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Native American plan to focus on new church starts


A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*

Oct. 4, 2007

Promoting evangelism, assisting in new church starts and revitalizing existing congregations are the plans of the task force charged with encouraging Native American participation in the life of The United Methodist Church.

The evangelistic focus for the Native American Comprehensive Plan parallels the denomination's aggressive vision of "Path One," the newly organized strategy team on new congregational development under the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

The Rev. Anita Phillips 

Meeting Sept. 27 in Reno, Nev., the task force visualized ways over the next four years to be part of the renewed emphasis on church growth in The United Methodist Church. The plan also seeks new ways to address poverty in Native America and provide native resources for the church and world.

In the United States, there are more than 100 United Methodist Native American churches, ministries and organizations, and an estimated 18,000 Native Americans among the denomination's 8 million U.S. members. The plan seeks to work with at least two annual (regional) conferences a year to begin new Native American churches or faith communities. The plan also seeks to help revitalize urban, rural and reservation churches.

"Our ultimate goal is to increase the number of faith communities and congregations across the United States and make new Native American disciples of Jesus Christ," according to the Rev. Anita Phillips, the plan's executive director.

Aligning with Path One

Phillips calls Path One an exciting venture because the denomination "is no longer hiding from the reality of declining numbers, but rather we are claiming a future and an identity in Jesus Christ." Path One, she said, "approaches the decline in the U.S. church by believing that Creator God has great work for the U.S church to accomplish in building the kingdom."

Since 1964, the denomination has experienced a 27 percent U.S. membership decline despite a 54 percent population explosion. The Path One team, organized earlier this year, seeks to help the church start 650 new United Methodist congregations by 2012. The new emphasis on church growth aims to return the denomination to its evangelistic heritage of starting a new congregation every day. 

The Native American Comprehensive Plan and its 19-member task force were created under a mandate by the 1992 General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, to help United Methodists view Native Americans as partners in ministry rather than as a mission of the church. It seeks to make disciples for Jesus Christ within the Native American community while recognizing the unique cultures and languages of native people.

Specifically, the plan's mandate is to develop and strengthen native congregations, ministries and fellowships; train and develop native leaders; and encourage their contributions to the life of the church. Key to each area are contributions that Native American cultures and spiritual expression bring to the mission of the whole church.

The Rev. David Wilson 

The focus on new church starts and revitalization of Native American congregations is the genesis behind the plan's request to the 2008 General Conference to move from the umbrella of the church's Board of Global Ministries to its Board of Discipleship, according to the Rev. David Wilson, chairman of the plan.

"We are shifting from being a mission to reminding the church of what we contribute to its life and our wanting to be a resource for the denomination. We are more than a mission. We are viable and have contributions to make to the church," Wilson said.

Studying evangelism

Beginning next Feb. 14-15 in Fort Worth, Texas, the plan begins a series of one-day "listening posts" among clergy and laity in regions where native churches and communities exist. Native Americans are invited to share information and testimony on presenting the Gospel within Native America.

"We will be trying to get feedback from local churches on how we can better talk about evangelism and new church starts," Wilson said.

Native American ministries exist throughout the United States. The Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizes 561 tribal governments in the country, and the 2003 U.S. census estimates there are more than 2.7 million Native Americans.

The plan wants to hear particularly from native people who have separated themselves from the Christian church but participate in traditional religions. "We want them to come speak to us about what might it take for you to consider taking part in some of our activities," said Phillips. "We are hoping to learn how to set the Gospel in the context of Native America in the 21st century."

The regional meetings will set the tone for a proposed Native American School of Evangelism to be held within the next four years. Phillips said the school and other proposed endeavors are the plan's way of helping the church become more aware about native identity and native Christian identity.

A writers gathering, to be held Oct. 26-28 in Tulsa, Okla., aims to nurture and encourage Native Americans "experiencing a call to write" to produce work that contributes both to the native community and the entire church. "This is an important part of the work and future of the church," Phillips said.

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

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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