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 conference in Houston was ‘Shift Happens: Doing Ministry from the Right Side.’ It took place during the 25th anniversary of SBC21 as an organization.
Think right side of the brain and the Gospel of John.
“We have to shift to do ministry in unconventional, creative and innovative ways,” said 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.”
There were about 200 in-person attendees alongside virtual participants to the conference at St. John’s Downtown United Methodist Church. Partners for the conference included the Black Staff Association of The United Methodist Church, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, The Convocation of Black Pastors, Gammon Theological Seminary and Black Clergy Women of The United Methodist Church.
“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,” said Rev. Ed C. Jones III, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Houston.
“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, Rev. Candace M. Lewis attended an SBC21 conference more than two decades ago. Today, she is the president and dean of Gammon Theological Seminary.
“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 included field trips to learn about innovative ministries being done by Houston-area churches.
“It was kind of like show and tell,” Bowie said. “Instead of just being in a building, we went into the community.”
The field trips included 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 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.
They hope to double that number of patients the next time they do it, planned for next year, Jones said.
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>.
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. When you invest in and really value the Black church, you are literally dismantling racism, but you are really developing and moving further to the beloved community.”