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Overseas church growth moves toward 2012 goal Elliott Wright, Nov 3, 2010
By Elliott Wright United Methodist News Service
STAMFORD, Conn.—From Vietnam to Malawi, the number of new United Methodist congregations outside the United States has grown by more than 200.
A total of 210 new worshipping communities were organized from January 2009 through September 2010, Thomas Kemper, top executive of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, told directors at their Oct. 11-13 annual meeting. That is more than halfway toward the mission board’s goal of starting 400 new congregations worldwide by 2012.
Mr. Kemper said more than half of the progress has been in Southeast Asia, notably in Laos with 33 new congregations and Vietnam with 85. There was also a significant increase of new congregations in Africa—39 in Malawi and 17 in South Sudan.
“Almost all of this growth is through a dozen or so mission initiatives in four African countries, various parts of Asia and Eastern Europe, work that relates directly to Global Ministries,” Mr. Kemper said. “It does not include new congregations developed by United Methodist annual conferences in other parts of Africa, the Philippines and Western Europe.”
In addition to Laos and Vietnam, new worshipping communities in Asia include nine in Nepal, six in Cambodia and three in Thailand. New African congregations include three in Cameroon as well as those in Malawi and South Sudan. Four new congregations have formed in Central Asia and another four have started in Honduras.
Mr. Kemper said that the impressive growth in Vietnam and Laos is partly the result of a grassroots, “people’s church” approach to planting new congregations. Indigenous lay pastors and committed laity do much of the evangelization and congregational organizing. Professional church staff provide inspiration, training and initial organizing skills.
“We have learned that indigenous Christians are expert at evangelism and church planting,” said the Rev. John Nuessle, staff executive for mission relationships. “Missionaries remain essential as initiators, facilitators and educators, but we are now ‘growing’ our pastors locally in many places.”
In Vietnam, the church is only now in the process of becoming officially recognized within the socialist country, but met a major requirement for that recognition with the dedication of the United Methodist Center in Ho Chi Minh City. A next step is obtaining a registration certificate for religious activities, which church leaders in Vietnam hope will be granted in December.
The Malawi Conference, with some 140 congregations organized into circuits, has a growing network of partner congregations and annual conferences in both the U.S. and Germany. “The rapid growth of the Malawi Conference has been achieved through mission partnerships,” said the Rev. Patrick Friday, who works with the agency’s In Mission Together program.
Honduras, which now has 16 congregations, is the only mission-initiative country in Latin America and the Caribbean, largely because most countries in that region already have autonomous Methodist and United Methodist churches that are mission partners with Global Ministries, said the Rev. Edgar Avitia, a Global Ministries staff member who relates to Latin America.
“Those partnerships, such as with the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas, and Methodists in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and, most recently, Nicaragua, have been instrumental in resourcing mission in Honduras,” he said.
The oldest of the mission initiatives is in Russia and surrounding countries, with separate work in Latvia and Lithuania. Methodism existed in those lands prior to the communist takeover in the early 20th century. Russia today has more than 100 United Methodist congregations, all with indigenous pastors, and a theological seminary in Moscow.
“The Russia Initiative was born in the marvelous times of eruption and new opportunities after the disintegration of the Soviet Union,” said Bishop Hans Växby of the Eurasia Area. “Today the growth is less dramatic. Our churches are going through an exciting period of maturing, especially in terms of financial self-sufficiency, and also of creating new faith communities in other parts of a city or neighboring villages.”
Mr. Wright is a communications consultant to the General Board of Global Ministries.