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The Rev. Jerry Herships (left) is founder of AfterHours Denver. The congregation meets in a bar – and serves sandwiches and offers Communion daily in a park that is home to part of Denver’s homeless population.

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The Rev. Jerry Herships (left) is founder of AfterHours Denver. The congregation meets in a bar – and serves sandwiches and offers Communion daily in a park that is home to part of Denver’s homeless population.

The Rev. Candace Lewis

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The Rev. Candace Lewis

Worshippers at Easter fill revitalized Grace Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta, where attendance has been on a steady rise.

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Worshippers at Easter fill revitalized Grace Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta, where attendance has been on a steady rise.

Congregants from Valley & Mountain, a United Methodist faith community in Seattle, gather for their annual Waffles and White Elephant party during Advent.

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Congregants from Valley & Mountain, a United Methodist faith community in Seattle, gather for their annual Waffles and White Elephant party during Advent.

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New places for new people energize worship, outreach

 

By Tom Gillem
January-February 2015

Starting new places for new people in New Mexico's Hispanic/Latino communities is a personal mission for the Rev. Lourdes Calderon.

In the past year, Calderon, the New Mexico Annual Conference's first Hispanic female pastor, has merged two Anglo churches into a new bilingual, multicultural church in Albuquerque and opened a school to train Spanish-speaking lay ministers to start new faith communities.

"I think right now I am in a very good place to make a difference," said Calderon, the daughter of a second-career United Methodist pastor in the Texas Rio Conference. She hopes to be ordained an elder in June.

Her new, revitalized church, Cornerstone United Methodist, officially started in December 2014 and is the merger of two churches Calderon served. As with many mergers, those churches joined because of dwindling membership and high costs to maintain two facilities.

Calderon is coordinator of Hispanic/Latino ministries for the conference, but she started Escuela de Liderazgo (School of Leadership) on her own. The school, which her conference supports, uses some

plans for congregational development and renewal in 2015

General agencies and other groups receiving apportioned funds have submitted the following plans for creating New Places for New People during 2015.

Discipleship Ministries (General Board of Discipleship)

  • Have at least 10 new participants in the Large Impact Church Planting Residency Program.
  • Equip 1,600 church planters through training events in partnership with the annual conferences.
  • Add staff to resource Asian-American church planting in the United States.
  • Develop five new publishing teams in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Philippines.
  • Encourage use of The God We Can Know study to support vital congregations.

General Board of Global Ministries

  • Develop 600 new faith communities during the quadrennium through Mission Initiatives.
  • Move toward self-sufficiency in the Mission Initiatives.

General Board of Church and Society

  • Integrate faith-rooted organizing as a tool for congregational development and community transformation.
  • Nurture relationships and partnerships with new communities of people directly affected by broken systems such as immigration and mass incarceration.
  • Build strong relationships with churches and societies wherever a United Methodist presence exists.

General Commission on the Status and Role of Women

  • Develop a resource to prepare congregations for their first woman or cross-cultural appointment.

United Methodist Communications

  • Expand Find-A-Church to include information on congregations in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.
  • Continue intense use of social media to reach and engage seekers and to connect members with resources to enhance advertising efforts.
  • Encourage local churches to get involved with their communities.

Native American Comprehensive Plan

  • Produce culturally appropriate books and other written resources through a Native American Writers Gathering for Young Persons.
  • Gather and train clergy and laity from new Native American fellowships, church starts and ministries and Native and non-Native leadership and congregational development staff working toward new Native American churches.
  • Support people in ministry with new Native American faith communities and revitalizing existing churches.

Asian American Language Ministry and Pacific Islander Ministries Plan

  • Cooperate with annual conferences and general agencies to start new faith communities for immigrants needing specific language ministries.
  • Assist with development of language resources and literature.

Korean Ministry Plan

  • Conduct Conflict Transformation Workshop.
  • Train small group ministry leaders at the School for Congregational Development.

 

modules from Path 1's Lay Missionary Planting Network (LMPN). It has received other assistance from Discipleship Ministries (General Board of Discipleship).

The planting network provides a 10-session training program, in English and Spanish, designed to equip lay people to start new communities of faith, said Samuel Rodriguez, director of Hispanic, Latino and multiethnic new church starts at Discipleship Ministries.

"LMPN's primary goal is to start house churches to reach new people – people who aren't attending church," Rodriguez said.

Most who go to Calderon's school are Spanish-speaking laity who attended the Methodist Church in Mexico before arriving in the United States. They learn about United Methodist doctrine and church history, John Wesley and the Book of Discipline. Since the school began a year ago, 24 people have completed the study and most have started house churches to serve others in the Hispanic/Latino community, Calderon said.

Conferences take lead

"I don't want to say I'm producing pastors because that's not true. I'm just producing lay leaders," she said. "Some of them might want to be pastors. Some of them may be lay ministers."

The work of starting churches rests within annual conferences. In all jurisdictions in the United States, conferences are working to create new places for new people, said the Rev. Candace Lewis, associate general secretary for New Church Starts/Path 1 at Discipleship Ministries. The emphasis on developing new congregations and revitalizing existing ones is among the denomination's four areas of focus.

Path 1 collaborates with annual conferences through training, consulting, resourcing and coaching. A Path 1 staff member, deployed to each jurisdiction, works with conference developers and on the district level with church planters.

"One of the most effective ways we have for reaching new people is starting new churches," Lewis said.

Path 1 was organized in 2009. During the 2009-12 quadrennium, Path 1 helped the connection start 684 churches in the United States. In its latest statistical update on Feb. 19, 2013, Path 1 said data from the General Council on Finance and Administration showed 59 of those 684 churches had closed, for a close rate of 8.6 percent. For the years 2004-07, the new-church close rate was 26 percent, or 72 of 278 church starts.

To collect additional information about new church starts, a new database is scheduled to go online next spring. "Right now, we only have information when they started, the racial-ethnic group and the strategy that they are going to utilize," Lewis said. "With the new database, (churches) can report worship attendance, small-group ministry, testimonies or praise reports – what's happening in the church – so we can actually have a sense of what lives are being touched."

Path 1 set an ambitious goal to plant 1,000 new churches during the current quadrennium; 116 started in 2012 and 145 in 2013. "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."

Planting strategies vary

In various settings across the U.S., both clergy and lay planters are establishing new places for worship. Planting strategies include traditional starts by annual conferences, partner church projects, vital mergers and church-within-a-church, as well as house churches and new faith communities in nontraditional locations, such as bars and prisons.

One creative and highly relational faith community in Seattle, called Valley & Mountain, meets on Sunday afternoons for "celebrations" in the Hillman City Collaboratory. The community cofounded and sponsors the social change incubator and community center. Led by the Rev. John Helmiere of the Pacific Northwest Conference, Valley & Mountain is dedicated to building community, advancing social justice and empowering people to develop authentic and deep spiritual lives (Read more on page 25.)

As in New Mexico, other annual conferences are looking at readiness for revitalization and determining which churches are ready to start making changes, said the Rev. Betsey Heavner, director of leadership for congregational renewal at Discipleship Ministries. More and more are adding congregational redevelopment staff and becoming strategic about how they use money and people for renewal.

Congregations arrive at the end of their life cycle for various reasons: population shifts, financial problems or large, aging church buildings in need of expensive maintenance. For many, the urge to hold on to what they have always done, rather than connecting with things God is doing is a major challenge to  their revitalization, Heavner said.

"Sometimes people just have a hard time giving up the old ways of doing things or the old roles that they've had," she said. "People who have been in the church a long, long time have to develop a real openness to put what God wants them to do ahead of what they have always done."

It's all about the people

Heavner said change has been part of churches, from the time of the Reformation and the Methodist roots in the Wesleyan movement. "John Wesley realized that many people were not in the Church of England, so he went out and preached in the fields or met the miners as they were coming out of the coal mines. That whole pattern is who we are," she said.

Church revitalization has more to do with the heart of the people in a congregation than things like worship style, music or the leader's age. "Churches that are revitalized are really connecting with their communities and ... the people who live there by offering the presence of God according to the context and neighborhood where they are," she said.

For example, the Rev. Judy Cramer found a discouraged and struggling community when she arrived two years ago to serve Magnetic Springs United Methodist Church, located in a rural central Ohio village. Population had dwindled to 300 from about 3,000 in Magnetic Springs' heyday a century ago.

Cramer saw children walking the streets, teasing, bullying and fighting each other because they had nothing else to do. As a major part of its revitalization, the church began a place for children and youth to gather with activities and recreation. Soon the children came on Sunday mornings, and the adults followed.

Heavner said she believes The United Methodist Church is at a tipping point. "I think more and more churches are starting to do new things and see new possibilities than say, 10 years ago. I feel hopeful about revitalization in North America in particular," she said.

Tom Gillem is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in Brentwood, Tenn.

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