The latest figures about UMC membership in the US have been released and, to no one's surprise, they show a continued decline in overall membership. While these results may be unsurprising, they can prompt us to ask deeper questions about United Methodist growth and decline.
Often we tell a narrative about demographics in The United Methodist Church that can be summed up as "The church in the United States is declining. The church in Africa and Asia is growing." While that is generally true, it is helpful to get a more specific sense of how that plays out in various spots.
To do that, I decided to examine the delegate counts for the past five General Conferences ('00 to '16), culled from info on umc.org about those General Conferences (either the guide or the seating chart). I chose this data set for two reasons:
1) It is more readily available online than actual membership numbers, and
2) It gives a sense not only of numeric growth/decline but also growing or declining influence in the denomination.
There are a fixed number of GC delegates, and that number decreased significantly in 2016, which makes these numbers an imperfect proxy for actual membership growth and decline. Yet, the total number of United Methodists worldwide has remained about 12 million, despite areas of growth and decline, so this shortcoming is not as significant as might be imagined.
I looked at both the absolute number of delegates and the number of delegates as a percentage of the whole. Sifting through the data, I noticed five general patterns within the number of General Conference delegates:
1. Declining numbers and percentages of delegates
This pattern essentially applies to all US jurisdictions, though at different rates. Interestingly, it's actually the North Central Jurisdiction that's lost the greatest percentage of delegates, losing over a third of its voting strength between 2000 and 2016. The Southeast Jurisdiction lost the least, losing a fifth of its voting strength, and was relatively unaffected by the voting compression of a reduced number of delegates to GC2016.
2. (Relatively) Steady numbers of delegates.
This pattern holds for most of Europe and the delegates from the concordat churches. Most surprising, however, is that some African annual conferences also fit into this pattern, notably Liberia, Eastern Angola, and a few conferences in the Congo. This is an important reminder that not all branches of the UMC in Africa are growing.
The reduction in total delegates in GC2016 boosted the voting strength of such Annual/Central Conferences, but perhaps not as much as one would imagine. For instance, the 10 concordat votes went from being 1.0% of the total to 1.2%. Northern Europe and Eurasia lost two votes, but increased their vote share from 2.2% to 2.4%.
3. Growth through division
Several geographic areas have gained in both total General Conference delegates and in their percentage of General Conference delegates by creating new annual conferences that then receive the mandatory two representatives to General Conference. The creation of new annual conferences indicates some growth in membership, but annual conferences remaining at the minimum number of delegates indicates that such growth is not large in total numeric terms.
The Philippines have been the largest example of this pattern, having gained 16 GC delegates and nearly doubled their vote strength through annual conference subdivision. Russia is another good example. Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa fit this pattern as well, though the Mozambique South Annual Conference may be starting to see faster growth.
4. Growth and decline
A couple of African annual conferences increased their total General Conference delegates only to see that number subsequently decline. This pattern either indicates that the initial numbers on which the growth was based were unreliable or that there was an actual growth and decline in membership.
Nigeria and Sierra Leone in West Africa are the best examples here. Nigeria had 6 delegates in 2000 before increasing to 44 delegates in 2008 and then falling back to 22 delegates (in three annual conferences) in 2016. Sierra Leone's rise and fall wasn't as dramatic but is nonetheless similar.
5. Significant growth
This pattern includes significant increases in the number of total GC delegates (beyond mandatory minimums) and percentage of delegate strength, with or without annual conference subdivision. This is the picture usually painted of the UMC in Africa. Yet, by now, we've seen that this picture does not hold true for all areas of Africa.
North Katanga, Northwest Katanga, South Congo, and Southwest Katanga in the DRC fit this pattern, as do Tanzania/Tanganyika and Zambia, both also in the Congo Central Conference. East Africa/Burundi is the other good example.
Hence, to revise the pat narrative with which I started this article, here's what we can say about global growth and decline in the UMC: The US is, indeed, declining. Europe and spots of Africa are holding relatively steady. The Philippines, Russia, and southeast Africa have seen steady (though not dramatic) growth accompanied by annual conference division. West Africa has seen some instances of growth and decline. Central Africa is growing significantly.
While numbers are only a part of the story of the church, it is important as we think about the future of our global denomination to have this level of specificity in our understanding of where and how the UMC is and isn't growing and not to rely upon broad generalizations.