Is the United Methodist Church is experiencing renewal? An analysis of the 2001 annual conference statistics reports indicates that the United Methodist Church in the United States is showing its most significant worship increase in more than 30 years.
The reports are unofficial, and there will be adjustments and corrections (there always are), but at the moment, it appears that:
- The Southeastern Jurisdiction is showing an attendance increase of more than 34,500.
- The South Central Jurisdiction, an increase of about 14,000.
- The Western Jurisdiction, an increase of 1,326.
- The North Central Jurisdiction, an increase of about 2,000.
- The Northeastern Jurisdiction, an increase of more than 1,000.
The Methodists have, in recent years, lamented their continuing membership losses. If one judges the growth of church solely by membership, the best he or she can speak of is a slowing rate of decline. Church-growth analysts claim the best indicator of church vitality is worship attendance.
By this indicator, the United Methodist Church is radically shifting its direction. For the past 10 years, the worship attendance in the denomination has kept steady. While they have lost members, the number of people in worship has at least remained constant. The church reported 3,478,894 average attendance in 1991 and 3,489,961 in 1999.
During the 1990s, they stopped the discouraging decline that had characterized the church since the 1960s. But now they claim something better than just "remaining even." Consider this statistic: in 1999, 17 of 61 annual conferences showed an attendance increase. In 2000, 25 of 61 annual conferences showed an attendance increase. In 2001, 44 of 59 conferences showed an attendance increase.
Of course, much of this increase has been regional. The Southeastern Jurisdiction, with its 37,000 additional worshippers, added more attendance in 2001 than the total numbers of worshippers in the entire Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. From 1993 to 1999, the Southeastern and South Central jurisdictions added more than 100,000 new worshippers (while the other three jurisdictions all showed decline). There are now more United Methodists in either Georgia or North Carolina than in all the Western Jurisdiction.
The two Southern jurisdictions are also home to the big churches. Florida has more churches with an attendance of over 1,000 (22) than all of the Northeastern, Western and North Central jurisdictions combined (20, according to 1999 statistics).
But overall, the statistics are encouraging and the trends positive. The Methodist denomination may be bucking the trend that shows all the mainline denominations in decline.
Thanks to the Foundation for Evangelism, the Methodists have funded chairs of evangelism in seminaries, and at the present time, 11 of the 13 United Methodist seminaries have those chairs filled. The church now considers evangelism important enough to require a course in evangelism for every person seeking elder's orders.
The Board of Discipleship has encouraged programs like Disciple Bible Study, Christian Beliefs, Alpha, Emmaus and Witness.
People have been willing to listen to people like Lyle Schaller, George Barna, Herb Miller and others to determine how to make our message attractive to non-believers.
The church has been willing to try new music and worship styles; also to be part of a growing evangelical and charismatic renaissance across the nation (and the world).
They have shifted from "pluralism" in our doctrinal understanding to a new doctrinal statement that stresses "primacy of Scripture," and this in turn has led to new interest in doctrinal and biblical studies.
The church has sought to balance (at least on paper) the prophetic social witness with high personal moral standards, including a nuance stand on abortion (which should not be considered "pro-choice") and a biblical stand on homosexuality.
In the church-planting business, the church has been blessed with strong, and in many cases evangelical, leadership in these and other fast-growing churches.
Do the statistics simply represent a one-year bump, perhaps the result of 9-11? The next few years will tell for certain. In the meantime, the members rejoice in what God is doing in the United Methodist Church.
By Albert H. Lee