By Heather Hahn
(UMNS) --United Methodists across the United States rejoiced to see old friends and celebrated their shared faith at annual conference gatherings this spring and summer. But when the time came for reports on membership and attendance, the news was often sobering.
The pews at many churches are emptier this year.
In statistical reports from 39 U.S. conferences, most disclosed declines in membership, worship attendance or church-school participation in 2009. Twenty-six conferences reported losses in all three categories. Thirteen reported membership drops of more than 2 percent. Four conferences gained members.
The 2009 figures continue a decades-long decline in U.S. membership that is drawing the attention of church officials.
“What we’re dealing with is the legacy of what we haven’t done in the past,” said San Francisco Area Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., who oversees the California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference. “What we’re doing is addressing the main purpose of the church, which is making disciples.”
The United Methodist Church is growing worldwide. In the decade between 1998 and 2008, for example, overall membership grew by 14 percent for those who come into membership by profession of faith and 27 percent for baptized members. At the end of 2008, the church had approximately 11 million professing members and an additional 2.5 million baptized members in Africa, Europe, the United States and the Philippines.
However, U.S.membership has declined every year since The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 and dropped by nearly 590,000 between 1998 and 2008, according to the 2010 State of the Church Report commissioned by the Connectional Table.
Earlier this year, the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration reported U.S. membership dropped 1.01 percent to 7,774,420 in 2008. It was the largest percentage decline since 1974, when membership dropped 1.06 percent.
Thirty-nine of 62 U.S. conferences reported membership figures for 2009. Because of mergers in the Northeastern Jurisdiction, the total number of conferences has since dropped from 62 to 59. These statistical reports reflect information from some conferences that were part of the merger.
Many conferences reported sharp declines.
The Indiana Annual (regional) Conference 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 plummeted by 9.5 percent to 39,329.
The California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference reported its greatest loss in membership since 1981, dropping about 2.3 percent to 80,375.
In both cases, church leaders attributed the declines in large part to a more thorough cleansing of the church rolls of people who no longer have any United Methodist affiliation.
Signs of growth
The numbers reported by U.S. conferences were not all bad. Four annual conferences reported increases in membership, and five reported increases in worship attendance.
The Red Bird Missionary Conference in Kentucky noted that its membership stands at 1,495, up seven members, and its average worship attendance of 711 is up 35.
The North Carolina Annual Conference so far is the only other conference to also report gains in membership and attendance. Membership increased by five people to 237,495, and worship attendance is up by 400 to 83,452.
That kind of growth, while small, is nothing new for the conference, which encompasses the eastern side of North Carolina.
The conference has seen its membership grow for the past 15 years, said the Rev. George D. Speake, the conference statistician and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Henderson, N.C.
Speake attributed the growth in part to North Carolina’s overall growth in population.
The conference also offers periodic leadership training for pastors each year. In addition, the bishop requires all pastors who are moving to a new appointment in a given year to attend a leadership development seminar.
Perhaps most significantly, Speake said, throughout his 30 years as pastor the conference’s bishops and cabinet memberships always have emphasized the necessity of evangelism.
Addressing the problem
Last week, the Call to Action Steering Team — a group of clergy and laity appointed to address system-wide problems in the church — released a report on “Congregational Vitality.”
The assessment, based on an analysis of data from more than 32,000 United Methodist churches in North America, identified four main “drivers” of church growth, attendance, giving and professions of faith. These drivers are: a mix of both traditional and contemporary worship services, small groups including programs for children and youth, inspirational preaching and lay leadership.
Churches of varied sizes, ethnicities and settings all could be characterized as “vital,” the report found.
Some U.S. conferences used their yearly gatherings to address the issue of empty pews.
The Indiana conference held its second annual Day of Outreach, where more than 630 churchgoers did community service and told others about The United Methodist Church.
Likewise, some 600 Kentucky United Methodists for the first time took an afternoon off from the usual annual-conference routine to reach out to the community outside the Northern Kentucky Convention Center.
They distributed food and water, visited nursing homes, assembled health kits and wrote words of comfort to missionaries and soldiers. They also prayed with people on walks through Covington, Ky.
“Anytime you can get the name United Methodist out there, it’s a good thing,” said Cathy Bruce, the Kentucky conference’s director of communications. “That’s the first step of getting people through the doors. They have to know you’re there.”
The Indiana and California-Nevada conferences were among those that made fruitfulness in ministry a major theme of their gatherings. Missouri Bishop Robert Schnase, the author of “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations” visited a number of conferences to share the lessons of his new book, “Five Practices of Fruitful Living.” â¨
“Fruitfulness involves more than keeping everybody we have happy,” said Warner of the California-Nevada Annual Conference.
United Methodists, he said, need to practice what their faith teaches and invite people to “an abundant life” in Christ.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.