WELCOME: Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors

United Methodist Decline & WELCOME!

on December 8, 2015

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.

  1. Comment by ken on December 8, 2015 at 8:01 am

    I’ve seen a number of churches, mostly liberal, who state on their home page that they extend “intentional hospitality.” But, as the article says, “‘Welcome’ to what?” Advertising a product no one wants is a waste of the church’s resources. My wife and I visited a Unitarian church years ago, just out of curiosity, and the people there were extremely friendly – but they were still your generic fruit-loop Unitarians, peddling their shoddy “spirituality” which seems to always conveniently coincide with whatever causes the mainstream media are pushing. People who really like PC can get it 24/7 on the web, not much point in rolling out of bed on Sunday and driving to a church to get a dose of it.

  2. Comment by Gregg on December 8, 2015 at 8:33 am

    You’re right, Ken. And if you already pay for your internet connection, then your daily, no make that, hourly, dose of liberalism is “free.” Why drag yourself to church to hear the same message you could have read sitting in your underwear on HuffPo – only to have a collection plate passed in front of you.

  3. Comment by Eternity Matters on December 8, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Seems like a whole bunch of leaders need to be fired. Not so much for the growth, but for teaching things that are the opposite of the Bible and the Methodist Book of Discipline.

    I tried to fight for change but inevitably decided to worship at a church with a much higher percentage of Christians —

  4. Comment by Orter T. on December 8, 2015 at 11:27 am

    Good article facing the reality of the present and hope for the future. Ever since I distanced myself from all things church and ended up learning what all I did not know and understand about basic orthodox Christianity with a Wesleyan accent, I finally knew for a fact that the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” mantra was not the United Methodist Church expressing its strength but was rather an expression of its failure. And when it comes to being “welcoming”, what the UMC does not understand is that being welcoming and extending hospitality has to extend beyond a smile, a pat on the back and a shake of the hand before and after worship and at social gatherings. I had been part of a committee for a couple of years when a specific proposal surfaced. Because of my life experiences, I had very strong views and understandings of the matter being discussed. Although I had been allowed to present my views, ultimately I was left on the outside looking in because of the use of a power play by a minority to force the decision in a very specific direction. It was made perfectly clear that any decision that took my views into consideration was a bad one. All that previous “hospitality” became moot point. True Christian hospitality allows room for the blind spots and baggage of others.

  5. Comment by MarcoPolo on December 9, 2015 at 9:00 am

    Nice article, Mark.
    It no doubt pangs you to see the decline of Methodism in the U.S… Yet Africa’s growth has the potential to buoy it’s presence in the world.

    I too can remember over the last fifty years how some fellow parishioners were finding the “message” from Methodism to be somewhat watered-down, and thus, moved to more Evangelical churches.
    In spite of campaigns like: “I Found It!” etc.. our society as a whole has developed a cynicism over Organized Religion.

    I’m not a fan of contemporary culture in the general sense of ‘dumbing-down’ the intellectual side, but rather than accepting these changes, I simply accommodate them as another slice of the “American Pie”.

    Whether Methodism evolves to be “THE Religion of Africa”, and less in America, is just something we all must witness. At least the Missionaries will be validated in their commission to spread the Gospel.

    Isn’t this also why the world has developed so many denominations?

  6. Comment by Skipper on December 9, 2015 at 11:55 am

    That slogan needs to be put away. It has made some people think Methodist doctrine includes “gross immorality.” Perhaps that’s what they wanted to hear. Many have put a false hope in the false teaching that was evidently behind the slogan. Satan and company scored a big hit with that one! Time to end the confusion and get back to serving a holy God with appropriate conduct.

  7. Comment by eric pone on December 9, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    What do you mean we don’t have core beliefs? We have a whole book of discipline! The question is does this equate to too much core belief? In my experiences with African congregations here I have noticed that they more resemble nondenominational congregations than traditional UMC congregations. Churches in Africa are the center of community life unlike in the US. We may be witnessing a repeat of what happened in the past here.

  8. Comment by John S. on December 10, 2015 at 7:54 am

    Really, the BOD, the book the Bishops said was advisory only?

  9. Comment by John S. on December 10, 2015 at 7:45 am

    The true slogan is Open Doors, Open Hearts, Empty Minds. The purpose of the UMC is to be liked, it needs a hug.

  10. Comment by BJ on December 10, 2015 at 9:25 am

    Where doctrine is watered down and the Bible is ignored systematically, the church declines. The UMC is interesting because it is a contradictory church. Thousands of congregations believe the bible and teach the gospel, while thousands more have traded in the bible for a welcome sign.

    The UMC is surviving by inertia at this point. Local congregations that want to be an actual church of Christ have dropped the Methodist name, hid their affiliation, and pretend to be a non-denominational church. The only way I can see this changing is to stand firmly upon the true faith that built this church in the first place, cut the losses of the social club churches, and preach the word diligently. I pray this is what happens.

  11. Comment by Ed The Oregonite on December 10, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    It would be interesting to know if the ‘gospel’ UMCs are doing better with membership than the ‘welcome sign’ UMCs.

    From the outside, it appears that the entire UMC brand has been tainted, and many Bible-believing Christians would never consider attending a UMC.

    In my community, I speak to a lot of new arrivals. The evangelical believers are generally will to try the Baptist churches, the non-denominational churches, Assembly of God, Foursquare, and Nazarene. They almost never check out the Lutheran, UPC or UMC churches.

  12. Comment by BJ on December 11, 2015 at 6:54 am

    I don’t know the stats, either. But I do think that attendance may be a bit misleading. The open and affirming churches can sometimes garner crowds, but it is usually rooted in entertainment and not rooted in the life-changing gospel. I would much rather have a congregation of 100 true disciples than a congregation of 10,000 with only 100 true disciples.

  13. Comment by Pak Mamat on December 15, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    Speaking in very (very!) general terms, the congregations in Southeastern and South Central jurisdictions are relatively more traditional, while those in the Northeastern, North Central, and Western jurisdictions are more liberal. From 2003 to 2014, the declines in percentage are distributed thusly:

    North Central: -19.7%
    Northeastern: -18.3%
    Western: -21.8%
    South Central: -7.2%
    Southeastern: -5.8%

  14. Comment by dogged on December 10, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    “The UMC is surviving by inertia at this point.” Like the Episcopal Church, the UMC is embalmed on endowments and bequests.

  15. Comment by BJ on December 11, 2015 at 6:52 am

    Absolutely! The same goes for the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). These groups have hundreds of years of wealth accumulation, so they are still alive based on that.

  16. Comment by Jim on December 10, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    I am part of a Christian organization that trains volunteers to conduct after-school Bible Clubs in local schools. We had a school near the a Methodist church and approached the pastor to see if he was interested in sponsoring the club which included building a relationship with staff, faculty as well as students and families, the pastor was interested, the outreach director was interested, however when a couple of volunteers came to our training, they were turned off when started teaching how to share the Gospel with children. The outreach director later shared that the congregation did not like the idea of sharing the Gospel. Hmmmm maybe why they are not growing. I seemed to remember that Wesley was sort of into evangelism.

  17. Comment by Ed The Oregonite on December 10, 2015 at 4:17 pm

    UMC, in its quest to be relevant and acceptable to our culture, has decided that much of the Bible is not relevant. The teaching of scripture, in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, focused on holiness, recognizing sin and overcoming it, being a distinct people committed to following Christ. But the UMC has focused on cultural issues, like the empowerment of women and tolerance of secular doctrine. Yes, many Methodists are remarkable people, but when half of the gospel is replaced with the doctrines of men why would we expect any vibrancy in the denomination?

  18. Comment by dogged on December 10, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    Yup. The United Methodists were real trailblazers–among the first to be transformed into a pure PC Church. One could romanticize them as “the Democrat Party at prayer”. But prayer? Isn’t the Democrat Party the one that booed God at their last national Convention? Talk about hubris…

  19. Comment by poetwarrior on December 12, 2015 at 1:18 am

    The church is failing people just as our government is. I have been a member all my life and the trends in this church are away from the Bible toward humanism, whatever that is. Progressives have stolen the church and it is nothing I can support.

  20. Comment by MikeJ2 on January 1, 2016 at 11:13 am

    “The question is, WELCOME! to what? And for what?”
    This is an excellent and important point. The mainline protestant church I attend has the same style. “You are Welcome here, All are Welcome here”, etc. That is nice, it really is, but not particularly enriching or interesting.
    Yesterday I went to lunch at a restaurant. They too welcomed me… and then they gave me an extensive menu of good food and drink. What is the extensive menu of enrichment that a Welcoming church offers? Some do, but mine doesn’t really. They could offer in-depth biblical or theological or religious-historical study (certainly enriching) or prayer/meditation practices, but they are not interested in that. And perhaps unsurprisingly, our membership continues to shrink.
    Bottom line: “Welcome” is not enough; it seems to me that a church needs to provide opportunities for enrichment and growth also.

  21. Comment by majac3356 on January 7, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    If we’re busy trying to be like the world; there is no reason for the world to want to be like us?

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