6:00 P.M. EST Oct. 14, 2010 | STAMFORD, Conn. (UMNS)
Members of Ba Se United Methodist Church meet in Can Tho City, Vietnam. Started in February, the congregation now has 62 members. Since, January 2009, Vietnam has become home to 85 new United Methodist congregations through an initiative of the denomination’s Board of Global Ministries. A UMNS photo by Ut To, GBGM.
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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, chief executive, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, told directors at their Oct. 11-13 annual meeting. That is more than halfway toward a goal of starting 400 new worldwide congregations between 2009 and 2012.
More than half of the progress has been in Southeast Asia, said Kemper, notably in Laos with 33 new congregations and Vietnam with 85, for a combined increase of 118. 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,” Kemper stated. “It does not include new congregations developed by United Methodist annual (regional) 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.
Each of these countries is a Global Ministries “mission initiative” begun or resumed within the last 20 years, many since the year 2000. Malawi is the newest addition to the initiatives; South Sudan is not a formal initiative but is moving in that direction. Some of the new church planting benefits from the 400 Fund, part of The Advance giving program.
Congregational development is one of the current focus areas of the denomination. The board’s mission initiatives program, started in the mid-1990s, is aimed at renewing or starting new mission work, mostly in areas currently without a denominational presence.
United Methodism in Malawi is growing under indigenous leadership with about 140 congregations. A UMNS photo by Thomas Kemper, GBGM.
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Kemper said that the impressive growth in Vietnam and Laos is the result in part of a grassroots, “people’s church” approach to planting new congregations. Indigenous lay pastors and committed laity are utilized as the major means of evangelization and congregational organizing. Professional church personnel provide inspiration, training, and initial organizing skills.
He indicated that the methods used in Laos and Vietnam are now being introduced into Thailand, where the United Methodist presence is quite new. The Rev. CherLue and Mang Thao Vang are new missionaries assigned to direct the work in Thailand. Now U.S. citizens from North Carolina, the Vangs are of Hmong background, born in Laos, and met while in a refugee camp in Thailand.
“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 provision 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 Rev. Jong Sung Kim, whose Global Ministries portfolio includes Vietnam, says that one reason the church in Vietnam is growing rapidly is that the local (lay) pastors not “only have a high commitment to the mission of church but are highly educated before they enter the ministry. Many of our pastors hold college and graduate degrees.”
Using mission partnerships
Malawi is another location where United Methodism is growing under indigenous leadership. The Malawi Conference, with some 140 congregations organized into circuits, is now a Global Ministries "initiative" with 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,” says 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, explained 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.”
*Wright is a freelance writer and consultant for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or email@example.com.