UM membership sees dip in United States, climbs outside


By United Methodist News Service

NASHVILLEU.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.

The finance agency noted that data reporting in the central conferences is limited, and Brewer said GCFA is working with church leaders in those areas to improve the exchange of information.

Of the 63 U.S.-based annual conferences, 13 reported increases in membership in 2004. A slightly higher number, 16, reported attendance growth. In the Mississippi Conference, membership dropped 606 members in 2005. The conference membership stood at 188,763, down from the 189,369 reported in 2004.

Tool for planning

The agency said it is consulting with the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table to analyze the membership and attendance statistics.

“Preliminary analysis has begun to make its way into dialogue regarding church vision and programming,” said John Goolsbey, deputy general secretary of administration at GCFA. “In early March, GCFA staff discussed the report with the Council of Bishops Executive Committee. We have shared the report, as well, with members of the Connectional Table.

“The 2004 membership and attendance data show declines in membership and attendance that are greater than projected,” he said. “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.

Hispanic membership was was up 6.18 percent, the eighth consecutive year of growth, according to GCFA. In addition, Asian membership was slightly up for the fourth consecutive year. Of all churches reporting statistics in 2004, 35.9 percent reported membership increases, the agency said.

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:

  • The church had congregations in 2,997 U.S. counties in 2004, which GCFA said is more than any other denomination.
  • The percentage of churches that did not receive any members — on profession of faith or restored — rose from 37.8 in 1984 to 42.1 in 2004
  • Since 1994, the number of United Methodist churches in the United States has decreased 4.9 percent, while the number of pastoral charges has risen 1.8 percent. The denomination had a total of 34,966 U.S. churches and 26,327 charges.