In my previous post, I reviewed the sources of membership growth and decline in church bodies and asserted that they best way to determine whether a church was growing or declining through new adult members (individual or group) vs. adult disaffiliations (individual or group) was to screen out the impacts of births and deaths on membership numbers. And while religious groups may differ in their birth or death rates from surrounding societies, the easiest way to get a proxy for the impact of purely demographic forces on church membership is to compare church membership to the overall population growth or decline of the surrounding society.
This is what I have tried to do for The United Methodist Church. I have used data from GCFA from 2010, 2014, and 2018 that they collected in the process of determining General Conference delegates. The 2010 data is from a previously-published article by Dana Robert and myself, and the 2014 and 2018 data is publicly available here. I grouped the data into the smallest geographic regions that could be directly compared to secular population growth trends (in the US, jurisdictions and outside the US, countries in most cases). I then compared that data to US Census Bureau data for US state populations and data from the World Population Data Sheet (2010, 2014, and 2018) for countries.
The table is at the end of this article, but here are major findings:
1. In some countries, I concluded that UMC membership data was unreliable for conclusive comparisons to the surrounding country. Any instances in which there was repeated data (the same number submitted two quadrennia in a row) or a more than 50% membership drop in four years or more than 100% growth in four years I regarded as suspect. Ukraine and Moldova, Russia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, and Zambia all have repeated membership figures. Nevertheless, in all these cases except Liberia (where there was significant variance) and Cote d'Ivoire (which has never submitted revised figures), those repeated figures were close to later revised figures, indicating that they make still be ballpark reliable. Switzerland/France, Serbia/Macedonia, Poland, and Zimbabwe all had extreme fluctuations in membership numbers that seem very unreliable to me. Data is incomplete for Mozambique, Malawi, and South Africa.
2. Given the above caveat, even though UMC total membership has grown in the past 8 years, that growth is about 6% behind total population growth for its host countries worldwide. While there may be reasons why the UMC has lower birth rates or higher death rates than its host countries overall, it is likely that the UMC worldwide is experiencing more disaffiliation than new membership. The United States is a significant factor in that trend, but not the only one, as elaborated below.
3. The only place where the UMC has a large membership and is growing significantly relative to overall population trends based on relatively reliable data is the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are also some countries in Europe with small membership where there is good growth relative to overall population based on reliable data (Finland, for instance), though their small membership size makes those numbers more susceptible to yielding extreme results when calculated on a percentage basis.
4. There are a number of countries in Africa where UMC membership growth is trailing, sometimes quite significantly, overall population growth. East Africa and Angola are examples with relatively good data. Assuming that the data for Nigeria and Zambia is relatively reliable despite repeated figures, membership in those countries also significantly lags overall population growth.
5. Within the United States, relative to overall population trends, there is essentially no difference among the North Central, Northeastern, South Central, and Southeastern Jurisdictions in how they’ve done membership-wise in the past decade. The slower rate of membership decline in the south relative to the north is entirely a function of greater population growth in southern states (in large part due to in-migration from the north).
6. The Western Jurisdiction has had notably more significant membership decline than the rest of US United Methodism. Given that there is no difference among other regions despite theological variations among them, I think it’s possible than non-theological factors may explain the difference between the Western Jurisdiction and the rest of the US church. The UMC has always had a weaker position in society in the West than in the rest of the country. The Western US is also the most racially and ethnically diverse region of the country, which impacts the membership numbers for an overwhelmingly white denomination like the UMC.
7. Relative to overall population trends, the UMC may actually be doing worse in the Philippines than it is in the US. While total UMC membership in the Philippines in 2018 was about where it was in 2014, the overall Filipino population has grown significantly. Thus, steady membership in the Philippines actually represents a notable loss relative to demographic factors.
Again, these numbers don't in and of themselves prove anything about theology, church polity, missional strategies, or distribution of resources. Those are all questions that need to be collectively assessed drawing on a variety of values and types of information. But good data about actual trends in membership gains and losses is undoubtedly one of those resources.
|Region||2010 Church Membership||2014 Church Membership||2018 Church Membership||% Change 2010-2018||2010 Population||2014 Population||2018 Population||% Change 2010-2018||Membership vs. Population|
|North Central Jurisdiction||1,346,180||1,270,124||1,189,259||-11.66%||56,291,024||56,942,246||57,341,519||1.87%||-13.52%|
|South Central Jurisdiction||1,739,946||1,707,526||1,652,134||-5.05%||49,217,134||51,394,492||53,381,380||8.46%||-13.51%|
|Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, & Uganda||170,725||243,459||173,806||1.80%||92,700,000||103,600,000||119,500,000||28.91%||-27.11%|
|Dem. Rep. of Congo and Tanzania||1,803,530||2,436,777||2,869,536||59.11%||112,800,000||122,000,000||143,400,000||27.13%||31.98%|
|Czech and Slovak Republics||855||1,087||1,126||31.70%||15,900,000||15,900,000||16,000,000||0.63%||31.07%|
|Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania||2,764||2,411||1,690||-38.86%||6,800,000||6,200,000||6,000,000||-11.76%||-27.09%|
|Ukraine and Moldova||551||551||0||-100.00%||50,000,000||47,000,000||45,800,000||-8.40%||-91.60%|
* The East Africa Episcopal Area includes South Sudan and Ethiopia, but these countries' populations are excluded from the totals due to the small amount of UMC membership in them.
* The population figures for the Switzerland-France-North Africa Annual Conference do not include populations in North Africa, given the small amount of UMC membership there.