Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Organizational vs. Cultural Explanations for US Membership Decline

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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.

Gallup recently reported that the percentage of US Americans who are members of a church, mosque, synagogue or other religious institution has fallen below 50% for the first time in the 80-some years that Gallup has been tracking it. According to Gallup surveys, the downward trend in religious membership has been driven primarily by the increase in the number of Americans who do not identify as being connected to any particular religion and secondarily by a decrease in the number of religious Americans with membership in a specific congregation.

It is worth reflecting on membership trends in The United Methodist Church in the light of this news story and the large number of similar stories about the "rise of the nones" and decrease in US religiosity that have come out for a decade or more.

The United Methodist Church has, famously, been dropping in US membership since the year it was created. This long-term trend has been the source of much hand-wringing and many schemes to reverse the downward trend in membership.

Most proposed plans to address US UMC membership decline take what I would call an organizational approach to the problem of membership decline. The assume that the cause of decline is internal to the organization and thus can be solved by making changes to the organization.

The variety of proposed changes varies: Some involve bureaucratic retrenchment. Other solutions involve new programs to be adopted by US congregations. Both strengthening and abolishing the church's teachings against homosexuality have been touted as ways to reverse membership decline. Focusing on organizational factors draws on the valid insight that there are choices organizations can make that impact their health, either positively and negatively.

But what all of these proposals miss is that UMC membership decline is not occurring in a vacuum. This organizational trend is part of a much larger cultural trend in the United States away from organized religion, especially Christianity.

That trend has affected almost all aspects of the US religious landscape, cutting across race, class, and theological traditions. To be sure, there are variations in how significantly religious membership has declined according to race, politics, theological tradition, economic class, education, and other factors, but the trend everywhere has been downward. It is just a question of how much. Even the vaunted growth of evangelical Protestantism in the 1980s and 90s has stalled out in the past 20 years, and membership decline has impacted that sector of the religious economy too.

This does not mean that there is nothing denominations can do in the face of a cultural move away from Christianity. To be sure, there are denominational traditions that have managed to grow in membership within this overall current of decline. They tend to be small, relatively young, and conservative denominations, though small and young may be the most salient features. There are too few small, relatively young, and liberal denominations to make a fair comparison.

Still, I'm sure these counter examples of membership growth give those forming the Global Methodist Church some hope, and there is a chance that their US membership will grow, at least in the short term. Unless something changes in US culture as a whole, though, they will likely find it difficult to sustain membership growth in the United States a decade after their creation. And the remaining UMC will almost certainly continue to drop in US membership.

That does not make organizational changes unimportant. Again, organizations can actually make choices that lead to greater or lesser health. Yet, US Methodists (and US Christians generally) are fooling themselves if they think that they can solve a cultural problem with organizational solutions. Such an approach is an example of what leadership expert Ron Heifetz refers to as a technical solution to an adaptive problem.

I don't know what the adaptive solution to the cultural problem of US religious decline is. I wish I did. But I am sure that understanding the nature of the problem is the first step in finding the solution.


  1. I fear that both UM progressives and UM traditionalists have bought into the idea that a failure to thrive has two causes: a. a bad structure (which both have sought to fine tune) and b. a bad theology (with both endlessly advocating for theirs.

    It is closer to reality to say that both progressive and traditionalist UM structures and theology have become culturally irrelevant, poorly adapted to engaging contemporary Americans (in particular) with the gospel. The culture shifts that make this so have been obvious for some decades, but the UMC's particular recognition of cultural difference as shallowly focused on ethnicity, and even with ethnicity shallowly focused on cultural artifacts and social conflicts. The monumental shifts in the actual culture of the West in since WWII went on unseen.

    There is actually a solution, but it isn't adaptive. It is to engage in radical experiments in contextualization until we find those that stick. Almost exactly what was happening in the 1st century church. But such experiments can never be carried out or supported by church leaders who already assume that they have cornered the market on relevance and reduced it to a 12 step program for church growth.

  2. The research on denominational growth and decline often speaks about the interfacing of contextual and institutional factors. Some add spiritual factors. By definition, contextual factors are outside the control of the denomination. It is the aquarium in which we live. Strong denominations respond to negative contextual factors differently than weak denominations. In every social environment, there are opportunities for growth. How one responds to negative contextual factors is the most salient factor.

    During the years of the UMC's fast decline, other national denominations showed strong growth. This point cannot be undervalued. It means that they capitalized on the contextual factors. The UMC did not. Even today, the LDS, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and non-denominational congregations are growing rapidly. Many of those who leave the UMC are joining non-denominational churches.

    National church executives often emphasize negative contextual factors as a way to shift blame from the denomination. This allows them to discount the falling membership so that they can continue to do those things that they have always done. This is a sign of a weak institution. In truth, how are the UM general boards, agencies, bishops, and ACs addressing the decline? To what extent are we willing to upend our organizational culture to address this critical issue? 

    In my conference, much of our decline has come from aging out, closing churches, and losing members to community churches. This process has been accelerated in rural areas. The bleeding of membership often happens because a pastor does not share the values or culture of the people to whom she has been assigned. How are our UM seminaries contributing to this? Are cabinets really looking at strategic appointments? Do guaranteed appointments contribute to this problem? Will the growth of local pastors help with this problem? Regardless, if we do not add more younger members and plant new churches, the writing is on the wall. It's just a matter of time. If the split does not decimate us, time will.

    Having said this, a strong denomination would acknowledge this threat and use all of its internal resources to address it. At this point, where is the American connection focusing its attention, money, and energies? What will the UMC have to let go of in order to survive? Is it willing to pay the price for church growth? 

    Finally, besides a few anecdotal examples, the data shows that liberal churches don't grow for a variety of institutional and contextual reasons. Organizational culture, lack of evangelism, not meeting existential needs, not being essential to the people they seek to attract, and so forth are possible causes.