United Methodism’s finance agency says overseas (central conference) church members next year will outnumber USA (jurisdictional) membership and may already. USA membership in 2018 fell to 6.71 million, its 54th consecutive year of decline, having lost more than 130,000 members.
Overseas membership in 2017 was nearly 6.5 million, almost all of it in Africa. Overseas church attendance in 2017 already exceeded USA attendance, 2,558,622 versus 2,588,883. Every USA region is declining, though more liberal areas in the West and northeast are declining faster.
United Methodist News Service looked for a positive spin about USA membership, noting an uptick in Hispanics, from 68,088 to 80,968. But that’s only 1.2% of USA membership even as Hispanics are close to 20% of USA population.
United Methodism today has fewer USA members than 100 years ago, when its predecessor bodies totaled over 7 million when USA population was only 100 million, compared to 320 million today. USA membership began declining in 1965 and has lost members every year since, which means virtually no active minister has ever known a growing denomination in the USA.
In the 1960s United Methodism in USA had over 11 million, or 4.3 million more than today, a drop of nearly 40% while USA population grew over 50%.
Of course, total global United Methodist membership continues to climb. As the USA loses 100,000 members annually the African church gains between 100,000 to 200,000 members every year.
This African growth means United Methodism is the only expanding USA based Mainline Protestant denomination, the others of which have nearly all USA memberships and have lost one half or more of membership.
United Methodism’s African membership has also prevented it from following other Mainline churches in liberalizing its marriage teaching. The church’s prohibition on same sex unions and sex outside male-female marriage, reaffirmed in February, is thanks to the growing African churches, which are overwhelmingly conservative theologically.
At next year’s General Conference USA liberals, through their “UMCNext” plan, are advocating that USA traditionalists leave the denomination. Passage is very unlikely, but even it were to pass, it would leave USA liberals as a minority and the Africans in the majority. Another liberal plan would organize the USA church into a self governing area setting its own liberal standards, which the Africans are unlikely to abide.
Far likelier is that next year’s General Conference will divide United Methodism into two theologically separate denominations. The liberal one will be almost entirely USA based, perhaps numbering 3-4 million. The conservative one will be global, numbering 8-9 million. It will be about two thirds or more African. American traditionalists will have to learn to function as a minority in terms of nationality, but they will be part of a transnational majority in orthodox theology.