Wednesday, April 21, 2021

US Membership Decline and the Rhetoric of the Global Church

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.

As I indicated last week, given the overall trends in the United States away from church membership, it is likely that the future United Methodist Church and other successor denominations will continue to struggle with membership. The new Global Methodist Church may grow in members over the next decade, in part through a drawn-out process of member and church transfers from the UMC, but unless long-term trends change, they will likely eventually struggle as well.

This prediction is based not only on the long-term experience of the UMC, but the recent experience of other Methodist denominations as well, most of them more theologically conservative, more evangelism-oriented, and more organizationally streamlined than the UMC. The Free Methodist Church is down about 10% in its US membership over the past decade (see this vs this). The Church of the Nazarene is down over 5% in its US and Canadian membership. The Wesleyan Church has fared the best, with increasing worship attendance but essentially flat membership. Good data is difficult to attain on predominantly black Methodist denominations, but none of the UMC’s successors will be predominantly black.

One particular problem that arises out of this likely continued decline in US membership has to do with the way that Methodists have thought theologically about membership statistics from the very beginning of the movement. In Methodist understandings, increasing membership is a sign of the movement of the Spirit. This was true when Wesley was determining how to deploy his preachers, and this has remained true right up to recent conversations about “vital congregations.” Increasing membership is seen as a sign that the work of the church and the will of God are aligned.

By pointing out this assumption, I do not mean to say that membership growth is bad or never correlated with the work of the Spirit. I do mean to say that membership growth has a much greater level of theological importance in Methodism that in, say, the Anabaptist tradition.

This concern with membership numbers plays out most often in assessing the work of local congregations, districts, or areas of new mission work. But it also characterizes how Methodist denominations think about themselves as a whole. Methodists of any stripe tend to see the numerical growth in their denomination’s membership as a reflection that they are being good and faithful to God and the movement of the Spirit.

But if one assumes that is true, then it is easy to assume the converse is true as well: Decline in denominational membership is a sign that the denomination is out of alignment with God’s will. I think this reasoning is why US membership decline has provoked so much handwringing for United Methodists: It conjures up not only organizational anxieties but theological anxieties as well.

These theological anxieties are heightened for Methodists from the United States, where there is a high cultural emphasis on numerical growth as a demonstration of success and a high cultural stigma on numerical decline as a demonstration of failure.

How then can Methodists in the United States respond to the situation of US membership decline and thereby address these theological (and cultural) anxieties about whether their denomination is aligned with God’s will?

One set of solutions is to try various efforts to realign the denomination with God’s will (either theologically or organizationally, as discussed last week) to begin to grow in US membership again. So far, none of these efforts have proven successful in the UMC.

The failure of this first set of solutions highlights the importance of a second solution to the theological problem of US membership decline: factoring in the growth of world Christianity. Growing membership outside of the United States can offset membership declines in the United States, resulting in the denomination as a whole continuing to grow in membership. While this does not completely alleviate anxieties about US membership decline, it can provide some psychological reassurance that the denomination is still doing God’s will, as evidenced by the growth of the church globally.

Within the UMC, membership gains outside the US have made up for membership loss in the United States, and thus the overall membership of the denomination has increased modestly over the past decade. For the Wesleyans, Free Methodists, Nazarenes, AME, AME Zion, and CME, membership gains outside the United States have more than compensated for membership losses within the United States, and thus all of these traditions can think of themselves as growing churches, despite US membership trends. And, in the Methodist way of thinking, being a growing church means being a church in God’s favor.

While there are a variety of reasons why both US Traditionalists and those in the United States intending to remain within the UMC want to court Africans, Filipinos, and others outside the United States to choose their side of the denominational split, I think a recognition, at least implicitly, of the rhetorical importance of connections to places where Christianity is growing is among the reasons.

Having been in an international denomination, and having been shaped by the rhetoric that the church is growing and doing exciting things outside the United States, few are willing to give that up and settle down to the challenges of being church in an increasingly secular society. Instead, they want to preserve the romance and the sense of alignment with God’s will that come with being part of a growing denomination, even if that growth is happening elsewhere in the world.

Of course, this desire for global connection is very US centric. Methodists elsewhere in the world are, by and large, not concerning themselves with assuaging US theological fears provoked by membership loss. Instead, they have their own sets of concerns that are impacting their decisions about whether to remain in the UMC or affiliate with the Global Methodist Church. I will turn to those next week.


  1. In Understanding Church Growth, Donald McGavran explores theological reason why churches don’t grow. The “Universal fog” section shows how types of theology dispose a church or a denomination to decline. Finding excuses for no growth is one of the biggest reasons why churches don’t grow. Celebrating smallness or the notion that we should not prioritize numerical growth is a problem.

    Truthfully, the mission of the liberal denomination does not emphasize evangelism and “saving souls” in the same way at early Methodism. Likely, “counting the converts” means less to us than it did to the Book of Acts or early Methodism. Why? Have we discerned a new mission? If the pursuit of social justice is the real mission of the church, no one should expect membership growth.

    The Pew Research Center has shown that evangelical churches in America did not suffer a numerical decline in the last ten years. They exist in the same contextual milieu as the American UMC. At the same time, mainliners have plunging memberships. Theology has to play into this.

    Much has been written on causes for the decline and growth of denominations and the UMC. I have summarized that information in American Methodism, Past of Future Growth. Our current conversation needs to explore this material. Otherwise, we will continue to sink into oblivion because we don’t believe that we can grow.

  2. Amusing but not surprising that the UMC, which wants to prioritize sin over God, is declining, and that the only faction that stands against them (the wesleyans) has remained static or even grown slightly.

    To quote some guy who's post I read on an episcopal church article mentioning it's not so eerily similar numerical decline (I believe he was quoting someone else):

    "Once renowned for its liturgy, now a stop on architectural and garden tours. Only tourists go there anymore.”