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The Real Story:  UM Membership Declines 43.6% While UMNews Spins Revival

UMNews Commentary: Is renewal occurring in the church?

The Real Story

Below the membership numbers of the United Methodist Church are plotted in a graph.  The red line ó●ó represents the UM membership numbers if the denomination's membership increased proportionately with the general population of the US (5.2% of the general population in 1970).  Therefore, if UM membership (10,671,774) in 1970 represented 5.2% of the US population, then in the year 2000 that same 5.2% would represent 14,776,706 UM members in the year 2000. In other words any new members would come from those born into the denomination.

The lavender line ó▲ó represents the actual membership numbers as reported by the UMC, with 8,341,375 being reported in 2000.

As you can see below the real losses, adjusted for the increase in the general population, are 6,435,331 members or 43.6%!!

Please also note that in the attached UMNews Commentary attendance is being reported and not membership.

Membership Adjusted For Population Increase + 14,776,706
Actual Membership in 2000 - 8,341,375
Real Losses Adjusted For Population = 6,435,331
Real Percentage Loss  43.6% Loss

Statistics compiled by


Commentary: Is renewal occurring in the church?

Nov. 19, 2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton (615)742-5470 Nashville, Tenn. {534}

NOTE: A photograph of the Rev. Riley B. Case is available.

A UMNS Commentary

By the Rev. Riley B. Case*

Could it be that the United Methodist Church is experiencing renewal? Consider: an analysis of the 2001 annual conference statistics reports indicates that the United Methodist Church in the United States is showing its most significant worship increase in more than 30 years.

The reports are unofficial, and there will be adjustments and corrections yet to come (there always are), but at the moment, it appears that:

The Southeastern Jurisdiction is showing an attendance increase of more than 34,500.

The South Central Jurisdiction, an increase of about 14,000.

The Western Jurisdiction, an increase of 1,326.

The North Central Jurisdiction, an increase of about 2,000.

The Northeastern Jurisdiction, an increase of more than 1,000.

We would do well to mark the significance of these statistics. We have, in recent years, lamented our continuing membership losses (as well we should). If we judge health solely by membership, the best we can speak of is a slowing rate of decline. Letís adjust our thinking. Church-growth people tell us the best indicator of church vitality is worship attendance.

By this indicator, our United Methodist Church is turning the corner! Letís praise God! Actually, for the past 10 years, the worship attendance in the denomination has kept steady. While we have lost members, the number of people in worship has at least remained constant. We reported 3,478,894 average attendance in 1991 and 3,489,961 in 1999 (the last year for which we have official statistics).

During the 1990s, we stopped the discouraging decline that had characterized our church since the 1960s. But now we claim something better than just "remaining even." Consider this statistic: in 1999, 17 of 61 annual conferences showed an attendance increase. In 2000, 25 of 61 annual conferences showed an attendance increase. In 2001, 44 of 59 conferences showed an attendance increase.

Of course, much of this increase has been regional. Letís give credit where credit is due. The Southeastern Jurisdiction, with its 37,000 additional worshippers, added more attendance in 2001 than the total numbers of worshippers in the entire Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. From 1993 to 1999, the Southeastern and South Central jurisdictions added more than 100,000 new worshippers (while the other three jurisdictions all showed decline). There are now more United Methodists in either Georgia or North Carolina than in all the Western Jurisdiction.

The two Southern jurisdictions are also home to the big churches. Florida has more churches with an attendance of over 1,000 (22) than all of the Northeastern, Western and North Central jurisdictions combined (20, according to 1999 statistics).

But overall, the statistics are encouraging and the trends positive. Our denomination may be bucking the trend that shows all the mainline denominations in decline.

Can we draw any conclusions at this point? There are many explanations, and the discussion around these will be very interesting, but let me be first to offer some observations.

Thanks to the Foundation for Evangelism, we have funded chairs of evangelism in our seminaries, and at the present time, 11 of the 13 United Methodist seminaries have those chairs filled. We have thought evangelism is important enough that we are now requiring a course in evangelism for every person seeking elderís orders.

Our Board of Discipleship has encouraged programs like Disciple Bible Study, Christian Beliefs, Alpha, Emmaus and Witness.

We have been willing to listen to people like Lyle Schaller, George Barna, Herb Miller and others to determine how to make our message attractive to non-believers.

We have been willing (in some instances where it is appropriate) to try new music and worship styles; we have been willing to be part of a growing evangelical and charismatic renaissance across the nation (and the world).

We have moved from "pluralism" in our doctrinal understanding to a new doctrinal statement that stresses "primacy of Scripture," and this in turn has led to new interest in doctrinal and biblical studies.

We have sought to balance (at least on paper) our prophetic social witness with high personal moral standards, including a nuanced stand on abortion (which should not be considered "pro-choice") and a biblical stand on homosexuality.

We are back again in the church-planting business, and we have been blessed with strong, and in many cases evangelical, leadership in these and other fast-growing churches.

Is this good news just wishful thinking? Do the statistics simply represent a one-year bump, perhaps the result of 9-11? The next few years will tell for sure. In the meantime, we rejoice in what God is doing in the United Methodist Church.

*Case, retired, is a member of the North Indiana Annual Conference. This commentary was provided by the Hoosier United Methodist News and appears in that publicationís November issue.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.


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