U.S. United Methodist membership drops below 8 million


By Linda Bloom
United Methodist News Service

For the first time since the 1930s, the U.S. membership of the United Methodist Church has dropped to just under 8 million.

A preliminary report from the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration, released June 21, shows that total U.S. membership dropped to 7,989,875 in 2005. The final statistical report will be completed in the fall.

Membership decreased 1.05 percent in 2005. Earlier this spring, a GCFA report released in April, "The State of Our Connection," noted that U.S. membership had decreased by 0.81 percent, to about 8.07 million in 2004. Membership had declined annually since the formation of the denomination in 1968.

Church attendance in 2005 was 3.34 million, the lowest level in reported history, according to GCFA. Attendance had decreased by 1.63 percent from 2004 to 2005.

The trend is different for membership outside the United States. According to information released by GCFA in April, lay membership in the central conferences -  regions of the church in Africa, Asia and Europe - increased more than 68 percent between 1995 to 2004. As of 2004, the non-U.S. membership stood at 1.88 million.

According to Scott Brewer, GCFA Office of Analysis and Research, the initial data for 2005 is incomplete, but "in past years these reports have provided a relatively accurate prediction of the final statistical totals."

Although some of the denomination's annual conferences are still meeting, GCFA had set an earlier deadline this year for preliminary statistical reports from the conferences. The information was then shared with the leadership of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.      

Bishop Scott Jones of Wichita, Kan., told United Methodist News Service that the council already has significant initiatives under way to reverse the membership decline.

"The council has been aware of the decline for some time," he said. "We take this news very seriously."

Jones is a member of the council's plan team for implementation of its focus on "Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World."

A major emphasis has been placed on starting new congregations in the United States, allocating resources at both the annual conference and national levels, according to Jones. Pastors and district superintendents also are being trained "to strengthen our existing churches."

Outreach to Hispanics and immigrant groups in America is a focus, and the Council of Bishops recently held a summit on new church starts for general agency and some conference church development staff members.

In 2007, a convocation for district superintendents, lay leaders, conference staff and bishops is planned "to focus on how we can make disciples of Jesus Christ and improve our efforts at strengthening local congregations," Jones said.

The council expects that these efforts "will bear fruit in the next five to 10 years," the bishop added.

The council also is paying attention to the successful membership efforts of conferences outside the United States. "We are learning from our United Methodist sisters and brothers in other countries … where United Methodism is growing dramatically," Jones said. "Worldwide, our denomination is growing."