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The most significant fact about the mainline Protestant churches in America in the past two decades has been the drastic decline in membership. This began in the 1960s and has continued to the present. While the rate of decrease has varied from year to year, nothing has reversed the steady downward trend. The drop in membership is a symptom of a deep and complex problem; it is already having an effect on the life and mission of the denominations. If the downward trend continues, the role of these churches in both the religious community and the larger society will be drastically and permanently changed.

Extent of Membership Decline

The Methodist and the Evangelical United Brethren Churches each began to experience a decrease in membership in the 1960s. This was obscured by the optimism engendered by the merger of these two denominations in Dallas in 1968. The details of the merger took a couple of years to be worked out and several more years for the overlapping annual conferences to combine. During the early years, a number of EUB congregations, largely in the Pacific Northwest region, withdrew to form a separate denomination.1 However, by 1970 The United Methodist Church was in place with a total membership of 10,671,744 and 40,653 organized churches.2

The decline, which began in each of the denominations before the merger, has continued. By 1984, the total number of members had decreased to 9,266,853; a loss of 1,404,891, or 13 percent. We had lost members equal to almost twice the number of EUBs who had united with the Methodists in 1968. The United Methodist Church, in the fourteen-year period 1970-1984, lost an average of 1,930 members every week. (This decrease is illustrated in Graph 1).

The downward trend has not yet been reversed. Preliminary figures for 1995 give the lay membership as 9,105,046.3 During calendar year 1985, the total number decreased by 75,692, or an average loss of 1,455 persons each week. This is the equivalent of closing a church of 207 members every day for one year. The average attendance at the principal service of worship has also shown a downward trend, although at a somewhat slower rate than the membership decline. There were over 442,000 fewer persons attending worship in 1984 than in 1969, a decrease of 11 percent. (This trend is illustrated in Graph 2.)

Nor is the picture regarding the number of congregations is encouraging. During the period of 1970-1984, United Methodism closed a total of 2,665 local churches, or an average of slightly under four congregations per week.

An examination of the membership trends of several other mainline denominations for the decade and a half from 1968 to 1983 reveals equally dismal pictures. The Episcopal Church had a membership decline of 17 percent.4 The decrease in the United Church of Christ was 16 percent.5 The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) dropped by 29 percent. The recently created Presbyterian Church (USA), the result of a merger between the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church in the United States, in 1983 had 25 percent fewer adherents than the combined membership of their component parts a decade and a half earlier.

It is difficult to conceptualize the extent of the membership declines suffered by the mainline churches during the 1970s and early 1980s. Every week these denominations averaged a decline of over five thousand; this is the equivalent of mainline Protestantism's closing one local church of almost seven hundred members every day for a decade and a half.

The significance of this downward trend in membership on these historically prominent denominations and their role in the larger society is great. It may mean a realignment of the religious bodies in America. For example, there are now more members in the Assemblies of God than in the United Church of Christ, a fact that will influence both denominations.

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The Impact of the Membership Decline

The long-term decline in membership is already making an impact on the church at both the local and the denominational levels. When a congregation loses members, it is forced to cut back on its program, to reduce staff, to secure a younger and less experienced pastor who receives a lower salary, to delay building maintenance, and to contribute less to the denomination's mission and benevolence programs. Then there are the factors that statistics cannot describe: the grief of seeing one's local church dwindle in size, the sadness when members move elsewhere, and the fear of an increasingly uncertain future. This has been happening in hundreds of congregations, particularly those in the old urban centers. Many of such churches, which once were among the strongest in the denomination, are now struggling to survive.

The membership decrease is affecting our denomination as a whole in several ways. The first is a change in the church's self-image. Methodists have long and correctly considered their church to be one of the major churches in America. For a time it was the largest Protestant group in the nation. There were, of course, the fundamentalist churches and the sectarian groups, but these were perceived to be on the fringes. Such churches were not thought to represent the wave of the future, which was the preserve of Methodism and the other mainline, more liberal denominations.

The continued downward trend is beginning to change people's image of their church and to contribute to a morale problem, particularly among the clergy. In a society that places a premium on growth, any institution that has declined for two decades is bound to have a serious case of self-doubt. In a religion that believes one of its primary purposes to be to win converts to its Lord and its way of life, the failure to grow may be interpreted as a failure of mission. Church leaders and, increasingly, the people are aware that things are not going well, but are unsure as to what should be done. The majority of our pastors now serve and the majority of our members now live within congregations that appear to have accepted continuous decline as a way of life. Decline is not a way of life, but of death. To live in circumstances of unrelenting, continual decline may cause pastors and laity to accept decline as inevitable.

Despite its decline, The United Methodist Church is still strong. Any organization with a membership in excess of nine million people is hardly insignificant. Nevertheless, the effects of the membership decrease are already evident in the lack of self-confidence, in the pessimism, and in the uncertainty about the church's direction and future.

A second effect of membership loss is a decrease in the influence of the church in the larger society. Methodism has been deeply involved in every reform activity in America, from the anti-slavery campaign of the pre-Civil War period to the civil rights movement of the second half of this century. The twentieth century has been a time in which Methodists have devoted a considerable amount of time, effort, and resources to working for a more humane and just society. A Social Creed to provide guidelines for Methodist Episcopal Church members was adopted in 1906. Several specialized national boards and agencies have been created to deal with such issues as temperance, world peace, race relations, and a variety of other social and economic issues.

The United Methodist Church has continued to take stands on public issues. Its agencies have urged the members to attempt to influence government officials in order to bring about specific social change. However, an organization that is in decline will not command as much attention in the larger society as will one that is growing. A denomination that is unsure of itself will not be able to mobilize its resources to focus on a particular issue. A decrease in new members decreases our contacts with the various ethnic and economic groups within society. Our social commitments wane as we become the church of the aging establishment. The church may continue to raise the ethical and moral issues, but it will have fewer constituents to influence public policy.

A third result of the membership decline is an increased emphasis on institutional maintenance and survival. As a knowledgeable United Methodist leader recently observed, "The church is in a maintenance mode." When an institution feels threatened, its energies flow into self-preservation.

In the local church, self-preservation takes the form of anxiously seeking members. This is illustrated by the lay member's statement, "We simply must recruit some more people, particularly young people, in order to insure that Trinity Church will be here after we are gone." The emphasis was on survival, not mission. The sense of desperation, however, makes the task of securing additional members more difficult.

In the church's bureaucracy, the emphasis on survival takes the form of extreme defensiveness of the status quo. Any questioning of organizational procedures or programs evokes a defensive and negative response. Critics will be labeled as disloyal trouble makers. When leaders are chosen, creativity, courage, and vision will be valued less than loyalty to the status quo. The impression is conveyed that the church is an extremely fragile institution that will suffer irreparable damage if even its most loyal supporters raise any questions.

The emphasis on survival at the expense of mission is counter-productive. An air of anxiety does not win persons, but rather causes them to turn away. The church, of all institutions, should know that its purpose is not only to survive, but also to witness and to serve. It should never forget the truth in the admonition, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 16:25).

A fourth long-term effect of the membership decrease will be a decrease in income. Despite the decline, total expenditures by The United Methodist Church have increased in the past decade and a half However, leaner times can be anticipated if the downward trend continues. The income of the church comes largely from the offerings taken in thousands of congregations across the nation. A smaller number of people will ultimately mean a reduced income. Furthermore, the last two decades have seen an increasing number of members moving near the customary retirement period of life, when their incomes tend to be fixed. A large number of our congregations have a relatively high proportion of persons over sixty, with many over seventy years of age. A recent study of a sample of United Methodist congregations revealed that 21.3 percent of church members were age sixty-five and over, compared with 11.5 percent of the total population. Over one third (34.4 percent) of the members are fifty-five and older. In contrast, only 12.4 percent of the church's members are in the nineteen to thirty-four age group, compared to 28.4 percent of the total population.6

The older members appear to be more committed to tithing, or at least to regular giving, than our younger members. Persons who are long-time church members tend to increase their support over the years. These loyal members are contributing generously, but their years of service are not unlimited, and they are not being replaced. In 1985 the number of United Methodists who died increased by almost one thousand over the preceding year. As large numbers pass from the scene, the drop in income will be drastic.

It has become a practice for United Methodist leaders, when the membership statistics are released, to lament the annual decline in members, but to say, "Thank God the level of giving has held up and even increased somewhat." It is true that giving by United Methodists has continued to increase. Between 1970 and 1983 Methodism increased its expenditures for all purposes by 183 percent.7 This is the money spent by all churches for local expenses (salaries, program, building expenses, and so on) and contributed to the denomination for administration, missions, and other benevolent causes.

However, the 1970s was a period of high inflation. To get an accurate picture of the financial trends, it is necessary to hold inflation constant and consider the purchasing power of the dollar.8 When this is done, one sees that an increase in the purchasing power of United Methodist expenditures grew not by 183 percent, but by only 11 percent. But this is a significant gain when it is compared to the membership decrease of 13 percent during the same period. To put it another way, 13 percent fewer church members contributed 11 percent more money in 1983 than in 1970. Persons who have been members for a long time tend to have a high degree of commitment, which is expressed in a high level of giving.

Two significant shifts in the allocation of funds within The United Methodist Church took place during this period. First, benevolent and mission causes received a smaller share of the funds. These causes received 16 percent of the total money in 1970; by 1983 this had dropped to 13 percent. The largest proportion of our benevolent and mission funds come from our larger churches - churches that have enough "surplus" funds left over after meeting their own internal needs to send to denominational projects.

During the past quarter of a century, a large number of our once large and vibrant urban congregations have either drastically declined or closed. A few examples will illustrate this tragic trend. In 1960 the Barton Heights Church (Richmond, Virginia) had 1,031 members, Narden Park (Detroit, Michigan) had 2,401, and City Church (Gary, Indiana) had 1,687. Today none of these congregations exists.

The list of the once large churches that have declined by more than half in the past twenty-five years includes: Wesley Monumental, Savannah, Georgia (54 percent); First, Evanston, Illinois (65 percent); First, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (56 percent); Elm Park, Scranton, Pennsylvania (69 percent); Trinity, Denver, Colorado (61 percent); First, Los Angeles, California (85 percent); McCoy, Birmingham, Alabama (85 percent); and Linwood Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri (91 percent). The loss and drastic decline of these congregations signals not only a tragic loss of ministry to these urban areas, but also a potential dramatic decline in funds available for our church-wide and mission programs. In 1985, the 4 percent of United Methodist congregations of one thousand or more members provided 25 percent of the World Service Funds and Conference Benevolences.9

The losses in the once large urban churches have not been replaced by new congregations in the suburbs. During the nine years from 1950 to 1958, The Methodist church organized 1,053 new churches.10 In the fourteen year period from 1970 to 1984, only 597 new churches were started.11 To put it another way, between 1950 and 1958 we started an average of 117 churches each year; between 1970 and 1984 we started an average of 43 churches each year.

Second, a greater share of the mission and benevolent contributions is being retained by the regional judicatories. In 1970, the national church agencies received 39 percent of the benevolent income; by 1983 this proportion had dropped to 33 percent. The remaining money was retained for use in the region by the annual conferences. These data indicate that in a period of financial stringency the needs closest to home will be met first. The local congregation will receive priority over the denomination. The regional judicatory will be funded ahead of the national and world denomination. It's not that we have become more selfish or locally concerned, but that we have less money left over after meeting local maintenance needs.

This is further illustrated by an examination of United Methodist expenditures for missions and other benevolences for the period from 1970 to 1983, while holding inflation constant. The purchasing power of the funds provided to the national church actually declined by 26 percent. The purchasing power of the funds provided to the regional judicatories also decreased, but only by 4 percent. It is ironic that, in a period in which United Methodists were congratulating themselves on becoming more globally concerned, our actual financial commitment to global ministry dramatically declined.

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Toward Revitalization

Despite the significance of the decrease in membership for the immediate and the long-term future of The United Methodist Church, the drop in membership is primarily a symptom of deeper problems. The membership decline will not be reversed only by addressing it per se by attempting to recruit new people. Working harder at what we have been doing will not get to the causes of the problem. When we don't know what to do, we urge greater sincerity and effort in doing what we have always done - such as the 1984 General Conference call to more than double the membership to twenty million by 1992. Frustration will be the inevitable result. Such activity may bring in a few more people, but it will not address the United Methodist malaise. It will, at best, provide temporary relief, like taking an aspirin but failing to deal with the real cause of the pain. At worst, temporary, superficial modifications will produce greater disillusionment and synicism when they don't work.

We are convinced that United Methodists must give their attention to the specific issues that are causing the membership decrease. This means looking beyond the symptoms to the roots of the problem. The goal of the church is not, of course, to gain numbers for the sake of the numbers. It is to be faithful to the gospel and to win people to Jesus Christ. The statistical trends are not an end in themselves but one way to measure whether what the church is doing is effective. Those who dismiss the measurement of mission by reference to financial and demographic statistics as merely "playing the numbers game" are evading the dear truth that numbers mean people and commitment. Our church was born through Wesley's creative and courageous response to institutional malaise in his own established Anglican Church. What a church does or does not do at a particular time may increase or decrease its effectiveness. In the pages that follow, we shall present some specific proposals concerning what The United Methodist Church can do to be revitalized and to increase the effectiveness of its witness.

Our study is based on five assumptions. First, we are convinced that a revitalized church is not only possible, but it is also what United Methodism ought to be. Our goal is not a larger institution but a church that is vital, effective, and faithful in carrying out its mission.

Second, Christian people, including leaders of the church, have the freedom to decide how they will respond to the demands of the gospel not only in their personal lives, but also in their collective life. They decide what the church as an institution shall and shall not do. Their actions have consequences that are either positive or negative. To us has been entrusted the power to communicate the gospel. We don't create salvation - God has already done that in Jesus Christ. But we, like every church before us, can either hide our light under a bushel of organizational inadequacy, or we can let it shine before all people. The major responsibility rests on us.

Third, the way in which the church carries on its work will vary, depending to a great degree on the sociocultural context of a particular time and place. As the society changes, the church must change its method. The industrialization and urbanization of eighteenth-century England created new situations that the Wesleyan movement creatively addressed, which the Church of England, until Wesley, mostly ignored. In our own history, we have a warning about the peril of doing what we have always done. Institutions tend to continue carrying on once-successful programs long after they have become outmoded and useless. Christian churches are not exempt from this phenomenon. What we have been doing is not producing the results we want today.

Fourth, revitalization tends not to come from those who hold positions of authority and power in an institution. Our leaders, particularly those in our vast bureaucracy, may not be those best able to lead if leadership involves basic, perhaps painful, change. Such persons may use the rhetoric of reform, for most of them like to think of themselves as social activists. An occasional prophetic voice is heard crying in the wilderness of denominational structure. However, in the final analysis most persons in the institutional hierarchy and bureaucracy will find genuine reform too threatening to their present positions and find ways to oppose it either openly or subtly. Change requires redistribution of power, and those who have power want to preserve it. Revitalization will inevitably produce conflict. We know that, in preaching the need for change in our church, we bring not the peace of the status quo, but the sword of innovation.

Fifth, the entire denomination cannot be revitalized by official actions and churchwide programs. We need no new "missional priority" for what we propose here. Revitalization can come only if enough lay members who have no vested interest in the denominational hierarchy and bureaucracy and enough ministers who are willing to risk their minimal vested interest take the necessary bold actions. We already have the structure and the means to change what needs to be changed. In the pages that follow, we shall describe what actions need to be taken for United Methodism to move into its third century as a vital and more effective church.

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  1. This group formed the Evangelical Church of North America in Portland, Oregon, which now has 127 congregations and over 11,500 members.
  2. Methodist statistics are from the annual editions of the General Minutes of the Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church (Council on Finance and Administration, Evanston, Ill., 1968-1985). Rates of change have been computed by the authors.
  3. Data provided by the Section on Records and Statistics, General Council on Finance and Administration, Evanston, Illinois.
  4. The Episcopal Church Annual (Wilson, Conn.: Morehouse Barlow Company, 1985), p. 19.
  5. The figures for the denominations, except United Methodist and Episcopal, are from Constant H. Jacquet, Jr., ed. Yearbook of American Churches (New York: Council Press, 1970) and Constant H. Jacquet, Jr., ed., Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985). Rates of change have been computed by the authors.
  6. "The Case of the Missing Numbers," Discipleship Trends, vol. IV, no. 4, August, 1986 (General Board of Discipleship, The United Methodist Church).
  7. The financial data for The United Methodist Church are from the Annual Report of the General Council on Finance and Administration of the United Methodist Church (Evanston, Ill., 1970 and 1984).
  8. To control for inflation, the Consumer Price Index was used to convert the funds into 1967 dollars.
  9. Data provided by the Section on Records and Statistics, General Council on Finance and Administration, Evanston, Illinois.
  10. Roy A. Sturm, Methodism's New Churches 1950-1958 (Philadelphia; Department of Research and Survey, Division of National Missions, Board of Missions of The Methodist Church, 1958), p. 1.
  11. Douglas W. Johnson, A Study of New Churches 1966-1984 (New York: National Program Division, General Board of Global Ministries, 1986), p. 2.

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Copyright© 1987 By Abingdon Press

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