Recent reports on the state of the United Methodist Church in the United States shared data of continued decline. However, the news wasn’t all bad. There are signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work throughout the church. Significantly, the work of new church development is a central part of that effort.
An August 17th article in The United Methodist Reporter chronicled the story of two conferences where there is growth and vitality. “Leaders in both New Jersey and Kentucky have embraced an adage from church-planting circles that it’s easier to make babies than to raise the dead. ‘You don’t grow an annual conference by trying to revitalize existing churches,’ Bishop Davis said. ‘I think some can be revitalized. But I don’t think we’ll ever revitalize enough churches to reverse the attendance and membership trends that we’ve seen over the last several decades.’ In Kentucky, the conference has started 15 new churches over the past four years. Bishop Davis said the conference allocates $1 million of its $9 million annual budget for planting churches. In New Jersey, where less than 60 percent of the state’s population is white, much of that conference’s growth has come from reaching out to new or recent immigrant communities as well as Anglo communities, said Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar” (The United Methodist Reporter, August 17, 2012).
I am convicted that vital faithfulness/fruitfulness is a both/and proposition. New church development is critical. The Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, and especially the United Methodist branch of the church universal, will not show a net growth without new church development. (Furthermore, Kentucky is financially supporting new church development about 3X as much as Central Texas!). Acts 13 reports on this central initiative of evangelism, witness and faith sharing.
At the same time, what the article calls revitalization is also critical. I vastly prefer the term transformation to revitalization or renewal. In faithfulness, we are not trying to “re” anything. We are not trying to go back to some idealized past. Rather transformation leads us on the God’s great mission, the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (Matthew 28:16-20), into a new future. This is why we have such an emphasis on the Healthy Church Initiative and the Small Church Initiative in the Central Texas Conference. Both/and – new churches and the transformation of existing congregations – is the way into God’s new future!