INDIANAPOLIS Disciples' new churches started since January 2001 topped a benchmark 101 with the early November opening of Bethel Christian Church, a Hispanic congregation in San Benito, Texas, according to Church Extension of the Disciples of Christ.
Annual new-church growth has reached its highest point since 1953, with 61 new congregations started so far in 2002. More plantings are anticipated in the remainder of November and December. Disciples started 40 new congregations in 2001.
Bethel Christian, a congregation of about 60 worshipers who meet in a warehouse, typifies the humble beginnings of most new Disciples congregations. However, the movement also has spawned congregations like New Direction Christian Church in Memphis, Tenn. Begun in July 2001, the congregation currently has about 1,150 in worship on an average Sunday, according to Pastor Stacy Spencer. New Direction started in partnership with the Tennessee region and with Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, the Disciples' largest congregation.
"If this were just about numbers, we obviously would have cause for celebration," said Rick Morse, New Church Ministry director. "But this whole effort is about being responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We experience miracles every day with this work. The numbers can't begin to measure the real impact of this movement. So many lives are being transformed by the encounter with the love of God."
Gains so far in 2002 are well ahead of expectations, boosting Disciples to a 1.5 percent growth rate in new congregations, according to Morse. Establishing new congregations is the first step toward renewing overall membership growth, according to church consultant George Bullard.
The denomination will be positioned to grow numerically again when new-church growth rates reach 2 percent, Bullard said. New Church Ministry staff of Church Extension expected new church growth to reach the 2 percent figure by 2006. However, continued success at current rates would put the effort ahead of that projection.
"Some of the most exciting news of this body of believers comes directly from this grassroots effort to start new churches," said Richard L. Hamm, Disciples General Minister and President. "The new church movement continues to inspire Disciples with an outstanding response to the call of God to make new disciples."
The 2001 and 2002 Disciples new-church growth rate exceeds the growth rate of even the 1950s, when many Disciples will recall denominational vitality. By comparison, rates in the '50s were less than one-half of one percent.
The current trend puts Disciples well on pace for establishing 1,000 new congregations by 2020, a denominational goal.
"Disciples new church planters operate much the same way as their counterparts in the 1900s when this church was expanding faster than any other on the American Frontier," Hamm said. "They are stepping out on faith, leaving paying jobs and even their homes to launch churches in the places where they are needed most.
"It's exciting work, but it can be isolating," Hamm said. "They need to know at a spiritual and emotional level that we are with them as a whole body. We do our part as we lend our prayers and other tangible actions of support for them."
One source of funding for the effort is the New Church Ministry Annual Fund, which has a goal of $265,000 for the year. To date, about $221,500 is committed toward that figure. Contact Ellen Mitchell, Church Extension, 1-800-274-1883, for more information.
Church Extension, a unit of the Indianapolis-based Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), assists new and existing local congregations in planning, financing and maintaining facilities and ministries.
By Albert H. Lee