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Dr. Richard Hunter

This post is by Richard Hunter, senior pastor of Snellville United Methodist Church (North Georgia Conference). He holds a doctorate in parish revitalization from McCormick Theological Seminary (Chicago) and teaches on the adjunct faculty at both Asbury Theological Seminary and the Candler School of Theology. — Ed.

I want to be a part of renewing our Methodist movement for faithfulness in the 21st century.

Renewal requires facing facts — namely that reversing our downward spiral of membership losses and evangelistic ineffectiveness calls for dramatic changes and creative innovations across the church.

I suggest four areas where we need to embrace a different way of doing things:

  • We must bring an emphasis on church planting into every district and place it in the DNA of every church.

After 20 years of existence, the average United Methodist congregation brings one new believer to Christ for every 85 members (an 85-to-1 ratio)! In contrast, our new churches reach new believers at a 2-to-1 ratio. After five years, they are still reaching new people, 3-to-1.

The future of our denomination depends on starting new churches every week just as we did at the beginning of the 20th century, yet we put far more resources in serving ourselves rather than church planting.

We must welcome innovative and “out-of-the-box” church plants. To reach today’s culture, we must be starting churches in coffee houses, in warehouses, in homes and movie theaters. Not all church plants can succeed with the UM label. We need to insist on UM theology and accountability but not require these new starts to carry a label that is a huge hurdle for some people.

  • We must recognize that growing churches of the future will be multicultural.

Thirty years ago I was taught that fast-growing churches were homogeneous. Not anymore! Many thriving churches are multicultural, especially in our cities.

Most of our conferences are behind the time on this trend. We need to educate, place, and promote pastors who are bilingual and effective in developing these churches.

  • We must encourage and embrace innovative and contemporary worship.

This does not mean churches like mine should stop offering “traditional,” main-sanctuary worship services. Our traditional service is still relevant and growing. Yet the trends tell us that innovative worship is here to stay.

We must be wiling to use modern media to 1) reach the unchurched, 2) teach the Gospel to a visual culture, and 3) communicate with people through the modes of communication that they use daily. We must require our seminaries to respect this trend and teach how to be effective in using communication technology.

Virtual churches will be common in the next decade. Will the UMC be a part of this movement or leave it to non-denominational churches?

  • We must offer sound doctrine and serious discipleship.

People may choose a church based on the style of worship, the preacher, and the programs. But they stay and commit to a church that disciples them to a cause and a movement that is changing the world. Therefore, we must embrace our Methodist roots and bring scriptural holiness to every community we serve.

People are drawn to high-commitment churches. So let us clearly state the membership expectations of prayer, worship, tithing, and servant living.

Thirty years in ministry have demonstrated to me that God’s Kingdom-design for a community will be served by faithful churches and visionary leaders.

The future of our movement depends on our willingness to be committed to change and innovation regardless of the hardships. May God find many United Methodist churches that will be faithful to His call.

To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will!

—Charles Wesley

A version of this column previously appeared in the newsletter of the Wesleyan Renewal Movement.

The WRM is a group of North Georgia clergy seeking “to promote the election of delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences who are committed to ensuring the Book of Discipline and the election of bishops reflect [the] principles of Wesley and the Bible.”

Bishop Scott Jones (Kansas Area) is scheduled to speak at next month’s WRM annual breakfast (June 18) in Athens, Ga., concurrent with the 2010 session of the North Georgia Annual Conference.


Related posts
Podcast: Randy Maddox on Methodist ‘doctrine, spirit, discipline’
Adam Hamilton: ‘We are in desperate need of excellent preaching’
John Ed Mathison: Seven concerns about the UMC (address to N. Georgia’s Wesleyan Renewal Movement)
John Ed Mathison: Six ways for a pastor to make a lasting difference (address to N. Georgia’s Wesleyan Renewal Movement)
Bishop Robert Schnase on ‘The Five Practices’
Bishop Lindsey Davis: ‘The primary task of the Church’

Related information
Planting new congregations (PDF) | Bishop G. Lindsey Davis (chapter one of The Future of the United Methodist Church: 7 Vision Pathways — Abingdon Press, May 2010)
United Methodists seek 250 to start new churches | Jeanette Pinkston, United Methodist News Service (June 2, 2009)
UMC Path 1 (Collaborative UMC leadership for church starts in the USA)
High expectations: How to raise the bar so people will stay | Sam S. Rainer, BuildingForMinistry.com (April 6, 2009)
The Spirit and the holy life (PDF) | Bryan Stone, Quarterly Review (Summer 2001)
Richard Hunter’s blog
Sermons by Richard Hunter

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Bishop Lindsey Davis’ 12-year tenure in the North Georgia Conference comes to an end next week, and MethodistThinker.com is offering a retrospective — in the bishop’s own words. On Sept. 1, he will move from the North Georgia Conference to the Kentucky Conference.

Under Bishop Davis’ leadership, North Georgia has grown to become the  largest U.S. conference in the United Methodist connection.

Today, excerpts from two interviews with Bishop Davis — one that took place late last year, and another that occurred just a few weeks ago.

The first is from a conversation with UM Action‘s John Lomperis from November 2007:

The United Methodist Church in the United States has been declining in membership and attendance for a number of years, although the notable exception has been the North Georgia Annual Conference under your leadership. To ask a broad question, why do you think that is?

Whenever you have a growth trend in an Annual Conference there are many variables involved. The first is that we’ve had tremendous population growth in Atlanta, and so we certainly have had ample opportunity to reach new people for Christ.

Bishop Lindsey Davis

Bishop Lindsey Davis

The key for us started back in the 1980s when the [North Georgia] Conference, under the leadership of [Bishop] Ernest Fitzgerald, began a very — at least for United Methodists — aggressive church-planting program, and over the years we’ve planted a lot of new congregations in the area.

We’ve planted over a hundred since I’ve been there, and those new churches have accounted for much of the growth.

One of the things that we know about new churches is that they tend to reach more people, more unchurched people, more younger people, and more diverse populations. And all of those are areas where the United Methodist Church has not excelled very much in recent decades. So that’s been part of the key to our success.

I would also say, though, that in spite of having grown every year for over 30 years now, we still have lost what in business you would call “market share.” Over the past 40 years, the percentage of persons in Georgia who are United Methodists has declined, although it’s a little over 5 percent of the population now, which is better than it would be for almost any other state in the Union….

There’s also within North Georgia a theological framework among many of our pastors that says having an intimate relationship with Christ does transform individuals and it does transform communities. There’s a sense of urgency about sharing Christ with the unchurched. And that kind of theological perspective may be a little stronger within North Georgia than in other places….

How do you think the sorts of things you just discussed that have worked for North Georgia, at least relatively speaking — in terms of growing the church, making more disciples of Jesus Christ, bringing people into a saving relationship with Him — how do you think that could, in practical terms, be implemented more widely across our denomination in the United States?

I work with the initiative of the Council of Bishops called Path 1, which is a church development national strategy. What we’re trying to do is to take the best knowledge, information, and best practices for developing new congregations — wherever that happens in the United States — and begin to raise up a new generation of church planters….

[In our denomination, w]e’ve been planting, generally, between 80 and 100 new churches in the United States every year — throughout all the Annual Conferences in the United States. And we need to be planting in the neighborhood of 350 congregations a year in order to reach the populations that we now have [and] in order to, in some cases, replace the churches that are dying — but especially to reach new, more diverse populations.

The United Methodist Church has not done a good job in the last 50 years in particular of reaching the poor, reaching new immigrants, reaching the working poor. In some ways, we kind of abandoned those populations, yet those are the very people we need to be reaching. And I think the only way we’re going to do that — or it may not be the only way, but the most effective way to do that — is to plant new congregations.

So I’m hoping that we can take the good things that have happened — not only in North Georgia, but also in North Carolina, in Arkansas, and in lots of other places throughout the country — and begin to do kind of a culture and climate change in the United Methodist Church that reemphasizes the planting of new congregations, that reemphasizes evangelism.

Some people have a hard time with the word evangelism. I don’t. I think it’s a perfectly fine word.

But I’m hoping that we can begin to realize that we can’t just sit and be satisfied with tending to the people who are in our little church and doing maintenance ministry — that we’re really called to reach the world. And we’ve become very timid about reaching the world, I think.

How do you hope that our church might finally move beyond the perennial challenges to our church’s historic and democratically confirmed teaching on homosexuality, and the drain of time and energy associated with those challenges?

That’s interesting. I support our church’s position on homosexuality, I happen to think it’s biblical and also that it’s compassionate. I realize a lot of people disagree with me on that, but I happen to think that where we are is where we ought to be.

I do get a little weary of the conversation sometimes, in part because I don’t ever hear anything new. It seems like the different perspectives are never changed and there’s not much new information being shared. It’s like, “Well, we’re going to get together again, it’s been four years, so let’s get together again, and say the same old things to one another.”

I do think that our position, frankly, in the United Methodist Church is consistent with Christendom throughout the world. If you somehow could quantify it, I would think that 95 percent of Christians throughout the world would agree with our position.

One of the reasons that I would be opposed to any change is that I think it would fracture our relationships with most Christian faith communities around the world.

Shortly after the July announcement that Bishop Davis was being assigned to the Kentucky Conference (as well as the Red Bird Missionary Conference), he was interviewed by Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal:

The mainline denominations have had problems with a declining and aging membership and with controversies. What are your thoughts about the future of the [United] Methodist Church here and beyond?

I frankly think the future’s bright. After 12 years of being a bishop I’m more encouraged now than when I started about our ability to turn around that trend. But the key to it is lodged in new church planting and new church development.

One of the issues we’ve struggled with as a denomination — and so have other mainline churches — is that we’re not reaching younger people, we’re not reaching diverse populations. New churches always tend to do that.

And also, when you plant a new church in an area, it’s amazing — in two or three years you start to see other churches around begin to innovate. You put a new church in, they’re very creative, they go after a lot of the people who are not in church — and then the churches around them say “Hmm, maybe we ought to do that too.” That’s very positive….

Is it harder for existing churches to reach these hard-to-reach people because they’ve been doing things a certain way for a long period time and they get a little ingrown?

That’s part of it. Many times the tendency is to become very comfortable with the crowd you already have. You forget that really the church is not about us, it’s about reaching the lost and reaching those who are unchurched and do not have a relationship with the Lord.

It’s so often easy to become very satisfied with the crowd we know and the people we’re familiar with and the people who look like us and use the same language we do. It takes some effort to break out of that complacency.

Would you describe yourself in a particular way theologically — conservative, liberal, evangelical, charismatic, progressive?

Those are all loaded labels. I tend to be theologically conservative, but I think very progressive on some other issues.

I’m very orthodox theologically — [that] would be maybe the best way to say it. I’m not uncomfortable with those terms….

How do you balance having your own views with your role as being bishop for all the Methodists in your area, regardless of whether they agree with you?

You have to be very open and transparent about who you are. We have wide diversity of thought within the United Methodist Church. I’ve never had any trouble being pastor to all my people.

Sameness and always agreeing on every issue is not ever going to happen. We learn to love and care for one another in spite of the fact that we might have strong differences on issues.

I’ve never served a congregation where everybody agreed with me. I think we learned to love, care and respect one another, and then we have to be honest about our differences in perspective — and be good at listening to people who might have a viewpoint different from our own.

I understand that you have appointed people from a range of perspectives to positions in the North Georgia conference.

I look at performance, I look at outcome, I look at fruitfulness. If people are fruitful, they don’t have to line up with my theological perspective in order to be given more responsibility.

I’ve been a very strong advocate for women in ministry and, for lack of a better phrase, cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments.

The thing I look at primarily is: Have they produced fruit in their ministry?


Related posts
Bishop Lindsey Davis: ‘The gospel in an age of skepticism’
Bishop Lindsey Davis: ‘The primary task of the Church’
An interview with Bishop Lindsey Davis
Bishop Lindsey Davis: ‘A fully engaged laity’
Bishop Lindsey Davis: ‘Whatever it takes to reach the lost’
Bishop Lindsey Davis: The Church in time of war
Bishop Lindsey Davis: A vision for the future
Bishop Lindsey Davis speaks to the Confessing Movement
Bishop Lindsey Davis on the role of a bishop

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This week and next, MethodistThinker.com is offering a retrospective on Bishop Lindsey Davis’ 12-year tenure as the leader of the United Methodist Church’s North Georgia Conference. (He will become the bishop of the Kentucky Conference on Sept. 1.)

Since being assigned to North Georgia in 1996, Bishop Davis has used his episcopal office to promote leadership development, church planting, and mission outreach, leading the North Georgia Conference to become the largest United Methodist Conference in the U.S.

In 2000, he presented a 20-year vision for North Georgia to delegates attending the Conference’s annual session. Below is an abbreviated transcript of his remarks, delivered on June 13, 2000 at the Classic Center in Athens, Georgia.

When I came to North Georgia in 1996, I inherited leadership of what I consider to be the strongest Conference in all of Methodism.

Although we are far from all that God calls us to be, we enjoy a history of excellence in ministry, a wealth of clergy and lay leader talent, a deep commitment to Jesus Christ by over 950 congregations, and we have record of membership growth unsurpassed by any other area over the past 25 years….

2000 Logo—N. Ga. Annual Conference

2000 Logo—North Ga. Annual Conference

Our local churches understand that making disciples for Jesus Christ is our primary task — but knowing it and doing it are not always the same thing.

While we rejoice in our membership growth of over 26,000 persons this past quadrennium, it grieves my heart that one-third of our churches in 1999 — one-third of our churches — did not have a single profession of faith last year. And it grieves my heart that 50 percent of our churches had “one profession of faith or less” last year.

So we rejoice in our blessings, but have no reason to be cocky or complacent. With the population growth in the 72 counties of North Georgia, this is truly harvest time for the kingdom of God in our area.

Working with over 80 key lay and clergy leaders for the past two-and-a-half years in the leadership forum, and in consultation with the staffing task force…we put before you today a vision for the future….

By the year 2020, every congregation will be making disciples for Jesus. Every congregation will be making disciples for Jesus — led by by effective and spiritually maturing laity and pastors.

How can we ensure this vision of 100 percent effectiveness?

Well, we believe that our human, financial, and spiritual resources must be focused over the next 20 years in three primary areas: leadership development, establishing new faith communities, and birthing a steady stream of transformational mission efforts.

The first one: leadership development.

Weak leaders produce weak churches.

Where we can appoint effective, spiritually mature pastors to churches and they have the opportunity to work in partnership with effective laity, our congregations always flourish.

Two: planting new churches.

The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches. All churches can lead the lost to Christ, but new churches organized around evangelism reach unchurched persons better than established worshiping communities. Much of our growth over the past 15 years has, in fact, come from the new churches which have been planted through church development.

The challenge, it seems to me, is to create 200 new, biblically-based, vision-driven, mission-minded, community-focused, culturally-relevant, ethically-grounded, cutting edge, well-equipped, spiritually healthy, Holy Spirit-vibrant United Methodist congregations in North Georgia by the year 2020.

If you looked at demographics and our growth patterns, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that almost 100 of our 950 congregations are teetering on the brink of collapse. Many of those congregations will not be with us 20 years from now.

If we’re going to plant churches, and if we’re going to evangelize the 72 counties of North Georgia, we have to not only replace those congregations, but we have to build 100 more….

Third: birthing new mission opportunities.

In some sense, we in North Georgia live of the generational equity of parents and our grandparents. What new United Methodist ministries will be started by our generation? What new United Methodist institutions of service, and compassion, and caring, and love will be built by our generation?

What needs is God calling us to meet in the 21st century here in North Georgia and around the world?…

Just as there is a need in our day for model teaching churches to lead the way into new and dynamic ministry, I believe that there is also within United Methodism, a need for a model teaching Annual Conference — an Annual Conference that is known far-and-wide for its commitment to excellence in ministry, not for the sake of pride, but for the sake of Christ.

A model teaching Annual Conference — breaking new ground for others.

Why should that Annual Conference not be us? What Annual Conference is better positioned to do that for the whole church than us?

I believe God is calling North Georgia to give such leadership to our denomination.


Related posts
Bishop Lindsey Davis: ‘The gospel in an age of skepticism’
Conversations with Bishop Lindsey Davis
Bishop Lindsey Davis: ‘The primary task of the Church’
An interview with Bishop Lindsey Davis
Bishop Lindsey Davis: ‘A fully engaged laity’
Bishop Lindsey Davis: ‘Whatever it takes to reach the lost’
Bishop Lindsey Davis: The Church in time of war
Bishop Lindsey Davis speaks to the Confessing Movement
Bishop Lindsey Davis on the role of a bishop

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The North Georgia Conference Board of Church Development is well on its way toward reaching the goal of 200 new churches by 2020.

From the July 4 Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the newspaper of the North Georgia and South Georgia Conferences:

Nine new ministries were started in 2007, seven of which are currently worshiping with an average of 630 persons in weekly services. This year [the board is] planting six new ministries which will bring [the] total to 74 new churches and missions in pursuit of the goal of 200 by 2020.

At last month’s Annual Conference session, the Office of Church Development unveiled this video update about the conference’s church-planting efforts.

Despite the growing number of successful church starts, the Rev. Parks Davis, head of the Office of Church Development, told conference delegates more needs to be done.

Citing research by Bill Easum, Davis noted that for a conference to thrive church planting needs to occur a rate equivalent to about 4 percent of the conferences total number of church each year.

“Currently we plant an average of eight new churches and missions every year. If [Bill Easum is] right, we really need to be planting to 35 new churches and missions every year.”

North Georgia’s church-planting program, envisioned by Bishop Lindsey Davis, was launched in 2000.

Remarks by Parks Davis at last month’s conference session are below (3 min.).


After Parks Davis’ presentation, Bishop Lindsey Davis prayed for the church planters and their families (2:30).


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