With the help of Mission Initiatives, a ministry of the General Board of Global Ministries, new faith communities are emerging throughout the world, including in countries where governments do not recognize The United Methodist Church.
George Howard, who heads Mission Initiatives, said the new faith communities range from congregations to Bible study or prayer groups that meet regularly.
"The people that I encounter in these initiatives, and frankly, in many central conferences across the world, understand that God has performed yet again another miracle in their life," Howard said. "And every time they take a step forward, they give thanks for the presence of God in their life."
During 2009-12, Mission Initiatives helped start 574 faith communities, surpassing a goal of 400. The goal for the current quadrennium is 600, and 275 faith communities launched in 2013 and 2014.
Mission Initiatives is present in 12 countries and regions: Cambodia, Cameroon, Central Asia, Honduras, Laos, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, Russia/Eurasia, Senegal, Thailand and Vietnam.
In Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, former refugees introduced to the church in the United States returned as United Methodist missionaries to plant faith communities.
United Methodists, Korean Methodists and Singapore Methodists are collaborating to birth an autonomous Methodist Church in Cambodia.
In Vietnam and Laos, the government has not registered The United Methodist Church. Still, missionaries and local leaders manage to reach new people. More than 300 faith communities are in Vietnam and more than 60 in Laos.
"In both of those countries, there are places where the local government – the local leaders – have said, 'Go ahead,' so we actually have churches," Howard said. "There are other places where they're in houses and other places where they're outdoors."
Vietnam has more than 270 pastors and 14 local elders in mission with 15,000 people participating in house churches.
Russia is now a full annual conference within The United Methodist Church. Lithuania and Latvia are part of annual conferences. All three countries will transition out of Mission Initiatives.
In the past few years, Cameroon added six new faith communities. "These are small, fledgling bands of Christians in a very Muslim context," Howard said. "These are pioneers who are birthing a new Wesleyan movement."
Howard said three factors determine sustainability of the faith communities:
- Are they continuing to replicate? Do they naturally, as part of their DNA, reach out to birth new faith communities?
- Is there self-determination? Do local people set strategies, priorities and the course and live into it? Are they looking for new leaders constantly?
- Are they financially self-sufficient? How do they operate so all resources are not automatically coming from outside the community.
Tom Gillem is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Brentwood, Tenn.