Starting New Churches Outside the US
by Elliott Wright
New York, NY, April 6, 2010--One hundred six new congregations were started outside the United States in 2009 through a series of United Methodist Mission Initiatives sponsored by the General Board of Global Ministries.
The 13 initiatives--ranging from Mongolia to Honduras--are what Thomas Kemper, the mission agency's new chief executive, calls "front-line efforts" in pursuit of the denomination's goal of "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
Kemper, the general secretary of Global Ministries, sees the initiatives "as vital in the overall work of the General Board of Global Ministries," and front line in "making new disciples, planting new congregations, training church leaders, and laying foundations for health and social ministries."
Some 40 United Methodist missionaries are assigned to the initiatives in the areas of work Kemper enumerated. Virtually all initiatives also put heavy emphasis on ministries with children. "Starting new churches and ministries with children are major parts of virtually every initiative," said the Rev. Jorge Domingues, the board's new deputy general secretary for Mission and Evangelism. "These two go hand in hand."
The mission agency has a goal of 400 new congregations outside the US in the four years between 2009 and 2012. Many of these will come through the Mission Initiatives.
The 13 Mission Initiatives, which incorporate 20 countries, are by region or country: East Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, and Nepal); Russia (Eurasia, also incorporating Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine); Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan); West Africa (Cameroon and Senegal); and Central America (Honduras). The Honduras Initiative also relates to emerging churches in other areas of Central America.
Some of the initiatives, such as that in Russia, are more than 25 years old and are achieving degrees of organizational maturity. Others, for example, in Senegal and Vietnam, are much newer and still finding their places within their cultures.
The pace at which new churches are begun depends in large measure on contexts and the cultures, Domingues explained: "In Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, where many congregations begin as house churches, the pace of growth can be rapid; in others, where congregations are more centralized and tend to be larger, the numerical growth is not as dramatic."
More than 100 United Methodist congregations have been planted in Laos since United Methodist mission began there less than five years ago. In Mongolia, five churches were developed over the same time period. In Honduras, in Central America, the emphasis is on strongly developing 12 congregations and their community-based ministries. "No one pattern fits all the initiative contexts," Domingues noted.
Strong Faith of Missionaries
One thing that is common among all the initiatives is the deep, lively faith of the missionaries on the scene, a sense of dependence on God. And there is also deep appreciation for the hospitality of the local people.
Missionaries E and B Barte just a few weeks ago arrived in Laos, having previously served in Cambodia. In their Easter letter, they wrote about the unknown factors in their mission journey, yet voice their faith in "the living God who has called us in this place despite our imperfections, our lack of knowledge and skills, particularly in this new setting, as well as our fears for the unknown…" They also wrote of the warm welcome of the United Methodists in Laos.
"A strong faith in God is characteristic of every missionary I know," said Kemper, who himself was a missionary, along with his wife Barbara, in Brazil for eight years. "To be a missionary is to be sent by God to a place where one is, at least at first, a stranger, and yet to know what it means to serve God's mission."
Strengthening the Initiative Network
To continue this ongoing growth of the church into new areas of the world, Global Ministries is strengthening the staffing and coordination of the initiatives. A new 11-member Mission Initiatives Staff team will relate to the indigenous leaders, missionaries, and support networks of the Mission Initiatives, each of which has a network of partners that Kemper calls "essential" to their vitality.
Kemper said that "the networks around each initiative are pivotal in their ongoing work and in the church's response to Jesus' mandate to preach Good News in every land." The action to strengthen the place of the Mission Initiatives within the Mission and Evangelism unit was among the first major steps of the new Global Ministries' administration, represented by Kemper and Domingues. Mission and Evangelism is a recent consolidation of five former program units.
The new staff team will integrate the work of the Mission Initiatives into mission programs across the agency and throughout the wider church. It will also analyze the potential for future new Mission Initiatives. The team functions within the Mission and Evangelism unit of the mission board and involves many of the same staff members who relate to missionaries. The Rev. John Nuessle, assistant general secretary for mission theology, is team leader.
Staff assigned to the initiatives and other mission specialists will work together to address issues common to the diverse efforts and also to promote relations to groups of initiative partners who gather from time to time for initiative consultations. Several of the initiatives have part-time consultants or coordinators who work with the networks.
The staff team includes a liaison to the In Mission Together Program and to the Malawi Missionary Conference in southern Africa. One team member is from The Advance, the designated mission giving channel of the church and has special responsibility for the 400 Fund, which seeks to raise funds to start 400 new congregations outside the US. Other team members are specialists in communications, Christian education, and research.
Funding New Church Starts
The commitment to start new congregations means an increased need for funding. In connection with the goal of 400 new congregations in four years outside the US, Global Ministries has set up the 400 Fund as part of The Advance, the designated mission giving channel of the church. To date, almost $100,000 has been contributed to this fund. The 400 Fund received a major boost with a pledge of $400,000, or $1,000 for each new church, from Mary Watson, a lay woman from Georgia.
Gifts to the 400 Fund go primarily for pastoral and lay education and the provision of worship space.
"Mission Initiative" refers to a concept that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the breakup of the Soviet Union and other political events opened new areas for Christian outreach. The first areas were Russia, Latvia, and Lithuania, where Methodism existed before the Communist Revolution. Momentum for pioneering evangelism then spread to other regions.
The objective of the Initiative concept is to develop congregations that can collectively become United Methodist annual (regional) conferences or autonomous churches in a country or region. The Russia Initiative today is organized into annual conferences; a number are formal "missions," which designate a step in the annual conference process.
Also inherent in the concept is the mechanism of church-to-church partnerships among Initiative churches and older congregations in the United States and Western Europe. This component was developed in Eastern Europe and the Balkans through a program called In Mission Together. Today, it is a feature of each mission initiative.
Elliott Wright is an author and consultant to the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Apr 08, 2010