Thursday, March 9, 2017

American UMC decline is a white people problem

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

What if I told you that United Methodist membership in the US was growing?

You'd tell me that I was crazy. The narrative of decline is and has been for years one of the strongest narratives in The United Methodist Church in the US. Many words have been spent on trying to make theological and organizational sense of this trend and/or coming up with ways to reverse it.

Yet the UMC has been growing in members in the US over the past two decades, just not among white people. As the table below shows, since 1996, the number of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders has doubled, the number of Hispanics has grown by two-thirds, the number of African-Americans has grown by a third, and the number of Native Americans by a quarter.

Black membership:
1996 - 319,165; 2000 - 382,243; 2004 - 423,456; 2008 - 432,354; 2016 - 438,343
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +37%

Hispanic membership:
1996 - 42,797; 2000 - 40,652; 2004 - 55,143; 2008 - 61,573; 2016 - 76,332
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +78%

Asian-American membership:
1996 - 45,271; 2000 - 56,143; 2004 - 73,557; 2008 - 81,382; 2016 - 93,211
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +106%

Pacific Islander membership:
1996 - 7,220; 2000 - 8,245; 2004 - 12,489; 2008 - 11,378; 2016 - 14,520
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +101%

Native American membership:
1996 - 17,457; 2000 - 18,766; 2004 - 21,760; 2008 - 22,665; 2016 - 21,440
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +23%

White membership:
1996 - 8,611,902; 2000 - 7,902,305; 2004 - 7,667,201; 2008 - 7,386,067; 2016 - 6,460,538
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: -21%

The UMC has experienced significant overall membership declines over the past two decades, but these have come entirely from the net loss of white members. Thus, it is fair to say that the UMC in the US does not have a problem with numeric decline. It has a problem with white numeric decline.

Of course, since the UMC is one of the whitest denominations in America, this loss of white membership has meant that overall American United Methodist numbers have gone down. While the UMC has added non-white members, it has not been at a sufficient rate to make up for the loss of white members. This is perhaps not surprising, given the UMC's difficulties as a predominantly white institution in reaching out to people of color (as described here, here, and here).

While this finding does not perhaps change where the denomination is at in terms of membership, money, or trend lines, it should significantly alter how we think about and respond to membership loss in the UMC in the US. Many on both sides of the theological spectrum often cast numeric decline as a sign that the UMC has lost its way and no longer resonates with its context. This finding, however, shows that the UMC does have a message that resonates with at least some segments of its context. This finding should encourage United Methodists to ask questions such as the following:

How can we support, encourage, and expand the United Methodist growth that is already happening among people of color? What changes to the United Methodist system can empower leaders of color to even more effectively spread the gospel? This process will require white United Methodists to listen to and be led by their sisters and brothers of color.

What lessons can minority United Methodists teach their white brothers and sisters about United Methodism and how to be effective evangelists? How can people of color serve as examples for white United Methodists? This process will require white United Methodists to be willing to learn from their sisters and brothers of color.

How do white anxieties about the decline of white, American United Methodism serve to cloud and confuse denominational thinking about its future in the US? Robert P. Jones' recent book, The End of White Christian America, is certain to be relevant here as a resource for thinking about how white, Christian Americans in general have responded to their loss of cultural privilege. This process will require white United Methodists to acknowledge their whiteness and repent of the ways in which their thinking has been shaped by race and not the gospel.

If white American United Methodists are willing to do the difficult and humble work described above, perhaps they, too, could experience some of the growth their brothers and sisters of colors have been experiencing for decades.


  1. Thank you, and you are absolutely right. The narrative is Anglo-normative and ignores the wisdom and work of people of color that are growing United Methodist communities all across the US. I've been doing some research for over 15 years in my own conference on Anglo-centricity and church vitality and would love to share it with you.

  2. David, thanks for returning to the issue of the cultural captivity of racial ethnic minorities in the Anglo dominant North American UMC. You have documented rather substantial numerical evidence of growing vitality among the racial ethnic constituencies / churches in the connection. It would be helpful to have the data broken out geographically (jurisdictions) and by type of congregation in which the racial ethnic membership growth is occurring (within single ethnic congregations, predominantly Anglo, or multi ethnic). For future planning purposes, a follow up study of contributing factors to membership growth should be considered looking into relative influence of denominational programs (Missional Priority on Strengthening Ethnic Minority Local Churches, Racial Ethnic Plans for Ministry), clergy training, lay leadership formation, worship styles, outreach ministries, facilities, general population trends, etc.. As for those prognostications about the ending of White Christianity, let's be careful not to let our institutional survival syndrome feed the current populist / politically motivated threat mongering that produces so much anti immigrant, hate rhetoric and violence. Let the focus be on the unfinished gospel work of inclusiveness and becoming fully multicultural.
    Robert Harman

    1. Robert, Thanks for the suggestion for further research. The numbers above were taken from statistics collated for General Conferences. The work you're suggesting will take some more extensive research, but I think you're asking important questions. I'll add it to the research hopper.

  3. Dear David,
    I can tell you most asurity that the decline or growth in the United Methodist Church has absolutely nothing to do with the color of someones skin or ethnic background. It is complete about Worship, Exaltation of Jesus Christ and teaching the complete Word of God from the bible. After 40 year as a member of the UMC, after serving as an ordained UMC missionary in Central Africa for the last 25 plus years, and after traveling throughout the USA to hundreds of churches of all ethnic backgrounds, speaking on behalf of the UMC Global Missions, I have seen first hand what growth and decline looks like nationally and internationally. Growth or decline has nothing to do with the color of someones skin. I sorry, but I personally cannot take David Scott or yourself seriously. Your words come from a place that only can cause more division within the church today. In my humble opinion, the church is alive and well. To quote numbers and surveys is not a “White People Problem”. It’s completely a UMC organizational problem, coming from a place to keep church doors open. I can tell you this simple truth, if Jesus is exalted and truly lifted up and if the pastor and leadership of that church studies hard and teaches the complete Word of God and people walk out the church doors with a new and fresh understanding of what God the Father has done for us through Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvery, seeing with my own eyes, those churches are thriving. And the seats are filled will every color of skin and ethnic background. Tell me if this not true… If someone goes to a church (including you) and you do not feel comfortable about the worship or teaching of God’s Word you will not continue to go there. That has nothing to do with skin color. It’s about Worship and Teaching only…
    With great love for the church and Jesus Christ…
    Rev. Delbert Groves
    UMC Missionary, Zambia

    1. Dear Rev. Groves,
      Thank you for sharing your concerns and your experiences with me. I entirely agree that true Christianity is not about race, and the church can grow among all races, ethnicities, and languages. To suggest otherwise would be very un-Methodist of me!
      My point is not to put limits on what is possible, but to describe what has actually happened. Because of how important narratives of membership decline are for the UMC in the United States, it is important that we understand as fully where that decline is and is not happening. Since race is a significant category in the United States, it is important to examine the relationships between race and membership decline as it has occurred over the past two decades. To do so is not to cause division, but to try to understand the ways in which existing racial divisions in our society impact the church.
      As you say, ultimately church is about people encountering God in Jesus Christ. Yet, as missiology teaches us, the ways in which people encounter God in Jesus Christ are shaped by race, culture, and other elements of human experience.
      Grace and peace,

  4. Hello David, very intriguing data. As you point out, the increase ethnic membership does not make up for the decline in white membership, but the info is definitely interesting. Would be interesting to know if other denominations show similar membership trends.

    Jack Jackson

    1. Jack, That's a good question. I've looked at the AME and AME Zion using the ARDA data. It's not as comprehensive, but based on what is there, it seems like both denominations have been much more resistant to decline than the UMC, with membership drop-offs only in the last 5-10 years.

  5. David, Interesting report. Where are getting your numbers from? I have not noticed that GCFA has released membership and worship attendance data for 2016. Typically UMNS does a story after they release this information; I have not seen one so far. If you have the 2016 membership data, would you please share it with others. Also, if you're totals are correct, then 2016 membership actually exceeded GCFA's reported 2015 membership by 37,222 for a 0.5% increase (see Is this true? Even slight membership growth would buck a long trend of decline. Also, your membership figures for ethnic and racial groups are higher than those given by GCFA Research Fellow and Statistician Lauren Arieux in a report she prepared tracking ethnicity and racial membership 1989 through 2013. Can you clarify the discrepancies? Finally, how are you and GCFA able to access such granular numbers for these categories? Are the figures based on local church reports from pastors and lay leaders or does GCFA have another way of collecting this data? Your answers would be much appreciate.

    Walter Fenton

    1. Walter, All of the numbers I've used are taken from the statistical reports compiled for General Conference and available from the respective GC websites on Generally, these numbers are actually based on data collected two years prior, which accounts for some of the discrepancies that you note. I'm afraid you'll have to contact GCFA about how they compile with specificity the racial and ethnic membership data for their quadrennial reports to General Conference.

    2. Thanks David. Could you provide a link to where you got the 2016 membership data in general and the more granular figures for racial and ethnic categories? I cannot find membership data for 2016 on GCFA's website or I understand the statistical reports are always lagging behind a bit, that's why I'm interested in where you got the 2016 data already. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks, Walter

    3. Walter, I took the data from p. 37 of the GC2016 General Conference Guide, which you can find at: Again, it's actually data from 2014, so I do not yet have access to the data collected last year.

  6. Thanks David. I understand now. Given your title and role at GBGM I thought maybe you had access to some GCFA data that had not been released just yet.