While the United Methodist Church’s U.S. membership has continued to shrink, its growth elsewhere in the world has put it over the 12 million-member mark for the first time, newly released statistics show.
The church’s membership in Africa, Europe, and Asia grew from 3.5 million to 4.4 million in the five years ending in 2009, according to the United Methodist Council on Finance and Administration.
In that time, worldwide membership increased from almost 11.6 million to nearly 12.1 million.
“The major growth has been in Africa and the Philippines,” said Scott Brewer, connectional services director for the finance council.
The Rev. John H. Southwick, research director at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, asked an African colleague her take on the rapid growth. She told him the people in Africa are looking for hope. “Most have very challenging life circumstances, and anything they can grab onto has appeal.”
That growth has occurred despite further slippage in U.S. membership. U.S. professing membership in 2009 was down 1.22 percent from 2008, to a 7.8 million members, according to new data from the council.
The United Methodist Church remains the third-largest religious group in the United States, and its membership trends—decreases in the United States and increases in other countries—have mirrored those of other mainline denominations.
“There is no future for the United Methodist Church in the U.S. unless it can demonstrate that it can reach more people, younger people and more diverse people,” declared the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr., professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.
The decline did not start yesterday.
Other denominations reflect similar trends
Weems, who also directs the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, said the denomination’s membership decline tracks with that of other mainline denominations since 1966.
Mainlines include the American Baptist Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ.
Weems attributed United Methodist losses in part to the U.S. population’s migration from the denomination’s traditional rural base to more metropolitan areas where the church has been weaker.
Other factors, he said, include “the retreat for many years from starting new churches where the people were moving and the failure to reach the emerging younger and more diverse population.”
The trend of emptier pews is not limited to mainline Protestants.
Most Protestant denominations reported declining U.S. membership between 2008 and 2009, according to the 2011 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.
For example, the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s second largest religious group, reported a 0.4 percent decline to about 16.1 million members. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, another evangelical denomination, reported a 1.08 percent decrease to about 2.3 million.
According to the yearbook, the United Methodist Church saw the smallest declines of any mainline denomination.
The Roman Catholic Church, the nation’s largest religious group, is an exception to the shrinking trend, reporting nearly 0.6 percent growth to 68.5 million members. Two Pentecostal denominations—the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee)—also saw their numbers climb. Likewise, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Seventh-Day Adventists experienced increases.
Church thrives in Africa, the Philippines
Meanwhile, United Methodism outside the United States continues to thrive, led by the Congo Central Conference during the 2005-09 period, according to the Council on Finance and Administration.
Weems likened church growth in Africa and the Philippines to that of American Methodism in the early 19th century “when the Methodists went from being the smallest religious group in the country to the largest.
“While United Methodism in the U.S. shows signs of a mature and struggling denomination,” he added, “many central conferences outside the U.S. reflect something more like the early stages of a movement.”
From 2008 to 2009, average U.S. worship attendance decreased 1.85 percent, to nearly 3.2 million. The figures are based on records from local churches and annual (regional) conferences.
But the Council on Finance and Administration sees signs of hope. U.S. congregations reported nearly 280,000 people enrolled in covenant discipleship groups, more than 1 million children participating in vacation Bible schools, more than 800,000 people served by church daycares or community-education ministries, and more than 15 million people nurtured by community ministries for outreach, justice or mercy.
“This data tells an exciting and compelling story about the impact our churches are making in the world,” said the finance council’s Brewer. “In the church, as with many organizations, we struggle with how to make our administrative structures and processes truly support our mission. I hope this new data can help support that mission more effectively.”
Although membership was down for the U.S. church at large, five conferences reported membership increases, and eight reported growth in worship attendance.
The conferences reporting membership growth in 2009 included Central Texas, North Georgia, Red Bird Missionary, Tennessee, and Virginia. Those with attendance increases were Alabama-West Florida, Detroit, North Carolina, Pacific Northwest, Red Bird Missionary, Rocky Mountain, Rio Grande, and Yellowstone.
Conferences with the largest membership declines were Alaska Missionary, Troy, West Ohio, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Those showing the biggest decreases in attendance were Iowa, Northern Illinois, Peninsula-Delaware, West Michigan, and West Virginia.
Congregations use new data in to support mission
“Some of the acceleration in declining membership could be a result of changes in the statistical forms,” Brewer said. “These changes allowed churches more easily (to) reconcile their statistical reports with their membership records and may have contributed to the greater decrease.”
Deb Smith, best practices director at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, said the denomination loses most members by death and removal by charge conference. However, she added, the denomination is receiving more new members from other denominations than it is losing. Between 2008 and 2009, the United Methodist Church received 56,000 members through transfer, while about half that number transferred to other denominations.
“We added by profession of faith almost one and one-half times those who withdrew,” Smith said.
The racial/ethnic breakdown for U.S. United Methodist membership indicates 91.2 percent white, 5.9 percent African American/black, 1.1 percent Asian, 0.9 percent Hispanic/Latino, 0.4 percent multi-racial, 0.3 percent Native American and 0.2 percent Pacific Islander.
Relationships attract seekers
As U.S. demographics continue to change, immigration will continue to encourage congregations “to be in mission and ministry with those who live in and around their communities,” said Samuel Rodriguez, director of Hispanic/Latino New Church Starts for the Board of Discipleship.
“Areas where the presence is new can learn from conferences (that) have been in this type of ministry for decades. Providing places where immigrants can worship in their native tongue is yet another opportunity for our conferences to share the good news of our Risen Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Often, the best way to draw people, especially young adults, to the church is not by inviting them to worship.
“The increasing ranks of the unchurched will very likely not encounter the congregation first in worship because that is the last place they would want to go on their own, no matter how ‘cool’ it is,” said the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources at the Board of Discipleship.
“They will encounter Christians they know through relationships with them and perhaps through groups or mission efforts they become involved in outside the congregation. They may eventually be invited to worship and, maybe, over time, grow to be disciples. But most of that actual growth remains more likely to happen outside the congregation proper rather than within it.”
He often asks people to describe a time in their life when their discipleship to Jesus radically deepened. Most describe something that happened outside, rather than inside, a congregation.
“The assumption that congregations are primary venues for discipleship seems unsupported by what I’m hearing,” Burton-Edwards said.
“John Wesley planted exactly zero congregations. The Methodist societies were not congregations, nor were class meetings, bands or field preaching. They were para-congregational groups that helped disciple people, send them in mission and connect them to congregations.”
Barbara Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications. This is a special UMNS Report.