Sexual morality is one of the most controversial and most widely discussed issues in our society today. Churches are not immune from related controversies. Within the United Methodist Church, the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) has urged the denomination to stray from biblical teachings on marriage. The unofficial group of United Methodists now known as RMN emerged in 1982 to advocate for the gay and lesbian community. It alsolaunched a decades-long, unsuccessful campaign to get global United Methodism to abandon biblical teaching and officially allow same-sex union ceremonies and the ordination of openly homosexually active clergy. However, RMN’s efforts have taken a toll on their affiliated congregations.
RMN’s stated mission speaks of “resist[ing] evil, injustice, and oppression as we seek justice for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.” It believes that all sexual orientations are a gift from God and fights to bring churches to recognize this and celebrate related non-traditional sexual practices, including same-sex unions, and sex-reassignment surgeries. Over the years, hundreds of U.S. United Methodist congregations (out of the denomination’s tens of thousands of congregations around the world) have declared themselves to be “Reconciling Congregations” formally supporting RMN.
I have often heard that once a United Methodist congregation joins RMN, it takes a toll on the congregation. To prove this theory, I have compiled data for most United Methodist congregations that joined RMN between 2008 and 2014. The denomination’s official online data directory, www.UMdata.org, does not include key information before 2007 or after 2016.
When comparing the membership and worship attendance numbers for the year immediately before a congregation joined RMN to the statistics for the year immediately after this decision was made, I found that most congregations declined in both attendance and membership. For example, First UMC in Ferndale, Michigan lost 20.55 percent of its members (from 219 to 174) and 21.18 percent of its average reported worship attendance (85 to 67).
However, it is helpful also to look at longer-term trends. When members are displeased about their congregation becoming affiliated with RMN, it may take a while for them completely to drift away from that church, and it can take two or more years after their last appearance in worship before they are actually removed from the membership rolls (Per Paragraph 228 of the UMC’s governing Book of Discipline). Additionally, the actual decline may be far greater as the data is based on figures provided by the congregations. It is relatively easy for pastors to skew their numbers for membership and especially attendance.
Meanwhile, proponents of RMN sometimes argue that congregations that make decisions to conform to worldly views on sexuality can initially lose a number of people, but then eventually recover by attracting those who appreciate their liberal view of sexuality. A V-shaped curve is what the RMN supporters like to describe. Yes, it is true to a certain degree that some congregations have experienced growth in both membership and attendance some time after joining RMN. But often this was followed by another period of decline. Out of the 130 congregations who joined RMN between 2008 and 2014, only 14 eventually saw their membership and attendance rise to exceed the numbers it had the year before they joined RMN. That is only about 10 percent of “Reconciling” congregations experiencing a V-shaped curve.
In other words, what the readily available data shows is that when congregations affiliate with RMN, in most cases they lose people initially and do not fully recover.
In the big picture, for each of the UMC’s five U.S. Jurisdictions, I have calculated the average decline for recently RMN-affiliated congregations as a whole by comparing the TOTAL membership and worship attendance figures for all such congregations in each region the year before they joined RMN and comparing these statistics to those for the last year on record (2016). This allows us to observe longer-term trends of 3-9 years. For example, the total membership for the Northeastern congregations before they separately joined RMN was 10,034. The total membership for these same congregations in 2016 was 9,117. So this was an overall decline of 9.14 percent for the newly “Reconciled” congregations within that jurisdiction.
Without exception, in all five jurisdictions, membership and attendance for RMN churches dropped. Those in the Northeastern Jurisdiction dropped 9.14 percent in membership and 16.60 percent in attendance. Those in the Western Jurisdiction dropped 11.57 percent in membership and 21.29 percent in attendance. For those in the North Central Jurisdiction, membership dropped by 5.74 percent and attendance dropped 11.49 percent. Those in the Southeastern Jurisdiction dropped 10.56 percent in membership and 16.60 percent in attendance. Finally, those in the South Central Jurisdiction dropped 6.95 in membership but 3.75 percent in attendance. Although the decrease is more dramatic in some places than in others, the clear pattern is that congregations lose people after they join RMN.
It is worth thinking of the toll such losses can mean for a single congregation. For example, Good Samaritan UMC in the California-Nevada Annual Conference of the Western Jurisdiction originally had 435 members and 207 people in average worship attendance before they joined RMN in 2011. However, after this the congregation suffered a decline trajectory, losing 17.70 percent of its members (down to 357) and 34.78 percent of its worship attendance (down to 135) by 2016. Similar dramatic declines were the case with many other congregations all over the country. Again, with only a handful of exceptions, United Methodist congregations that RMN reported as joining its network between 2008 and 2014 declined and have never recovered.
Through my research of compiling the statistics for churches that joined RMN within the recent years for which data is readily available, I have found a clear overall trend, with only a few exceptions, of congregations declining after they make this change. Although the average decline varies somewhat between different congregations and regions, the fact is that the number of people leaving the church was almost always greater than the number of new people joining the church.
I strongly believe that the church should never turn away a lost sheep. In order to bring back those who strayed, I encourage churches to have grace, love those who are living a life that is displeasing to God, and to preach the Biblical truth fearlessly. Finally, I pray that all of the pastors and leaders of “Reconciling” congregations and that those who part of the LGBTQ community repent and come back to our loving Father’s arms.