Wrestling with Who We Are: Western Regional Wednesday Review
By Carl Stagner
Riding the momentum of the Tuesday night kickoff session in Fremont, California, the second day of the Regional Conference of the Church of God dawned with a heightened sense of anticipation. What would Wednesday bring in view of the dynamic and diverse array of speakers and panelists on deck to address the conference theme in a variety of styles and formats? What would the Holy Spirit say to the Church of God through the speakers and panelists selected for the schedule? As the hours passed quickly during the day at Destiny Christian Fellowship, the answer to such questions emerged clearer as pastors and leaders wrestled with the implications of individual and collective identity in Christ.
With sponsorship support from Servant Solutions, the morning began with an incredibly timely panel discussion on who we are as the movement known as the Church of God. Richard Smith, Jason Varner, and Nathan Willowby weighed in on several specific topics predicated on the supposition that a closer examination of our identity is necessary to our future. Drift from such vital knowledge hinders our way forward and limits the impact the Church of God can have on the world. Within this framework, dialogue—including questions and answers from guests of the Regional Conference—yielded several “We…” statements and rhetorical questions reflective of the insights gleaned from the constructive conversation.
“We need to stop thinking of culture as something we are contaminated with, and start thinking of ourselves as the ‘contaminators,’” Jason Varner suggested.
“We (as a holiness people) have embedded hope in our sense of the world,” Nathan Willowby explained. “We actually believe God can make things better right now!”
“Can we also be accused [like the Christians in Antioch]?” Richard Smith asked. “Can we be known as those people who were so much like Jesus that they were mocked for it?”
The second session of the day featured the preaching of the host pastor of the Regional, the senior pastor of Destiny Christian Fellowship. Clearly articulating the timeless truth the Church of God has championed for generations, Paul Sheppard also urged the Church of God movement to “actualize” our beliefs. Citing heritage hymn “The Church’s Jubilee,” he said, “Stop making debatable matters essential (we can disagree while remaining agreeable). We tend to major in minor subjects.” Recounting examples of debatable subjects like names of churches, spiritual gifts, and politics, he reminded everyone that “Jesus is neither Democrat nor Republican.”
Those who didn’t yield to the temptation of yet another trip to nearby In-N-Out Burger for lunch enjoyed luncheons hosted by Christian Women Connection and CARE, respectfully. But after lunch, panel discussion resumed with a set of different faces. Touching on a variety of fresh topics relevant to the impact of identity on the Church of God, Abbie Craig, Kyle Hayes, and Justin Brown discussed multiple matters related to reaching those outside the church.
Abbie Craig insisted that, “People walk away from the church because they think that Scripture isn’t strong enough to withstand the weight of their questions.”
Kyle Hayes emphasized the love of the church in the role of fulfilling the mission of the church. Noting the need to “create space at the table,” he also said, “We must connect Scripture to the lives we’re living. We need to de-mystify Scripture so people see themselves in the story.”
Justin Brown looked back at the history of the Church of God in his insistence that the movement continue teaching holiness alongside its embrace of those not yet at the table. “There’s a tension between making space for people and being set apart from the world.”
This tension is made all the more real when understanding the present state of believers as that of exile. A buzzword in the past, Babylon can still teach the Church of God a thing or two about identity and opportunity to grow together in both holiness and unity. Brian Bennett expounded on several “big ideas” concerning the kingdom of God, the influence of the culture on the church, and the restoration the Lord wants for his people. Drawing application from several Old Testament characters, Brian observed the desire of Babylon to “strip the Israelites of their identity of God’s chosen people,” but God’s desire to restore their God-given identity. The Holy Spirit moved in notable ways among the hearts of those in attendance Wednesday afternoon, creating memorable moments of fervent prayer and freeing small-group conversations noted for their transparency and authenticity.
After the dinner break, and before the dessert reception hosted by WARM (the Western Area Regional Ministerium), worship led by the team from Destiny Christian Fellowship and teaching presented by Mark Matlock led to several conclusions on the topic of identity. Armed with a toolbox of both startling and encouraging statistics on the present state of Christianity in America, the Barna researcher admonished his audience to recognize the pitfalls associated with distorted understandings of identity. Referring to several passages of Scripture, Mark asserted that “one of the most hopeful things we can do is recover a theology of exile.” Exiles, after all, “find their home in God” and “are prepared for moments of epic trust to reveal God’s glory.” He added, “This is our Mordecai moment!”
Thursday has since dawned, ushering in the closing moments of the 2022 Regional Conference in Fremont, California. Before attendees depart the Bay Area, however, the schedule suggests another great day in store. Elected the 43rd general superintendent for the Church of the Nazarene in June 2017, Carla Sunberg is slated to speak—and an audience of Church of God pastors and leaders is slated to listen eagerly with open ears and hearts.
For more information, and to register for one of the next two Regional Conferences, visit www.chogconvention.org.
Feature (top) photo: Paul Sheppard preaches on Wednesday at the Regional Conference in Fremont, California (photo courtesy Jim Lyon).