Inspiration in Indiana: Regional Conference Yields Recharged Souls, Reclaimed Identity
By Carl Stagner
“In all of my fifty-five years in ministry, I have never felt the presence of the Holy Spirit move in such a mighty way as I did last week!” The words of Lloyd Bowen express the common sentiment of hundreds who gathered at Madison Park Church of God in Anderson, Indiana, June 21–23, for the second of three Regional Conferences this year. Sisters and brothers reuniting, stories of God at work near and far, repeated emphases on holiness and sanctification, and voices testifying in four-part harmony, “I am a child of God!” combined to create an atmosphere which elevated the present work of Christ in a movement built upon a beautiful heritage. In a manner only fully comprehendible by firsthand experience, the Anderson Regional Conference provided setting and opportunity for pastors and lay leaders to recharge their souls and the Church of God to reclaim its God-given identity.
Though the padded chairs and air conditioning at Madison Park Church of God simply can’t compare to the more primitive amenities of generations past, camp meeting flair was nevertheless in the air during the Regional Conference. Lights remained on during the congregational singing on both Tuesday and Wednesday evenings as classic hymns “The Solid Rock,” “I Surrender All,” “Be Thou My Vision,” and “A Child of God,” for instance, blended seamlessly with more modern tunes of praise and worship. Striking a chord between personal and collective identity in Christ, the gathered saints testified to one another with lyrics like, “I have washed my robes in the cleansing fountain, I am a child of God!” It was no accident that such songs were included in a conference for which identity was the theme (thank you, Sarah Scharbrough McLaughlin!); we are, after all, who God says we are and not defined by the world’s labels. Such affirmation is reminiscent for many in attendance who recall fondly Robert Reardon’s commentary preceding the iconic Barney Warren hymn in the 1994 Joy in the Lord video: “I’m not a second-hand person, I’m a member of God’s family of royal priesthood!”
Sadly, the prevailing winds of culture cause widespread confusion concerning both individual and collective identity, often leaving behind victims of identity theft. Even as a Movement, the Church of God can find itself adrift without regular connection, requiring reclamation of true identity through reconnection. The unity espoused from Church of God pulpits, in its books, and throughout its periodicals must be lived out.
So, when the third full week of June came, Church of God pastors and lay leaders from coast to coast (and some beyond the United States and Canada) opted to make the trek to Anderson, eager to be with Jesus, become more like Jesus, and do what Jesus did. In the span of three days, a variety of pre-conference electives, luncheons, receptions, panel discussions, and spoken messages provided precisely what so many were needing in a year still somewhat in the shadow of a pandemic and ongoing cultural maladies—recharged spiritual batteries. Perhaps that’s why minimal advance interest expressed for online participation faded in favor of a fully in-person experience. Hugs, handshakes, smiles, and tears of joy describe the scenes that played out at Madison Park Church of God from June 21 through 23 as longtime and new friends shared both space and grace.
Space was, however, a concern for a moment when capacity crowds couldn’t be contained in the designated conference rooms for “Flourishing in Ministry” and “A Stuck Church in a Changing World.” Hosted by US and Canada Strategy, these two pre-conference electives proved popular among pastors and church leaders eager to embrace better days ahead in their respective spheres of ministry. They weren’t disappointed.
Neither were those who heard Jim Lyon’s opening address on “the five non-negotiables,” which set the tone for the remainder of the Regional Conference. Explaining their purpose, Jim said that the five are “Church of God flagstones that together make us distinctive within the larger body of Christ and, at the same time, underscore our calling to unite the body of Christ.” Hearkening back to the banners waved by the Church of God as historically understood pillars—salvation, holiness, and unity—the five distinctives that Jim dubbed as the Movement’s “irreducible prime,” are: 1) Jesus above all else (as Creator, Sustainer, Lord, Savior, and so much more); 2) The Holy Spirit and holiness (including “possession by” the Holy Spirit and sanctification); 3) Unity of the body of Christ (we reach our hands in fellowship to every blood-washed one!); 4) the Great Commandment(s) (including sharing God’s love both with disciples and neighbors who have yet to commit to Christ); and 5) the supremacy of Scripture (the Bible is our “plumbline” for matters of doctrine and practice—no other document, earthly authority, or opinion supersedes).
Providing platform for commentary on the five non-negotiables, the panel discussion featured three noted “thinkers” in the Church of God—theologians rightly considered in the vein of Gilbert Stafford or James Earl Massey, who articulated so well the beliefs of the Movement. Jason Varner and Nathan Willowby of the Anderson University School of Theology and Christian Ministry joined Richard Smith to offer conversation and scholarly insights on who the Church of God once was, what it is today, and what Jesus calls us to be.
Like the morning session, the Wednesday afternoon panel discussion gave opportunity for further consideration of the five non-negotiables and other insights on identity as the overarching theme. Featuring Ra’Lynn Kelley of Church of God Ministries; Abbie Craig, experienced youth pastor and full-time AU seminarian; and Justin Brown, pastor of Monroe City First Church of God in Indiana, the afternoon panel wasn’t designed to offer historical theological perspective, yet the panel was no less articulate and helpful in bringing profound insights to the table from the perspective of younger adults. In each panel discussion, listeners were afforded the chance to ask questions.
A stellar lineup of speakers preached from God’s Word with conviction and class, expounding upon the God-given identity of the Church of God movement with a particularly constant undercurrent of holiness.
Heather Semple, host pastor at Madison Park Church of God, offered a glimpse into her storied past and the redemption she and her husband enjoyed in the years since. Hope was left in the wake of missteps and trials, spilling over into the souls of all who heard her account. “When Jesus is the subject, people are going to be loved to Jesus,” she exclaimed from firsthand experience, underscoring a popular phrase that proves substantive, though oft-repeated since Jim Lyon first accepted the general director role at Church of God Ministries nearly a decade ago.
Unique, Spirit-led moments characterized the late-afternoon session in which Brian Bennett, pastor of Pathway Church in Vero Beach, Florida, delivered an exceptional expository sermon on shalom—the peace which the world, the church, and pastors’ souls (especially) so desperately need. Acknowledging the factors which shook the identities of several Old Testament heroes, Brian offered hope for the unsung spiritual heroes of the present age. “What I see in Elijah’s story, and what I see in my own, is that we’re not alone,” he insisted, “God is with us.” As a fitting conclusion to his message, Brian directed all in attendance to form small groups and pray for one another, bearing one another’s burdens, noting that “what we reveal the Lord can heal.”
A compelling message offered a fitting end to the second day of the Regional Conference. The general superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene, Carla Sunberg, recounted her experience as a missionary kid (MK), whose lack of clear earthly identity accentuates her identity in Christ. Carla reached back into church history and looked forward to what God’s people can be in the midst of a culture replete with its own vain assertions of what our identity ought to be. “We need to embrace our true identity,” she asserted, “but it only begins when we release any identity that holds us hostage to the things of the world.”
Citing Matthew 16:13, Bob Rognlien closed the conference on Thursday morning while insisting each individual Christ-follower must answer the question Jesus asked, “But who do you say I am?” He continues to ask us that question. Bob said of the early disciples, “They needed to know who Jesus was in order for them to know who they were.” The same principal applies to today’s disciples. “If we are going to live into our destiny and become who we’re meant to be,” Bob preached, “we must begin by knowing the real Jesus.”
Once again, Jesus is the subject. And Jesus himself was very present at the 2022 Regional Conference in Anderson, Indiana, a fact for which the Church of God continues to rejoice.
Learn more about the 2022 Regional Conferences of the Church of God, including how you can register for the third-and-final event—part of the Church of God Women’s Convention in Orlando this October 13–16—at www.chogconvention.org.
Feature (top) photo: Panel discussion with Jason Varner, Richard Smith, and Nathan Willowby at the Anderson Regional Conference.