Bishop Jeremiah Park addressed the 2015 Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church with these words of hope, “Praise be to God for the journey we’ve been taking together…we’ve come this far by grace and faith.” He stood framed by the quadrennial theme “Alive in Christ Together,” speaking passionately before lay and clergy delegates during Thursday’s opening celebration in worship.
Moments before Bishop Park began, Reverends Dr. Gary Weaver, Judi Herrold, Michelle Whitlock, Randall Bennett, Jr. initiated an antiphonal Call to Worship. “If you have a heartbeat, you are alive…The heartbeat signifies life” pulsed over the Conference projection system, reminding those present of Christ’s indescribable importance as the heartbeat, the foundation, of the community of faith. Rev. Marian Hartman read from Ephesians 4:1-7 and 11-13, the Apostle Paul’s first century encouragement that the church would “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
With his opening remarks, Bishop Park spoke of the only foundation, heartbeat, and lifeblood of the church; he led with hopeful words that God remains in charge, no matter what happens. Park’s words recall the particular struggles, divisions, and disagreements facing the denomination with regard to same-gender issues. Making reference to Ephesians 4:13, Bishop Park stated: “Unity [in the United Methodist Church] is worth keeping at all costs and a goal to pursue until the end.” For this reason, he continued “Disagreement is an opportunity to grow in maturity…to overcome disagreement with a bond of love and peace. God is larger than the disagreements we have.” To overwhelming applause, Bishop Park concluded this call to unity by stating “I am committed to doing whatever I can to keep the vision of unity in our church alive…I urge you to do the same!”
In the second portion of his address, Bishop Park focused on the reality of church decline within the United States, both in our own denomination and cross-denominationally. Pew Research Studies indicate that between the years of 2007 and 2014, the percentage of individuals claiming Christian affiliation dropped from 78.4% to 70.6%. Conversely, individuals claiming no religious affiliation or “other” religious affiliation rose from 16% to 23%. This trend represents the essence of “crisis” – the crossroads of danger and opportunity. Many churches without our conference operate in a “neutral zone” with respect to church vitality. Bishop Park urges that the hope of denominational vitality emerges by minimizing “danger” and maximizing the “opportunity” in as many of our local congregations as possible.
Bishop Park highlighted three alliterative areas of focus in the work of vitalizing congregations: EQUIP, EMPOWER, and ENGAGE.
First, the purpose of the hierarchy and structures of both conference and denomination is to EQUIP local congregations for ministry. Whereas the mission of the United Methodist Church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” Bishop Park reminded the Susquehanna Conference that the Book of Discipline likewise claims that “local churches provide the most significant arena through which discipleship-making occurs.” The church, local and denominational, must be “all-in” to this task.
Secondly, the vital congregation must be EMPOWERED by the Holy Spirit. Without spiritual vitality, there is no congregational vitality. Said Bishop Park: “Now is the time to build and reconnect with the Holy Spirit.”
Third, vital congregations must ENGAGE communities and culture. All over the conference there is no shortage of people and mission. The shortage that exists in the church is one of courage to overcome boundaries.
Bishop Park shared an apocryphal story in which the angels asked Jesus if he had a backup plan for the Good News if the disciples should fail to reach the world with the Gospel. In this story, Jesus said “No.”
Bishop Park concluded with these words: “We are Jesus’ Plan for such a time as this. Our God is a missionary God, we are a missionary people, here I serve you as a missionary Bishop. Everyone is qualified.” Everyone. Is. Qualified.
The video and full transcript of Bishop Park’s address can be found at equip-empower-and-engage