A couple of years ago, Dr. Dana L. Robert and I wrote an article about the growth of The United Methodist Church around the world. In the article, we tried to bring a comparative perspective to the differing rates of church growth or decline globally. Our point was that comparisons between the rate of growth and decline in different countries cannot always be taken at face value. There are a host of factors that may go in to explaining the growth or decline of United Methodism, and growth or decline cannot be used as a simple indicator that United Methodism in one country is doing things "right" while United Methodism in another country is doing things "wrong."
We made that point by comparing the growth or decline of United Methodism by country to the growth and decline of other denominations, but I was reminded of our article yesterday when I saw another comparison: a comparison between the decline of United Methodists as a percentage of the US population and the decline of the middle class as a percentage of the US population. Laura Felleman, a UMC elder in Nebraska, posted these charts, showing a 99% correlation between the decline in the middle class in the US and the decline in United Methodism. Rev. Felleman does not make it clear what data sources she is using to generate the graphs, but the results are striking.
By the 20th century, Methodism (and subsequently United Methodism) had become largely a middle-class religious affiliation in the United States, and it has remained that way ever since. Yet it is not only in the United States where United Methodism is associated with middle class status, a point Dr. Robert and I raise in our article. Moreover, in much of the world, the middle class is growing. Thus, growing United Methodism in Africa, for instance, makes sense sociologically against the background of a growing African middle class. As the middle-class social niche of the church grows or contracts, that either furthers or limits the church's ability to grow.
I am not claiming that the standing of a country's middle class is the only item determining the growth or decline of United Methodism. Yet, as Rev. Felleman reminds us, our analysis of the fate of the church, especially in making cross-national comparisons, would be incomplete without this data.
P. S. If anyone knows of good, reliable, cross-national data on the change in countries' middle classes, I would be interested in looking at it to determine the amount of correlation between change in a country's middle class and change in a country's United Methodist population. Please respond in the comments below if you can suggest such a data source.