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Path 1 focuses on ‘biggest mission field’: the U.S.

  Providence United Methodist Church, a new church start in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., uses postcards to invite community residents to its worship services, currently held at a local school. A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.

By Linda Green*
Oct. 7, 2008 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

The Rev. Tom Butcher

The United Methodist Church in the United States loses 1,500 members each week, a decline that steadily adds to the country’s designation as “the biggest mission field.”

The denominational decline is contributing to the estimated 195 million “unchurched” people in the country, now considered the third-largest mission field in the English-speaking world and the fifth largest globally, according to the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville.

“Not one county in the United States has a greater church population than it did 10 years ago,” said the Rev. Tom Butcher, coordinator of Path 1, the denomination’s new church growth emphasis for creating faith communities. “The biggest mission field is in the United States.”

The United Methodist Church wants to stop that decrease and reconnect with its past by planting churches that reach more people, younger people and diverse people.

“We want to regain our Methodist DNA of starting a church a day,” Butcher said. That daily church planting has not occurred for 40 to 50 years, he added. “John Wesley was a church planter. He followed the people.”

Unlike Wesley, the founder of Methodism, the church seems to follow money and not people, according to the Rev. Vance Ross of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. “Wesley followed people and the money seemed to come with it,” he said. “How can we get to where people need the church?”

Butcher pointed out that Path 1 “is not about saving the church but about saving lives” and avoids being a one-size-fits-all solution.

Start 650 congregations

By 2012, the denomination wants to equip 1,000 church planters to start 650 new congregations, which would then commit within their first 10 years to beginning new churches, eventually increasing denominational numbers by millions within 30 years. The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries will begin 400 new churches in other countries.

The Rev. Vance Ross

Currently, about 70 to 80 percent of the 34,398 United Methodist churches in the United States are not in the right location when it comes to population groups, statistics suggest. The population has moved to places where United Methodist churches do not exist, Butcher said. “There is an urgent need for new churches,” he added.

In 2005, total United Methodist membership in 500 of the country’s fastest-growing counties shrank by 2,265 people. Across the country, 17.5 percent of people are in worship on Sundays and 82.5 percent are “somewhere else on any given Sunday morning,” he said.

The church’s effort to re-evangelize America focuses on building leaders, investing in people and relationships, going where the “unchurched and dechurched” people are and collaborating with healthy existing churches to create new places for new people, according to Path 1.

Congregational growth is one of the denomination’s four areas of emphasis — the others are leadership development, global health and ministry with people in poverty — designed to help United Methodists commit their energy in ways in which they can live out their faith.

In a few years, the denomination will record a significant number of retiring clergy, and the current number of clergy under 35 years old is less than 5 percent, according to church data.

Nearly 50 percent of the trained church planters for new church starts will be laity. Traditionally, ordained clergy and local pastors start new churches, Butcher noted.

Training church planters

The board’s Office of New Church Starts will work with the Foundation for Evangelism and the National Plan for Hispanic and Latino Ministries to train laity to become church planters.

Bishop Gregory Palmer

“The pool of laity is larger than the pool of ordained elders and local pastors,” Butcher said. “In a lot of our churches, there are people in the pews who could do new church starts. Finding the right leaders are essential, and we have gifted and passionate people in our churches. Wesley did not have ordained people to train; he trained laity.”

He described the ideal United Methodist church planter as a person who has the ability to draw crowds, is courageous, and is a self-starter, good preacher, risk-taker and entrepreneur. The successful planter thinks outside of the box, possesses a winning personality and can build relationships, has been successful in starting new things, and is committed to Christ and solid in Wesleyan theology.

The plan also will need individuals who have success in creating ministries but do not enjoy membership on boards or committees, who are from other faith traditions that have similar theology, or are young people already exhibiting potential for ministry. 

The Office of New Church Starts is working with annual conferences and the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry on the steps lay people would need to become “certified lay pastors” to be able to serve the sacraments and perform weddings and funerals.

The emerging church movement, which strives to make church relevant, authentic and connected to daily life, could generate new church starts and draw younger generations, Butcher said.

Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops and leader of the denomination’s Illinois Area, considers Path 1 “a gift to the church.” The plan gives significant focus to the disciple-making mission of the church, he said, and research suggests that one of the ways to engage people is to make new congregations and faith communities. “Path 1 helps put the focus on the focus,” he added.

Racial/ethnic communities

The U.S. church currently begins 90 new churches annually, some successful and some not. The plan is consulting with the denomination’s racial/ethnic caucuses on the best practices in order to raise the bar for successful church planting for those populations. Half of the new places for new people will focus on racial ethnic and multicultural communities.

“We have to expect that not every new church start is going to succeed,” said the Rev. Junius Dotson, chairperson of the new church starts committee for the Board of Discipleship.

Detractors have lamented the denomination’s beginning 650 new churches while it closes churches and others remain more than half-filled in worship. “We are concerned about every church, but churches have a life cycle,” Butcher said, explaining that resources have to be re-allocated for new church starts. “Revitalization alone is not going to make us a stronger denomination or save our churches, but starting new ones will.”

Responding to the fears that Path 1 would hurt existing churches, Butcher said the plan does not aim to start new churches at the expense of existing congregations.

For more than a year, the Path 1 team has been building an infrastructure for the $8.5 million General Conference-approved program. While most of its $5 million budget is within the Board of Discipleship, the ministry is in collaboration with the Council of Bishops, congregational developers and other church agencies and caucuses.

The ministry will raise $2.5 million for staff development and operating expenses. The Board of Discipleship will also contribute up to $1 million in staffing and new ministry funds. Church agencies are donating time and resources around best practices and strategies for new church development.

None of the allocated money is for the new churches themselves but for locating and training church planters and developing best practices in a variety of contexts. The hope is to raise funds and realign existing resources to enable annual conferences to plant the new churches, Butcher said.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, e-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

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