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Membership and attendance numbers provided during the recent annual conferences in the United States did not reverse the declines of past years, but those numbers and other reports indicated something different afoot.

For the most part, the trend of decline continues in the three measured categories—membership and worship and Sunday school attendance. However, activity within and aside from those categories shows that conferences are trying new initiatives to connect with unreached communities.

Declines in the three measured categories have been widespread for many years. In 1990, total lay and clergy membership in the United States was 8,853,455, according to the statistical review compiled annually by the General Council on Finance and Administration. By 2000, membership had decreased to 8,341,375, and in 2009, it was down to 7,725,039. Average attendance in 1990 was 3,466,439, and by 2009, it had decreased to 3,125,513.

By contrast, membership outside the United States has been steadily rising. In 1990, total lay and clergy membership in the central conferences was 806,841. By 2000, it had risen to 1,512,704, and in 2009, it had reached 4,412,489.

For many conferences, the decline in membership and attendance in 2010 narrowed even though 43 conferences fell in membership, 41 declined in attendance and 33 decreased in church school attendance.

Six conferences reported membership growth, five conferences increased average attendance and seven conferences reported increases in church school attendance.

Only three conferences reported increases in both membership and attendance, and, only one conference—Central Texas, which has maintained 30 years of growth—increased its numbers in all three categories. The growth for all three conferences was less than 1 percent in each category.

For the first time in 30 years, the Indiana Conference reported growth in both membership and attendance but still saw a decline in church school attendance. That was a big change from last year for the conference when it recorded the most dramatic decline — a 5.15 percent decrease in membership to 194,495, and a 4.2 percent decrease in attendance to 116,722. The conference’s church school attendance dropped 9.5 percent to 39,329.

Shift in focus key for Indiana

The Rev. Mark Gough, director of church development for the conference, said a shift in focus was the key to Indiana’s growth.

“We really began to focus on the main mission to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” he said, adding that churches have to stop worrying about survival and start asking, “How are we going to win people to Christ?”

He said the conference, created in a recent merger of the North and South Indiana conferences, now has five “remote” staff people working with churches in the districts “to really make a difference in reaching people that have not been reached. That’s what we’re concentrating on.”

“It’s easy to get distracted in a local church by all the things we do,” Gough said, adding that churches need greater emphasis on reaching people who don’t know the gospel, inviting them to church and treating them well when they come.

Red Bird Missionary Conference also reported growth in membership and attendance. The conference treasurer, Judith Fowler, said the growth came from opening new churches and renovating existing ones.

Church school numbers were up in the Northern Illinois, Arkansas, New York, Kansas East, Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania conferences. The Kansas East and Northern Illinois conferences grew less than one percent. The Arkansas, New York and Peninsula Delaware conferences saw increases between five and seven percent. The Eastern Pennsylvania conference grew 15 percent.

The Louisiana, North Georgia and Rio Grande conferences reported increases in membership, and the Yellowstone, Oklahoma Indian Missionary and North Texas conferences increased in attendance.

The Rev. Jim Ozier, the center director for new church development and congregational transformation in the North Texas Conference, said new churches are the main reason for attendance growth.

Ozier said his conference hosts seminars called “Getting More Members” by Jim Griffith, which teach existing churches how to be more involved in the community. Only 15 churches can participate at a time, and Ozier said the seminars are so popular that they have a waiting list.

“To show increase in attendance one year is good news. To show it for two years in a row is a trend. To show it three years in a row is a pattern. And after that, it will mark culture change in the conference,” Ozier said.

Ozier said when he works with churches he teaches them to think “culture first.”

“If churches just try to add new ‘things’ to attract people or to change their ministry, it will have very little effect,” he said. “First, you have to be intentional about changing the culture of your church. And, the culture change is to become mission-field driven instead of maintenance driven.”

Oklahoma growth in newer congregations

Despite declines in all three traditional measurement categories, the Oklahoma Conference reported encouraging numbers in three of its newer congregations.

Connect and Summit United Methodist churches, both in Edmond, Okla., are averaging more than 100 people at preview services, and Cross Timbers, a 2-year-old United Methodist congregation in Moore, Okla., has received 73 professions of faith.

The Rev. Craig Stinson, director of connectional ministries and congregational development in Oklahoma, said the conference in past years has not followed a mother-daughter format for developing new congregations, but all three of these churches are connected to a “mother” or “anchor” church in the community.

Stinson said the mother churches were concerned initially with how many people might leave and go to the new congregations.

“It turns out to be very few—under 20 in each—that are from the mother church,” Stinson said. “I was surprised.”

Stinson noted that Moore First United Methodist Church, the mother church for Cross Timbers, has grown since it started the daughter congregation. He explained that sometimes mother churches have more ministries and programs in place that can meet the needs of new families in the community. For example, if families want a church with a youth group, members of Cross Timbers would direct them to the “mom church,” Stinson said.

Stinson said Moore First has more members now than in the past five years, and he believes it is because of its association with the new congregation. He said Cross Timbers and Moore First are examples of why churches should not fear to start other new churches.

Stinson said all three new churches attract young people, especially families with children. He said the churches have so many kids that “they don’t know what to do.”

Stinson said it is not always obvious why people attend the new congregations and not the old ones.

“The difference seems to be that younger people will come to the new churches who simply would not go to the existing church for whatever reason,” Stinson said. “(The older congregations) are all three exciting churches. Because it’s new, unconnected people will come to the brand new thing when they won’t come to the existing thing.”

Stinson said one key difference is that the new churches seem to be more willing to try unusual things such as block parties, scrapbooking events, outdoor movies or pool parties. “They’re willing to try almost anything, and they’re not intimidated by the thought of failure.”

 Stinson also mentioned that the conference has created a new form of church community called “redemption churches,” comprised of people who are in prison or former inmates. “It’s a group of folks that were marginalized, who are being the church,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting to see those kinds of ministries.”

One such church, Penn Avenue, had about 15 people coming on Sunday mornings. Stinson said it was a “beautiful old church that hadn’t kept up with the neighborhood,” so the conference wanted to try bringing inmates to services at an alternative time. The church agreed and was “able to build a relationship that everybody enjoyed.”

“The best thing of all is hearing from people who have not been disciples of Jesus Christ,” Stinson said. “They’ll come to the church, and they’ll tell their faith story. It’s the reason we do this whole church thing. It’s so people can know Jesus. When they tell those stories, it’s worth everything.”

In the Missouri Conference, numbers in 424 churches declined, 104 stayed the same and 302 grew.

Fred Koenig, editor in the Missouri Conference, said focusing on the “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations” has been helpful for some churches there. The five practices, created by Missouri Area Bishop Robert Schnase, are passionate worship, extravagant generosity, radical hospitality, risk-taking mission and service, and intentional faith development.

He mentioned that two of the fastest-growing churches in the conference are associated as mother-daughter churches. Sunrise, the mother church, and Morning Star, both in O’Fallon, Mo., have benefited from starting the new congregation. Like Stinson, he said sometimes churches fear that planting a church will have a “detrimental effect” on the existing church, but in this case, just like the congregations in Oklahoma, both the mother and daughter churches grew.

Hispanic growth in Southwest Texas

The Southwest Texas Conference reported decreased membership of 50 people, even though it is located in an area of rapid population growth.

“The trend of that loss is unconscionable in my mind,” said the Rev. David Seilheimer, conference treasurer and secretary.

He told annual conference attendees that Hispanic membership in the conference had increased by 123—nearly two percent. He reminded the conference that half of its delegation to General Conference is Hispanic. General Conference is the denomination’s top lawmaking body. He also noted that Hispanic membership has doubled in the past decade, saying the conference is “doing something good that we need to do better.”

“We have tremendous leadership among the Hispanic population,” Seilheimer said. “The Hispanic population in South Texas is the youngest population. Sometimes I think our failure to bring in Hispanics is not the difference of race or language. It’s that we’re not very good right now at dealing with young people. We need to be reaching out to those people who are younger.”

The Illinois Great Rivers Conference reported declines of less than 2 percent in attendance and membership. The Arkansas Conference reported less than 1 percent declines in attendance and membership and a 6.8 percent increase in church school attendance.

The Western North Carolina Conference reported declines in all three categories but noted that participation in Christian formation groups increased by more than 3,000. The California-Nevada Conference saw declines in all three categories across the conference, noting, however, that 130 churches experienced membership growth.

The Florida Conference noted that Bishop Ricardo Pereira, who leads the Methodist Church in Cuba, reported that membership there has more than tripled in the last 10 years, increasing from 9,000 to 30,000.

“I sense the stirrings of a new vitality,” said retired Bishop Alfred L. Norris as he preached to the North Georgia Annual Conference. Rejecting the idea that the church is in danger of long-term decline, he said, “We need to have a passion and zeal for mission and evangelism.”

*Snell is a United Methodist News Service intern and a senior at Lipscomb University.


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