Spring Is Coming. Let’s Plant a Church!

(Many UMs will be attracted to this essay because of the upcoming announcement about General Conference.  I will speak to that at the end of the piece, but I am weary of commenting on corruption in the UMC and enjoy being immersed in a life of faith and hope and charity.)

Christ asks a simple one question survey to determine if your church is worth preserving and replicating. “Who do you say that I am?” If  you know the right answer then your faith community is worth preserving. It is time plant (or transplant) a new church.  The mission for which God originally established your local church is still needed by a hurting and desperate world. The church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.…all persons of every age and station stand in need of the means of grace which the Church alone supplies.[1] In our day as in every day, we need more churches—not fewer.

Just as every healthy growing thing naturally produces fruit that results in more growing things of its own kind, a healthy faith naturally produces fruit that results in new disciples. Church school classes produce one or more new church school classes, pastors produce one or more new pastors, music directors produce one or more new music directors, and churches produce one or more new churches. This is natural. What is unnatural is for a local church to exist for fifty, seventy-five, or one hundred years and never produce a new church. That is not natural. That is not healthy.

In North America, recent generations of United Methodist have been trained to fulfill their church planting function by sending checks to the Conference office and letting the professionals do the work. The result is a devasting crop failure and a spiritual famine throughout the land. The reasons for the denominational failure can be set aside for the moment, but it was never a faithful practice. An unfaithful church will wither on the vine. A faithful church will naturally reproduce a faithful church, but if a seemingly healthy branch is attached to an unhealthy denominational vine, it cannot produce fruit. It must be transplanted.

If your faith community can answer the question of Christ, “Who do you say that I am?” then you have all the treasure you need to start. Scripture affirms that there is one right answer and many wrong answers to that question. A big tent theology that says, “everyone should feel welcome here because we do not care what anyone teaches or believes about Jesus or salvation as long as we do loving works” is a wrong answer. If the person of Jesus is the object of your faith, his bodily resurrection the source of all hope, and the cross on Calvary is your definition of love, then you probably have the one right answer. God will build the church on that rock.

Start with three people from your local church and you have enough for God to work with. Start with twelve disciples of Jesus Christ and you already have a congregation as large as many churches gathering in the dark places of this world. Whatever your number, Christ is in the midst of you. You will not be lacking in any spiritual gift. He will raise up teachers, evangelists, stewards, administrators, and fill every need of His church. Believe this, and do not doubt.

Meet in a home, a garage, a barn, a brush arbor, a field, or a park. If you have the resources rent a building or put up a tent. Designate a place and time on our Sabbath for regular meeting. If the community owns the place, then consecrate it. If the community does not own the place, then ask God’s blessing for the place and protection for those who allow the gathering—even if they are not of our faith. Commit to gathering at the appointed place and time without exception.  Our first responsibilities are to worship and to be present for one another. Even in inclement weather, plague, famine, or war someone must be present to welcome any stranger who might come. The greater the disaster the greater the need for the community of Christ. If no one opens the Church at its appointed time it must be because no one can—never because no one will.

Keep connected to the universal Church. Do not let yourself become isolated from the help of the communion of saints. One day, the global Methodist church may be an option for some former United Methodists, but you cannot keep waiting for one-day-some-day. There is a difference between the virtue of patience and the silliness of “waiting for Godot.” (Moments after this publication the Global Methodist Church announced a May 1 startup date. ) Other Wesleyan/Anglican denominations could work for some of us. I have an affinity for ACNA, some are drawn to Free Methodists, a few like NALC. Be careful that you do not flee a crumbling building to seek refuge in one that is fully ablaze. The Nazarenes, for example, are just starting down the road that led United Methodists to where we are.

While you carefully are choosing a global affiliation—and that is essential for a church—keep connected through other associations. Seek out and form personal bonds with other church plants both local and around the world. TMS Global, Renew Women’s Ministry, Seedbed, and New Room Conference, and Asbury Seminary are viable options to live out our discipleship, mission, and accountability in a connectional way.

I will mention only one warning: Do not permit anyone to lead, teach, or serve, who is under appointment or otherwise employed by the United Methodist Church. They are welcome to be part of the worship community, but they must not be allowed to serve. The reasons are two. First, the United Methodist leadership is abounding with litigious money grabbers. If they can establish the most tenuous relationship between a United Methodist dollar and a faith community, they will use that connection to control or destroy that community. It may be an illegitimate claim, they may fail, but by accepting a United Methodist clergy person into a church plant you are inviting the hostile power behind them and the accompanying unnecessary litigation.

Second, discipleship comes with a cost. Church planting will call for sacrifice. Only false prophets can preach about the costs they are willing for others to pay while exempting themselves. No one can serve two masters.

The world is thirsting for that which Christ alone supplies through his Holy Church. In a world that is reeling from morally bankruptcy the faithful church is the sole repository of moral capital. I can’t think of a better time or place to plant a church than 21st century North America. That primitive religion which John Wesley expounded (evangelical and sacramental) is especially suited to the climate.  Today is the time to plant…or…you can wait for General Conference. If you don’t like bad news: stop reading here.

General Conference Will Not Go Away. It Will Just Keep Failing.

I have said in previous essays (here and here and here )going back to 2020 that the chance of holding a General Conference before 2024 is the same as me winning the lottery when I haven’t bought a ticket. Furthermore, even if there was a session of General Conference the Protocol would never come up for a vote. Moreover, even if the Protocol passes in 2024 it will never be implemented. No Annual Conference is required to follow the Protocol, and the Protocol legislation still allows Annual Conferences to use exigent powers to close and seize churches who even discuss separation. General Conference has consistently failed to guard the faith or provide accountability to its leaders, and it will continue to fail. It cannot even set qualifications for membership in its own body or come to agreement on when to meet. The Commission on General Conference spends inordinate time trying to find a fragment of a Bible verse that they can agree upon for a motto. It continues to fail. If the hope for your church’s future lies in a benevolent someone who shows up some day with a way forward that is without cost or sacrifice, then you have no hope. General Conference has acted repeatedly to compel Annual Conferences to honor terms for disaffiliation. General conference has repeatedly failed and will continue to fail. Try to leave and you lose your property.

Do not think that you will keep your property by staying. As I have demonstrated in previous essays if faithful Christians try to stay in the UMC they will lose their property. In 2015, the Connectional Table received a report that “The United Methodist Church has only 15 years to reverse its decline in the United States if it is to have a sustainable future…” That was before the pandemic and the exodus of evangelical churches. The time is rapidly approaching when the UMC can support itself only through the sell of assets. Your church property is an asset.

Already, the North Georgia Conference proclaims publicly that it seeks the opportunity to close hundreds of churches. Here in neighboring South Carolina the Conference leadership boasts that it has extracted apportionment funds form its pandemic-stricken churches which are far in excess of what the General Conference of Finance and Administration believes they should be asked to bear.

It is a pitiful sight to see these churches collecting loose change for a crisis pregnancy center while sending thousands to the Conference treasure for the advocacy of unrestricted abortion. It is painful to see a church school teachers reach in their pockets to buy children’s curriculum while the local church sends thousands to support missionaries that have never produced a profession of faith. The local church is supposed to be self-sustaining and produce professions of faith. The General Board of Global Ministries with its millions is expected to do neither. General conference has acted repeatedly to reform Global Ministries and General Conference has repeatedly failed. It will continue to fail.

The United Methodist Church offers Christians two choices: Abandon your faith or abandon your property. A few will be able to negotiate an exit with property, but these are rare instances. Either they have the financial wherewithal to offer a generous cash settlement, or they are so in debt that the Conference will not take it on. Few faithful Christian communities maintain exorbitant cash reserves or enter excessive debt. Unless you are one of them, that option is not for you.

There could have been other options, but the Traditional Plan that was once everybody’s darling is now an orphan. We could proceed through litigation, but Christians have little stomach for that. Besides, General Conference failed to implement the disciplinary language that would allow us to prevail in court.

Christ Will Not Go Away. He Will Just Keep Prevailing.

For those who will choose faith—Wow! What a journey you are about to begin. Christ calls you to join him on an adventure in the Kingdom of Heaven. Come and see what it means that, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Experience the reality of, “he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” and also, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Live a Bible story. Plant a church.

[1] Adapted from Baptismal Covenant III, UM Hymnal 1989

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