(UMNS) — U.S. membership in The United Methodist Church decreased by less than 1 percent in 2004, and worship attendance experienced a similar dip, according to a report from the denomination's finance agency.
The number of United Methodist members in the United States decreased by 0.81 percent, to about 8.07 million, and worship attendance was down by 0.96 percent from 2003, according to the General Council on Finance and Administration’s report, The State of Our Connection.
Membership has declined annually since the formation of the denomination in 1968. During the last 10-year period, the number of members churchwide decreased by 5.48 percent.
Countering the U.S. decline, United Methodist lay membership in the central conferences — regions of the church in Africa, Asia and Europe — increased more than 68 percent from 1995 to 2004, to 1.88 million.
"In the central conferences, significant growth has been seen in Africa, with a growth rate of 30 percent in the last four years," said Scott Brewer, GCFA senior researcher. Europe, particularly in the former Soviet Republics and Eastern Bloc areas, has also experienced expansion, reporting a growth rate of 3.5 percent during the same period, he said.
Of the 63 U.S.-based annual (regional) conferences, 13 reported increases in membership in 2004. A slightly higher number, 16, reported attendance growth.
"The 2004 membership and attendance data show declines in membership and attendance that are greater than projected," said John Goolsbey, deputy general secretary of administration at GCFA. "These are continuations of long-term trends requiring thoughtful analysis and critical dialogue. We will continue to collaborate with the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table regarding the implications of these trends for the denomination's vision and future ministry."
GCFA also offers annual conferences an expanded analysis of trends and customized reports for use in planning.
"This annual report is a significant tool for the church in planning at the general, regional and local levels," Brewer said.
By the numbers
The 13 U.S. conferences reporting membership increases included Alabama-West Florida (0.54 percent), Alaska Missionary (0.02 percent), Central Texas (0.52), Kentucky (0.15), Louisiana (0.17), North Carolina (0.63), North Georgia (1.19), North Texas (0.57), Oklahoma Missionary (0.34), Red Bird Missionary (2.41), Tennessee (0.57), Texas (0.34) and Western North Carolina (0.39).
Percentage decreases ranged as high as 4.33 percent, posted by the Yellowstone Conference, followed by 3.5 percent in Northern Illinois and 3.3 percent in New England. Fifty conferences posted membership declines from 2003.
The 16 conferences reporting attendance growth in 2004 included Alabama-West Florida (up 2.35 percent), Alaska Missionary (0.58), Central Pennsylvania (0.67), Florida (0.02), Holston (0.73), Missouri (0.57), Nebraska (1.72), New York (1.0), North Georgia (0.22), North Texas (0.25), Northern Illinois (0.66), Oklahoma (0.57), Peninsula-Delaware (0.27), Tennessee (1.03), Western North Carolina (0.96) and Wyoming (2.28).
Worship attendance dropped 17.39 percent in the Troy Conference, followed by 8.43 percent in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference and 5.13 percent in the Pacific Northwest Conference. A total of 47 U.S. conferences posted drops in attendance between 2003 and 2004.
The largest U.S. conferences in terms of membership were Virginia, 341,850, North Georgia, 337,635, and Florida, 326,272.
Other findings in the report:
"This report cannot provide the final word on the state of our connection, but it can contribute to a continuing conversation about what it means to be a strong, faithful and living church," GCFA staff noted in the report. "Our goal is to raise some of the questions we believe are relevant in forming the vision that will lead our connectional church into its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."