This year will commemorate a full half century since United Methodism’s last year of membership growth in the U.S. The Methodist Church had 10,331,574 in 1965, an increase of about 27,000 over 1964. Then it lost 21,000 in 1966, a trend never reversed and in fact accelerated after the 1968 merger with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Although becoming an 11 million member church, losses increased initially to sometimes over 150,000 annually. Today United Methodism in the U.S. stands at 7.3 million, an over one third decline.
How did other more theologically conservative Wesleyan denominations fare over the last 50 years? The Church of God increased by two thirds. The Wesleyan Church increased by 75 percent. The Church of the Nazarene nearly doubled. The Free Methodist Church increased by 25 percent. The Assemblies of God have increased a whopping 500 percent. Growth for most of these churches over the last several years has leveled off, except for the still fast growing Assemblies. But none are experiencing United Methodism’s ongoing exodus.
Methodism had been America’s largest Protestant denomination until surpassed by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1967, whose membership is now more than double United Methodism’s.
Why did Methodist decline start 50 years ago? Here’s my theory. Methodism’s official seminaries were all captured by liberalism by the 1920s. Most clergy weren’t seminary trained until mid century, but the course of study materials for non-seminary trained clergy closely followed seminary curricula. By the 1960s nearly all of the clergy would have been trained in theological modernism, denying or minimizing the supernatural and personal salvation in favor of Social Gospel and therapeutic themes. A 1967 survey found 60 percent of Methodist clergy disbelieving the Virgin Birth and 50 percent disbelieving the Resurrection.
The impact on membership was predictable. Absent the imperative for soul-saving and confidence in Christian doctrine, gaining new adherents became more of a sociological exercise or a bid for institutional preservation. Neither inspires great zeal.
Is there hope for a future U.S. membership turnaround? Yes, but not for a long time. Thanks to growing United Methodism in Africa, the denomination as a whole is growing by over 100,000 members annually, with the over 200,000 gain in Africa more than compensating for the U.S. church’s nearly 100,000 annual loss. African influence on the U.S. based bureaucracy will eventually push it in a more orthodox, evangelistic direction. It already has helped transform the General Board of Global Ministries. Inevitably the U.S. seminaries will be positively influenced by a denomination that is soon to be majority African.
There is also the continued vitality of Evangelical pockets in the U.S. church, fed by Asbury Seminary and other outposts of orthodoxy. But don’t look for U.S. membership growth for at least another 15-20 years, after another 2 million lost members. We’ve experienced two generations of clergy who’ve not worked in a growing denomination. And many, perhaps most clergy remain firmly in denial about the causes of decline. Some falsely and comfortingly assume all churches in America are shriveling. Others try to sanctify shrinking churches as somehow more faithful and spiritually elite. For them, church growth is idolatrous.
But there’s nothing holy about a death spiral. The Gospel commands offering redemption to the whole world. All the church’s good works, rightly understood, are in service to the urgent evangelistic imperative. The fields are white to harvest. Some day United Methodism in the U.S. will return to the fields with renewed vigor.