Kelcy Steele ~ Old Ship of Zion: AME Zion General Conference Address
Reflections on the Quadrennial Address from the 50th Quadrennial Session of the General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church Assembled July 20-26, 2016 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Like millions of Zionites, I watched our Bishop’s Quadrennial Address at our recent General Conference, given by Bishop W. Darin Moore, Bishop Dennis V. Proctor and Bishop Kenneth Monroe. I watched it particularly with hopes that their words and vision would speak directly to me and to my ministry context. I was moved both intellectually and spiritually as they charted the new course for our beloved Zion.
We are living in some critical times, which calls for critical measures. Mostly everybody sitting in church today looks pretty good. We all clean up really well. But one of the unique things about being a pastor is that I get to sit with many people outside of Sunday morning when they’re not cleaned up so well and listen as they tell me about the brokenness and pain that is eating them up from the inside out.
I’m proud to declare that the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is my church. It’s my church of birth, it’s my church of choice, and it’s the church I love. It is known by many as “The Freedom Church,” and this I do not take lightly. Yet, while no church can ever claim to be perfect, the church must at least strive to be true. By God’s grace the “Old Ship of Zion” has traversed many dangerous and sometimes tumultuous waters since it first set sail in 1796 from the harbor of the John Street Methodist Church in New York City. We gathered and praised God for the safe arrival at the port of the 50th Session of the General Conference. – Rev. Kelcy G.L. Steele
THE FREEDOM CHURCH: REFOCUSING ON OUR PURPOSE
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come. (Luke 4:18)
We rely on the foundation of our Wesleyan heritage to proceed on our way forward and stay focused on our purpose. We are a church of order and rule and discipline. We respect authority and submit to being governed by the powers of God and of those whom God has set in positions of leadership. This is an important part of what it means to be a Methodist.
Bishop Ruben L. Speaks outlines a framework for understanding our purpose in what he termed the “Zion Methodist Synthesis”. He states that Zion Methodist doctrine is founded upon three major pillars:
We are now faced with modern-day oppression in multiple forms:
-The senseless violence in our streets
-Mass incarceration of African Americans
-Overcrowded and underfunded public schools
-A faulty criminal justice system
-Disproportionately high unemployment
Our national community is hurting. The Black Lives Matter movement has become the modern-day Civil Rights movement energized and led by millennials. We are demanding an end to the value gap that places less value on black lives than on others. The A.M.E. Zion Church has called for greater accountability for the police departments who are given lethal authority and are sworn to “protect and serve” their communities.
THE FREEDOM CHURCH: REVIEWING OUR PRACTICES
Going through the motions doesn’t please you,
a flawless performance is nothing to you.
I learned God-worship
when my pride was shattered.
Heart-shattered lives ready for love
don’t for a moment escape God’s notice.
Make Zion the place you delight in,
repair Jerusalem’s broken-down walls.
Then you’ll get real worship from us,
acts of worship small and large,
Including all the bulls
they can heave onto your altar! (Psalm 51:16-19, MSG)
Some may argue that the church is dying, or maybe even dead. We must reject this heretical notion. A dead church is an oxymoron. It is either a church or it is dead, but it cannot be both. The church is not dead for it is connected and inextricably linked to a living savior. Jesus established the church as his agent of peace, healing, and transformation in the earth realm.
The Board of Bishops calls for an end to the “worship wars.” It does no faction or segment of our church good to debate whether any are more “true” or “sincere” than others in the way they worship. The important concern is not whether the style of a worship experience is more traditional or contemporary, the issue is whether the substance of the worship is transformative.
The A.M.E. Zion Church offers earnest prayers for our sister church, the United Methodist Church, and other ecumenical partners as they face threats to their organic unity over the issue of LGBTQ rights to ordination and marriage. We respect the deeply held convictions of Christians on all sides of the issue and recognize the diversity of strong opinions within our own denomination.
The upcoming presidential election will certainly impact our social, economic, and political life in significant ways. It could have devastating implications, especially when the next president will be responsible for nominating persons for the Supreme Court as well as set an agenda that will shape this country for generations to come.
THE FREEDOM CHURCH: RETOOLING OUR PURPOSE
Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-12, NLT)
In the words of Bishop William Jacob Walls, “Methodism is a spiritual movement in the temporal environment.” In Autopsy of A Deceased Church, Thom S. Rainer suggests some observations that are common in churches whose best days could be behind them. Some characteristics are listed with his headings.
-The church refused to look like the community
-The facilities continue to deteriorate
-The church has no community-focused ministry
-The pastoral tenure grows shorter
-The church rarely prayed together
-Members tend to idolize another era
-The church had no clarity as to why it existed.
The maladies affecting ministry of this generation are diverse and complex. So we inquire, which tools can be used to stem the tide of the present reality? Bishop Robert Schnase offers some practical steps in his treatise, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. The tools are profoundly simple and yet, simply profound;
-Radical hospitality – without a warm and engaging environment this is oxymoronic.
-Passionate worship – spirited worship devoid of authentic spirit resonates as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals!
-Intentional faith development – requires a plumb line or biblical understanding and application.
-Risk-taking mission and service
THE FREEDOM CHURCH: REACHING OUR POTENTIAL
I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. (Philippians 3:12-14 NLT)
In many ways, life is like an airport; there are those who are staying put and those who are moving on. How unfortunate if we fail to recognize God’s call to move on. The call of the Lord has always been toward a greater future and fulfilling our potential.
God has a plan of movement for everyone; God will lose some doors so that you will find the new door he has opened for you. Sometime God requires you to stay still while you receive clear directions where you are and sometimes God wants you to move on to a higher level, a better place. We must stay connected to God, stay in touch with God, and stay in tune with God so that we can recognize God’s call to move on.
We issue a renewed call for a Faith and Order Conference to be held in conjunction with the General Convention on Christian Education.
Pastors and local churches are challenged to expand our teaching ministries with the goal of offering relevant biblical principles that youth, young adults, adults, and seniors can successfully apply in their daily living and more effectively navigate a complex world.
The AME Zion Church will make young adult leadership development and mentoring a major priority at every level.
Churches must discover innovative ways to provide practical, hands-on ministry opportunities.
In order to engage the unchurched, reach Millennials, and cultivate a deeper Christian maturity of our members we must make intimacy with God through Jesus Christ and healthy relationships with one another the focus of all ministry.
We strongly encourage the revitalization of the class meetings.
Every church will designate a Voter Education/Mobilization Coordinator.
The A.M.E. Zion Church will fully embrace our legacy and our mantra as the Freedom Church.
We recommend that the 50th Session of the A.M.E. Zion Church General Conference officially endorses the following legislative and policy initiatives: (My Brothers Keepers)
-Raise minimum wage
-Gun control legislation
-Additional diversion options
-Boosting opportunities for people in prison to earn time off
-Improving accuracy of federal criminal record keeping
We suggest that pastors and lay leaders offer Life Enrichment Classes or ministries for their churches and invite persons from the community to participate.
We must practice lifestyle stewardship of our time, talents, temple, and treasure.
To learn more visit www.amez.org.