January 28, 2015

Fifty Years Since Methodism Grew in America

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.

11 Responses to Fifty Years Since Methodism Grew in America

  1. Heinrich Bolleter says:

    If so, in The USA …while in other parts of the world there is GROWTH!

  2. Orter T. says:

    Thank you for contrasting the United Methodist decline with the rise of the Wesleyan Church, etc . I became aware of the Wesleyan Church’s growth several years ago. In the face of their growth while embracing basic orthodox Christianity, I don’t understand how the UMC can continue to think it can save itself in its current muddled state.

  3. Dan says:

    Very good work, Mark. Your analytical background shows. I wonder how you would contrast the Anglican experience with Western provinces stonewalling the Africans to prevent their influence from continuing, to the UMC experience?

  4. Mike Ward says:

    I agree with the common opinion that it is their liberalism that caused the mainline churches to hemorage members, but is it their theological liberalism or their political liberalism that most caused the decline?

    Most seem to assume the mainline churches theological liberalism–their abandoning of Christian fundamentals like biblical inerancy and the virgin birth–was the problem, but these same churches also have tended to put liberal politics ahead of theology and on their fringes embraced communism, sociaism, anti-semetism, anti-zionism, anti-Americanism, and/or radicalism. I don’t think any of this sat well with socially conservative and moderate memebers who then left. I wonder if a theologically moderate or liberal church which was politically neutral could thrive in the US.

  5. Byrom says:

    I will not deny Mark’s comments. However, I am fortunate to be a Methodist in Houston, Texas, where there are still several conservative congregations and pastors. After having been away from a Methodist church or any other church for a number of years, I joined one of those conservative congregations recently. But, I did so with the full knowledge of what is going on with United Methodism in the U.S., thanks to IRD. I am prepared to defend my beliefs in Biblical truths and my faith in God and Jesus Christ, regardless of the cost. I have decided to follow God faithfully and let Him worry about the consequences.

  6. John S. says:

    The decline is doubly apparent when one starts using ratios instead of numbers. Consider how much the USA has grown in those 50 years and look at the divergence.

  7. OC says:

    I can say from personal experience that if you hold a conservative view of the Bible, it is very difficult to move through the process of become ordained in the UMC. This is designed to elimination non-conformers. The pastor as a whole, although you will find exceptions, want homosexual marriages in the church, the removal of the word sin, and no song about the blood of Christ. I was criticized the most when I taught Sunday school was when I quoted the Book of Discipline or Social Principles concerning Marriage of one man and one woman. I was told I was intolerant and this is equally wrong. I am to be tolerant of sin? I moved on after many years that began in the pre-UMC Methodist church.

  8. Pak Mamat says:

    Thank you for this article. There is a relatively small but growing evangelical community within the UMC. We represent perhaps slightly less than 1/3 of the denomination’s American membership but are more highly concentrated in the South and parts of the Midwest.

    I agree with your prediction that growth in the global church will push the UMC into a more orthodox, evangelical direction, though I might note that there are already proposals to try to seperate the US body into its own central conference that might give it more leeway on certain matters (including the Book of Discipline), but those changes are not envisioned to be voted on until 2020. By that time, with the African delegates representing at least 50% of votes, I doubt that any move that could be seen as moving the UMC into a more liberal direction would have a chance of passing. The 2016 General Conference will provide important cues for the UMC’s future.

    I do agree that if things continue on their current path, membership will eventually stabilize but I think declines will significantly surpass 2 million. I can foresee a UMC of as few 3 million once the liberals leave or breakaway. That is fine. Through faithfulness to His Word and mission, we will grow again.

  9. Karen Anable says:

    I am a Methodist in a Federated Church in Hampden, MA. Our church is a conglomeration of UCC, UMC and federated (non-denominational) members. The members are hard working Christians who help one another and the community as best we can. The issue is the pastor who spews politics from the pulpit and rails against the haters (conservatives) of the world. My husband and I serve as deacons and are struggling to get this man to recognize the poison in his message and the effect on the more conservative members of the church. Good people have stood up for their views – they want adherence to Biblical principles and rules of conduct consistent with our faith – but have been met with disdain and assurance that his contract gives him the right to preach as his wishes. In my estimation, he is exercising his rights untempered by wisdom and without taking responsibility for the adverse affect on the health of our church. Does anyone have any thoughts on how to go forward in this situation. Thank you.

  10. Wayne Watson says:

    60 years ago the Methodist church where I grew up brought a card carrying Communist to address us from the pulpit one Sunday morning. My dad who was a very staunch anti-communist, stood up, tole off the speaker and the pastor and along with about half of those in attendance, walked out, never to return. The seminaries have been taken over by godless communists and even then I never remember hearing the Good News or of the 4 spiritual laws

  11. Karen says:

    It is tragic to think that our seminaries are teaching false principles and poisoning the leaders of the body. As disciples of Christ, we must stand on the word of God and never give up.

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