The United Methodist Church Embarks on Effort
to Start Hundreds of New Congregations
By Elliott Wright*
Leawood, Kan., August 6, 2007—The United Methodist Church is aiming to move forward to a point in the future where, like a benchmark in its past, it will establish one new congregation every day in the United States.
The immediate goals are the training of 1,000 church “planters” and the organization of 650 new congregations between 2009 and 2012. The plan is called “Path 1,” and takes its name from a list of “seven pathways” set forth by the denomination’s Council of Bishops. Path 1 is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
While announced earlier, Path 1 had its first public roll-out at the 2007 School of Congregational Development, held August 2-7, at the 14,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. More than 600 people from across the US took part in the school.
For decades beginning in the mid-19th century until the late 1960s, the components of what is today The United Methodist Church formed the largest Protestant block in the US. Methodism also exerted major cultural influence with its “free grace” theology and its appeal to people of many racial/ethnic backgrounds. President Theodore Roosevelt commented early in the 20th century that he never felt so much like he was talking to the Americans “as when I address the Methodists.”
The denomination today has slightly less than 8 million members in the US, down from more than 12 million in the late 1960s. However, it is growing in other countries, and has another 3.5 million members in Africa, the Philippines, and Europe.
The Rev. Tom Butcher, the key staffperson on the new church development plan, said that Path 1 is not about numerical growth as such, but aims at introducing to Jesus Christ people who “are looking for meaning, faith, acceptance, and hope. We are talking about a movement that starts new churches to re-evangelize the United States of America.”
The denomination currently has 34,000 congregations in the US, but Rev. Butcher said of the new Path 1 plan that 65 percent are not in the right place to reach out to newer populations. Thousands of the existing congregations have fewer than 51 people in worship on a given Sunday, and a huge percentage of the total membership is composed of senior citizens. Path 1 aims at “more people, younger people, and more diverse people,” said Butcher.
Many of the plenary addresses and workshops at the School of Congregational Development focused on the theological strengths and faith resources that The United Methodist Church has for achieving the Path 1 objectives. Others dealt with the challenges likely to be encountered in the effort. New congregational development among racial and ethnic groups is a significant part of Path 1.
Bishop Scott Jones of Kansas said that the congregation is the best arena for achieving the goal of “making disciples,” and he is convinced The United Methodist Church is uniquely equipped, by its holistic theology, to reach unchurched people.
Methodism teaches the need for “personal and social holiness,” which means that an individual’s faith in God is lived out in the community of the church for the sake of transforming the world. The perspective comes from John Wesley, the 18th-century English cleric who founded Methodism.
Bishop Jones also said in an address to the school that The United Methodist Church in the US occupies the “extreme center” from which it can reach out to people of all backgrounds and social conditions. “God is trying to give us a future of hope,” he declared. The bishop said that he believes that Methodism has the doctrine and history to bring about religious renewal in the US.
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of Northern Illinois in a sermon recalled the effective Methodist mission work of the past and today in many parts of the world. “Our God is a sending God,” he said, urging United Methodists to follow John Wesley’s example of employing head, heart, and hands in achieving God’s purposes in the world.
When it comes to reaching younger people, a university professor gave the United Methodists some clues to dealing with the contemporary young-adult generation. Dr. Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University is author of a new book entitled Generation Me (Free Press, 2006). The subtitle of the book is, “Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before.”
Dr. Twenge used analysis of research data on college students over more than a 50-year period to pinpoint youth culture trends. She showed how the “self-esteem” movement that began in the 1960s has exerted both helpful and questionable results. It has led in many cases to acute individualism, narcissism, materialism, and a great disappointment because of a failure to receive the fame and riches to which their “specialness” entitles them. Depression and anxiety develop, but Twenge added that contemporary young adults are also generally more open and tolerant than in the past.
The church today, said the psychologist, has the opportunity to speak to the openness and the sense of emptiness and loneliness of young adults, who, she said, “have deep needs for connection and spirituality.”
The current trends, she said, are likely to continue, and Twenge advised that offering children “unconditional love is fine,” but promoting “unconditional self-esteem is not okay.”
Path 1 is a cooperative effort of many parts of The United Methodist Church, including all of its general agencies, Council of Bishops, other administrative units, regional (annual) conferences, and network of congregational developers.
The annual School of Congregational Development is sponsored jointly by the United Methodist General Boards of Discipleship and Global Ministries.
*Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Aug 09, 2007