As the denomination celebrates 150 years of “spreading scriptural holiness across the land” and “preaching the gospel to the poor,” we celebrative a history marked by explosive church planting. With a purpose and resolve to bring a whole gospel to masses of people who lived with either no faith or hope at all, or with an impoverished view of the extend of God’s redemption, the early Free Methodists, launched churches wherever and whenever they could. Many North Central Conference churches were launched by the wave of pastors and lay leaders committed to establishing kingdom outposts in county seats and communities.
The average age of a church in America is about 80 years. Churches are birthed, then they grow, then they struggle, then they find themselves, then they become established, then they begin to level off, then they begin to celebrate what they did and begin to be less interested in a compellingly different vision for a new future, and then they age gracefully, and then they die, and then they pass on their legacy to a new generation of churches (or not). Most NCC churches have lived longer than 80 years, by God’s grace, through good leadership, through the constant struggle of looking to Christ, seeking the Spirit’s guidance and power to understand, love, reach and redeem an ever changing community around them. Many have not. A significant number of us are plateaued, declining or on the verge of passing on. It’s part of the life cycle of an older collection of churches. Not a single church St. Paul planted still exists today. You would be hard pressed to find many that were planted by John Wesley that still stand or exist in the same form today. You will find billions of Christians who live today because of the church planting heritage of St. Paul and millions who can look to the seminal founding work of Wesley and his peers. Look at the age of the NCC (152 years old) and its trend line over the past 50 years … multiple conference mergers as regions lose churches and require combining resources in order to survive – maybe the hope is thrive – yet closing more churches than it plants at a rate exceeding 3-1.
For the NCC to survive as a movement God can bless, existing churches must keep eyes fixed on Jesus, the communities around them, and make sacrificial efforts to bless those communities and redeem souls as the living Body of Christ. This can only be accomplished in an environment that loves disciples and builds communities that so love one another and those around them that souls are nourished and communities blessed. That will keep what God has given us strong. But it will not mean we thrive.
The NCC will not thrive unless churches have babies that grow up and have more babies who grow up and move away and have more babies in different communities all over the Midwest, USA and world. The NCC will not thrive unless the collective effort and power that truly does exist in our connection called Free Methodist all together will go places with people and plans endued with the Spirit of Christ, blessing of his people, resources of his disciples that presently do not have groups of Christians dedicated to blessing communities through a holistic Christian presence.
Easum, Bandy and Associates seminal work, “Transformation and Reproduction Across Denominational Lines” (2008) explored judicatories (conferences, regional connections of churches) that grow, and those (the majority) that are shrinking to determine differences. They discovered that any region can grow IF they 1) have competent and passionate pastors who prioritize soul winning and community penetration rather than surviving and having a good place to teach stuff, 2) allow churches to struggle when an entrepreneurial pastor shakes up the status quo rather than jumping to ‘restore order’ or engage in triangulation behavior, 3) have judicatories that understand they exist for the churches and that the churches do not exist for the denomination, 4) have aggressive church planting agendas which meet or exceed a 4% church plant to established church ratio. I believe the NCC has made serious attempts to engage such priorities, and consequently we have seen growth overall in our movement.
We must not, cannot, will not move away from engaging in the primal command of God to “be fruitful and multiply!” We must, we can and we will plant churches (have babies!) in communities all over the Midwest, the USA and the world. I look forward to celebrating several church plants that were started since last Annual Conference, and to praying over and consecrating new church planters. We will plant and revitalize 50 congregations by 2025!