574 New Worship Communities Thrive
By Sandra Brands
Since 2008, The United Methodist Church has started 574 worshipping communities in Southeast Asia, Eurasia, Africa and Latin America. That number far exceeds the original goal of 400 church plants for the 2009-12 quadrennium, announced Thomas Kemper, general secretary of the denomination's General Board of Global Ministries.
The worshipping communities reported within the mission initiatives of Global Ministries are located in Belarus, Cambodia, Cameroon, Honduras, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Latvia, Lithuania, Malawi, Moldova, Mongolia, Nepal, Russia, Senegal, Thailand, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Each country connects to a network facilitated by a partnership coordinator through the In Mission Together program.
The agency set up The 400 Fund as part of The Advance, United Methodism's designated-giving channel, to support these initiatives, primarily through pastoral and lay education and provision of worship space. Global Ministries' support will decrease as each mission initiative becomes self-sustaining. Eventually, some will become their own annual conferences.
"Many of these faith communities do not meet in buildings, but they are churches nonetheless," Kemper said. "They reflect the culture and traditions of the area and celebrate the deep faith and transformational ministries of these new disciples of Christ."
That is what happened to Global Ministries oldest mission initiative — Russia. Established as a mission initiative in the early 1990s, Russia today includes more than 100 United Methodist congregations served by indigenous pastors, has established a theological seminary and has formed annual conferences.
"These congregations were planted in countries that do not have the resources for 'brick-and-mortar churches,' as in the United States," said the Rev. Patrick L. Friday, director of the In Mission Together partnership program. "Depending on the context, worshipping communities are defined as churches, congregations, cells, sections, classes, small groups, preaching points and house churches."
"The excitement of mission programs is to say, 'my goodness, this is really working,'" said the Rev. John Nuessle, who recently retired as associate general secretary for the mission agency. "The initiatives are the fastest-growing area of The United Methodist Church. That's what is exciting. Great things are happening in the church."
In many mission initiative areas, church growth more closely resembles the earliest incarnation of the Methodist movement. For example, in Malawi, many new communities of faith meet at preaching points in outdoor location open to all. There, said George Howard, associate general secretary of Global Ministries, ministry is "not about starting a church; it's about sharing the gospel. In sharing the gospel, in sharing what's happening in people's lives, the church has emerged. Church means communities of faith. They're not out to build a building; they're out to gather people together."
"Movements are characterized by lay mobilization, bi-vocational leadership and self-sufficiency," said Friday. "They are not institutions; they engage people where they are in small groups. In this way, the Methodist movement has continued around the world. If you want to catch a glimpse of the movement, you need to partner with some of these places, like Vietnam or Malawi. As you partner with them, think about what you can learn from them."
In Mission Together
Global Ministries' program, In Mission Together, facilitates 50-50 partnerships, which bring faith communities overseas together with faith communities in the United States in a healthy, balanced way. These long-term partnerships, which include spiritual and practical support, foster local leadership and establish local mission outreach. Participants are encouraged to worship and study together as they build their ministries and share resources. In fact, 80 percent of the churches in the mission initiative areas are engaged in a vital partnership, Friday said.
"The most successful church starts," he continued, "have been where indigenous leadership took responsibility for their own churches and where partners supported that leadership in meeting the ministry goals developed locally for their congregations and communities."
The mission initiatives have evolved, much like a faith journey, said Howard, as missionaries, local leaders and agency staff review what has worked well, determine whether similar practices can be adapted in different missions and adjust goals to reflect the needs and nature of the local community.
"We very much believe in asset-based development," Howard said. "What are the resources that are already there to build on and to sustain ministry? How do you recognize the gifts that God has already given us and not set up a system that is 100 percent dependent on someone from outside providing all the resources?
"The power in the gospel has to do with transforming individual lives, healing individuals," he said. "As you heal individuals, you begin to heal communities. Transformation has to do with bringing health and wholeness to individuals and communities."
For Nuessle, church planting is part of what it means to follow God around the world.
"Our mission is to see where God is already active, and that's very evident in our mission initiatives," he said. "Mission is not just about starting new congregations, though it's an essential aspect. We have four program goals: to make disciples for Jesus Christ, to support and create Christian community, to alleviate human suffering, and to work for justice, peace and freedom for all persons."
The most significant growth is in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, 192 new churches were started. In Cambodia, 19 churches were planted; Nepal, nine; Laos, six; Mongolia, five; Thailand, one. In addition, 79 new cell groups were formed in Vietnam, 26 in Laos, seven in Thailand and two in Mongolia.
In Malawi, which reports 65 new congregations and 81 new sections, worship communities evolved from class meetings at preaching points across the country. The Honduras Mission Initiative saw the opening of seven new churches and 53 small groups. Eurasia, Central Asia and the Baltics report 11 new faith communities. In Senegal, primarily a Muslim nation, church growth has been slower with three new congregations and five cell groups. Three new churches were formed in Cameroon.
Even as the growth of the past quadrennium is celebrated, new communities of faith are planted. Through a partnership with Global Ministries' 400 Fund, Malawi trained a group of dedicated lay evangelists who deployed in January 2013. Their goal is to establish six new self-sustaining circuits of 10 churches, each totaling 60 new worshipping communities by the end of the next quadrennium.
"It's extremely exciting and powerful to be aware of what God is doing all around the world," said Kemper. "This is really God's mission, and we are privileged and blessed to be a partner. It's God who is acting around the world."