Fondly Remembering Carolyn Elias (1931-2024)

Fondly Remembering Carolyn Elias (1931-2024)

Fondly Remembering Carolyn Elias (1931-2024)

The Good News staff and board of directors were saddened to hear of the passing of our longtime friend and treasured colleague, Carolyn Parrish Elias (1931-2024). The Good News Board of directors presented its eighth annual Edmund W. Robb, Jr. United Methodist Renewal Award to Carolyn Elias at its fall meeting in November 2010. The award, named after long-time Good News board member and renewal leader, Dr. Ed Robb, is given to a United Methodist who has made a significant and lasting contribution to renewal within the United Methodist Church.

“Carolyn was a thoroughly unique woman of deep faith with a zest and flare for life – she was a joy to be with. She loved her husband, Barney, and their entire family, studying the Bible, reforming the Methodist church, and cheering for Razorback football,” said Steve Beard, editor of Good News. “She will be deeply missed by all of us who loved her.”

Elias was a leader in the evangelical Methodist renewal movement in the Central Illinois Conference before she and her husband, Barney, moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1991. She became active in the First United Methodist Church. She worked with the Good News General Conference team in 1988 in St. Louis, 1992 in Louisville, and 1996 in Denver.

In 2000, Carolyn was elected a lay delegate to the General Conference—in fact, she was the first lay person elected in her delegation. “Carolyn’s election as the first lay delegate in the North Little Rock Conference after a decade of serving as a member of the Good News board and being actively involved with the Renew Network was really remarkable! It spoke clearly about her ability to be a firm and gracious witness to her evangelical faith while also working effectively with others who might not necessarily agree with her theological commitments,” said the Rev. James V. Heidinger II, Good News President and Publisher emeritus, who made the presentation to Elias at the board meeting banquet. (Elias became an honorary life member of the Good New Board of Drirectors in 2001.)

Carolyn served as Chair of the Conference Episcopacy Committee for Bishop Janet Riggle Huey and also was on the South Central Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy, the group charged with the important quadrennial task of assigning bishops for the entire jurisdiction. She was again elected a General Conference delegate in 2004.

Ever since moving to Hot Springs, Elias has been an important part of the leadership of the Evangelical Fellowship in the conference, which now is referred to as the Arkansas Confessing Movement. She has had the responsibility of arranging the morning breakfast meeting of the fellowship at annual conference.

In addition to her United Methodist involvement, Carolyn was, for 13 years, a leader in Bible Study Fellowship in North Little Rock. She also started a spin-off of BSF, called Explorers Bible Study, with as many as 300 women involved at one time. That Bible study continues.

“In Carolyn, we see a mature, gracious, theologically-grounded, and discerning United Methodist laywoman. She is highly respected by all who have worked with her. She has a warm, kind spirit but Carolyn can also be firm when firmness is needed,” Heidinger said to board members, family, and guests attending the 2010 banquet on the campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

-Good News Media Service. This is adapted from a story about Carolyn in hrt eJanury/February 2011 issue of Good News. Archive Photo: James v. Heidinger II, Carolyn Elias, and Rob Renfroe in 2010. Photo by Steve Beard. 

Mary’s Devoted Heart

Mary’s Devoted Heart

Mary’s Devoted Heart

By Dick McClain

Growing up, I don’t recall having heard a sermon on Mary, the mother of Jesus. She did get dusted off every December for the Christmas pageant. But apart from her annual appearance reincarnated in the form of a budding young thespian, she hardly existed. Perhaps the folks in my evangelical Protestant circle felt that the Catholics went a little too far.

While I’ve never been accused of tilting toward Rome, somewhere along the line I began to suspect that we were being robbed by our silence about Mary. After all, the woman God chose to become the mother of our Lord just might have something to say to us today.

Which brings up another point. Not only did I not hear much about Mary; I didn’t hear much about any of the women of the Bible. When they were presented, it was only in the context of their being a model for women, never for men. The implication was that the male heroes of the faith – Moses, Joshua, David, Peter, and all the rest – were role models for all Christians, men and women alike. But the female heroes of the Bible – Deborah, Naomi, Ruth, and Priscilla – were only models of Christian womanhood.

I ditched that idea.

All of this leads me to suggest two things. First, Mary’s life is worth studying and emulating. Secondly, she is a good model for my entire family, both male and female.

In the first two chapters of Luke, there are fascinating insights into the quality of Mary’s life and faith. Her godliness was evident in a number of traits that we would do well to pattern.

Faith in God. Who comes to mind when you think of biblical examples of faith? I’ll bet you immediately thought of Abraham. Not a bad pick, considering the fact that he believed some rather unbelievable things God told him. But have you thought about the message Gabriel brought to Mary?

Mary was a teenage girl from a poor family who lived in an obscure village in a tiny nation which itself was under subjection to a foreign power. One day an angel came to her with a message from God.

She had found favor with God; she would give birth to a Son whom she was to name Jesus; her baby would be called the Son of the Most High and would sit on David’s throne forever; his kingdom would never end; and all this was going to happen without her ever having sexual relations with a man.

Now, be honest. Would you have believed that?

The remarkable thing is that Mary did! In fact, her cousin, Elizabeth, greeted her as “She who believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (Luke 1:45).

That’s real faith! She was willing to take God at his word, even when what he said didn’t square with anything her experience told her to be true. We too must choose to believe God if we are to be godly people.

A surrendered life. Perhaps you have read Mary’s story, sensed the unparalleled excitement of what she was experiencing, tried to put yourself in her place, and concluded, “Wouldn’t it have been glorious to be Mary!”

But stop and think about it. How could she tell Joseph, to whom she was already legally betrothed? Although they had not yet begun living together, they were considered married and could be separated only through divorce. Don’t you think the prospect of suspicion flashed through her mind? It must have. Under similar circumstances, most of us would have asked the Lord to find someone else to do the job.

But not Mary. Her answer to the angel was a model of submission. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Why was she so ready to submit? Because she understood herself to be God’s servant. Maybe the reason we are so prone to resist God is that we see him as our servant. We’ve got it backwards. We need to come to see, as Mary did, that God is God and not just some spiritual genie that we hope will magically fulfill our every whim.

A life of unassuming humility. One thing about Mary in those Christmas pageants that always struck me was her willingness to go without complaint to the stable.

Not me! If I had been Mary, I probably would have said, “Listen here, buster! This baby I’m about to have is no ordinary child. He is God’s Son and your King. We deserve better than this!”

In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20). Mary was poor. We know that because of the sacrifice she and Joseph offered when they presented Jesus at the temple. Since they fell below the poverty line, they qualified to give a pair of doves or two young pigeons, rather than bringing the customary lamb (see Luke 2:24 and Leviticus 12:8).

I don’t buy into the notion that God loves poor people and hates rich folks, or that the impoverished are constitutionally spiritual, while the wealthy are hopelessly ungodly. But I do know that amidst our affluence we have adopted an inflated sense of our own importance, rights, and prerogatives. Consequently, we have concluded that the world owes us a lot; other people owe us a lot; and God also owes us a lot. We have a bad case of inflated ex­pectations.

The answer is not quitting our jobs and signing up for welfare. But if we are serious about godliness, we, like Mary, must relinquish our rights, surrender our demands, and accept whatever God gives.

Faithfulness in spiritual disciplines. Unlike many people today, Mary didn’t treat spiritual things casually.

When it came time to present Jesus at the temple, Joseph and Mary headed for Jerusalem (Luke 2:22). Only after they “had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord” did they return home (2:39). And when Passover season came, they went up to Jerusalem “every year” (2:41).

The implication is that Mary wasn’t one to shirk her spiritual responsibilities. It’s easy for us to neglect spiritual dis­ciplines. Average annual worship attendance in the United Methodist Church typically limps along at less than half the membership. Many Christians would recoil at the suggestion that we should actually part with 10 percent of our income. I’m reminded of a cartoon that pictured a church sign that read: “The Original Lite Church: Home of the 3 Percent Tithe and the 45 Minute Worship Hour – 50 Percent Less Commitment Required.”

Sincerely godly people don’t neglect the Word or worship, prayer or tithing. They don’t treat spiritual disciplines cavalierly.

Spiritual sensitivity. Read Mary’s song, recorded in Luke 1:46-55. It’s more than magnificent. It is the overflow of a heart that was accus­tomed to communion with God.

How did Mary come to be so spiritually alert? Luke gives us a clue.

Following the shepherds’ visit, we are told that Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19). And when Mary and her family returned to Nazareth from their trip to Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus was twelve, we read that she “treasured all these things in her heart” (2:51).

Mary managed to carve time out of her busy life to ponder the deeper sig­nificance of what was taking place. She took time to pray, to meditate, and to reflect on what God was doing.

Most of us do not decide one day that we don’t want to be in tune with God. We don’t decide not to pray. We just let the priceless treasure of communion with God slip unnoticed through our fingers.

Spiritual sensitivity is not inherited, it is acquired through spending time with God. To borrow Terry Teykl’s phrase, Mary “prayed the price.” If we want to experience true godliness, we must do the same.

In trusting God, surrendering her life, giving up her rights, and learning to listen to the Spirit, Mary set an example for us all to follow.

Was she a super saint? No. Did she demonstrate sinless perfection? Not like­ly. But a devoted follower of God? You can be sure of it.

We can be the same.

Dick McClain is the former CEO of The Mission Society (now TMS Global). He is retired in Leadville, Colorado, with his wife Pam. This article originally appeared in Good News in 2003. Art by Kateryna Shadrina (

Prison Evangelism Transforms Inmates

Prison Evangelism Transforms Inmates

Prison Evangelism Transforms Inmates –

By Kudzai Chingwe – 

HARARE, Zimbabwe (UM News)

Editor’s note: For security purposes, only the first names of incarcerated individuals have been used.

In an effort to share God’s love with those in need, The United Methodist Church brought hundreds of prisoners at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison to Christ. The prison is known for incarcerating men who have committed violent crimes such as murder, carjacking, human trafficking, sexual offenses, treason, and robbery.

The Church and Society committee of The United Methodist Church’s Harare East District in Zimbabwe led the prison fellowship ministry.

The Rev. Timiyo Chuma, the provincial prison chaplain, said he is grateful for the church’s outreach. “The transformation of inmates is a process and is a culmination of the work of many stakeholders and interventions. However, the effort of The UMC was amazing. It was physical, material and spiritual.”

The Rev. Oscar Nyasha Mukahanana, Harare East District superintendent, said after preaching and worshipping and receiving supplies from the church, 200 inmates offered their souls to Christ. “Two weeks later, the church was invited to witness their fruits as 350 inmates were baptized,” he said.

“The event was very emotional and exciting as I preached to the inmates from Matthew 25:35-37, which defines why we were at the prison as a church,” Mukahanana said. “The purpose was to evangelize and encourage them to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, regardless of the gravity or heinousness of their crimes, geographical location and age.”

He said it is the church’s mandate to express God’s love through visiting and sharing with those in prisons. “It was through God’s grace that in my 25 years in ministry, I experienced such a response of 200 people (inmates) offering their souls to Christ at once. What a big catch,” he said.

The Rev. David Mupaya, Harare East District connectional ministries chairperson, said evangelism is about using every opportunity to spread the Word. “Together with inmates, we danced (and) beat the drums as we praised and worshipped God, and we got instant results.”

Charity Nhira, Harare East District Church and Society chairperson, said after the service, gifts were distributed to the prisoners. The church brought toilet paper, toothpaste and toothbrushes, soap, lotion, footwear, books, buckets and food valued at $5,000. “There was wild cheering as the inmates appreciated our intervention,” she said. “When under incarceration, society shuns them, relatives desist from visiting them, uncertainty about the future engulfs many. Stress and depression develops, and the church becomes the family.”

Dr. Andrew Chigudu, Harare East District lay leader, said the donations show the love of Jesus. “Those who have wronged society and been rehabilitated needed another chance to receive Jesus Christ as their Savior. The church came to accommodate all people, because all sinners were only saved by the blood of Jesus Christ,” he said. “The UMC’s gesture was a sign of love.”

Maplan Kakoto, Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison superintendent, said the donations are appreciated. “As government, we are facing a host of challenges, including lack of access to basic needs like water and utensils for inmates. Without the support from stakeholders, life will be very difficult for inmates, hence we treasure UMC’s contributions,” he said. “By wanting to be baptized, it means they want to be identified by Jesus Christ … (and) transformed for the better.”

Kakoto said the work of the church helps with the rehabilitation of inmates and their re-entry into society. “Remember, after the sentence they will join the society which they need to blend well with,” he said.

Gibson Munangwa, Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison chief correctional officer, agreed. “Activities such as the baptism of inmates helps them to fear God as they are prepared to be law-abiding citizens,” he said. “We are very grateful to the partners who are funding programs, especially in terms of the needs in the rehabilitation of inmates. Your support as UMC has been so generous and appreciated,” he said.

Peace, 22, who is serving a jail term of eight years, appreciated the baptisms and said he wants to be a righteous person before God. “If I go out, I will go to church and desist from evil things.”

Martin, 50, who is serving 20 years, said he is born again. “I want to be a pastor when I go out in the society.”

Phillip, 44, is serving a life sentence. “When I was in the society, I was doing evil things. Therefore, the teachings and sermons which we received led me to accept the sacrament of baptism. This makes me a new creation.” He said, however, the prison does not have enough Bibles and other reading materials. “We would be very grateful if we could have reading materials because we need to know more about Christ,” he said.

Tenson, 47, who was sentenced to 80 years in prison, said he has been transformed in jail. “I did not believe in Jesus Christ and now I am a believer. I want to help others as well in knowing Jesus Christ,” he said.

Partson Majoko, Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison chaplain, said he was impressed by the number of baptisms. “This is an indication of one’s personal identification with the greatest act of human history: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You become a new creation.”

Edington, 24, who is serving a 10-year sentence, said his family doesn’t visit. “I committed a heinous crime within the family and no family member is willing to be associated with me,” he said, adding that the church’s involvement is an answered prayer.

Ranch, 40, who is serving a 13-year sentence, said he does not have any visitors so he is happy with the intervention of the church. “The coming of (The) UMC is like a messenger from God, who follows the Word with action.”

Kudzai Chingwe is a communicator for the Zimbabwe East Conference. To donate money for Bibles for inmates at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, contact The United Methodist Church’s Harare East District by email, Photo: Chaplain Jefat Zhou baptizes one of 350 inmates christened at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, on July 28. The baptisms were part of a United Methodist prison ministry led by of the Harare East DistrictÕs Church and Society Committee. Photo by Prudence Choto, Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.

Following the Lead of the Healer

Following the Lead of the Healer

Following the Lead of the Healer –

By Stephen Seamands – 

Healing played an essential part in Jesus’s three-year earthly ministry. In fact, along with teaching and preaching, it was one of his three major activities. The Gospel of Matthew sums up Jesus’s ministry in Galilee like this: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (9:35, emphasis added; cf. 4:23-24).

Not only did Jesus heal, but he insisted that his disciples and followers heal as well. Sending them out two by two, he “gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matt. 10:1), and he commanded them to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Matt. 10:8). And they did.

But what happened after Jesus died, rose, and ascended into heaven? Did his ministry of healing come to an abrupt end? Definitely not. It merely assumed a different shape. Now Jesus’s healing ministry, like his preaching and teaching ministry, continues on earth through his body, the church.

The healing ministry to which we are called is not primarily our ministry but Christ’s. What we are called to do is to participate in the ongoing healing ministry of Jesus Christ.

Luke emphasized this at the very beginning of the book of Acts. In his first book (the Gospel of Luke) he said that he wrote about “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1, emphasis added). Notice he didn’t say “all that Jesus did and taught” as we might expect. That’s because Luke was convinced that Jesus’s ministry on earth didn’t end when he ascended into heaven. In reality, it had only just begun. The reason Luke was writing this second book (Acts) was to tell the story of the ongoing ministry of Jesus through his apostles and his followers.

So this seemingly insignificant phrase – “All that Jesus began to do and teach” – is actually extremely significant. We are called to participate in his ongoing ministry of healing, to join him in his ministry rather than asking him to help us carry out ours. He is the healer – not us. Our job is to follow the Healer.

Because of our deep-seated tendency as fallen human beings to put ourselves at the center of everything, to make things about ourselves, we must be constantly reminded of this. Healing ministry is not primarily your ministry. It’s not about Jesus helping you as you minister to others; it’s about you joining him as he continues his ministry of healing through you.

Why this matters so much. This foundational truth about healing ministry has profound practical implications. I’ll tell you about four of them.

First, it shapes the way we pray as we engage in healing ministry. As we prepare for healing ministry, we often pray “Lord, help me” prayers. For example, “Lord, they’ve asked me to pray with people who come forward to request prayer for healing during the Communion service this Sunday at church. Would you help me as I pray for them?”

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with “Lord, help me” prayers like that. There are many in the Bible, especially in the Psalms. But when you realize that it’s more about you joining Jesus than him helping you, then it’s better to pray, “Lord, help yourself to me. Lord, use me. You are here working. What do you want to say or do? Let me join you. Don’t let me get in the way of what you are doing.”

Someone once asked Mother Teresa the secret of her amazing, awe-inspiring ministry among the sick and dying in Calcutta. “I’m just a little pencil in God’s hands,” she immediately replied. “He does the thinking. He does the writing. He does everything and sometimes it is hard because it is a broken pencil, and He has to sharpen it a little more” (The Joy in Loving).

Mother Teresa understood that her job was to be a pencil – and notice she said a little, not a big pencil. She was willing to be little enough. And she also understood that it was God’s job to do the thinking and writing.

Like Mother Teresa, understanding whose ministry it is shapes the way we pray in preparation for healing ministry. We find ourselves praying, “Lord, help yourself to me. Help me simply to be a little pencil. Dull and broken though I am, use me to accomplish your work through me.”

Second, and perhaps most importantly, understanding whose ministry it is relieves us of the burden of ministry. For if, in fact, it’s Christ’s healing ministry, then ultimately he is the one who is responsible. It’s his burden, not ours. We don’t have to make it happen. He does. Our task is merely to let it happen.

A Christian leader who was in a class I taught several years ago shared with me what a difference it made as she began to grasp this. Here’s how she described what happened:

“I work at a mental health hospital as a clinical counselor. In the past, my prayer, as I entered work, was always to ask Christ to lead me and guide me through my ministry, helping me to be a vehicle instead of a barrier. For one week I prayed instead that Christ would allow me to accompany him, asking him to fill me with the Holy Spirit and allow me to piggyback on his ministry.

“It was the most exciting ministry with the most surprising results. The anxiety I usually experienced as I entered the building was gone. I was smiling and felt a power around me that felt unstoppable. My colleagues responded to me differently, often asking for guidance or consultations. And the clients prospered.

“My days were filled with something bigger than I ever could have imagined. I liked coming to work. My journey became bigger than I am because it was bigger than I am. I was tagging alongside Jesus through the Holy Spirit.”

Knowing whose ministry it is means knowing whose burden it is – Jesus’s not ours. Ultimately, we are not the ones who are responsible. We don’t have to lead or to heal. We just must follow the Leader and the Healer.

Third, understanding that healing is a participation in the ongoing healing ministry of Christ increases our confidence and boldness as we minister. Think of it this way: every time we enter a place to engage in healing prayer ministry with someone, we can rest assured that the risen Christ is there with us. Actually, he arrived there before we did and is waiting for us to join him.

In her wonderful book The Healing Presence, Leanne Payne captures this idea well: “He it is who comes and heals. It is he who befriends the sinner, releases the captive, and heals the lame in mind and body …. We learn to practice the Presence of Jesus within (our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit), without (he walks alongside us as Companion and Brother), and all around (he is high and lifted up, and we exalt him as Sovereign God). And we ask him to love the world through us. We learn to collaborate with him. We do what we see him doing … we simply trust in his Presence with us.”

Knowing that Jesus is present with us and will meet us also enables us to approach ministry with greater confidence – not in ourselves, but in who Jesus is and what he desires to do.

Years ago, when I had first begun to engage in healing prayer, I was ministering to the wife of a seminary student. As I listened to her unpack the tangled, sordid story of her life, I felt overwhelmed. There was so much trauma, pain, and baggage, so many complicated problems and emotional issues to deal with, so many layers that needed healing. As a result, I found myself desperately praying, “Lord, I don’t have a clue where to begin. But I know you do. You’ve been working in her life, and you’re here now. Come now and reveal yourself and your presence in our midst.”

I can’t remember what I said, what questions I asked, or even if I said anything, but before I knew it, Jesus had answered my prayer. He came into the situation, revealed himself to her, and put his finger on the exact place where she needed to begin her healing journey. Forty-five minutes later, as she left my office, she was effusive in thanking me over and over for how much I had helped her.

After she had left, I sat there stunned and silent, shaking my head in awe at what had just transpired. “Lord,” I asked, “how in the world did that happen? I didn’t do anything!”

“Yes, you did,” Jesus seemed to whisper. “You made yourself available to me. You invited me to come, and when I did, you didn’t get in the way.”

The key to fruitful healing prayer ministry is to be so open and available to the risen Christ that he is free to manifest himself as you listen and counsel and pray with people. Knowing it’s his ministry in which we’ve been invited to participate increases our confidence and expectancy. He really does want to show up!

Fourth, understanding whose ministry it is determines our primary calling. Abiding in Christ, not healing ministry, is what matters most. As Jesus stressed in his parable of the vine and the branches (John 15:1-8), branches bear fruit only as they abide in the vine. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5 NRSV). When we make abiding in him our top priority, Jesus himself will come and dwell in us. And then he will accomplish his healing ministry through us.

Often when I am taking time in the morning to abide in Christ through prayer, devotional reading, and meditating on Scripture, I will find myself thinking about a healing prayer appointment I have with someone later in the day. When that happens, my natural tendency has been to pray, “Lord, help me as I meet with so-and-so. …”

Most of the time I hear nothing. Instead of answering my prayer, Jesus seems to say, “Steve, don’t worry about that appointment right now. Just concentrate on me and your relationship with me. Abide in me. In fact, I really care more about that than anything you’ll ever do for me, Steve. So dwell in me, worship me, and love me. Receive my love for you. Enter into the joy of my rest.”

I’ve discovered that when I focus on that – when I make it more about abiding in Christ and less about asking for help concerning what lies ahead – then when I’m in the healing prayer session, he will have freer rein and will come and accomplish his healing work through me.

Abiding in Christ is our primary calling. And Jesus promised that if we abide in him, he will abide in us (John 15:4) and we will bear fruit (v. 5). This, of course, is why the various spiritual practices or disciplines, or “means of grace,” as John Wesley liked to call them, are so vital and indispensable. As many and as varied as they are, they are all ways of abiding in Christ.

I trust you are beginning to realize why it matters so much that you understand whose ministry it is you are entering. Knowing that it’s essentially Jesus’s ministry and not ours shapes the way we pray, relieves us of the burden of ministry, increases our confidence in his healing presence, and determines our primary calling.

Stephen Seamands is emeritus professor of Christian doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of numerous books such as Wounds That Heal, Ministry in the Image of God, and The Unseen Real. This article is taken from Follow the Healer by Stephen Seamands. Copyright © 2023 by Stephen A. Seamands. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing. Artwork: Parma, Italy: The fresco Jesus healing the ten lepers in Byzantine iconic style in Baptistery probably by Grisopolo from 13 century. Photo by Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock.

Offer them Christ

Offer them Christ

Offer them Christ –

By Rob Renfroe –

I had a strange reaction as I read a United Methodist News article about a youth conference held this summer. The theme of “Youth 2023” was BOLD – Being Ourselves, Living Different. It was sponsored by Discipleship Ministries and brought over 2,500 students together in Daytona Beach.

The article’s title “Students Reflect on ‘Life-Changing’ Youth 2023” took me back to my teen-age years when my life was changed. The year was 1972 and I was sixteen years old.

We received our first youth director during the same period as the recent movie “Jesus Revolution.” The revival that had begun in Southern California had reached a United Methodist Church in Dallas, Tyler Street UM Church. They had recruited college students who were willing to go to other UM churches and share the Gospel with youth. Eddie Wills was one of those sent out from Tyler Street and we were thrilled when he was introduced to us one summer Sunday evening at MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) as our first youth director.

I was a church kid. I read the Bible and prayed every night. I was a good kid who didn’t smoke, drink or curse, and I was too afraid of girls to get into trouble that way. And I was a kid who was asking questions, like “how can I be sure I’ll go to heaven when I die?” Knowing that some people were going to make it, I thought I needed to do my best to be in the top 10-20 percent of the world’s “good people.” I felt fairly certain that by being a good kid and going to church I’d probably make the cut. So I set out to be as nice and polite and as good and as religious as I could be. That was my plan for going to heaven. That was my life.

Then I met Eddie Wills. In short order I could see that Eddie and I were different. Eddie knew God. I knew something about God. I had a religion about God, Eddie had a relationship with God. Eddie had a confidence that came from trusting in Jesus. I had a constant concern that maybe I wasn’t doing enough to get to heaven.

By God’s grace my eyes were opened to see that what Eddie had was real and beautiful. I wanted that for myself. When I spoke with him about it, Eddie told me how to accept Jesus as my Savior and begin a personal relationship with him. That summer my life was changed. I treasure the friends I made that summer. I can still sing some of the “cool” Christians songs we sang. But they didn’t change my life. Jesus did.

So, I read the article about the Daytona youth conference with a good bit of nostalgia and excitement. Nostalgia because I remembered how my life was changed as a teenager when I came to Christ. Excitement because Jesus is still at work and he still loves teens.

Eight youth from several states were quoted in the article. They talked about how meaningful BOLD had been, elaborating on all the things youth rightly value – meeting different kinds of people, new ways of seeing themselves and others, incredible music, the beauty of the beach, and making friends they never would have met without going to the conference. I’m glad the conference provided those experiences for the youth there.

As I continued to read, though, I became concerned. Something seemed to be missing. I read the article again. Then again. Finally, I did a word search of the article. And what was missing wasn’t something. It was Someone. Nowhere in the article was Jesus mentioned. At that point, my concern turned into real, genuine sadness. Had a great opportunity to introduce 2500 youth to a personal relationship with Jesus been missed?

Maybe I should not read too much into that. Maybe the news story didn’t relate the full extent of what students experienced at BOLD. Maybe Christ was clearly and compelling presented, and those attending really got it – that Jesus is the life-changer.

Here’s why I’m possibly more concerned than I should be. Before retiring I was a pastor at The Woodlands United Methodist Church for over 20 years. Over those two decades I received the same report from dozens of our members. Some had moved away and had been looking for a new church home. Others had been on vacation and had attended worship on a Sunday morning. And the reports, usually about attending church in one of the western states, or the northeast, and sometimes the mid-west went like this, almost verbatim: “Rob, we went to a United Methodist Church and it wasn’t anything like ours. They didn’t even mention Jesus.” I’d follow up with, “Well, what did they talk about?” Again, the answers were strikingly similar. “They talked about politics.” “They talked about social issues.” “They talked about how bad corporate America is.” More than one told me, “It felt more like a political rally than a service of worship.”

Offer them Christ. In 1784 an elderly John Wesley sent Thomas Coke to America to ordain Francis Asbury and organize the first Methodist Church. Wesley, standing on a pier on the River Avon, gave a final, simple charge to Coke and his party as they set off for the New World: “Offer them Christ.”

The Methodist Church has always believed, and its founder certainly did, that we are called to make the world a better place for others – materially and spiritually. We are to work to make society fair and just. We must oppose all forms of oppression and prejudice. We are called to spread scriptural holiness across the land. But above all we are to “offer them Christ” because it is Jesus who changes lives, brings hope and gives us the power to fight injustice. Without Jesus, we are just another social agency, just one more special interest group, just one more political party.

One of my mentors, Dr. William Hinson, was appointed to First United Methodist Church in Houston in the early 1980’s. The church was in rough shape – finances were difficult, the building was in disrepair, and membership had declined. All this was made worse by an oil bust that had rocked the city. Downtown, where First Church was located, was becoming a ghost town. It was no longer thought to be safe.

Bill was a man of immense strength and faith. He went to work, preaching the Gospel, casting vision, and raising money. After a few years both downtown and the church began to turn around. One Sunday after church, a young couple waited to speak to Bill privately. They were bright, gifted, both were leaders, and they were financially committed to the church.

After everyone had left, the couple told Bill, “Dr. Hinson we love you. Because we respect you so much, we didn’t want to just stop coming without telling you that we are going to start attending another church.” Bill responded, “May I ask why?” They answered, “It’s not that we don’t like your sermons. It’s just that with you it’s always the same thing. It’s always, ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.’”

They were right. Bill preached the whole Gospel of God, including justice and social holiness. But no matter what he spoke about, it always came back to “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

Jesus our teacher. Jesus our example. Jesus our healer. Jesus the Son of God. Jesus the light of the world. Jesus the way, the truth and the life. Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus the Word who was with God and who was God. Jesus the King of kings and the Lord of all. Jesus the One who changes our lives.

With Bill, it always came back to Jesus, to offering them Christ. And struggling First Church came back under his preaching and his leadership both downtown and at a second campus on the west side of Houston which the church built while he was there. What that young couple meant as a polite criticism, Bill took as a supreme compliment. “With you, it’s always, ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.’”

I know I shouldn’t read too much into that article about this summer’s youth conference. I have to believe that Christ was presented and lives were changed by the presence and the power of Jesus. I just want to remind myself, the GMC, and the UMC to “offer them Christ.” No one else is who he is. Nothing else can do what he can do. No other power can save a soul or fully transform a life. So, offer them Christ. First, foremost, forever: offer them Christ.

Rob Renfroe is the president of Good News. This was his editorial in the November/December 2023 issue. 

Editorial: More Hopeful Than Ever

Editorial: More Hopeful Than Ever

Editorial: More Hopeful Than Ever —

By Rob Renfroe —

I have enjoyed the reports coming out of Global Methodist annual conference meetings from all over the United States and Europe. Delegates report that the conferences have been filled with an air of excitement, anticipation, and joy. They state the meetings have the feeling of a revival and there is the sense that something new is being born and a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit is being experienced.

I have also listened carefully to those who have attended the last round of United Methodist Church annual conferences earlier this summer. The word I heard most often coming out of those meetings was “hope.” Some pastors and bishops have even stated they “now feel more hopeful for the United Methodist Church” than they have ever felt in the past.

I wish to state clearly that I pray God will bless the ongoing UM Church with a wonderful future. I pray he will so anoint the UM Church with his Spirit that it will be a church where the Gospel is preached with power, where many lost souls find a new life in Christ, and where acts of mercy and justice are so prolific that the goodness of God’s kingdom becomes apparent to everyone.

So, I pray great things, I wish great things, I hope great things for the ongoing United Methodist Church. But UM leaders who state they are more hopeful than they have ever been for the UM Church mean something more than that. They say they are now more hopeful than ever. Now, for them, is a different time, a better time, a more hopeful time than ever before.

What has changed recently? What’s different now from the last time UM annual conferences met? The change is that over 6000 traditional churches have disaffiliated from the denomination. That’s what’s different now.

The UM Church still has the same bishops; the same seminary professors; the same “open hearts, open minds, open doors” slogan; and the same willingness to allow bishops, pastors and seminary professors to teach a defective Christology, to promote a faith that is far from orthodox, and to bless lifestyles that are contrary to what the Scriptures approve.

The old adage states: Keep doing what you’ve done, and you’ll keep getting what you’ve gotten. And what the UM Church has gotten in the past has not been great. Since the UM Church was founded in 1968, its membership has never grown year over year. Not once. Not once in the past five and a half decades. From 1970 to 2021 UM membership in the United States has declined from 10.7 million to 5.7 million. And it’s getting worse. The loss of membership in 2021 (the last year before disaffiliation began in earnest) was greater than any other single year in the denomination’s history. That is, until 2022 when membership decreased by over 500,000.

I’m not hopeful for the UM Church’s future growth and I won’t be until evangelism becomes one of its chief priorities, until its pastors are given a thoroughly orthodox education at its seminaries, and until the entire denomination admits that the progressive values that have led the church to where it is now will not lead it to a better place in the future.

“But,” I’ve heard centrist and progressive leaders state, “once the traditionalists leave with their narrow-minded, bigoted beliefs, we UMs will be perfectly positioned with our message of grace to reach our culture.” Well, that’s a hope, but not one founded on what other mainline Protestant denominations have experienced. Many of them are far ahead of the UM Church when it comes to ridding themselves of their traditionalists and liberalizing their sexual ethics. What was the result? Their decline in membership, attendance and finances has continued, only at a more rapid rate than ever before.

Since affirming gay marriage and the ordination of practicing gay persons membership, in the Presbyterian Church (USA) has decreased by 20 percent and youth professions of faith by over 50 percent. Since making the same changes, The United Church of Christ has seen its membership decline by 30 percent. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has experienced such a rapid decline that its Office of Research and Evaluation projects that the whole denomination will have fewer than 16,000 persons in worship by 2041. Rather than seeing an influx of secular people since adopting a liberalized sexual ethic,  The Episcopal Church (USA) has experienced a decrease in its attendance that is so dramatic that church growth expert the Rev. Dr. Dwight Zscheile wrote, “The overall picture is dire … At this rate there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.”

What reason, what hope do UM leaders have that it will be different for the UM Church? Do they really believe that the UM pastors remaining in the UM Church are so spectacularly different from the pastors of our sister denominations that our story will be different when it comes to reaching the culture? Are our pastors more committed, more spiritual, more insightful, more compelling than the clergy in the PCUSA, the UCC, the ECUSA, and the ELCA? So different from the pastors of other liberal denominations that our team will crack the cultural code and we will be able to reach the masses where all the others have failed? That doesn’t sound like hope. That sounds like hubris.

Some centrist leaders have said, “Those who are leaving are primarily small churches. We hate to see them go. But losing them will not have a big impact on the denomination as a whole.” 

It’s true most of the churches that have left the UM Church are small churches. That’s because most UM churches are small churches. Before the devastating impact of the pandemic on church attendance, fifty percent of all UM Churches had less than fifty persons in worship on a Sunday. Seventy-five percent had less than a hundred. The numbers are even worse now. To be honest the leaders telling people that most of the churches that are leaving are small churches need also to report that most of the churches remaining are small churches.

They also need to tell their followers that many of the denomination’s largest congregations have left. A partial listing includes three of the four largest in the Texas AC, the largest in the Rio Texas AC, and the largest in the Central Texas AC. The four congregations in Louisiana with the highest attendance have left, as well as the two largest in the Alabama-West Florida Conference. The largest church in North Georgia, Illinois Great Rivers and in Mississippi exited years ago. Two of the three largest congregations in North Alabama are out. The two congregations with the highest attendance in Oklahoma have disaffiliated, as well as the churches with the highest attendance in the Michigan, North Carolina, South Georgia, and the Northwest Texas Annual Conferences. The results are similar in other Annual Conferences, but these examples illustrate that those saying the churches that have exited are primarily small congregations are misrepresenting the truth of what has happened in the UM Church.

If the majority of the 6000 churches that have left are so small, why has the General Council on Finance and Administration proposed that the denomination’s budget for the next quadrennium be cut by 40 percent? That is an astounding number. That is an alarm bell loud enough to awaken all those who have ears to hear.

Membership is declining. Attendance is decreasing. Finances are struggling. And the plan is to blame the traditionalists, keep electing progressive leaders, double down on the liberal agenda that has brought the UM Church to where it is – and be hopeful.

Hope is a wonderful thing. But hope is not a strategy or a plan or a way forward. In fact, if it’s a blind “hope against hope” kind of hope, it can be a detriment to making the changes that need to be made. 

Do I wish the UM Church well? I do. Am I hopeful for the UM Church? I want to be. But I can’t be until I hear its leaders deal with the real reasons it has declined for the past fifty-five years, acknowledge that something went very wrong when 20 percent of its churches and five of its bishops felt compelled to leave the denomination, and admit that maybe, just maybe, they are part of the problem.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. Photo by James Barr on Unsplash.