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Path 1 focuses on ‘biggest mission field’: the U.S.
Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2009 Archives > March-April 2009 > On the path to reach new people

The Rev. Olu Brown pastors Impact Church, a new United Methodist congregation in the West End section of Atlanta. A grassroots campaign was key to launching the church in 2007 with an average attendance of 550 that year and 921 in 2008.
On the path to
reach new people

By John Michael De Marco

The United Methodist Church's vision for its annual conferences to plant 650 new congregations is Wesleyan at its very core, with the laity playing an essential leadership role.

The heart of John Wesley's 18th century movement was the calling, equipping and sending of the laity, who through small groups and emerging congregations spread Methodism like wildfire across England and, later, America. Today, however, historic neighborhoods in the United States housing venerable United Methodist congregations have shifted in demographics and culture. Many of these churches face declining numbers and struggle to offer ministry relevant to their neighborhoods.

"The need for starting new churches is critical," asserts the Rev. Olu Brown, pastor of IMPACT! United Methodist Church, a two-year-old urban congregation in Atlanta that draws 1,000 worshippers each week. "Statistics are showing us that we need healthy existing churches plus new churches in order for the denomination to progress and to grow," he says. On the local level, he continues, "New churches are unique because they position themselves fairly quickly to be able to address certain particular needs, such as a mission project or a new worship style or a target community."

Two years ago each annual conference in the United States, when surveyed about their new church starts, listed "lack of qualified leadership" as one of the biggest challenges they were facing especially Hispanic/Latino and African-American leaders. The need is most apparent in the Western Jurisdiction, which has the fewest United Methodist congregations per population and is projected to have the largest population growth for the next 25 years. Thirty-nine new congregations need to be planted each year just to keep up with the population growth there, says the Rev. Tom Butcher of the General Board of Discipleship  in Nashville, Tenn.

The Rev. Tom Butcher

"It's not a question of if we do it. We must do it," says Bishop Grant Hagiya of the Seattle Area.

Hagiya has challenged the Pacific Northwest Conference  to begin 20 congregations in five years, Butcher reports. Five were begun in the past 20 years.

Providing "New Places for New People" is one of four key areas of focus for the denomination adopted by the 2008 General Conference. Path 1, supported by a team of leaders from throughout the United Methodist connection, is a major initiative to carry out this focus area.

The name "Path 1" grew out of the first of seven "Vision Pathways" for the future of the denomination identified by the Council of Bishops. It also was inspired by the story of John the Baptist. Path 1 leaders have embraced the bold goal of supporting annual conferences in the United States to equip 1,000 clergy and laity to plant 650 new congregations by the end of 2012.

Research confirms "that starting new churches is the most effective form of evangelism," says Butcher, executive officer for new church starts and Path 1 coordinator at the Board of Discipleship. "As Methodists, from 1870 until about 1920, we averaged one new church start a day for 50 years," he says. "That's hard to believe. That made us the strongest denomination in the country."

The Path 1 team guiding the initiative is composed of three bishops and representatives from three other general agencies, the Connectional Table, the five jurisdictions, the five racial/ethnic plans and church planters, such as Brown. It is leveraging ideas from the Northern Illinois Conference's Hispanic/Latino Academy and other best practices to train new leaders among the laity to form the Lay Missionary Network. "Networks" are to be located in the fastest growing U.S. population corridors, which, according to Path 1, are also multicultural and urban.

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry  is one of three agencies collaborating with the Board of Discipleship in the Path 1 initiative.

The Rev. Mary Ann Moman

The Rev. Mary Ann Moman, associate general secretary with the division of ordained ministry, will "help in the conversation related to training of persons to lead these congregations, helping to establish the connections between the seminaries and the Path 1 work.

"In order for this to take shape," she says, "the whole church has to see this as a priority, and be able to make the kind of changes in our work to look at the ways that new people can be invited into the denomination. That probably means in new places. And to see that as a good thing as opposed to being a threat to churches that already exist. I think that's hard work for us."

Moman adds that new congregations will need to address issues of poverty and disease, as well as leadership.

The General Board of Global Ministries  is:

- providing demographic and statistical analysis;

- supplying missionaries for another 400 new church starts around the globe;

- offering its experiences from planting in urban and multicultural contexts overseas; and

- being part of the School for Congregational Development team.

United Methodist Communications will continue to reach out to the unchurched and seekers. The new "Rethink Church" campaign will incorporate national advertising, a marketing strategy, matching grants and welcoming training for congregations. It also provides an "Introduction to the UMC" DVD/CD.

What does the emphasis on launching new congregations mean for existing churches and their clergy and laity?

"Obviously, both the general church as well as the conferences care about existing congregations," says the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, general secretary of the Board of Discipleship.

Prospective lay ministers participate in the Hispanic/Latino Academy in the Northern Illinois Conference. Photo by Martin Lee
"The whole purpose of starting new churches is never to say that existing churches don't matter. I believe that every congregation can be excellent, vital and effective in its mission and ministry," Greenwaldt continues "It is possible that every church can be growing in faith, growing in numbers and living its life out in the world as faithful people."

Adds Christie Latona, Path 1 facilitator, "We need healthy existing congregations to anchor new ones and to call forth leaders who can reach new people."

To allow for maximum creativity and movement of the Holy Spirit, Path 1 defines new congregations by key characteristics. The leaders declare, "We believe a new congregation is more than a mission project, new worship service or new building. For us, it is a newly organized faith community that is committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ and:

- includes regular community worship,

- is theologically Wesleyan,

- has an effective discipling system,

- receives new members,

- demonstrates faithful stewardship,

- is deeply involved in community outreach, and

- is willing to plant a new congregation in its first decade."

Such new congregations already have sprung to life. Their locations are scattered and include Ohio, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama, Texas and Georgia but also New York, Arizona, Virginia, Delaware, Kentucky and Hawaii. They range from "alternative" congregations in coffeehouses, to those "anchored" by an established church that provides a building and some resources, to those started by laity and others to serve a particular racial or ethnic population. The traditional "parachute" approach, where a new church is started with some resources from the conference or district, is also still used. There is no "one size fits all" answer, say Path 1 leaders.

The Rev. Cheri Holdridge of Toledo, Ohio, is preparing to launch Village Church, an "alternative" congregation.

"I like the image of it takes a village to raise a child,' and in a village people take care of each other," she says. "It sort of takes me back to the first century, when it was pretty simple. They ate together, they studied the Word together, they took care of people who were in trouble. Some of our churches have gotten so heavy-laden with committees and structures and systems that we can't respond very quickly and very authentically to the basic needs that people have."

Path 1 understands that the annual conference church planting process flows along a four-part framework:

1. Find the best leaders using recruitment tools and sound discernment.

2. Equip the leaders to be fruitful.

3. Plant faithfully, responding to the needs of the people and the context of the setting.

4. Support and encourage the new congregations to multiply for growth, specifically to start a new congregation within 10 years.

Developing a Lay Ministry Network will be an essential part of equipping the needed number of church planters.

"Wesley used a lot of laity, of course," Butcher says. "We believe that if we're going to train 1,000 planters to start churches, we don't have the ordained clergy (who are) 40 years and younger. The general rule is you can attract people 10 years older and younger than you are. We don't have enough of those, and I've always believed that laity are going to play a crucial role in starting new churches."

The Rev. Martin Lee, director of congregational development and redevelopment in the Northern Illinois Conference, agrees. "We have to use wholly gifted people like tentmakers," he says. "We cannot depend on ordained clergy only. That day is gone."

Path 1 is using the Hispanic/Latino Academy developed in Northern Illinois by Lee and the Rev. Joaquin Garcia, then on the staff of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, as a model for equipping people who will form the Lay Ministry Network.

The academy started in 2005 after a call from Lee and Garcia to all Mexican United Methodists in the greater Chicago area led to 58 people enrolling in a two-year equipping process. In June the conference will start 31 new faith communities Anglo, Korean and Hispanic led by graduates. "We have raised leaders locally and empowered them," Lee says.

The Path 1-sponsored Academy will involve students in a core curriculum of practical Wesleyan theology, United Methodist polity, spiritual formation, evangelism and field trips. Some graduates will be designated as Lay Ministers, according to The Book of Discipline, and assigned to start new congregations.

"Local people shall arise again for this kingdom movement that was my belief," Lee recalls.

As it supports efforts across the denomination to develop new congregations, Latona says, "Path 1 is both a team of individuals and a pathway for all those who have a desire to reach more people, more young people and more diverse people through new church starts."

It is "for those who understand that church is not a building, it's people," she emphasizes.

--The Rev. John Michael De Marco, freelance writer, Franklin, Tenn.


Ten fastest growing areas in the U.S.

Each cluster of shapes represents a growth corridor. The numbers represent the number of New Faith Communities needed each year in these 10 fastest growing areas alone. Estimates are based on the assumption that we would need 1 church per 25,000 in population.

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