By Jeff Finley
Earlier this year, Christianity Today reported on a drop in church attendance among young people. Greenville University alumnus Ryan Burge — a leading scholar and researcher on the modern church — stated last month on his Graphs About Religion website, “Generation Z is the first generation in American history where it appears clear that the share who are non-religious outnumbers the Protestants and the Catholics.”
“In our increasingly polarized world, how can we reach unchurched people while still keeping unity in the denomination and connecting with other parts of the body of Christ?”
How can the Free Methodist Church USA be thankful for our spiritual heritage while making necessary changes today to ensure that we are reaching younger generations and people of different backgrounds, races and ethnicities? In our increasingly polarized world, how can we reach unchurched people while still keeping unity in the denomination and connecting with other parts of the body of Christ?
“What necessary change do we need for the future so that we can be all that God wants us to be?” – Bishop Kenny Martin
“I come with a teachable spirit, and I’m surveying the land, also listening to others in their role what they see,” Martin told Mannoia. “The key word for me is change. What necessary change do we need for the future so that we can be all that God wants us to be? Now I think one of the challenges is going to be multiplication … making disciples and really multiplying.”
While the Free Methodist Church has grown rapidly in other countries, Martin said we need to be honest about decline in the United States.
“I think that we’re losing people,” said Martin, who added that Free Methodists need to be more aggressive about “coming out of our comfort zone” while some members “just like it the way it is, but we’ve been called. We are sent to nations, but it begins in our Jerusalem. Right? And so we have to look at: What is God saying to us here in the United States of America?”
Martin said some bishops’ gifts include systems and structure. In his case, with “the grace and giftings that God has given me and through my experience, I’m more of a visionary leader. I’m more of an apostolic leader — a sent one to be sent for a purpose.”
Time for a Shift
General Conference 2023 included the election of two new members of the Board of Bishops, Martin and Kaye Kolde.
“I believe the Free Methodist Church at General Conference was saying it’s time for a shift. It’s time for change,” Martin said.
While he is new to the Board of Bishops, Martin is well-known in many different areas of the Free Methodist Church USA. He has served as a pastor of FMCUSA congregations in California, Indiana, Maryland, and Missouri.
“I’ve been with the Free Methodist Church for over 30something years, and so I bring to the table this experience of pastoring from coast to coast,” Martin said. “Sometimes we have leaders that have only been in this one region. They only know about that one region. Through my experience of pastoring and leading from coast to coast, and also I would say of being a liaison to previous bishops, I believe that God prepared me for the change that is necessary.”
“… We have to be unified first.” – Bishop Kenny Martin
He would like to see different parts of the church working more closely together.
“We need to grow and learn from each other, and mostly for the body of Christ. I believe that, even as a denomination, we need each other. We need to support one another,” Martin said. “I believe that there’s more of an anointing that comes when the body of Christ works together. … We have to be unified first.”
The new bishop credited God with giving him the gift of being relational.
“Most people know me as Uncle Kenny. My wife is Mama Estelle,” Martin said. “We do that because the other part of this is preparing the next generation of leaders. … I’m very passionate about that, because we have to go back, and we have to take this younger generation with us as we bring this change that is needed in the denomination.”
Learning From and Connecting With Others
Mannoia asked Martin if he thinks the Free Methodist Church has something to learn from other denominations or independent churches.
“There’s no doubt about this. You know this is dear to me,” Martin said. “My story is that I didn’t get saved in a church. I went through Teen Challenge. I got saved in a basement.”
Martin said that his early call to ministry came as God gave him a vision that included a glimpse of the division in the church.
“He said to me very clearly, ‘The body of Christ is divided,’ and I told Him I would go,” Martin said. “I just started weeping for hours, because I knew that this is what God has called me to do.”
“The people who are lost need to see the church as one.” – Bishop Kenny Martin
That call has continued through his decades of ministry.
“The world needs to see that we’re one — one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” said Martin, referring to Ephesians 4. “When we get to heaven, there is not going to be a special seating where the Pentecostals are in the front row and the Methodists — we’re up in the balcony. The people who are lost need to see the church as one.”
In addition to generational and racial divisions, unity may be especially challenging with political polarization and the approaching election season.
“For 2024, we look at the political part of this — that we need to come together right now,” Martin said. “This is urgent in America. My passion is this. You know we got the black church, the white church. You know it is time for us to come together.”
Martin said he is willing to do what it takes to increase unity in the body of Christ.
“We’re better together. We’re stronger together.” – Bishop Kenny Martin
“You’ll see me with different denominations, or I don’t care if the church only has three people in there. I’m not caught up in the crowd,” he said. “I’m caught up in: God, who are You sending me to who are likeminded, who have the same call that it is time for the body of Christ to come together for the world to see? We’re better together. We’re stronger together.”
Unity alone isn’t enough, however. Martin said we need God’s “kingdom agenda. I’m about the kingdom. That’s the bottom line.”
Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.
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