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Plunge in UM Average Worship Attendance Hits New Record

By Walter Fenton-

The United Methodist Church’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) reported a 2.9 percent decline in weekly worship attendance from 2014 to 2015. Some observers merely shrug when they hear about a 2.9 percent loss. It seems deceptively inconsequential.

The stark truth is that a 2.9 percent decline means a loss of 82,313 worshippers, the largest loss in the denomination’s 48-year history. On average, UM local churches in the U.S. collectively welcomed 2,832,239 to worship services each weekend in 2014. That number dropped to 2,749,926 in 2015.

2012 General Conference delegate. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

2012 General Conference delegate. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

The figure is considered a key indicator of the health and vitality of the church, and it is an important number for helping the GCFA construct the quadrennial budgets for the general church. Last year, when the GCFA learned that average worship attendance fell 2.6 percent from 2013 to 2014, it revised downward its budget proposals for the 2016 General Conference delegates.

While a 2.9 percent decline from one year to the next does not immediately threaten the church, cumulative drops of two percent or more are cause for grave concern. In four of the last six years the denomination has seen drops above that threshold.

Throughout much of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, average worship attendance declined, but not precipitously so. While the rate dropped overall, there were years when average worship attendance actually increased. (The last time the denomination registered an increase in worship attendance was 2001, when the figure grew by 1.7 percent. Many church statisticians considered that rise an anomaly due to a resurgent, but brief interest in church attendance shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The UM Church was not alone in seeing an increase in 2001.)

Worship Attendance

“Between 1974 and 2002, we lost an average of 4,720 in worship attendance per year,” said Dr. Don House, a professional economist and former chair of GCFA’s Economic Advisory Committee. “But a major shift occurred in 2002. The rate skyrocketed to an annual rate of 52,383 between 2002 and 2012, and now we’ve seen losses of 62,571 (2012-2013), 75,671 (2013-2014), and 82,313 between 2014 and 2015. This is not sustainable.”

Generally, declining rates of worship attendance have a knock-on effect. As local churches see fewer and fewer worshippers, they find it harder to stem their declines. Eventually, they discover they can no longer afford a full-time pastor, which only exacerbates their situations.

More broadly, the denomination then struggles to recruit new pastors, particularly younger ones with families and college debt. People considering full-time ministry justifiably wonder if there would be a local church appointment available that could pay a decent salary with health and pension benefits.

Calculations like this ultimately impact the church’s seminaries in declining enrollments, leading to reduced staffing at the institutions, and even threatening their viability. In short, the drop in worship attendance erodes the very infrastructure many believe is necessary to reverse the downward trend.

In a 2014 report to the GCFA and the Connectional Table, the denomination’s highest administrative body, House warned that the church needed to quickly adopt a credible and metrics driven plan to arrest the plunge in worship attendance. If it failed to do so, he projected that by 2030 the denomination would slide into permanent decline and face collapse by 2050.

Dr. Don House - a lifelong United Methodist - holds a Ph. D. in economics and chairs the denomination's eight-member Economic Advisory Committee. Photo by Steve Beard.

Dr. Don House – a lifelong United Methodist – holds a Ph. D. in economics and chairs the denomination’s eight-member Economic Advisory Committee. Photo by Steve Beard.

When House prepared his report he possessed attendance records through 2013. Based on the figures at hand he projected an annual rate of decline of 1.76 percent, but the numbers from the last three years (2.1, 2.6, and 2.9) are well above that rate.

“If we experience a growing rate of decline, as demonstrated since 2012,” said House, “our window for a turnaround strategy will be shorter than I originally projected. We cannot maintain the connection unless we are able to implement and fund a strategy within the next 14 years.”

All five jurisdictions in the U.S. experienced average worship attendance losses in 2015. The Western Jurisdiction led the way with a drop of 3.6 percent followed by the Northeastern (3.5), North Central (3.2), South Central (2.8), and the Southeastern (2.5).

Four of the 56 U.S. annual conferences actually bucked the downward trend with increases in attendance: Yellowstone (9.5 percent), West Virginia (4.3), Dakotas (1.7), and Peninsula-Delaware (1.1).

Conferences with the steepest losses were: Eastern Pennsylvania (7.3 percent), New Mexico (6.8), Susquehanna (5.7), and Dessert Southwest (5.4). Between 2014 and 2015 the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference saw one of its largest and fastest growing local churches exit the denomination.

Wesley Church in Quarryville, PA exited the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference in 2015.

Various reasons for the decline in attendance have been cited.

There is general agreement that many local churches are located in areas where the general population has been declining for years (e.g., western New York and Pennsylvania, and across the upper Midwest and Great Plains states). When these churches were planted in the 19th century their locations made good sense, but now, due to declining population, they are difficult to sustain. It is also true that UM Church members are an aging population, so some of the decline in average worship attendance is simply due to attrition.

These natural declines are not being offset by local church growth in the major metropolitan areas clustered along the coasts, across the south, and in other urban areas where other denominations and non-denominational churches are either holding their own or seeing increases. For instance, the UM Church has only a few large, growing congregations in the densely populated urban areas of the northeast and the west.

Of the approximately 32,100 local UM churches in the U.S., 76 percent (24,654) average less than 100 in attendance, and nearly 70 percent (16,909) of those actually average less than 50 on Sunday morning. Local congregations below that threshold are often challenged to afford a full-time pastor or to find the resources necessary for a sustained plan of evangelization.

Beyond the reasons cited above, there is considerable debate as to why worship attendance has fallen for the past 14 years straight, and why the rate has accelerated so dramatically in the past five.

Many progressives and some centrists argue the church is woefully out of step with the broader culture, particularly with millennials. They claim the church is actually alienating many people with its stands on social issues, particularly those having to do with sexual ethics and marriage.

Traditionalists and other centrists argue the church has lost its evangelical zeal, and also claim the Council of Bishops’ public failures to maintain the good order of the church has undermined local church effectiveness, sapped the morale of clergy and laity who have come to distrust their leaders, and driven members away from its congregations. They also dispute the claim that the church’s sexual ethics and teachings on marriage are driving millennials away. They note that some of the largest churches in the denomination affirm the denominations’ traditionalists teachings and continue to draw large numbers of the demographic.

Despite the record loss for the denomination, many local churches continue to thrive, grow, and show signs of health and vitality in the ministries they undertake every day.

“I am confident,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, “that when we United Methodists are at our best, we have a message that will win people to Christ, transform lives, and send out dedicated disciples to the last, the least, and the lost. I’ve seen it happen over and over again in many different places. But given the crisis we are facing, we must be prepared, going forward, to consider bold ideas and implement major structural changes.”

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News.

Comments

  1. William says:

    The doctor, Don House, has called us in and told us we have 14 more years unless we find a cure for our disease. Our disease is cultural secularism with relation to sexual morality and marriage. This infiltrated our church under numerous disguises and deceptions over the last several decades. More than most want to admit, the resulting division has crippled our denomination and rendered it almost inept with relation to its stated mission. Instead of all hands on deck, especially those in leadership roles, working to fulfill the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ, many wondered off into the secular world and became part of it and took up its agenda instead of God’s. The church cannot grow while behaving like any other secular, political entity since people don’t need church to fulfill their political agendas. Therefore, unless this commission on a way forward brings forth a plan to rid our denomination of secularism and return our church to its mission of preaching the Gospel and offering sinners a place of repentance and salvation, then it will fail.

    • Licensed Local Pastor says:

      Well said William, now if only our Bishops and other leaders would only open their eyes and ears to see and hear what the world and the church really need.

  2. Barry says:

    This is what happens when all the orthodox, renewal, conservative (whatever we call ourselves) Methodists get played by the bishops and the reconcilers and fail to act decisively and promptly. You turn around and no one is left to have a commission for. The liberals are running off the conservatives and then they have to close down the church because there is not enough of them to sustain themselves. The sooner we wake up and take the progressives at their word that there is no there is no middle ground the better off we will all be.

  3. William says:

    This is what progressives envision as a possible “local option” method for the UMC? Pretentiousness personified? Living divided while proclaiming division a positive? Proclaiming profound disagreement on theology within the local church body and even the staff a good thing? By calling a congregation’s foundation of sand a foundation of rock makes it so?

    Furthermore, can anyone imagine what this Wesleyan Orthodox Methodist minister is living through each day in trying to carry out his call to ministry? The prayer for him must be that the WCA can assist him on his difficult journey as the church moves toward the next Judicial Council session and/or the special 2019 General Conference.

    http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/traditionalist-pastor-finds-progressive-fans

  4. Roger says:

    It has been reliably reported that UM have been losing approx. 100,000 members each year in the USA.. This amounts to approx. 100 Churches of average size. Also the attrition rate in Senior members increases the loss also. A prominent financial advisor has said that it takes 5 new young members to replace 1 older member over 55 in giving to the Church. The UM is in deeper trouble than this article. The feet dragging of our Officials brings the Church to a crossroads. Either we will make proper decisions or we will atrophy out of viable existence.

  5. Charlie says:

    I was baptized in and joined the UMC when 33, in 1990. I was attracted to the UMC for many reasons, to a seeker after Christianity it seemed to be a good middle of the road choice to start with. Became active, over time becoming a lay leader, then was a local pastor of a small rural church for 5 years. Over that time became frustrated by many things, one of which was the growing concern that our distinctives, our brand as marketers might call it, were virtually non-existent, Traditional Wesleyan practices and teachings were long in the dustbin of history Long story short, eventually my family and I migrated all the way to the Orthodox church.
    That’s a wonderful theology and tradition there, but even after many years I sometimes feel a stranger there. But where is there to go? A big evangelical church with Pastor Bob with the cool goatee and the hip praise and worship team? No thanks! Some days I just find myself thinking the answer is to take my dog out in the woods on Sunday morning and give it all a rest. A shame, those old times “saddlebags men” built quite a remarkable denomination, and it so sad to see it continue to decline. Best wishes to all…

    • Gumbostu says:

      I am a life long Methodist and have had many good years of fellowship with 3 different UMCs.
      I became aware of the rift that was forming when I became a lay delegate to the Annual Conference in the 1980s. It seems every year the same group of people would try and force their will on the rest for allowing gay pastors and gay marriage. Hours and hours of argument would ensue taking hours to iron out.
      What the church needs to decide are we going to believe the Bible as the inspired work of God or not and if so do we abide by the teachings. If so then it is clear that homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle.
      Currently we have a pastor that is pro gay and has blamed the congregation for the attack in Orlando for not being open to the gay community. This attitude has driven many from our church and I think that this issue will destroy the church unless stopped.

  6. Dan Brauser says:

    My wife and I did our graduate work (MBA/MLA) at Southern Methodist University. We attended Highland Park Methodist Church on the campus of SMU. Following retirement from our career employers we purchased property near Cody, WY. and have since finished our home and are living full time in the small community of Wapiti. We have been attending the United Methodist Church in Cody the past two years. The fellowship has been wonderful and we have endeavored to share our gifts of music and teaching with the church. All of this, however, has been deeply challenged by the election of the Lesbian Bishop to our region. It is like a dark shadow has been cast across our souls. We have shared our concerns with the Pastor and leadership team, but it appears that no one wants to challenge or ‘push back’ on this decision. It’s like everyone is ‘frozen in place’ and wants to pretend that it doesn’t matter or wont have an effect on our local congregation. But, in truth it already has. The church Bible Study has now changed from seeking guidance from the scriptures to debating the validity of the Pauline Epistles. A former Methodist Minister has joined the church and is championing LGBT issues. No longer can there be a free discussion on sanctification or Biblical purity if it includes the passages which condemn Homosexuality. Sections of scripture are now ‘off limits’ and our Pastor makes no attempt to lead the congregation on these issues from the pulpit. The median age of our congregation is probably in the 70+ range. There are few young people or young couples in the church. We wonder if our testimony makes any difference whatsoever. We are conflicted in our view of the Methodist Church at large and the lack of response in our local congregation in particular. I fear that this pattern is now or will be soon reenacted in churches across the country as we silently and willingly walk blindingly into the night.

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