By Susan Cooper, Kansas communications associate director
During opening worship at the Uniting Conference Aug. 22 in Salina, Great Plains Bishop Scott Jones called upon United Methodists in Kansas and Nebraska to look to a new beginning.
The conference session begins the final process of joining the Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska conferences to officially become the Great Plains Conference on Jan. 1, 2014.
With an emphasis on what transpired at Pentecost, Jones acknowledged the likelihood of obstacles and difficulties in the process of becoming one new conference but encouraged people to persevere and be guided by the Holy Spirit.
Jones talked about changes in his childhood, moving to Indiana and not excelling at basketball. He recalled the awkwardness of being a “preacher’s kid,” being a “geeky kid who wore white socks with black shoes,” having few social skills and not excelling at basketball.
“A boy in Indiana who isn’t good at basketball is a crisis!” Jones exclaimed.
But in 1969, he had the opportunity to spend a summer as a camp counselor for inner-city youth.
It changed him.
“I came home. I’d let my hair grow long. I wore sandals made from tires. Hey, it was the ’60s!” Jones joked.
But he had a new vision of what he might be and what the church might do and accomplish.
When the family moved to Denver, he said he was given the opportunity to put that new vision into practice.
“I became a different person from 1969 on,” Jones said.
He views the coming together of the three conferences as the chance to “re-invent ourselves,” to do things newly and differently, if the Holy Spirit so leads.
He said it was important, however, for United Methodists in Nebraska and Kansas to have a vision of purpose, an idea of “where God wants us to go.”
Jones said the apostles had been taught by Jesus for three years, but when Good Friday came, they fell apart. They were devastated. When Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, the apostles were overjoyed.
“But Jesus said, ‘Hang on, Pentecost is coming.’”
A new community was born at Pentecost to people all over the world. There was diversity in this new community, and everybody could hear it in their own language.
“Jesus’ rising from the dead changed people’s behavior.”
The new community began to turn the Roman Empire upside down, and Christians were persecuted for it.
Eventually, Christianity won out. It was accepted.
“A new shape and form of United Methodism is beginning in Nebraska and Kansas. What’s it going to be like to serve Christ in these states?” Jones asked.
“The times they are a-changin’. It’s time to think about what it is we need to be doing.”
Jones related how consultant Gil Rendle had said things changed for him when the General Conference in 1996 adopted the “make disciples” mission statement. Rendle had said he’d realized he didn’t know how to do that. He knew how to make members, not disciples.
There’s a tendency in United Methodist churches, Jones shared, to “welcome these nice, new people to our club” instead of touching people’s lives with the Holy Spirit.
“What would it be like if all 1,000 churches in Nebraska and Kansas were communities of love, sharing God’s love effectively?” he asked.
Jones also talked about replacing “drift with focus.”
Too many United Methodist churches have activities that are not focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ, according to Jones. He gave an example of a preschool held in a United Methodist church that doesn’t teach about Jesus.
“It’s OK for a preschool not to talk about Jesus. But it’s not OK for a preschool in a United Methodist church not to talk about Jesus,” Jones said.
If activities don’t have a direct connection to making disciples, Jones said United Methodist churches should quit doing them.
Congregations should focus on things that lead people to Christ, grow them in their discipleship and nurture them there.
With the formation of the new Great Plains Conference, United Methodists should take with the utmost seriousness the call to make disciples, connect the congregations and persevere through obstacles.
“God is not through with us yet,” Jones said.
Photos by Britt Bradley.