By Dr. Riley B. Case
In 1836, Eli Farmer, a licensed Methodist preacher on location, saw a need for the gospel in Brown County, Indiana, and on his own and without any authorization, entered the field, held revivals, and established a circuit of ten churches. He then went to the annual conference, and offered his circuit to the conference. The conference received the churches, renewed his license, and appointed Farmer back to the circuit he had established. One year, on another circuit, Farmer received 350 members into the church. On still another year, he received 550 members.
So it was in the early days of Methodism. The federal census of 1850 reported 456 Methodist churches in Indiana and the number was probably double that since the census counted only church buildings. The Congregationalists, on the other hand, with their missionary societies and their educated clergy, could, in the same 1850 census, report only a grand total of 2 churches.
Something has happened to Methodism since those early heady days on the frontier. Methodism moved up the social scale, started colleges, became institutional and liberal, and gradually lost its zeal. Farmer had one purpose in life: to save souls. One has to look long and hard to find preachers who see as their purpose in life to save souls.
But there is a spot of hope in the picture. Recognizing that a key to evangelism and church growth is in the starting of churches, The United Methodist Church in the quadrennium of 2009-2012, has set for itself a goal of starting 600 new churches in the United States. After having been told for the last 30 years that a denomination cannot grow, or even maintain its present strength, without new church starts, the bishops and the boards and agencies and the General Conference (through the way funds are budgeted) are going to give it a try.
So the 600. Or is it 400? Or 450? Different numbers have been proposed. It does not matter. Just about any number will be an improvement on the rather dismal total of 325 reported new church starts over a five-year period from 2001-2006.
Can we do it? Those of us who have been around the institutional church for a long time tend to harbor a natural skepticism. We have heard of too many visions, initiatives, programs, goals, and challenges that did not seem to go anywhere. Most of these were top-down kinds of bureaucratic programs that never excited the people who needed to do the work.
But this goal could be different. Most people in the pew will respond to new church starts. It is a way to reach a coming generation, and many United Methodists have children that are of the coming generation who are not going to respond to traditional ways of doing church.
The General Board of Discipleship will guide the church in this new challenge. The Board of Global Ministries will assist in new church starts beyond the United States, although the overseas churches should probably be helping the Board of Global Ministries. One district in the Congo several years ago reported fifty new churches in one year.
While many capable people are working on this program it is hoped these persons might be open to several comments from an evangelical perspective.
1. Theology. If those who call themselves “progressives” want to be involved in new church starts, give them a chance. But a “progressive” theology with emphasis on inclusiveness, no standards, relativity, and anything goes is not going to get the job done. What will get the job done is the message that Jesus Christ can save from sin, that the congregation will stand for Biblical Christianity, and that there are expectations of those who join.
2. Selection of pastors. Do not trust Boards of Ordained Ministry to identify the pastors who will be starting the new churches. Boards are notorious for credentialing persons who are institutional functionaries. Boards have a history of blocking creative, outside-the-box, independent-thinking entrepreneurs. Yet these are the very people who should be starting churches. If necessary, let us recruit outside the denomination to get the right persons to start churches.
3. Where the new church starting pastors get their training. The best training for new-church start pastors is from persons who have launched churches successfully. If we insist on the kind of education received in United Methodist seminaries as preparation for our church starters the whole enterprise will fail. Many of our seminaries wear as a badge of honor a philosophy that they are about asking questions, not giving answers. Some persons who could start new churches probably do not need seminary at all. This may be especially true of ethnics, or persons who wish to work with the poor.
The challenge is before us. If there was ever an area where visionaries should be freed-up to do things as they have never been done before, this is it. Now it is up to bishops, cabinets, conference staffs, pastors with vision, and local churches to rise to the occasion.
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