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United Methodist plan emphasizes new church starts

Organizers break ground in August 2006 for Lighthouse: A United Methodist Faith Community in Ooltewah, Tenn. The United Methodist Church wants to start 650 new congregations by 2012. A UMNS photo by Barry Dilgard.

By Linda Green*
June 22, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)     

Since the most effective evangelism is through new churches, The United Methodist Church wants to start 650 new congregations with 63,000 members by 2012 as part of a new emphasis on church growth in the United States.

The Rev. Karen Greenwaldt

Eventually, the shrinking denomination wants to return to its evangelistic heyday of planting a new U.S. church every day. It also wants to reach untapped frontiers such as western states where the church historically has not followed population growth.

The strategy is all part of the aggressive vision of "Path One," the newly organized strategy team on new congregational development coordinated by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

"We believe it's one of the most needed and time-sensitive national efforts in the denomination's recent history," said the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, top executive of the Board of Discipleship. "This is a new and bold vision of church planting that has been formed out of the work of many partners."

The initiative will be headed by the Rev. Thomas G. Butcher, who on July 1 becomes executive secretary of the newly created office of new congregational development for the United States.

Butcher will work to foster a new wave of United Methodist evangelism by developing and coordinating training for 1,000 new church "planters." He will collaborate with representatives from churchwide boards, agencies, networks and racial and ethnic plans to align resources to help and encourage annual conferences in their common goal of serving people and inviting them to become disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This is also the mission of The United Methodist Church.

A clear priority

"Path One" is named for the first of the "seven vision pathways" for church growth from the Council of Bishops. As part of the strategy, Path One will:

  • Create a national assessment tool for use with church planters;
  • Support new church pastors through regional training, internships, mentoring and Web material;
  • Build a system for orienting and training bishops and district superintendents to support new congregational starts;
  • Create a database and decision-making calculators that allow conference leaders to make effective decisions for church plantings and closures; and
  • Develop modular curriculum for starting congregations that is biblically based and helps congregations prepare for their role in new church starts.

The Path One team comprises members of the Council of Bishops; Connectional Table; the boards of Global Ministries, Communications, Discipleship and Higher Education and Ministry; racial ethnic national plans; the Network for Congregational Developers and congregational church planters.

"Path One is the formalized commitment ... to collaborate in meaningful and faithful ways," Greenwaldt said.

“We believe it's one of the most needed and time-sensitive national efforts in the denomination's recent history.”–The Rev. Karen Greenwaldt

Butcher, who leaves his job as a district superintendent in the Desert Southwest Annual Conference, says the time has come for a new United Methodist approach to evangelism.

Currently in the United States, the denomination averages one church start every 7.6 days, according to statistics from the United Methodist Council on Finance and Administration. That compares with the 50-year period beginning in 1870 when Butcher says Methodists "were at our best" and started one new church a day.

"I think we want to try to get back to that," he said. "It is going to take a couple quadrennia to do that, (but) the goal is to eventually start 350 new churches a year across the country in our denomination."

Initial strategies call for the new "planters pool" to begin approximately 137 new churches a year during 2009-2012. Within the same period, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries will help plant 400 new churches outside the United States.

A new faith community

The Path One team defines a new congregation as a faith community that:

  • Is committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ;
  • Includes regular community worship;
  • Is Wesleyan in theology;
  • Is willing to plant a new congregation in its first decade;
  • Has an effective discipling system;
  • Does community outreach; and
  • Receives new members

"It is important that we plant within the DNA of a new congregation that it needs to start another congregation in 10 years," Butcher said. "It is more than a mission project or a new worship service or the construction of a new building."

The Rev. Thomas G. Butcher

Statistics suggests that while the population has grown, at least 35 percent of people in the United States do not attend church.

"The most effective evangelism we have is starting new churches," Butcher said. "Planting new churches means that we attract new people, younger people and more diverse people. There is a lot of excitement created around a new church start."

Greenwaldt agrees. "The creation of new churches gives us the best opportunity we have to connect with new people," she said.

Regional growth

According to Butcher, the church in the United States has started too few congregations in the last 50 years, particularly in areas of population growth such as the western states.

In the Western Jurisdiction, there is one United Methodist church for every 37,000 people, while there is one for every 6,337 people in the South Central Jurisdiction, one per 5,400 in the Southeast, one per 8,400 in the Northeast, and one for every 7,600 in the North Central Jurisdiction.

"The population has shifted and it has been estimated that about 60 percent of our United Methodist churches are in the wrong locations. And, so trying to get a church to move is very difficult," Butcher said.

“We can no longer rely on people coming to us. That might have been good in the '50s and '60s, but now we have to go where the people are. That is what John Wesley did.”
–The Rev. Thomas G. Butcher

At the same time, as many as 47 percent of people in the western United States "have no faith involvement and do not care about church," he said.

"We have population areas where there is no Methodist presence," he added. "We think that by putting a church in a new population area, they will come. New churches tend to attract new people, younger people and also more diverse people."

Since 1964, The United Methodist Church has experienced a 27 percent membership decline in U.S. membership despite a 54 percent population explosion. The percentage of youth declined from one in seven in 1964 to one in 21 in 2005, and 41 percent of the country's United Methodist churches did not receive a member by profession of faith in 2005.

The Great Commission

Greenwaldt reminds that the ultimate goal of planting new churches is not to stem United Methodist membership loss or decline. "The goal is to reach more people, more younger people and more diverse people for Jesus Christ. We seek to do that by focusing on identifying, training and equipping 1,000 new church planters by 2012."

Gruene (Texas) United Methodist Church holds worship services at nearby Hoffman Elementary School. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Rev. Karen Horan.


Those planters must follow population trends so that United Methodists can go out to where the people are and create churches in a variety of areas and compositions, including multicultural, ethnic and multiethnic congregations, Butcher said.

Population growth by 2030 is projected to be greatest in the South Central and West jurisdictions, at 27 percent, followed by the Southeast Jurisdiction at 26 percent. The North Central and Northeast jurisdictions are projected to grow at 8 percent.

"We can no longer rely on people coming to us," Butcher said. "That might have been good in the '50s and '60s, but now we have to go where the people are. That is what John Wesley did. He followed the people and we have to get back to our roots."

Leadership is an important aspect of Path One, Butcher said, adding that the ability to identify, recruit, assess and train church planters is critical.

This August, at the School of Congregational Development, one of the ministry tracks (entitled "New Church 101: How to Start A New Church") may help pastors discern if they might have the right gifts for the unique ministry of church planting. The Aug. 2-7 event at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., is jointly sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. The mission of the annual event is to help annual conferences and congregations "grow the church" through new congregational starts and the strengthening of existing congregations. 

*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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