By: Christa Meland
“Whether you’re clergy or lay, the work of evangelism and discipleship is the most important thing that you can ever do,” Rev. Olu Brown told nearly 800 people gathered at Annual Conference.
Brown—lead pastor at Impact Church in metropolitan Atlanta, the 56th-fastest growing church in America—delivered teaching sessions Wednesday and Thursday. In them, he implored those present to stay connected to the vine that is Jesus, to focus on evangelism, and to do discipleship differently.
Know your “why”
Brown explored the importance of knowing, claiming, and reclaiming our personal “why” stories and underscored the critical task of staying connected to the vine so we can be inspired to transform the world.
“One of the worst things that can happen to you is to become a professional Christian—we simply do church and we do worship and we do prayer by the numbers,” he said. “If you just discover Jesus again and again, you would be amazed at the life that comes from the vine.”
Brown shared some of his own story of discovering that God had a call and a purpose for his life. As a 13-year-old, he asked his pastor if he could deliver an altar prayer. He wrote the prayer out word for word and was so nervous that he was literally shaking when he gave it. But the pastor saw something in him and asked him to help out on Sunday mornings, which Brown then did. Later, as a senior in high school, he asked his family if he could eulogize at his grandfather’s funeral. As he was coming to the end of the eulogy, he heard an audible voice saying “I want to tell young people how to get to heaven.” At that moment, he discovered his “why” and accepted his call to ministry.
But he said his personal relationship with Jesus has changed since then and he continues to rediscover his “why.” Staying connected to the vine, he said, takes effort.
“We have to choose Jesus in our marketplace as lay people; we have to choose Jesus in our churches as clergy people,” he said. “We have to choose Jesus wherever we are and never assume it is a given. It is a conscious and spiritual decision every single day of our lives to choose Jesus.”
Brown implored attendees to make bold and sometimes difficult decisions that position them to bear fruit.
“When is the last time in your local church that you made a change because it wasn’t working anymore?” he asked. “What is one necessary decision as a leader that you must make because if you don’t make it, the whole crop will fail—not one plant but the whole harvest?...If we’re not seeing people baptized, if we’re not seeing professions of faith, if we’re not seeing young people confirmed, then you’ve got to ask: ‘What are we doing it for?’ Make changes so children who aren’t even born yet will know Jesus Christ because of your boldness to do something new.”
Evangelize and disciple differently
Brown urged attendees to be “catalyst evangelists”—those who go before to create an opportunity or atmosphere to connect people to Jesus. And ministry is at its best, he said, with both clergy and laity going out into the world as catalyst evangelists and preaching the good news.
This means partnering with local schools, businesses, and community leaders. “You should know the name of the principal at the elementary school and the name of the person who owns the gas station closest to your church,” Brown said. “There should be no one who knows your zip code better than you.”
If you are serious about evangelism, you have to be a catalyst and you have to build deep, abiding relationships that focus on the community around you, he explained. And hospitality should always be a core focus of your church.
Of all places, Brown’s church provides hospitality in the men’s restrooms. There’s a small TV over each urinal that’s often tuned in to ESPN. “You’d be surprised how many men come to our church and are amazed we thought about them,” he said.
In today’s culture, we have to do evangelism and discipleship differently, Brown noted, and we can only do that by understanding those we’ve been called to reach. Brown told attendees it’s important to keep in mind the “10 below, 10 above” rule: Typically, you can reach the age group 10 years younger than you and 10 years older than you.
Brown is 40, and he said he’s pretty good at relating to people between the ages of 30 and 50. However, he isn’t as adept at speaking the language of and communicating to older adults or those in their 20s.
“My responsibility isn’t to give up,” he said. “It’s to understand my limitations and build a team that can reach those individuals I can’t reach.”
There’s a struggle right now between many in the older, “loyalty generation” that comes to church no matter what and the younger, “relational generation” that’s seeking an uncommon worship experience, he said.
At Brown’s church, on a football Sunday when many families would inevitably be watching the big game, worship design team members decided to plan a different kind of gathering. They brought in a drum line from a local school and had a football-themed worship experience. The kids in the drum line weren’t old enough to drive, so their parents had to bring them to the church to play—and Impact seized the opportunity to provide them with radical hospitality. Some were so moved that they continued to come back.
“Friends, we are called to evangelize, we are called to disciple, and we are called to transform the world for Jesus Christ,” he said. “Some adult, some child needs to know there is a savior who lives and a savior who loves them.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church