BY JEFF FINLEY
The third semiannual Free Methodist Town Hall Meeting drew praise from participants online and in person who appreciated the event’s interactive nature.
Bishops Matthew Thomas, David Kendall and David Roller gathered April 11 with dozens of Free Methodists in the sanctuary of John Wesley FMC in Indianapolis, but hundreds more watched online at fmcusa.org and participated in the conversation via an online chat window, Facebook and Twitter.
In the chat window, many participants shared details about their gatherings. They named locations that included Birmingham and Pleasant Grove, Ala.; Santa Barbara, Calif.; Chicago, Hillsboro and Elgin, Ill.; Tampa, Fla.; Burlington and Urbandale, Iowa; Acme, La.; Albion, Lansing and Milan, Mich; Fillmore, Minn.; Twinsburg, Ohio; Gresham and Lebanon, Ore.; McMinnville, Tenn.; Burien, Omak and Seattle, Wash.; and New Berlin, Wis. The meeting was viewed at more than 200 locations — primarily in the United States but also in nations as far away as Brazil and Taiwan.
After worship music led by Indianapolis Free Methodists, John Wesley FMC Pastor Shane Bengry shared how God is using the congregation to reach its ethnically diverse neighborhood. For example, John Wesley FMC provides mentors for students at a nearby public school and gave 70 Christmas gifts to students’ families facing difficult economic circumstances.
“That’s been a great opportunity to serve them, to be a light to them in the middle of what they’re going through,” Bengry said. “Most of them didn’t even know our church existed until we were able to present them with a little bit of love at Christmastime.”
Jason Archer, the executive director of Light & Life Communications, moderated the meeting as the bishops took turns responding to Facebook questions from Free Methodists such as Laura J. Hunt of Milan, Mich., who asked them how, with all of the needs in the world, they decide which ones to address. Hunt was pleased with the response from Bishop Thomas.
“Our bishops keep the focus on Jesus and on us. We — me included — are often tempted to ask, ‘What are you doing?’” Hunt said. “The bishops keep graciously reminding us a better question is, ‘What is Jesus doing and how are you participating with that?’ I know that I need that regular reminder.”
Hunt was grateful for the opportunity to interact with other Free Methodists across the nation.
“I love the way the church is using technology to bring us closer together. It’s fun to see names I know from my area checking in, and to have input on the questions that are addressed,” she said. “So many times, I hear church people complaining about the bad aspects of some of these new technologies. I love seeing them used in the church in positive ways.”
More than 100 Facebook fans of the Free Methodist Church – USA voted on which questions the bishops would answer during the Town Hall Meeting.
Scott Gibbons of Grand Rapids, Mich., preferred the use of the social network to gather and determine the questions rather than questions being taken live via the chat window during previous town hall meetings.
Although Gibbons said the bishops previously did a good job fielding live questions, the answers this time were especially “articulate, concise and to the point,” adding, “I had posed a question about urban church planting at the last town hall and was excited to see people pushing the question further and then the bishops’ response.”
The questions on Facebook drew at least one person to join the in-person audience.
Amy Bither said she came to the meeting with her mother, John Wesley FMC member Carol Bither, specifically because she wanted to hear the bishops answer a question about how the Free Methodist Church distinguishes between dogma, doctrine and opinion.
“I wanted to hear it even as I sort out theology for myself,” Amy Bither said. “I’m not sure I am fully aware of all the ways the Free Methodists are different from other denominations, so I think it’s good to hear (the bishops’) perspective directly.”
Her mother said she appreciated Bishop Roller saying that Free Methodists are Jesus-centric rather than issues-driven.
“I liked that response too — how we’ll be led by our particular places where we’re serving and our particular callings, and then they become our extension of our being caught up with Christ’s issues,” Carol Bither said.
The new approach to selecting town hall questions allowed Light & Life Communications to prepare a new Web page, fmcusa.org/townhallresources, linking to resources related to the answers for all nine questions asked during the meeting.
Jaymes Lackey, a Seattle Pacific Seminary student, expressed thanks for the online opportunity to hear the bishops’ vision, which he called “fantastic, relevant and kingdom-centered.” He said he especially liked Thomas’ “words about the poor and marginalized,” Roller’s words about “our call to people of every color and place” and Kendall’s explanation of the Global Wesleyan Alliance.
Jeff Harrold — the pastor of New Beginnings Community Church in Ypsilanti, Mich. — and Todd Miller — the pastor of The Gate church plant in Indianapolis — said they liked Bishop Roller’s discussion of how the Free Methodist Church is trying to reach all ethnic and cultural groups.
“We’ve done a great job overseas, and I’m glad we’re beginning to do it here,” said Harrold, who also is the director of the African Heritage Network. “It will change the nature and complexion of the church, and so that will bring some cultural competency issues.”
Patrick McNeal, the pastor of Living Grace Community Fellowship in Flint, Mich., also watched from a pew in the John Wesley FMC sanctuary.
“It was a great evening. I love the honesty that came from the bishops and the opportunity for the church to speak,” McNeal said. “I sense direction. I sense hope, and I just sense the Spirit of God is moving in the Free Methodist Church.”
Bishop Thomas thanked town hall participants and encouraged them to stay involved in their local communities and also go to fmcusa.org and provide support for Free Methodist missionaries and ministries.
“We need everybody to be engaged. This cannot be pastor-driven (or) purely a local church-driven activity, but it’s every Free Methodist everywhere who’s truly engaged doing God’s work in a significant way,” Thomas said.