|United Methodists: “And Are We Yet Alive?”|
By Elliott Wright
San Diego, CA, August 7, 2006--The possibilities for faith growth and church expansion within ethnic minority communities in the United States were prominent themes at the 2006 United Methodist School of Congregational Development.
At the same time, ethnic minority church leaders were major speakers not only on church growth in their own communities but also in the denomination as a whole in the US. The United Methodist Church has slowly lost members in the US over the last three decades, dropping below 8 million in 2005.
The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee, a Korean-American pastor of a multicultural congregation, brought the 630 school participants to their feet in strong affirmation of his retelling what it means to be “church,” “Methodist,” and “united.”
“And are we yet alive?” he asked as--in the middle of his speech--he led the school in singing the great Charles Wesley hymn of that name as a question to The United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Dr. Michael Rivas, a Cuban-American and retired mission executive, laid out conditions he said The United Methodist Church must meet if it will appeal to the largest ethnic minority community in the US.
Hispanics and Latinos in the US will be attracted to United Methodism only if the church is deeply spiritual, takes a holistic approach to life, and works in collaboration with the culture and expectations of the new comers.
“Hispanics and Latinos expect something important to happen at church,” he declared.
The Rev. Rudy Rasmus, who is African American, shared his experience as pastor of a large Houston congregation made up primarily of street people and the poor.
Speaking on the topic of leadership for growth development Rev. Rasmus warned against letting the institutional framework get in the way of evangelism and services to people.
Four ethnic congregations were included among the eight “teaching churches” visited by school participants for Sunday worship, fellowship, and learning sessions on July 6. A congregation can “teach” on the basis of what it has done right in mission and Christian disciple-making or from what it has learned from its mistakes.
Dr. Lee, who is pastor of Holliston Church, United Methodist in Pasadena, CA, put the issue of church growth square in a mission context defined in terms of the Wesleyan emphasis on biblical holiness—personal and social. “John Wesley,” he said, “lived what he believed” and that is what United Methodists today must do if their church is to grow again.
Holliston Church is a union of the older, originally white Holliston Church, which was losing members but had a large, underutilized building, and the newer Glendale Korean United Methodist Church, which was growing but lacked a suitable building. Today it is a single congregation with English and Korean language ministries.
Lee came to the US at age 15 when in 1972 his father, the Rev. Chai Eun Lee, became the first missionary of the Korean Methodist Church to the United States. Based in New York City, the elder Lee laid much of the foundation for the growth of Methodism among Korean Americans, who 40 years ago were just beginning to increase in numbers.
The Rev. Chain Eun Lee, who was for years a pastor and Christian broadcaster in Korea, was present in San Diego as his son electrified the School of Congregational Development with his witness to the power of the Gospel to transform lives and enliven the church.
Dr. Michael Rivas retired last year after spending 30 years as a staff member of the General Board of Global Ministries. He is now a consultant to the Church’s National Plan for Hispanic and Latino Ministry and closely follows trends in both the growing Hispanic community and in the church.
He reminded the School of Congregational Development that Hispanics are now the largest ethnic minority group in the US, totaling 42.7 million in the official 2005 count, which was a growth of 3.3 per cent over the previous year. He also noted that the Hispanic and Latino population is younger than the population as a whole. The highest Hispanic birthrates today are in the state of Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Rivas challenged the school and the denomination with a text from Acts 2:47 describing the first Christian congregation: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
He said this could become the case with US United Methodism and the Hispanic population if the church can come to terms with the strong spiritual component of Hispanic culture, embrace a holistic view of how the various aspects of life come together in the church experience, and become better equipped to guide and assist church growth.
Too often, Rivas said, United Methodists are slipshod in starting Hispanic congregations, providing buildings costly to maintain and setting unrealistic goals about when a new congregation should become self supporting. He said there is too little accountability or careless supervision. “The new churches are set up for failure,” he said, calling this a subtle form of “institutional racism.”
Rivas also said that United Methodists should not expect to compete numerically with Roman Catholics and Protestant Pentecostals in appealing to Hispanics and Latinos. Yet, he added, United Methodist Hispanics can themselves influence those larger groups “by our faith and our appreciation of science and enlightenment.”
The 2006 School of Congregational Development was held in San Diego, CA, on August 3-8. The school is an annual event sponsored jointly by the General Board of Global Ministries and the General Board of Discipleship. The California Pacific Annual Conference was host this year.
*Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Aug 07, 2006