Need for change addressed at Horizon Conference

By Amy Forbus

NORTH LITTLE ROCK—“We are not here to make your church grow,” said the Rev. Carter Ferguson, pastor of CanvasCommunity UMC Little Rock, as he welcomed attendees to the Horizon Conference, a Nov. 11-12 gathering sponsored by the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas, the Texas Methodist Foundation, Quapaw Quarter UMC Little Rock and CanvasCommunity.

Instead, he said, the gathering represented an acknowledgement that the church must change, and a willingness to do something about it.

Argenta Community Theater was the setting, a deliberate choice to meet in a non-church environment because so much of the event’s discussion would center on changing or moving away from familiar patterns of church life for the sake of the Gospel. Presenters addressed ways the church needs to experience change in building community, ministry with the poor, racial reconciliation and the place of the prophetic voice.

The Rev. Tom Fuerst challenged churches to reclaim a prophetic voice as part of the change needed to carry out ministry in a changing context. AUM PHOTOS BY AMY FORBUS

The Rev. Tom Fuerst challenged churches to reclaim a prophetic voice as part of the change needed to carry out ministry in a changing context.

Positioning for the prophetic

The Rev. Tom Fuerst, associate teaching pastor of Christ UMC Memphis, encouraged attendees to consider how they can position themselves in ways that allow them to speak prophetic truths.

“The task is not easy—that’s why we don’t want it,” he said, noting that Martin Luther King Jr. had an approval rating near 20 percent at the time of his assassination.

Fuerst encouraged reclaiming ancient meaning and practice as a way to increase prophetic witness. “Weekly Eucharist is a prophetic act,” he said, because it keeps front and center the need to confess that we hurt one another and we hurt God.

He also reminded clergy that their first job is to speak truth to power and to critique the regime, and they can cultivate an ability to do that by building relationships. “You want to know who you can actually be prophetic with? The people you’re pastoral with,” he said, noting that rootedness and longevity are keys to developing a prophetic witness.

A common fear is that when a pastor speaks discomforting, prophetic words, financial support for the ministry may decline. In response to that possibility, Fuerst suggested that pastors develop a five-year plan to wean their congregations off depending upon the top 10 percent of givers.

Learning from secular communities

A duo of Harvard Divinity School ministry innovation fellows, Angela Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, presented results from their qualitative research projects centering on community and belonging, especially among the spiritually unaffiliated (also called “the unchurched”).

Angela Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, Harvard Divinity School ministry innovation fellows, present their research findings.

Angela Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, Harvard Divinity School ministry innovation fellows, present their research findings.

“There’s this sense of being unhoused, but not necessarily without interest,” said Thurston of the people they have interviewed for their work. People are seeking somewhere to belong, whether it’s through secular community leadership, “maker spaces” for artists and craftspeople, Crossfit or a number of other non-religious connections, many of which can have some undercurrent of the spiritual.

Thurston and ter Kuile identified six themes among organizations drawing large numbers of religiously unaffiliated people: social transformation, personal transformation, accountability, creativity, purpose finding and community.

They shared one story of a Crossfit gym owner who also is a Presbyterian minister, and is convinced that more ministry is happening through his Crossfit work than through the church he pastors.

“What we heard more and more from these secular organizations… was that [participants] were looking for something like spiritual direction,” ter Kuile said, adding that the institutional church, by and large, is no longer designed for its intended purpose.

“There’s real room for greater spiritual community development,” said Thurston, “[but] if the goal is to make more Methodists, it won’t work.”

Summaries of Thurston and ter Kuile’s work are available at

Showing another way

The Rev. Rudy Rasmus, co-pastor of St. John’s UMC Houston, shared his personal story of beginning to move toward relationship with God while running what he called a “borderline bordello”—a hotel that rented rooms to sex traffickers.

Rev. Rudy Rasmus, co-pastor of St. John' s UMC Houston.

Rev. Rudy Rasmus, co-pastor of St. John’ s UMC Houston.

But he met the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of Windsor Village UMC Houston, who patiently invested time in getting to know him. “I tell him exactly what I do for a living, and he became my friend,” Rasmus said. Friendships with others in the faith followed, until eventually, “my heart changed,” he said. “And I told my wife, I think I’m a Christian now.”

Mentored by Caldwell, Rasmus discerned a call to ministry, and the church he now pastors has over the past two decades developed “phenomenal street credibility,” he says. “That’s 20 years caring about people.”

St. John’s UMC distributes food to 600 families per week, serves 500 meals per day and embraces the housing-first model of helping people leave homelessness. They provide HIV testing in conjunction with their worship services, and offer permanent housing for persons leaving life on the streets. In the past 15 years, St. John’s has spent $20 million on housing homeless individuals.

“I think the work that we have done… is really connected to what someone did for me: showed me another way to live,” Rasmus said.

Going forward, he expects that the work of the church must change, and not just in his congregation. What does he see coming? “Opportunities to be present in some lives and some spaces we’ve never had before,” he said, “but the key is, you can’t be scared.”

Rasmus asked attendees to discuss two questions: “Where is love creating a disruption in our churches?” and “What are some things that could be done for love to be louder?”

The Rev. Willis Johnson encouraged having conversation with the expectation of it leading to action.

The Rev. Willis Johnson encouraged having conversation with the expectation of it leading to action.

Conversations on justice

The work of reconciliation facilitated by the Rev. F. Willis Johnson, pastor of Wellspring UMC Ferguson, Missouri, became nationally known following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown and the protests that followed it. It resulted in the founding of the Center for Social Empowerment in Ferguson, which addresses social and racial justice issues; and also in a book by Johnson, Holding Up Your Corner: Talking About Race in Your Community, which Abingdon Press will release in January.

Johnson encouraged those willing to work on racial issues to begin having conversations, even at the risk of saying the wrong thing. With our language changing more quickly than ever, “you’re going to say it. You’re going to mess up. You’re human,” he said, but the conversation is important enough to work through those stumbles. Besides, the goal of the conversation is not to help you feel better, but rather to make some progress.

He admitted that even now, he catches himself “othering” some people—labeling them and distancing himself from them. It’s something to guard against, because ultimately, we are responsible for nurturing one another.

“Each new encounter… should move us, strengthen us or move us toward that next encounter,” he said.

Attendee Rachel Hunt of Grand Avenue UMC Hot Springs agrees that difficult conversations need to happen in all churches. “It’s a body of Christ conversation,” she said of the reconciliation and justice work. “I’m hopeful that this will transform me, and in turn transform those whose lives I’m in relationship with.”

The Rev. Carissa Rodgers of Quapaw Quarter UMC encouraged attendees to think deeply and intentionally about what the presenters had to say. “Our hope is that the conversation leads to more conversation,” she said. “My hope and my prayer is that we take these things to heart.”

VIDEO: To view portions of the Horizon Conference presentations, visit the Arkansas Conference Vimeo channel.