Since the most effective evangelism is through new churches, The United Methodist Church wants to start 650 new congregations with 63,000 members by 2012 as part of a new emphasis on church growth in the United States.
Eventually, the shrinking denomination wants to return to its evangelistic heyday of planting a new U.S. church every day. It also wants to reach untapped frontiers such as western states where the church historically has not followed population growth.
The strategy is all part of the aggressive vision of "Path One," the newly organized strategy team on new congregational development coordinated by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.
"We believe it's one of the most needed and time-sensitive national efforts in the denomination's recent history," said the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, top executive of the Board of Discipleship. "This is a new and bold vision of church planting that has been formed out of the work of many partners."
The initiative will be headed by the Rev. Thomas G. Butcher, who on July 1 becomes executive secretary of the newly created office of new congregational development for the United States.(emphasis added)
I have highlighted parts of the story that I think need to be looked at. The very first sentence is the operating assumption, and it couldn't be further from the truth. The best way to grow churches is not to plant them, but to invest in churches that already exist, providing them with the resources to reach out to those in the community who are unchurched, or fallen away from the church, or, as in our little neck of the woods, are newly arrived and looking for a church home.
People want to go to a church that already exists. They want to become part of a community that has a history, a vitality, a life of its own. We build up church membership through participation with fellow believers, not through denominational bureaucrats telling us the best way to build churches. I realize there may be a certain nostalgia for the days when the United Methodist Church was the largest Protestant denomination in the country; I also realize that many conferences are feeling financial and other pressures that result from the diminishing resources that go with decline. Rather than begin a grand strategy with a faulty premise, one would think that church might investigate investing in churches that are thriving, discovering that it is lively and loving community that is the root of healthy churches, not the desire to plant a building where none has ever been.
When a team designs a strategy for anything - from building a better mousetrap to figuring out how to stem the tide of decline in a Christian denomination - and launches the effort with such wonderful bureaucratic accolades as are contained in this article, failure is almost guaranteed. I predict failure not because I want it to fail, or because I wish for the Church to die. I predict failure because this sounds exactly like the kind of idea a bunch of church bureaucrats designed without thinking about shifting demographics, cultural and social changes and challenges, or changing theological and underlying ideological assumptions of the society at large.
It would have been better if the folks at the General Board of Discipleship had taken the time and the money they invested in coming up with this public relations blunder and actually gone out and visited UM churches that are growing; talked to church members, local pastors, and community leaders about the role of local churches in maintaining and contributing to healthy communities; invested in inner-city churches that might now be crumbling, but only from a continued neglect on the part of the annual conference, not from a lack of faith or desire to serve. Finally, rather than devising a one-size-fits-all plan that will long be forgotten (except for the bills it racks up), it might have been better to allow local pastors congregations to do their jobs - live out the message of love and hope in faithful community, and see what effect that has upon localities. It would have been cheaper, it would have been more effective, it would have been wiser, and it would not be saddling the UMC with additional financial and other burdens it cannot bear.
Rather than scrambling around trying to devise solutions, it would seem a better use of time and money to reward those who are successful with incentives to offer their strategies and ministries, not as examples to be copied exactly, but as examples of the possibilities inherent in faithfully fulfilling the call to ministry, and living it out in the lives of the local church. By all means, plant new churches when and where necessary, but do not throw good money after bad ideas based upon an outmoded, historically anachronistic notion of what the United Methodist Church should be.
Just let the Church be what it is, at its best.