Church of the Brethren planters and those interested in church planting gathered for the 2014 conference, “Plant Generously, Reap Bountifully–Toward an Intercultural Future.” The conference is offered every two years, sponsored by Congregational Life Ministries and the New Church Development Advisory Committee.
Held May 15-17 in Richmond, Ind., with hosting from Bethany Theological Seminary, the gathering used Rev. 7:9 as a focus for conversation about developing church plants and revitalizing existing congregations to reflect the intercultural nature of the vision of Revelation.
Find a photo album from the conference at www.bluemelon.com/churchofthebrethren/2014churchplantingconference . The Twitter conversation from the event is found via the hashtag #cobplant .
Speakers point to the multicultural environment
The two keynote speakers, Efrem Smith and Alejandro (Alex) Mandes, spoke from their own experience as church planters. Smith is president and CEO of World Impact, an urban missions organization committed to the empowerment of the urban poor through the facilitation of church planting movements and leadership development, and previously was superintendent of the Pacific Southwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Mandes is director of Hispanic Ministries for the Evangelical Free Church of America, and has planted three churches.
Smith called for work to prepare the church for the kingdom of God. Referencing images from parables told by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, he recalled the story of bridesmaids waiting for the groom to come to the wedding, who must keep their oil lamps full and burning. He compared church planters to bridesmaids whose job is to prepare the bride–that is the church–for the coming of the kingdom of God. “We must have a kingdom passion and a kingdom urgency,” he said.
Church planting also can be compared to the slaves in another parables, whose master gave them money to care for and invest in his absence, Smith said. God is investing in us as “kingdom capital,” he told the gathering. Every time someone is saved, or helped, by the church, that “kingdom capital” is growing. Church plants need to be expanding the work of the kingdom of God, which is marked by compassion and justice, he emphasized.
“This is what will really lead to healthy church planting,” Smith said, “when the whole gospel is embraced…. When it’s about helping the hurting, blessing the broken, liberating the enslaved.”
Later, in an evening message, Smith explicitly called churches and new church plants to be about the work of “developing missional ministries of compassion.”
Mandes expressed a similar sense of urgency. Speaking out of the context of Hispanic America, and the immigrant population in the United States, he shared his concern that the church has a “spiritual blindness” to the new people populating the country.
“I have learned to love the differences in the body of Christ,” Mandes said, as he urged new church planters and pastors of existing congregations to look around them for the opportunities offered by the changing dynamics of the nation. “We have to really get this, because otherwise it will be our undoing.”
Retelling John’s story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, he pointed to her ability to bring her whole community to meet Jesus, and the disciples’ inability to see her gifts, much less to see her as a person. He compared her to the people from many different parts of the world who are living in the United States. They deserve regard as individuals, and the church is called to welcome them and their gifts. “Why didn’t the disciples see?” he asked. “Why aren’t we seeing? Why aren’t our churches seeing? Why don’t we see the Samaritans around us?”
“There’s something very special that God is doing today” in the United States, Mandes said, referring to the many different people who are being brought together in this country. “But our denominations are missing it…. Are we also falling into the trap of not seeing it?” America has a history of trying to get rid of people who are inconvenient, he noted, but “I think there is a treasure in that new group.”
The bedrock of the biblical foundation, he reminded the conference, is “to be able to see like Jesus sees” and to see the treasure, creativity, and power that God is bringing to our shores. “We can be one church of 31 flavors.”
Worship, Bible study, workshops round out a packed schedule
Worship services, a Bible study of Revelation, and a plethora of in-depth workshops and short “Mustard Seed” presentations by a number of different presenters rounded out the packed schedule. Also a highlight was a service of blessing for church planters and prospective planters.
A Bible study presentation on the book of Revelation, as background for the intercultural ministries theme scripture text Rev. 7:9, was given by Dan Ulrich, Bethany Seminary’s Wieand Professor of New Testament Studies. His review of the book laid bare much of the symbolism of the Lamb and the Tree of Life that closes the Bible on a note of hope for all nations and peoples.
Annual Conference moderator Nancy Sollenberger Heishman gave the message for the opening worship. A panel of three spoke for the closing worship: Congregational Life Ministries executive Jonathan Shively, former Annual Conference moderator and Harrisburg (Pa.) First Church of the Brethren pastor Belita Mitchell, and Joel Pena, pastor of Alpha and Omega Church of the Brethren in Lancaster, Pa.
Communion was part of the opening worship, and the sharing of prayers was part of closing worship. At the end of the last worship service of the conference, participants each wrote down a prayer request on a card. The cards were then handed out to other participants to take home and pray over in coming days.
For more about the church planting movement in the Church of the Brethren, and the work of the New Church Development Advisory Committee, go to www.brethren.org/churchplanting . The movement has made a commitment to cultivate networks and infrastructure to support 250 new church starts by 2019.