First UMC Fort Smith welcomes Bishop Ken Carter

Topics include Fresh Expressions, Way Forward Commission

By Dane Womack
Special Contributor

The resident bishop of the Florida Area of the United Methodist Church recently visited First UMC Fort Smith to offer teaching, preaching and conversation.

Bishop Ken Carter is a well-known leader in the denomination, having been a large-church pastor and an author before being elected to the episcopacy in 2012. Carter is currently the president-designate of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, and will serve as president in 2018-2020. He also shares with two other bishops the task of moderating the Commission on a Way Forward, a group called together to address the challenges and future of the worldwide UMC.

On Sunday, April 2, the bishop helped lead First UMC Fort Smith’s traditional worship services. He offered a sermon on the temptation of Jesus as found in Matthew 4, challenging worshippers to receive the call to Lenten disciplines of sacrifice and fasting as a gift from God, an invitation to a more simple, more holy life. During the Sunday school hour, he spoke with small groups who have been studying his Lenten devotional book, Near the Cross: A Lenten Journey of Prayer (Abingdon Press, 2015).

On Monday, April 3, Carter preached for the Downtown Fort Smith Ecumenical Lenten Lunch worship series. His homily focused on Jesus’ final teaching and parables in the Gospel of Matthew. The bishop summarized the parables by imploring worshippers to “stay alive spiritually, use their gifts and care for those in need.”

Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter speaks with clergy from across the Arkansas Conference as part of his visit to First UMC Fort Smith in April.

Earlier that day, Carter met with 30 pastors and a few laity from the surrounding region regarding the current state and future of the United Methodist Church. In his time with local leaders, he focused on two topics: Fresh Expressions ministries and the UMC Commission on a Way Forward.

Fresh Expressions is a ministry model developed by the Church of England in response to the realization that their “inherited church” model was no longer working; they had been practicing evangelism as a “passive parish.” The future of the church essentially depended on families having their kids, and their kids, and their kids and so on continue to live in the parish and continue as members of the local church. But as generations became more mobile, local church participation is no longer simply passed on to the next group.

At the same time, many people have had little experience or a bad experience with the church. Those people are not likely to casually visit a worship service. Fresh Expressions attempts to reverse the direction of evangelism: Instead of inviting people to church (which they are very unlikely to visit), why not meet them elsewhere?

“We need to learn to meet people where they are instead of lamenting that they are not where we are,” Carter said. The Fresh Expressions model has been adapted by the Florida Conference as a key evangelism strategy. Their recent attempts at new church models include groups like Theology on Tap (Bible study at a local pub), Burritos and Bible (small group at Tex-Mex spot), Crockpot Church (crockpot meals shared at a trailer park alongside a worship service) and Dinner Clubs (shared meals including Christian reflection questions). Traditional worship and traditional churches will continue to be central to our identity, but what new and different approaches can we learn for the sake of engaging new people? 

Carter also spent considerable time in the Monday morning session on the Commission on a Way Forward. He explained the lengthy, intentional effort that went into organizing a diverse and representative commission, and gave a summary of their work to date. He said the Commission has worked hard to move past seeing one another as issues or camps, but instead seeks to understand one another as people with deep faith but conflicting views.

The primary question before the Commission and even our denomination is, “What does it mean, what does it look like, for us to live together in our disagreement? Does it mean restructuring? In what sense?” Carter said he is hopeful about a unified future, but admitted there will surely be changes.

Attendees asked questions about accountability, discipline and the College of Bishops’ leadership. Carter agreed that there is much confusion about accountability and discipline. Often, pastors, boards or groups are being held accountable, but perhaps in private. At this point, Carter spun into a bit of pastoral reflection: “Isn’t it true that we all want our foes held accountable publicly while we don’t mind if our friends are held accountable privately?” he asked.

He also acknowledged there is some confusion about the role of bishops. While United Methodist bishops are leaders, their power is sometimes overstated. For example, bishops do not present or vote on legislation, nor do they have any say on members of Annual or General Conference. He worries that some frustration aimed at bishops is misplaced or misunderstood.

Carter encouraged those present to remain faithful and patient. He explained that he, the Council of Bishops and the Commission members are committed to a hopeful future for the United Methodist Church for the sake of current and future generations.

The Rev. Womack serves as associate pastor of First UMC Fort Smith.