The seven new faith communities that sprang up across Upper New York over the past four years helped the denomination surpass its 2008-2012 quadrennial goal of new church starts by over 5 percent.
The new starts were Center Point Church in Boonville, New World Ministries in Syracuse, Grace Adventure in Vestal, The Road @ West Genesee in Syracuse, Lao Good News UMC in Johnson City, Burmese Congregation in Buffalo and Reverb in Bath; the last two are not currently active.
Across the U.S., church planters had hoped to establish 650 new United Methodist churches during the past four years, and they exceeded that mark by 34 new church starts.
"These numbers give me great hope as I look forward to beginning my new role in July," said Binghamton District Superintendent David Masland, who will begin a new role as the Conference director of New Faith Communities as of July 1. The position is part of the Plentiful Harvest initiative approved at the 2012 Annual Conference Session. Plentiful Harvest has two components: Planting new faith communities and revitalizing existing congregations through Hand to Plow.
"God is doing great things around the country. There are many people that are ahead of us in this work, that have learned a lot of things the hard way. I will be building relationships with many of these people, and we will all benefit from what I/we can learn from them," he said.
Of the 63 annual conferences in the U.S., 61 of them saw new congregational starts, and all five jurisdictions recorded healthy growth: 92 in the Northeastern, 232 new churches in the Southeastern, 146 in the South Central, 148 in the North Central and 66 in the Western.
“This data is exciting for us to share so annual conferences can see how they are a part of a larger denominational church planting movement,” said the Rev. Candace M. Lewis, executive director of New Church Starts (Path1), a division of The General Board of Discipleship (GBOD). “That's one of the reasons we celebrate our numerical progress as it reflects all of us working together to create new places for new people and to reach more young people and diverse people."
“We want to celebrate the work that our planters, developers, superintendents and bishops have done to plant these 684 new churches," she added.
The fact that the denominational goal was surpassed over the past four years is, from Rev. Masland's perspective, "a sign of God's hand being vitally involved."
"I believe that it is God's spirit that puts within people's hearts a desire to reach new people in new ways … and it is God's spirit that moves new people to come when new opportunities are offered. And, I believe God would plant these new communities of faith whether we were doing it or not. God will plant new things through whomever is open and willing! I think this statistic is a sure sign that our denomination has aligned (itself) with the movement of the Holy Spirit," he said.
Although the new church starts can be a barometer of denominational health, Rev. Masland said the purpose of new faith communities is not to enhance membership rolls.
"Our goal is to 'make disciples.' I think we need new ways of measuring what God is doing," he said.
The latest figures show improvement over the previous quadrennium; the denomination planted 278 churches during the previous quadrennium ending in 2007. Based on the most current data from the General Council on Finance and Administration, the closure rate for new churches since 2008 has been 8 percent, or 59 of 684 churches, a significant improvement over the close rate of 26 percent during the 2004-2007 period.
One aspect of deciding where and when a new faith community is needed, so that down the line it doesn't become part of the church closures figure, is identifying growing but underserved populations across the Conference.
"There are groups of people that our current United Methodist churches are not reaching, both racial/ethnic minority groups, and other groups," Rev. Masland said. "Most of our urban settings are much more culturally and ethnically diverse than our nearby local churches. We will be actively seeking to learn with these folks, and create pathways for new church plants that meet their dreams. In other words, we will not assume we know what kind of church they want or need, but will make it possible for these folks to build the church that want for themselves.
"In addition, new faith communities are needed to reach the college students, young adults, Gen Xers, and baby boomers that − for whatever reasons − are not connecting with church the way our churches are living now. Once again, we need to empower these groups to create the church they want and need."
"The good news is there are a bunch of others in the formative stages right now that will be starting this year," Rev. Masland added. There have been two new faith communities started in the Conference since July 1: the Wilton “Restart” in Wilton and Fresh Start at the Arnot Mall in Horseheads.
At the current planting rate of 11.4 new churches per month across the denomination, Path1 believes a new goal of 1,000 new church plants by the end of the current quadrennium is achievable, and will move toward the goal of planting a new church a day by 2020.
*Christian Vischi is the communications associate for the Upper New York Annual Conference. Some information in this story came from an article published by the General Board of Discipleship.