United Methodism in the U.S. lost over 114,000 members from 2013-2014, the 49th consecutive year of loss for the UMC and its predecessor bodies, whose last U.S. membership growth was in 1963-1964. So there are almost no active clergy now who have any memory of a growing denomination.
Over 50 years United Methodism in the U.S. lost over 4 million members, a number larger than the membership of nearly all U.S. denominations, and a numerical decline unprecedented in U.S. history, with little precedent in world history.
Only four of 56 conferences in the U.S. last year experienced membership growth, actually more than usual. Only a handful of U.S. bishops have ever led a growing conference.
Of course, fortunately, United Methodism is global, and overseas membership, almost all of it in Africa, is fast growing. There are 7.2 million members in the U.S., and 5.2 million overseas. The latest overseas stats aren’t yet available, but the African churches have been gaining over 200,000 annually, more than compensating for U.S. losses. United Methodism will soon have 13 million members globally, and the Africans, now at least 41 percent of total membership, will likely become the majority in 5 to 8 years.
But can dynamic African United Methodism save the sinking U.S. church? As the Africans gain proportional representation in church agency governing bodies, which currently they are denied, their leadership will begin to reshape the U.S. church in more evangelistic directions. But my guess is that process will take 20 years or so before membership loss in the U.S. is reversed, entailing about another 2 million lost members, after what will by then have been a 70 year slide.
The U.S. church of its own has no institutional ability to reverse this decline. Over the last 20 years United Methodism has spent tens of millions of dollars on media campaigns like “Igniting Ministries” and “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” They have had zero impact on membership decline.
Recently a friend told of visiting a United Methodist congregation in Washington, DC very big on proclaiming WELCOME-WELCOME-WELCOME! It’s very inclusive and very welcoming. The question is, WELCOME! to what? And for what? The answer is very unclear.
United Methodist official focus on “open doors” and WELCOME! has implied that the denomination has no core beliefs or purpose beyond self celebration. The results are predictable as the church loses 100,000 members annually.
It should be noted that there are thousands of United Methodist congregations and thousands of clergy devoted not just to WELCOME! but to redemption and transformation through the Gospel. Hundreds of Gospel-minded new clergy are entering United Methodism. And in many ways, there is more serious study and appreciation of Wesleyan doctrine today in the denomination than at any time in a century. Most of it is happening with little official sanction and even in spite of it.
United Methodism is both dying and rejuvenating. But so then too is the world as a whole. The constant challenge is to focus not on the dying but on the areas of new life and vitality that the Lord is always generating as He redeems His world.