New church starts up in U.S. and abroad

The United Methodist Church exceeded goals for starting full-fledged churches and other worshipping communities, both in the U.S. and internationally, according to reports from two of the denomination’s agencies.

The General Board of Discipleship said annual conferences started 684 churches in the United States from 2008-2012—34 more than the goal.

“We want to celebrate the work that our planters, developers, superintendents and bishops have done to plant these 684 new churches,” said the Rev. Candace M. Lewis, executive director of New Church Starts, a GBOD division that also goes by the name Path 1.

The General Board of Global Ministries said the UMC started 574 “worshipping communities” in Southeast Asia, Eurasia, Africa and Latin America from 2008-2012. That easily exceeded the goal of 400.

“It’s extremely exciting and powerful to be aware of what God is doing,” said Thomas Kemper, top executive for GBGM.

GBOD said its Path 1 initiative supported church starts in 61 annual conferences through assessments, coaching and providing a variety of resources.

The 684 church starts were spread around the five U.S. jurisdictions, with 232 in the Southeastern, 146 in the South Central, 148 in the North Central, 92 in the Northeastern and 66 in the Western.

From 2004-2007, the UMC had 278 church plants, and a closure rate of 26 percent. The closure rate for 2008-2012 dropped to 8.6 percent, GBOD said in a report.

The church starts embrace a range of strategies, including where an established church plants a new worshipping community, as well as house churches and campus ministries that become congregations.

Ms. Lewis pointed to AfterHours Denver, which meets in bars in that city and stresses mission work by members, as an example of innovation.

Asked how many people the new churches are attracting altogether, Ms. Lewis said her office is trying to arrive at an approximate number.

“We have new churches that average over 1,000 [in worship],” she said. “We still have some that average 50.”

The Rev. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary (and an advisor to Ms. Lewis in her doctoral program), spoke encouragingly of the trend in church starts.

“There’s a lot of ferment, a lot of innovation . . . and that’s good,” he said.

But Dr. Weems, who has spoken of a looming “death tsunami” for the UMC, given its aging and shrinking in the U.S. in recent decades, also offered caution.

“In the end, it’s not how many churches, it’s how many people we’re reaching,” he said.

GBGM reported that the greatest growth of UMC congregations internationally was in Southeast Asia, with Vietnam leading the way with 192 church starts and 79 new “cell groups” from 2009-2012.

Worshipping communities, as defined by GBGM, include churches, congregations, cells, sections, classes, small groups, preaching points and house churches.

Malawi, in Africa, reported 65 new congregations. There, worship communities evolve from class meetings that grew from preaching points across the country, GBGM said.

The work in Malawi resembles the early days of the Methodist movement, according to George Howard, associate general secretary for GBGM.

“In sharing the gospel, in sharing what’s happening in people’s lives, the church has emerged,” he said.

The Honduras Mission Initiative, in Central America, reported seven new churches and 53 small groups, while Eurasia, Central Asia and the Baltics reported 11 new faith communities.

GBGM set up The 400 Fund as part of The Advance, the UMC’s designated-giving program, to support mission initiatives. That allowed a group of lay evangelists to be deployed this January, with the goal of starting six self-sustaining circuits of 10 churches each in the next four years.

Through its In Mission Together program, GBGM also brings together faith communities internationally with U.S. churches, seeking to create long-term partnerships.

“The most successful church starts have been where indigenous leadership took responsibility for their own churches and where partners supported that leadership,” said the Rev. Patrick L. Friday, director of In Mission Together.

An early 1990s mission initiative in Russia has grown to more than 100 UM congregations led by local pastors.

Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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