Many United Methodists across the United States are wondering if their church will survive. And almost every member and leader has expressed an urgent need for growing their church.
With U.S. membership in the United Methodist Church at its lowest level since 1930 with just over 8 million, the denomination has announced a new vision to start 650 new congregations with 63,000 members by 2012.
The time has come for a new United Methodist approach to evangelism, said the Rev. Thomas G. Butcher, who officially becomes executive secretary of the newly created office of new congregational development for the United States on July 1, according to the United Methodist News Service.
The church planting initiative is part of a new emphasis on church growth in the United States and a vision called "Path One" which includes a new national assessment tool for use with church planters and a system for training bishops to support new church starts.
"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, according to UMNS. "This is a new and bold vision of church planting that has been formed out of the work of many partners."
According to the United Methodist Church's latest annual State of the Church Report, one-half of all United Methodist churches have fewer than 55 people in attendance each week. A key finding revealed that 81 percent of the churches that closed never achieved an average attendance of 50 or higher, which was cited as by far the strongest predictor of sustainability, according to a March 2006 study by Richard Day Research. Also, 41 percent of U.S. United Methodist churches did not receive a member by profession of faith in 2005.
While United Methodists express hope and optimism for the future of their denomination – the second largest Protestant body in the nation – most also recognize that change is necessary.
"There is a general feeling that times have changed and will continue to change rapidly, but the church has not changed correspondingly," stated the annual report.
The most effective evangelism for United Methodists is starting new churches, according to Butcher. And pushing for change in evangelism approaches, Butcher hopes to eventually start 350 new churches a year across the country in the United Methodist Church. However, to reach that goal, over the next quadrennia, initial strategies call for the start of about 137 new churches a year, according to Butcher. Hundreds more will be planted outside the United States.
"Planting new churches means that we attract new people, younger people and more diverse people," said Butcher. "There is a lot of excitement created around a new church start."
The annual church report has pointed to a disproportionate number of youth and young clergy in the denomination and largely homogeneous local churches despite growing racial diversity of their surrounding communities.
Additionally, with statistics showing there is only one United Methodist church for every 37,000 people in the western states, Butcher hopes new church plants will place Methodist presence in population areas where there is none.
"We can no longer rely on people coming to us," he said. "That might have been good in the '50s and '60s, but now we have to go where the people are. That is what John Wesley did. He followed the people and we have to get back to our roots."