United Methodist Church Continues to Decline in America, but Gains in Africa

Correction Appended

The United Methodist Church has continued to decline in the United States of America, according to reports released by all but four of the denomination's 59 conferences.

According to the reports, in 2011 the UMC suffered a decline of nearly 72,000 members, with 18 conferences reporting membership losses of 2 percent or more.

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Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and a practicing Methodist, told The Christian Post that he did not feel confident in the survival of the UMC in America.

"Methodism in the U.S. has lost membership every year since 1964. It has lost over 4.5 million members. There is nothing in its U.S. policies that can or will reverse the decline in the near future," said Tooley.

"My own local church is a very typical U.S. United Methodist congregation. It is selling its Sunday school building for lack of people and finances."

While the reports paint a bleak picture for American Methodism, the reported numbers did show the United Methodist Church growing, especially in Africa and the Philippines. According to the United Methodist News Service, during the past year the Burundi and East African conferences of the UMC gained over 68,000 members.

Tooley believed that the growth of United Methodism abroad, especially in Africa, would come to influence the theology of the American UMC.

"The African churches now have over 4.2 million members and have been growing at over 200,000 members a year. They have the same evangelistic spark that made Methodism America's biggest and fastest growing church in 19th century America," said Tooley.

"I think there will be a turn around when the African influence begins to reshape the now U.S. based seminaries and church agencies."

The United Methodist Church is not the only mainline Protestant denomination suffering from declining membership in the United States.

In June, the Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of the General Assembly released statistics on the denomination showing that the denomination's membership had dipped below 2 million. The downward trend for PC(USA) meant that since 2000, the denomination had lost 20 percent of its membership.

Regarding the decline, Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, pastor to Presbytery for the PC(USA) Presbytery of Pittsburgh, told The Christian Post that the decline was part of the overall decline in Christian church affiliation in America.

"There are many reasons for this decline, including for mainline Protestants a birthrate well below the threshold of maintaining population," said Sorge.

Among American conferences, eleven U.S. conferences increased in worship attendance and five conferences gained members.

Paul Brunstetter, director of New Church Development for the Kentucky Conference, told CP that part of the reason for their success is the focus on church planting.

"We are placing value on starting new churches and faith communities, as we believe this is the most effective way to reach the un-churched for Jesus Christ," said Burnstetter.

"These past four years we have started 15 new churches that reach into all kinds of demographics and ethnic cultures."

Regarding why the United Methodist Church in America is declining, Brunstetter said that he believes the UMC "has lost some of its evangelistic zeal."

"The heart of Methodism is having a vital heart relationship with God through Jesus Christ which effects a love for people and concern for unjust conditions," said Brunstetter.

"While the Methodist church embraces all kinds of churches at different points along the spectrum, I believe the future of our church is our embrace of that sound theology that got us started, one that I am unapologetic for."

The General Council on Finance and Administration for the United Methodist Church will release a complete report on 2011 membership figures next spring.

Correction: Monday, August 6, 2012:

An article on Friday, August 3, 2012, about the decline in membership numbers in the United Methodist Church incorrectly stated that only two conferences, Kentucky Conference and the Greater New Jersey Conference, gained members in the past year. Eleven U.S. conferences increased in worship attendance and five conferences gained members.



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