Connecting the Church in God's Mission
by John Edward Nuessle
"Global mission personnel plant whole fields of local churches."
Do you know how the Internet, or the World Wide Web, actually works? I'm sure someone reading this knows, but for me it's a complicated feat of technical engineering. It takes knowledge and expertise to understand how this marvel of our times actually enables us to communicate around the globe--how it gives us instant access to so much information and provides close connections with so many people. It's a wonderful thing! But I have no idea how this contemporary communications infrastructure really works. I know it's great when it does work. I also know that, when the "Internet is down," my life is adversely affected.
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...." (Matthew 28:19) is the biblical call to create a church infrastructure similar to the World Wide Web--a Worldwide Church Web. Such a web can connect Christians in established places with new Christians in places previously unreached. This mission for The United Methodist Church is clearly stated in The Book of Discipline (par. 120): "To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." And from the Holy Scriptures, Christians hear the clarion call telling us where to engage in this Great Commission: "among all nations." This is a connectional task I understand. It is the task of calling individuals to faith in Jesus Christ in a life dedicated to God. This task is accomplished by creating a connected infrastructure in all nations (that is, among all groups of people) around the world.
Disciple-making occurs when the church moves into a whole culture, society, or nation and seeks to plant and grow the church from within that context. In United Methodism, emerging churches are not just scattered, independent gatherings of new Christians. They are regional and national church connections within the United Methodist tradition of conferencing.
A Connected Church
Churches are like most food crops. A farmer doesn't plant just one stalk of corn but a whole field of corn. The crop grows better because of the way the plants interact with one another. Likewise, missionaries do not plant just one church congregation. They organize the mission to plant congregations everywhere--all across a nation, among the indigenous peoples of that land.
Through the General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist mission churches are formed from the very beginning to grow into annual conferences. Global mission personnel plant whole fields of local churches, whose members seek to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of their communities.
To connect the church in mission is to follow a biblical model of church planting. Connecting the Church in Mission is also the theological and programmatic purpose of the General Board of Global Ministries. Through Global Ministries' Mission Initiatives program, new national churches are being planted for new Christians in 17 nations around the world. By planting these churches, United Methodists are living out the biblical and disciplinary mandate to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). We carry out this mission by linking Christian communities together through a connectional system, as explained in John 15 and I Corinthians 12.
Thus far, during the 2009 to 2012 Quadrennium, more than 300 new churches and faith communities have been planted outside the United States. They have been built on the foundation of nearly 400 such churches founded in previous years. This suggests that the original quadrennial goal of 400 new churches might well be surpassed by the end of 2012. The intention of the Mission Initiatives program of Global Ministries is that most of these new mission areas will be formed into United Methodist annual and central conferences. Or, some may choose to develop as autonomous Methodist communions.
This work in frontier evangelism has inspired a passionate response from local churches, districts, and annual conferences in the United States and Europe. United Methodists in the connection respond in many ways: through work as mission volunteers, through prayerful and financial support for missionaries, and through support for a variety of projects that reach the physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs of new Christians in frontier areas. The call of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)--which is based on the Great Mandate (Micah 6: 6-8) and guided by the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34)--has led many to give generously toward the establishment of new churches and outreach ministries across a growing United Methodist connection. Members of a vital network of US and European United Methodist entities have formed partnerships with mission initiatives through the "In Mission Together" program. To strengthen such partnerships, a team of coordinators related to The Advance organizes annual consultations and training events. Both mission initiative members and their supporters participate in these events, working toward mutually sustainable approaches.
The biblical mandate and the United Methodist understanding of it are clear. The United Methodist Church is to expand into all the world to make disciples of all nations so that the world can be transformed. Thus it is anticipated that, through the Mission Initiatives program, Global Ministries will continue to seek out new places and new people. As a result, under the direction and mandate of The Book of Discipline, annual conferences will continue to be established well into the future. New areas for development are currently being considered in five countries on the continent of Africa, and efforts to assist newly developing indigenous churches in the Americas are ongoing.
Many biblical principles of church growth and development guide the Mission Initiatives program in forming new annual conferences. First, mission initiatives make disciples not just in scattered places but in many nations, among many sociological groups. From John 15:1-11, we understand that, without the vine and its branches, there is no fruit. An individual branch does not have the capacity to draw up its own resources for nourishment. Instead, there must be a connection to the whole. Similarly, congregations grow by being structurally connected to the whole church. In this way, the church is able to plant local congregations that grow and expand to form other local churches. All of these churches are connected to an annual conference in the same way that a branch is connected to the vine that nourishes it.
Just as St. Paul proclaims in I Corinthians 12 that all parts of the body are significant in the working of the whole, we know that each place of worship, as well as each worshiper, has gifts for the whole church and adds to its growth. The whole church in a nation or in an annual conference enables the disciple-making growth of each worshiping fellowship.
New church planting is mostly a matter of leadership development. In Ephesians 4:10-12, Paul states that the work of the whole church lies in equipping the indigenous church leaders (that is, the saints) for ministry; then they, in turn, will build up the whole body of Christ. A United Methodist annual conference is the agency through which all the leaders of an area are offered opportunities for development and growth in their discipleship.
Global Ministries' Role
For The United Methodist Church, creating a new church in a new field of mission requires a connectional structure through which biblical principles can be lived out. Based on more than two centuries of experience in planting congregations, The United Methodist Church has found the best structure to be the annual conference. As a result, the Discipline sets forth a process for the growth of a new church--from its birth as a new vision of the gospel in the United Methodist tradition to its emergence as a full annual conference.
This work begins as Global Ministries discerns new places to develop new faith communities around the world. In this discernment process, the directors and staff of Global Ministries work with interested individuals from each area being considered and from neighboring nations. Throughout the process, the current realities of our world must be taken into account. We see the significant growth of Christianity in the global South, and we observe that women form the majority in these new and growing churches. At the same time, financial and organizational resources are still concentrated in the European and North American churches. By forming partnerships in which we celebrate resources and move some to places where they are greatly needed, the whole church is enabled to grow and expand.
As this positive process of sharing moves forward, a new area is named as a Mission Initiative of Global Ministries. Then--with resources and support from Global Ministries' staff, advice from neighboring church leaders, guidance from missionaries, and input from partnering churches and annual conferences outside the area--the new church is ready to become an official mission of The United Methodist Church, as specified by The Book of Discipline.
An official mission begins as a church structure organized and managed by Global Ministries, with a bishop assigned by the Council of Bishops to give oversight to the work. The status of being an official mission allows for the training and approval of mission pastors.
First, the work of the mission grows in the calling, training, and certification of mission pastors and in the planting of worshiping fellowships of new Christians. The next step is for the mission to become a provisional annual conference. Such a church body can be directly related to the General Board of Global Ministries for administrative oversight. If the mission is located outside the boundaries of an existing central conference, episcopal oversight by the Council of Bishops can continue. The mission can also be directly connected to an existing annual conference. Either way, the new church structure is affirmed and authorized by the General Conference.
When a mission initiative attains the necessary number of clergy, as mandated by The Discipline, it can form an annual conference. To accomplish this, the new church must apply to the United Methodist General Conference, requesting annual conference status. Once approved by members of the General Conference, the new annual conference becomes a basic unit of The United Methodist Church in its geographically defined area of the world. After a new annual conference is authorized, United Methodists on all continents continue to contribute time, talent, treasure, and trust for the support of this newly formed faith community. The global connections made within The United Methodist Church reflect the connectional nature of God's church in the Bible and in all places, for all people.
Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is not only the mission of The United Methodist Church but it also underlies all aspects of our life of faith. It is a call to the whole church through the Mission Initiatives program of the church's General Board of Global Ministries. Through Global Ministries, God's whole church is connected in God's mission throughout God's world. Mission initiatives form a worldwide web of church planting, providing the gospel infrastructure that will guarantee the global growth of United Methodism for many decades to come. Thus, by planning for new annual conferences led by local indigenous leadership, the Mission Initiatives program is creating the infrastructure for a World Wide Web of Christian disciple-making in all nations.
Surely, by God's grace, that will transform the world.
The Rev. Dr. John Edward Nuessle is an associate general secretary for Mission and Evangelism at the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Jan 05, 1990