The United Methodist Church in the U.S. lost at least another 78,000 members in 2011, with 4 U.S. annual conferences yet to report, bringing U.S. membership probably down below 7.5 million. Only 3 annual conferences reported both membership and attendance growth. Two of the three can perhaps be credited to Bishop Lindsey Davis, an evangelical who now leads Kentucky and previously lead North Georgia. Both conferences each gained over 1000 members.
There were also 240 new members in Greater New Jersey. The Northeast Jurisdiction otherwise is among the fastest declining areas of United Methodism. Central Texas was the fourth annual conference that gained members though it declined in attendance.
United Methodism has now fallen numerically to where it was in 1925, when its predecessor bodies combined had about 7.5 million members. The U.S. population then had only about 118 million, compared to today’s over 300 million. If United Methodism today retained the same population share as 1925, it would have about 20 million members.
The good news is that United Methodism continues to grow globally. Most overseas membership numbers evidently are not yet available for 2011. But Burundi and East Africa conferences together gained 68,000 members last year, growing by nearly 30 percent in one year. So the gain of just those two relatively small areas almost compensated for total losses in the U.S. Those two regions together comprise only about 7 percent of African United Methodism. In recent years African United Methodism has been growing about 200,000 members annually, compared to typical U.S. losses of 50,000 to 100,000 annually. At the current rates, United Methodists in Africa may outnumber church members in the U.S. within a decade or so.
Does United Methodism in the U.S. have a future? I predict the U.S. church will decline for another 25 years or so and will lose at least another 2 million members. Eventually the growing African influence will begin to influence our church agencies and seminaries. The Africans and other internationals almost got proportional representation on oversight of church agency boards at this year’s General Conference until the Judicial Council overturned the restructuring plan. They will get it next General Conference. Currently Africans only get about 3 or 4 percent of church agency board membership even though they comprise over 35 percent of total church membership.
The implosion of membership in the U.S. is also an opportunity for evangelicals. Liberal regions will implode the fastest, and evangelical churches may be the last ones standing. It’s also inevitable that more conferences will have to be merged. The Desert-Southwest Conference, until recently headed by liberal Bishop Minerva Carcano, is now down to 37,000 members, compared to North Georgia’s 358,000. The entire Western Jurisdiction, the church’s most radical region, now comprises less than 3 percent of United Methodism. In fact, it’s now about equal in size to just the North Georgia Conference. Probably it will eventually have to be disassembled into the North Central and South Central Jurisdictions.
United Methodism in the U.S. is a laboratory illustrating the failures of liberal theology. “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” as an advertising slogan, appeals to liberal church elites. It does not convert non-believers or excite most believers. Of late, some liberal religionists, seeking consolation, have claimed that nearly ALL churches in the U.S. are in decline. But their claim is not true. Some conservative churches are declining or, like the Southern Baptists, have leveled off after decades of dramatic growth. But the only growing denominations, like the Assemblies of God, are conservative. And the fastest growing churches are nondenominational and evangelical. All liberal denominations are in decline. Overall church attendance in the U.S. has remained stable for 80 years, but Americans now attend different churches.
Almost none of the current U.S. United Methodist bishops will or can admit this reality. It will take another generation to lead the renewal of United Methodism in America. Meanwhile, give thanks for our African church members. And prayerfully encourage evangelical vitality wherever it exists in the U.S. church.