Planting New Churches

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Our Church-Planting Heritage

In the early days of American Methodism, most churches didn’t have full-time pastors; they had circuit riders, itinerant preachers who rode their horses around a cluster of churches. “No sooner was a congregation established somewhere,” writes retired bishop Will Willimon, “than the circuit was reorganized and the traveling preacher sent somewhere that had no church.” The frequency with which the Methodist movement started churches led to the claim that there were more Methodist churches than US post offices. Like Johnny Appleseed, the Methodist movement planted new communities of faith as the English-speaking population increased and spread westward. Today, United Methodist bishops still appoint pastors to churches in an “itinerant system,” a remnant of this missionary heritage.

Early American Methodism also began as a lay movement. “Everyday” Christians, not clergy, were the driving force in organizing new small groups, planting new churches, and preaching to new believers—people with names like Robert Strawbridge and Barbara Heck. Jacob Albright was another such lay member of an early Methodist group. The son of German immigrants, he saw the potential of this new Methodist movement to reach a flood of new German immigrants to America. Soon his followers created a new denomination, the Evangelical Association, which was more tailored to the needs of his ethnic group.

By 1965, Methodists were the most numerous of all Protestant denominations in the United States. In 1968, two centuries after this lay-led, church-planting, missionary movement began, The Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church would merge to form The United Methodist Church.

Why Start New Churches?

It’s no secret that many Protestant churches in the United States, including The United Methodist Church, have lost this zeal for evangelism and church-planting. According to Eric Ramsey of the Southern Baptist Convention, “North America is the only continent in the world where the church is not growing.” As Lovett Weems reports in his book Focus: The Real Challenges That Face The United Methodist Church, 1965 was the last year that Methodist churches reported a membership gain. Having achieved such success, church-planting slowed, and membership declined. The general population in the United States, though, has continued to grow. “Existing churches alone cannot increase attendance in proportion to population growth,” Weems writes. “The only means by which denominations can possibly keep pace with population growth is through new church starts.”

The goal of new church starts is to reach more people with the life-changing good news of Christ. For Jacob Albright, it only took a passion for Christ and an awareness of the unreached populations in his own community to start a church-planting revival. According to Weems, new churches need to grow larger in order to reach “more people, younger people, and more diverse people.” In 2009, although churches averaging 500 or more in attendance made up only two percent of the total number of churches, they represented 25 percent of membership, 25 percent of professions of faith, 28 percent of youth, and 28 percent of people of color. New churches that grow reach new people. Last June, I was appointed to plant a new church in Birmingham, Alabama. As our fledgling church has been meeting in homes, planning our first public worship services, and doing the evangelical work of inviting people and hanging out with them, I have become more appreciative of our church-planting heritage. A friend likes to point out that every church that exists today, even ones over a hundred years old, began as a new church start. Many of them began as an idea around someone’s kitchen table and met in a house, barn, or public building. Someone saw a need and felt compelled to share the good news with new people. You are reading this essay, alone or in a group, because someone responded to the call to reach new people.

Data across denominations suggest that “new churches reach new people at a higher rate than established churches.” According to Richard Harris of the Southern Baptist Convention, “Established SBC churches report 3.4 baptisms per 100 resident members, whereas new churches average 11.7. It’s not hard to conclude that more new churches would lead more people to Christ.”

Churches that help plant churches can sometimes experience an evangelistic revival of their own. One 1,200-member church grew to 1,600 members after they planted a new church. The original church briefly considered focusing more of their resources on their own burgeoning ministries rather than the ministries of the new church; but when they examined how many people had made new professions of faith, they found that number to be only eight of their 400 new members. In the new, smaller church, the number of adult converts was 100.

What Do New Churches Look Like?

God continues to call new communities into existence and new people to lead them. Such communities may have their own unique music, worship format, and population. After Hours Denver is one such new com-munity. This church, led by Jerry Herships, meets in bars on Monday nights. They are focused on being a “missional” (mission-focused) church that reaches out to the local community. Missional churches don’t just focus on caring for those who are homeless. “It’s about finding out what’s the need of a community and addressing that need,” Herships says.

Sacred Tapestry is another unique plant. Led by Teresa Angle-Young in Marietta, Georgia, their worship centers around brunch on Sunday mornings; and instead of congregational singing, they listen to jazz. Angle-Young has tailored the worship service for people who don’t like to sit in pews and who don’t like singing, as well as to attract non-churchgoers who may feel more comfortable in a coffeehouse setting than in a traditional sanctuary. “I’m trying to remove any kind of barriers . . . that keep them from engaging,” she says.

Part of what drives this new Methodist church-planting movement is the recognition that we do not all belong to one culture. Instead, we belong to many different subcultures. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to spreading the gospel, and so multiple churches can exist in the same geographical space or even in the same building. Some of us may have grown up singing the words of the children’s song “We Are the Church,” which says that the church isn’t a building, or a steeple, or a resting place—“the church is a people” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 558). Many of these new congregations take that message to heart. They have realized it’s not enough to hold various events and special Sundays hoping to attract people through the doors of a conventional church. Instead, they have decided to imitate Wesley by taking their message outside the walls of the church.

Creating New Churches for New People

There are as many different styles and personalities of churches as there are people-groups and subcultures, and they develop in different ways. Some are classic “parachute drops,” in which a church-planter is appointed to a community alone and begins knocking on doors. But as churches have become more intentional about reproducing themselves, they have developed a variety of strategies for doing so. Mont Duncan, executive director of new church development in the Florida Conference of the UMC, says that starting new churches isn’t a cookie-cutter approach.

Some established churches become “parent” churches to a new community by spinning off a worship service, Sunday school class, or small group into a new location. They may support the new church financially or with staff and space. Path 1, the denominational new church-starts movement at the General Board of Discipleship, has identified nearly a dozen different church-planting strategies. “One of the most surprising and exciting ones for me,” says Emily Reece, new church strategist at Path 1, “is lay-led church plants.” Laypeople, she says, are sometimes sent “to serve in ways that we don’t have enough clergy to do or that clergy may not be best equipped to do.” In many ways, these trends hearken back to Wesley’s early Methodist movement in America.

How Do We Help?

I’m always encouraged when I talk to members of established congregations and the first thing they ask is “How can we help?” While a new community of faith may not be for them, they recognize that their friends, or grandchildren, or coworkers may need it.

The most obvious thing that members of established congregations can do is pray. These new congregations, pastors, and lay leaders need plenty of spiritual support. Another thing supporters can do is to educate themselves about their own local church-planting efforts. United Methodists belong to a connectional system in which we try to align our ministry efforts to do more than we could do alone. Some people may be called to start a church, and some may be called to help others discern their call. Some may be called to raise funds, and some may be called to write checks.

Members of established congregations can also refer and invite. Most churchgoers know a friend, relative, or coworker who might attend a new church. Sometimes new congregations need help with things established churches take for granted like child care, event planning, or music; so service is another way established members can help.

Emily Reece names three strengths that United Methodists have in planting churches. First is the deliberately inclusive attitude of the church, which is often more open to sending women and ethnic minority leaders to start churches. Second is the Wesleyan emphasis on God’s grace, which is a welcome message for people who have been turned off to church in the past. Third is our connectional system, in which all United Methodist churches are connected and cooperate in some way to reach new people. “This is ‘back to the future’ for us,” says Reece. “We’re returning to our roots; but we’re also planting with more varied strategies and we’re getting better at it, and those are good trends.”


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