Inspiration, expertise for Black churches

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Key points:

  • Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century returns to an in-person conference Dec. 1-2 in Houston, but digital attendance also will be accommodated.
  • There will be field trips this year to learn about innovative local ministries that might work back home.
  • Robust Black churches are an important component of a healthy United Methodist denomination, one participant says.

When the leaders of Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century declare that ministry going forward needs to be done from the “right side,” they’re not referring to politics.

The full, mildly irreverent title of SBC21’s Dec. 1-2 conference in Houston is “Shift Happens: Doing Ministry from the Right Side.” It will take place during the 25th anniversary of SBC21 as an organization.

Think right side of the brain and the Gospel of John.

Michael L. Bowie Jr., executive director, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century. Photo courtesy of SBC21. 
Michael L. Bowie Jr., executive director, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century. Photo courtesy of SBC21.

“We have to shift to do ministry in unconventional, creative and innovative ways,” said the Rev. Michael L. Bowie Jr., national executive director of SBC21, “and that happens on the right side of the boat.”

In John 21:1-6 in the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples to switch to the right side of the boat when they aren’t catching fish from the left side.

The Scripture reads: “(Jesus) said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.”

At United Theological Seminary, Bowie was taught that the boat was a metaphor for the church.

“This is not left-wing, right-wing, liberal, conservative — it has nothing to do with that,” Bowie said. “It's all about the mindset, and how you are seeking to do ministry. The left side would be more traditional. The right side would be more innovative and creative.”

About 200 in-person attendees are expected alongside virtual participants to the conference at St. John’s Downtown United Methodist Church. Conference details and registration information are available on the SBC21 website. Partners for the conference include the Black Staff Association of The United Methodist ChurchBlack Methodists for Church Renewal, The Convocation of Black Pastors, Gammon Theological Seminary and Black Clergy Women of The United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Ed Jones (right) greets Houston City Council Member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz outside Trinity United Methodist Church in Houston where the church provided study space and supervision for students whose parents needed to return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. File photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
The Rev. Ed Jones (right) greets Houston City Council Member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz outside Trinity United Methodist Church in Houston where the church provided study space and supervision for students whose parents needed to return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. File photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

“We look forward to a great diversity of people coming in,” said the Rev. Ed C. Jones III, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Houston. “If you look at the history of the church, in our strongest days, the Black church was always a very special component of our growth. 

“We believe if we can get that going again, we'll be able to see a resurgence of the church as we move into this next generation.”

As a new pastor based in the Florida Conference, the Rev. Candace M. Lewis attended an SBC21 conference more than two decades ago. Today, she is the president and dean of Gammon Theological Seminary.

Candace M. Lewis, president and dean of Gammon Theological Seminary. Photo courtesy of Candace M. Lewis. 
Candace M. Lewis, president and dean of Gammon Theological Seminary. Photo courtesy of Candace M. Lewis.

“I remember going there and seeing pastors that I had only heard about or read about that they had brought together, and I found it to be inspiring as well as very relevant to my ministry,” Lewis said.

“I'm glad to be a leader and a presenter in this conference, and I hope to be able to inspire leaders like I was inspired and equipped years ago.”

This year’s conference includes field trips to learn about innovative ministries being done by Houston-area churches.

“It will be kind of like show and tell,” Bowie said. “Instead of just being in a building, we're going to go into the community.”

The field trips will include looks at improving the use of audiovisual production and other technology; becoming economic incubators for the community; helping young adults aging out of foster care; and forming partnerships to promote healthy communities.

A one-day Houston event that provided dental care to nearly 1,000 people is a favorite of Jones. 

“There are people who have low self-esteem or couldn't get jobs because their teeth were not in good health,” he said. 

Led by the Revs. Marilyn White and Linda Davis, “they were able to provide free dental care for the community that has the worst dental coverage in the city,” he said.

Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century meets for a conference Dec. 1-2 in Houston with the theme, “Shift Happens: Doing Ministry from the "Right Side." Flyer courtesy of SBC21. 
Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century meets for a conference Dec. 1-2 in Houston with the theme, “Shift Happens: Doing Ministry from the "Right Side." Flyer courtesy of SBC21.

They hope to double that number of patients the next time they do it, planned for next year, Jones said.

It’s been said so often that some are tired of hearing it, but embracing technology is still vital to the future of Black churches, and it will be emphasized at the conference, Bowie said.

Learn more

Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century was formed in 1996 to help predominantly Black congregations become more effective in mission and ministry. Its strategies include offering African American clergy and young adults support and mentoring, identifying and training leaders who wish to develop clergy coaching skills and supporting and advocating for social justice ministries. For more information, visit SBC21.org.
To livestream events from the SBC21 national conference Dec. 1-2, register at the conference website.
Another celebration of SBC21’s 25th anniversary will take place during the Black Methodists for Church Renewal virtual general meeting March 19-20.

“This pandemic has literally pushed the church out of the building,” he said. “We have been forced to live out the Great Commission to make disciples. We can't make disciples behind closed doors. We have to go out to the community.”

The pandemic has forced Black churches to focus outward instead of inward, with a great deal of that effort being done using technology, Bowie said.

“If your focus is inward, I will contend that you won't last long,” he said.

Before COVID-19, 26% of Black United Methodist churches were offering a digital worship experience, Lewis said, citing a study by Gammon Theological Seminary sponsored by SBC21 and other United Methodist entities.

“(The coronavirus in) March 2020 propelled us into this new space,” Lewis said. “So 90% of the churches were able to offer a digital worship experience.”

Although technology is flashier, the continued fight against racism is still vital to SBC21, and should be important to everyone, Bowie said. 

It’s the right thing to do but also a healthy path for United Methodism in the long run, he added.

“When you invest in and really value the Black church, you are literally dismantling racism,” Bowie said, “but you are really developing and moving further to the beloved community.”

Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.


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