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.
For decades, The United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations have declined in membership and as a percentage of the overall US population. In the UMC, this decline has been primarily driven by declining white membership.
Thus, it comes as a bit of a surprise that, according to PRRI surveys, the percentage of the US population who self-identify as white mainline Protestants has increased over the past four years, from 12.8% in 2016 to 16.4% in 2020. Based on the numbers, it seems that in the past few years, white mainline Protestants have benefited from transfers both from white evangelicals and white unaffiliated.
At the same time that white mainline Christians have grown, Christians of color have held steady as a share of the population, though the PRRI report does not break out trends over time for each sub-group within that larger amalgamation (Black non-evangelical Protestants, Hispanic evangelicals, Asian Catholics, etc.).
This survey is based on self-identity, not denominational membership, so there is some possibility that the changes reflected in the survey are the result of new self-understandings rather than new congregational or denominational homes.
Still, the survey should give some encouragement to United Methodists in the United States. For the first time in a half century, there is a growing interest in mainline Christianity as a religious option in the United States, at least among white Americans. As the largest mainline denomination and a predominantly white body, that should be good news for United Methodists, even as it seeks to dismantle racism and contemplates a denominational split.
More than just it being good news that United Methodists celebrate, these survey results should be good news that encourages United Methodists of all backgrounds to think more about the Good News and how to share it with others regardless of racial background. These encouraging survey results are an indicator of a spiritual hunger that the UMC, despite all its flaws, is capable of fulfilling by sharing with others the fruits of Wesleyan theology and spirituality. That should be an incentive to evangelism.
Moreover, there are a number of excellent evangelism resources that have come out in the past several years by a number of United Methodist evangelism professors. It is as easy as ever for churches and individuals to prepare themselves to share the Good News with others in a culturally-sensitive, informed, non-coercive way.
It is easy these days as a United Methodist to get down on the church, its internal politics, and its standing in the world. And the PRRI report isn't all good news. The percentage of the population that self-identifies as Christian in the United States still declines among younger groups, a corollary of an increasing number of younger people who do not identify with any religion. That trend will still negatively impact United Methodist membership numbers.
Nonetheless, it is good to be reminded that the good things we experience from our Methodist heritage and Methodist way of being church are not just good for us, but might be good things that others could appreciate as well.
We will see in another four years or so when PRRI or Pew comes out with their next poll whether this increase in white mainline Protestantism persists or not and how trends among Christians of color develop. But how that future plays out depends in part on whether United Methodists take courage from this current report and engage in evangelism because of it.