsibility for reaching the unchurched. She said it is unreasonable for clergy, with their myriad responsibilities, to spend time engaging the unchurched. "But the laity are already there," she said. They encounter unchurched people in all walks of daily life.
Powell said laity have become complacent and think it is their calling to receive ministry from clergy rather than be equipped by the clergy to go out into the world and offer Christ.
She suggested each lay person might claim one area of personal ministry that could be centered around one of the denomination's four areas of focus.
Four areas of focus
The General Conference approved four areas of focus created by the denomination's Connectional Table that will guide the future work of the denomination's 13 general agencies.
The four areas of focus are:
Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.
Creating new places for new people and renewing existing congregations.
Stamping out diseases of poverty by improving health globally.
Engaging in ministry with the poor.
The four areas of focus were derived from "seven pathways" established by the Council of Bishops.
Ohio West Area Bishop Bruce Ough explained that early in the quadrennium, the Council of Bishops "looked across the landscape of United Methodism to seek out the best qualities of who we are and the most fruitful practices of our discipleship."
He said that search found churches that follow seven basic pathways:
Teaching the Wesleyan model of reaching and forming disciples of Jesus Christ;
Strengthening clergy and lay leadership;
Developing new congregations;
Transforming existing congregations;
Ending racism as the church authentically expands racial and ethnic ministries;
Reaching and transforming the lives of new generations of children; and
Eliminating poverty in community with the poor.
Ough explained, "The seven pathways are embedded in these four focus areas."
Peck serves as an editor for United Methodist News Service during General Conference.