September 24, 2014

Another Year of Decline for U.S. United Methodists

Every year, each United Methodist annual conference takes a tally of local church statistics to be placed in the subsequent year’s Annual Conference Journal. In the United States, these statistics are typically compiled for the summer annual conferences, and then posted on the UMC’s website. As summer comes to an end, it’s possible to compile these statistics to get a better picture of the general trend of the United Methodist Church in the United States. Unfortunately, 2013’s picture is no different from previous years: the vast majority of annual conferences are in a membership and attendance decline.

Quick caveat: eight conferences failed to turn in Annual Conference Reports– or turned in reports that didn’t include membership and attendance totals– and have not posted their 2014 Annual Conference Journal on their conference website. Those conferences are the Dakotas, Greater New Jersey, North Texas, Northwest Texas, Peninsula-Delaware, Red Bird Missionary, Wisconsin, and Yellowstone Annual Conferences. As a result, the following analysis does not take those conferences into account, although it’s unlikely they would substantially alter the general picture of decline.

The 49 reporting U.S. annual conferences reported over 83,000 fewer members combined, with more than 68,000 fewer members attending weekly services. These losses are consistent with the results of the previous year’s annual conference reports, as reported by United Methodist News Service. UMNS’s analysis found a loss of 87,319 members and 50,895 fewer people in worship in 2012, based on 57 of the 59 annual conference reports. While membership losses continue at roughly the same pace, the decline in worship attendance has jumped by more than one-third.

There were a few positive exceptions. The Texas and North Carolina Annual Conferences both saw modest growth in their membership totals, but by less than one percent each. The Alaska and Central Texas Conferences both saw similarly modest growth in attendance, while Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference saw a respectable 2.7 percent growth in attendance. But the only conference to grow in both membership and attendance was the Tennessee Annual Conference, by less than one percent for each.

But there were also a few negative outliers. Rio Grande Annual Conference led the U.S. conferences in membership (-9.08%) and attendance losses (-10.62%), which may be partially related to its ongoing merger with Southwest Texas. But in second place was the Pacific-Northwest Annual Conference, with a 5.06% drop in membership and an 8.25% drop in weekly attendance. In fact, the entire Western Jurisdiction did very poorly when it came to membership losses. Six of its eight annual conferences were in the bottom ten: Pacific-Northwest, Alaska (-4%), Rocky Mountain (-3.5%), Oregon-Idaho (-3.04%), California-Pacific (3%), and Desert Southwest (-2.93%).

Annual Conference % membership decline in ‘13 Jurisdiction
Rio Grande 9.04 South Central
Pacific-Northwest 5.06 Western
Alaska 4.00 Western
Rocky Mountain 3.50 Western
Detroit 3.31 North Central
Oregon-Idaho 3.04 Western
California-Pacific 3.00 Western
West Ohio 2.99 North Central
Desert Southwest 2.93 Western
New Mexico 2.64 South Central

 

Meanwhile, the North Central Jurisdiction seemed to suffer the worst attendance losses. Five of its eleven annual conferences were in the bottom ten: Northern Illinois (-5.46%), West Michigan (-5.37%), Illinois Great River (-4.25%), Detroit (-4.12%), and Minnesota (-4%). If it’s any consolation, the Western Jurisdiction suffered a greater decline in attendance on average, thanks to the abysmal performance of the Pacific-Northwest Annual Conference.

Annual Conference % attendance decline in ‘13 Jurisdiction
Rio Grande 10.62 South Central
Pacific-Northwest 8.25 Western
Northern Illinois 5.46 North Central
West Michigan 5.37 North Central
New York 4.44 Northeast
Illinois Great River 4.25 North Central
New England 4.13 Northeast
Detroit 4.12 North Central
Minnesota 4.00 North Central
Oklahoma 3.98 South Central

 

One interesting case is that of the New York Annual Conference. In 2013, UMNS spotlighted it as one of the few annual conferences that had grown in weekly attendance (albeit, by only 0.3%). The late Bishop Martin McLee chalked it up to worship revisions that had created “a more ‘friendly’ approach to the worship experience.” In the year since, however, the New York Annual Conference has suffered the fifth worse decline in attendance among the U.S. annual conferences. Whatever positive changes, flukes, or accounting magic led to 2012’s noteworthy numbers seems to have evaporated.

It’s hard not to look at the list of fastest declining annual conferences in light of the continuing debates over Scriptural authority and sexual morality within the United Methodist Church. Of the 16 fast-declining conferences listed above (excluding Rio Grande’s unusual circumstances), at least 12 have passed resolutions at recent annual conference sessions stating their support of the LGBTQ movement, and another (Alaska) belongs to a jurisdiction that has done the same. Meanwhile large and growing UM annual conferences have overwhelmingly rejected such resolutions.

This year’s bleak picture is hardly an outlier. The United Methodist Church has been in decline in America since the 1960’s. But by examining what’s driving the growth in the conferences like Tennessee and Texas, by diagnosing what’s driving the exodus in conferences like Pacific-Northwest and Northern Illinois, and by relying on God’s guidance, anything can happen.

IRD’s compiled statistics can be downloaded by clicking here. The document, and this article, will be updated as the remaining annual conference journals come in.


35 Responses to Another Year of Decline for U.S. United Methodists

  1. ericfolkerth says:

    Blah, Blah, Blah…The IRD has been posting similar articles for a dozen years. Surely nobody is surprised that they’d come out with this kind of skewed analysis.
    There is absolutely another way to see this data: Since 1972, the United Methodist Church *as a whole* has continued to LOSE membership. Since 1972, the United Methodist Church’s doctrine on human sexuality…and homosexuality…*as a whole* has gotten progressively more conservative….ie, the restrictions put in place by General Conferences since that time.

    It’s very predictable that, as our polity has gotten more and more conservative, churches in more progressive parts of the country are getting smaller. More and more people are deciding that they cannot, in good conscience, remain a part of a *denomination* whose policies so clearly discriminate and cause harm to LGBT people. Even if they love their local church, many people are making this decision. I would estimate we have lost 100 members over the past 13 years in this way. Thank God, we’ve brought in more than this…

    But again, one should not be shocked by this. If you get more conservative, over all, you will LOSE the progressive wing of your church, over time. That is precisely what has been happening in the UMC for the past 30 years.

    Any thought that this data “proves” that a more conservative theology would guarantee membership growth is CRAZY. This can be dispelled by the face that the Southern Baptist Convention is *also* losing membership. If the logic “Conservative churches always grow” was true, that wouldn’t be happening. But it is.

    The fact is that we have been slowly choking off the growth of our progressive churches…with our restrictive and conservative regulations on same sex marriage and gay clergy….for 30 years. Progressive churches are doing ministry with one hand tied behind their backs, and have been for years.

    Do this: Find the courage, at the next General Conference, to adopt a “live and let live” theology. (Hamilton/Slaughter). And you may not see a change in the total decline. But you most definitely will see growth numbers where progressive parts of the country would again compete with more conservative parts of the country.

    Until then, this kind of drivel-analysis is like taking credit for the Sun rising.

    • Kyle says:

      Try to see it from our point of view: “losing” the progressive wing is not a loss. I mean, as Christians we want as many people as possible to enter God’s kingdom. But the so-called progressive wing isn’t in church for the faith, they’re in it for the politics – so, strictly speaking, losing them means losing non-Christians, people who are just using the church to push a social agenda.

    • The other Wesley says:

      However, Eric, the largest churches in the western jurisdiction (non UM) are conservative, not progressive. In the denominations that have taken the plunge into pro GLBTQIA theology, you can’t find a church of any significant size in the West (or the rest of the country, for that matter). So I believe your analysis of this data may be a bit flawed.

    • Claus von Stauffenberg says:

      TO: ericfolkerth

      YOUR STATEMENT OF “..whose policies so clearly discriminate and cause harm to LGBT people” [sic] is a very poorly chosen portrayal and outlook concerning this obvious perversion.

      Christ discriminates against NO ONE, and I do not believe that the policy of a practicing Christian congregation would countermand their Savior.

      Satan loves it when people who are living in a sin of weakness are greased by that old humanist aphorism of “I’m okay – you’re okay!”

      The body of Christ is to help each other follow the words of Scripture that preserves our faith and keeps us on the road to salvation in Christ.

      2 TIMOTHY 4:1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and His kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

  2. American Deist says:

    @ericforkerth: Clearly the struggle over sexual issues is harming UM. Your voice adds to the internal division. Obviously, liberals and conservatives must undergo a separation and keep company with those who agree with their own outlook. That is not a bad thing. In the end, history will decide which side has the greater strength. Those who think that the strength of Christianity is found in following the scriptural injunctions concerning sexuality are more likely, in my opinion, to endure.

    • Walker Brault says:

      Why is the obvious solution to split? Letting each group turn into groups that simply preach to the choir doesn’t solve anything (not that the current dynamic is either) it just pushes the divide deeper and leaves out everyone who isn’t part of those groups either because they don’t know what to believe at this point or that the debate is too political/all the voices they hear are just yelling past each other.

    • MrDrT says:

      I disagree. This is a faith issue evidenced by an unwillingness to serve others. We have a lot of country clubs with crosses on them. I suggest reading “Radical” by David Platt.

      • Starley says:

        It is one thing to love the sinner. It is another to be told to love the sin. I have physically fought to save a homosexual from injury. I will not fight to save homosexual behavior and will walk from any church that does so. It is explicitly defined as sinful behavior. To endorse or accept the behavior is the same as accepting adultery, prostitution, theft, murder, or any other well defined sinful behavior.

    • Claus von Stauffenberg says:

      I totally agree with you !

      As God tells us: “For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart, no creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account. ~ Hebrews 4:12

      Nothing but the truth satisfies the soul, and Jesus IS the truth. JOHN 14:6 “

      Jesus answered, “I am the way and the TRUTH and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

      ISAIAH 5:20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness, who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own opinion and clever in their own sight.

    • Claus von Stauffenberg says:

      I totally agree with you !

      As God tells us: “For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart, no creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account. ~ Hebrews 4:12

      Nothing but the truth satisfies the soul, and Jesus IS the truth. JOHN 14:6 “

      Jesus answered, “I am the way and the TRUTH and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

      ISAIAH 5:20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness, who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own opinion and clever in their own sight.

  3. bostic says:

    Eric, you are part of the problem. Sexuality has nothing to do with salvation. Any common sense evangelical would not disagree–gay people can and will be in heaven. The problem is people like you have made this the one and only issue. I thought people having Christ as Lord was prime directive? Yes, I am a UMC pastor and proud of it!

    • Gerry Mc Daniel says:

      No sexual orientation survives death. There will be people in heaven but they will NOT be labeled based on an orientation that has been transcended.

    • Jennifer Prestash says:

      Accepting Jesus as Lord is the prime directive. The Scriptures are clear that those who engage in sex outside of Christian marriage (one man and one woman) would not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. That means that homosexuals need to refrain from sexual activity if not married to a member of the opposite sex. Likewise, those who do not follow the rest of the moral laws do not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. A large part of the decline of the Methodist Church (and a lot of Christian Churches) is the rejection of Biblical Morality in favor of 21st century anything goes morality.

    • accelerator says:

      “Any common sense evangelical would not disagree–gay people can and will be in heaven. ”

      I consider myself a common sense Evangelical. But I don’t agree with your statement, at least not without important caveats. Scripture clearly states unrepentant homosexual activity can land you in a place other than Heaven, as un21st century as the idea might be.

    • Mike Ward says:

      “Common sense evangelicals” would agree their will be thieves in heaven, but that doesn’t mean they would attend a church the teaches that stealing is OK. I’m not equating homosexuailty with theft; you can be for one and against the other, but your comment misses the point.

    • Claus von Stauffenberg says:

      TO: bostic

      The sin of homosexualism can be forgiven like all other sins. And, yes, heaven will be full of sinners who have been forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ.

      As someone who has studied the Bible and a pastor by profession, you must understand that the only thing that keeps people out of heaven is their impenitence and rejection of the forgiveness of sins that their Savior, Jesus Christ has earned for them and the world.

      ◄ 1 John 1:9 ►
      If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

      The confession of sins is a product of a sanctified heart, the work of the Holy Spirit through the law, that shows us our sin, and the gospel that shows us God’s love and His means of satisfying His perfect justice by atoning for the sins of the world through the vicarious sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

      How do you suppose God responds to those who say something is NOT a sin when He says that it is?

      ISAIAH 5:20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness, who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. 21Woe to those who are wise in their own opinion and clever in their own sight.

    • Starley says:

      If you are a UMC pastor, then you are aware repentance is a requirement for salvation. Justifying sin as acceptable to excel in grace was seriously condemned by Paul. And the reverse of repentance. It is understood that all are imperfect. However, glorification of sin as acceptable is the opposite of repentance, a requirement for the grace of forgiveness.

  4. Walker Brault says:

    Correlation =/= causation
    Lynchings have also declined since the 1960’s so by that logic, the UMC should start up all those lynchings again.
    Clearly this isn’t the case and there is nothing in this article that directly links pro-LGBT and a decline in church membership. The Western Jurisdiction also covers the area of the US that is the least religious. Anyone think that might have some influence on it? Anyone care to guess where Tennessee and Texas are? That’s right, the bible belt, where just about everyone is christian.

  5. John S. says:

    Perhaps the loss in the West Coast is because of the greater number of Bishops per capita than the other conferences. Maybe by reducing the number of Bishops they can be revitalized?

  6. MarcoPolo says:

    After reading this very meticulously detailed presentation of figures, and before reading any of the comments, I thought, why not ask Alexander Griswold the question: What would have to change within the Church, to see these trending numbers reverse?

    Well, then I read all of the comments, and I must say, they post some thoughtful insight to this conundrum.

    So what is to be done?

    I was born and raised within the fold of Methodism.
    I have generations of relatives who have stood fast to the foundations of the Methodist tradition, and most of them are fairly progressive in their view of our current social structure. So why is it that we find ourselves unsure of WHY the Methodist church is declining in membership?

    I think the answer is closer to that of the comment from ericfolerth, and Walker Brault. But, that’s just my thoughts.

  7. CDGingrich says:

    The decline is greater than recorded. My wife and I are still officially members of a UMC church, but have been attending a wonderful Wesleyan church.

    • Claus von Stauffenberg says:

      TO: CDGingrich

      If you are “church shopping” for a denomination whose mandate is “Sola Scriptura” (by Scripture alone), please investigate the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS)

      “The true rule is this: God’s Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther

      Stick with Scripture alone. One man with a Bible can be smarter than a whole church!

  8. wayne says:

    They are too liberal! People will respect you if you stay true to your values and convictions, but when you’re wishy washy and politically correct, no one wants to be associated with you.

  9. Nolan Mattson says:

    What is the name of this church in the picture?

  10. Big Leo says:

    The UMC has declined every year since 1964. In any given decade, all the leftist churches have. They must be the wave of the future.

  11. Troof Detector says:

    I left the UMC because conservatives have no voice.

  12. OldCat1 says:

    Something that I have never understood is why the UMC immediately start to decline after it was established by the merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches in 1968. Was it ever a good idea?

  13. David Garza says:

    greetings and Blessings Too All, As a life time member of the Methodist Church (1950-1968, as the Old ME Church, and since UMC), I feel sad for my denomination, but instead of worrying about the LGBTQ movement, the Methodist Church should return to its “Hell, Fire, and Brimstone” preaching, where souls were evangelized. The church where I’m a member at doesn’t even give an ‘Alter Call’, instead it opps for prayer requests from the pews (mostly all are sitting down), and is almost done in passing. Communion is only on the 1st Sunday. You would think that as hard as it is to become an ordained UMC Minister, that they would have their services packed, instead of ‘your sitting in my place’! I don’t think that John and Charles Wesley, Susanna Wesley or George Whitefield would recognize today’s Methodist Church. I was a teenager when my church went UMC, and many old-timers left then, and it has been in decline ever since. With the largest Methodist church in Virginia, after a century of ministry, comes to an end, instead of blaming” Mortality and white flight claimed the rest of the flock. The remnants abandoned the 1,000-seat sanctuary long ago” (http://pilotonline.com/life/religion/after-a-century-of-ministry-the-once-largest-methodist-church/article_28340634-91ca-5156-b414-318447099a1b.html), the church leadership should be calling for a ‘solemn fast’ and an ‘Old Time Prayer Meeting’ for some soul searching, and Holy Ghost reckoning! It has nothing to do with “White Flight”, otherwise why are all of the old large Baptist Churches (many of which have been in the same location for just as long as Park Place United Methodist Church) busting at the seems? What do you think?

  14. David Garza says:

    Greetings and Blessings Too All,
    As a life time member of the Methodist Church (1950-1968, as the Old ME Church, and since UMC), I feel sad for my denomination, but instead of worrying about the LGBTQ movement, the Methodist Church should return to its “Hell, Fire, and Brimstone” preaching, where souls were evangelized. The church where I’m a member at doesn’t even give an ‘Alter Call’, instead it opps for prayer requests from the pews (mostly all are sitting down), and is almost done in passing. Communion is only on the 1st Sunday. You would think that as hard as it is to become an ordained UMC Minister, that they would have their services packed, instead of ‘your sitting in my place’! I don’t think that John and Charles Wesley, Susanna Wesley or George Whitefield would recognize today’s Methodist Church. I was a teenager when my church went UMC, and many old-timers left then, and it has been in decline ever since. With the largest Methodist church in Virginia, after a century of ministry, comes to an end, instead of blaming” Mortality and white flight claimed the rest of the flock. The remnants abandoned the 1,000-seat sanctuary long ago” (http://pilotonline.com/life/re…, the church leadership should be calling for a ‘solemn fast’ and an ‘Old Time Prayer Meeting’ for some soul searching, and Holy Ghost reckoning! It has nothing to do with “White Flight”, otherwise why are all of the old large Baptist Churches (many of which have been in the same location for just as long as Park Place United Methodist Church) busting at the seems? What do you think?

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