Church planting is United Methodist tradition
United Methodists inherited a church-planting ethic from founder John Wesley. From the early days of his ministry, he took the gospel to people likely to be uncomfortable – or even unwelcome – in existing congregations throughout England. At the same time, Wesley urged those joining the Methodist movement to become part of bands and classes – small groups where members nurtured and held one another accountable for their discipleship.
Whether it is to carry out the Great Commission found in the last verses of Matthew's Gospel or to carry on their Wesleyan heritage, starting new congregations remains important work for United Methodists. In fact, "New Places for New People" was one of the denomination's Four Areas of Focus adopted by General Conference in 2008 and reaffirmed in 2012.
Leading the work of developing new congregations and revitalizing existing ones in the United States is the New Church Starts area of Discipleship Ministries. Mission Initiatives, a program of the General Board of Global Ministries, works in countries where United Methodism is relatively unknown.
A team drawn from United Methodist general agencies, annual conferences and local congregations leads the Path 1 initiative – a part of New Church Starts. Its mission is to train and equip new church planters to start new congregations. The immediate objective is to train and equip 1,000 church planters who will start 650 churches within four years, forming 9 million new disciples of Christ within 30 years.
New places for new people
"One of the most effective ways we have for reaching new people is starting new churches," said the Rev. Candace Lewis, associate general secretary for New Church Starts/Path 1 at Discipleship Ministries.
New Church Starts collaborates with annual conferences through training, consulting, resourcing and coaching. A New Church Starts staff member, deployed to each jurisdiction in the United States, works with conference developers and on the district level with church planters.
Of 684 new churches started in the United States during the 2009-12 quadrennium, 8.6 percent (59) have closed. This is much lower than the 26 percent of new congregations that closed during the 2005-08 quadrennium.
Path 1 set an ambitious goal to plant 1,000 new churches during the current quadrennium. By Dec. 31, 2013, 261 had started.
"It's a goal designed really to motivate us to see the opportunity and keep moving toward it," Lewis said. "Even though the numbers are trending similarly, we haven't had the big spike that we want to see. But we believe that we can continue to work at building a system that's going to help be a catalyst to doing more work."
Training is vital
Equipping the church planters is crucial to their success, emphasized the Rev. Douglas W. Ruffle, associate executive director of New Church Starts. Path 1 sponsors and offers regional training events for annual conferences. Among them are New Church Leadership Institutes, Basic Training (sometimes called "Boot Camp"), Launchpad (teams come together to plan the "launch" of their new church) and the Lay Missionary Planting Network (training laity in church planting).
Ruffle estimates that 2,400 potential church planters have been equipped since the beginning of the quadrennium.
Part of the strategy is an initiative called "High Impact Church Planting Residency."
This program is for entrepreneurial and future-focused leaders younger than age 35 who want to share the gospel in relevant and new ways, explained the Rev. MaryJane Pierce Norton, interim general secretary of Discipleship Ministries.
Training people to become church planters is a major part of the strategy. These (often) young, seminary-trained church planters will be "residents" on the staff of an existing church for a few years, learning to "do church," with an emphasis on making disciples.
"We are in our third year of partnering with annual conferences for placing high potential church planters in highly effective (High Impact) churches where they learn at the feet of wise clergy and laity before planting a new church," Ruffle said. "Eighteen people (both lay and clergy) have graduated from the program. Currently we have an additional 12 people engaged in the program.
"We partner with annual conferences to identify churches that can start new campuses or give birth to new independent churches," Ruffle said. It is important to emphasize a host church does not have to have a large membership, Norton and Ruffle said.
Ruffle cited several placements with Path 1 resident trainees.
The Rev. Tyler Sit, a recent seminary graduate from the Minnesota Conference, served as a resident at Urban Village United Methodist Church in Chicago. He is starting a new church in Minneapolis.
The Rev. Zack Dunlap, from the Detroit Conference, is learning at Fairview Heights United Methodist Church in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference. He expects to be appointed to start a new church in the Detroit Conference.
The Rev. Jacob Cloud was a resident at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and is now planting a new church in Lawrence, Kansas, that targets young adults and college students.
After serving as a resident at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Houston, the Rev. Eric Huffman launched The Story. It has brought more than 400 new people into the life of the church.
The Rev. Erica Allen served as a resident at Providence United Methodist Church in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, prior to planting the new East Bank Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
"Most of the graduates go on to plant new churches," Ruffle said. "The idea is that they take with them the intentional learning experience of the residency year and apply it to their new church plant."
In addition, The Lay Missionary Planting Network focuses on planting Hispanic/Latino and other racial-ethnic congregations.
"Discipleship Ministries has helped lay people plant new congregations and work with clergy to start new congregations by serving on launch teams," Norton said.
New work in new places
While New Church Starts is somewhat recent, for three decades, Mission Initiatives of the General Board of Global Ministries have introduced United Methodism in places around the world where few people have heard of it. Through evangelism, church development and social service, the Christian faith spreads through local and regional mission.
During a recent visit to Kyrgyzstan, George Howard, deputy general secretary for mission and evangelism at Global Ministries, met leaders who took him to see modern-day class meetings in the Wesleyan model.
"Leaders of the Central Asia Mission Initiative, including the mission superintendent, a bi-vocational pastor who is also a teacher and physician and two Global Ministries missionaries serving in Kazakhstan, exposed me to what God is doing in a powerful way," he said.
The group arrived at the home of a family who had recently bought a house and invited a woman and her baby who were homeless to live with them.
"Our arrival provided an opportunity for the families, whom the pastor had been meeting with individually, to come together for the first time in the couple's home. Twenty people gathered around the table to share cups of tea, songs and testimonies, and a new house church was birthed.
"One bi-vocational pastor in Kyrgyzstan has a network of relationships in secular circles and practices the gift of hospitality with all, despite the daily challenges. The members of the church are fully motivated to offer what they have in a sacrificial way for the church. It has inspired them to commit their lives to ministry."
"The pastor knows the next two towns where he will establish additional house churches," Howard said. "The future of The United Methodist Church in Central Asia is bright with its multiplication model that resembles Methodist movements in England and the U.S. from days gone by."
Over the past three decades, Global Ministries has engaged in new or renewed mission initiatives in 14 countries: Central African Republic, Cambodia, Cameroon, Honduras, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Senegal, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
Some initiatives have matured to be full participants in the United Methodist connection. Annual conferences have been established in Russia and other parts of Eurasia. The 2016 General Conference will consider a proposal to make Malawi a provisional annual conference. Lithuania and Latvia are districts of the Estonia Conference. Possibilities for work in even more countries are being researched.
Through the Mission Initiatives, 574 new faith communities planted from 2009-12 exceeded the goal of 400. The 2013-16 goal is 600 with 215 started by Dec. 31, 2014. The movements are taking increasing responsibility for their leadership and governance. Vietnam has 14 local elders; Cambodia has transitioned to an all-indigenous cabinet of superintendents. Several initiatives have relationships with boards of ordained ministries in existing annual conferences so that clergy can be ordained locally. Missionaries fill essential roles, primarily as trainers, facilitators and specialists.
The Missions Initiative area recently asked individuals from several initiatives to share the values and principles most conducive to effective mission. They identified:
Prayer supports strategy, vision and development.
Empowered laity are essential in planting new small groups/faith communities and growing the movement.
Local assets and labor in church projects increase capacity to give to the new community and builds a sense of ownership and stability.
Self-sufficiency builds confidence, while ongoing reliance on outside support weakens the movement.
International partners add value through listening, training and strategic financial support.
The United Methodist connection provides a sense of belonging, increases access to training and helps with the credentialing of clergy.
A portion of the information in this article was compiled from the Global Ministries website, umcmission.org.
Polly House is a freelance writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee.
New Places, New People
In 2017-20, form 1 million new disciples who profess their faith in Jesus Christ through new and revitalized churches