Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Church Growth Due to Biology, Not Theology?

In response to recent posts a friend sent me this note:

Demographic research shows that the primary reason for the decline in membership in mainline churches and the growth of conservative churches has little to do with ideology and much to do with biology. Conservative church members have more children.

According to findings published in the American Journal of Sociology:

“A combination of higher birth rates and earlier childbearing among conservative women …explains over three-fourths of the observed change in Protestants’ denominational affiliations for cohorts born between 1900 and 1970. Most of the rest of the observed change is caused by falling rates of switching from conservative to mainline denominations; differential apostasy plays a small but significant role. Remarkably, because it has not increased over the past 50 years or so, switching from mainline to conservative denominations as the focus of the leading explanations explains none of the decline of mainline denominations.” (From Hout, M., Greely, A., & Wilde, M. J. (2001). The demographic imperative in religious change in the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 107(2),468-500.)

As I understand it, this article claims that conservative church growth has been mostly due to conservatives having larger families.

A much more secondary factor is that fewer conservatives switch to mainline churches than used to be the case.

A third, but quite minor, factor is that a higher percentage of members of mainline churches disaffiliate from church than happens in conservative churches.

The article also claims that there has been no increase in the percentage of members of mainline churches switching to conservative church these past 50 years, so this cannot be a reason conservative churches seem to be growing faster than mainline churches.

Find an abstract of the article here or, if you have trouble with that link, go here and open volume 107, number 2.


Why Is Your Conference Growing? An E-interview with Nancy Rankin

Dr. Nancy Burgin Rankin serves as Director of Congregational Development for the Western North Carolina Conference. With half of U.S. conferences having announced their numbers for 2004, her conference is one of the few United Methodist conferences reporting growth in both church membership and average worship attendance.

Dr. Rankin served as a pastor and district superintendent prior to becoming Director of Congregational Development in 2004. While pursuing her doctorate of ministry at United Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, she studied with Michael Slaughter, the pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church. As Director of Congregational Development, she helps plant new congregations and resources congregations seeking to redevelop and grow. Untied Methodist asked her to reflect on why her conference is growing when so few conferences are.

Why is your conference growing when most aren't?

The short answers: population growth; intentional evangelism; training; Disciple Bible Study; planting new churches; funding congregational development; using new worship styles; prayer ministries; annual conference strategic plan.

We have been blessed with a large population growth, at least in our urban counties. Our annual conference has been having a net increase in membership growth for over 15 years but, to put that in perspective, our conference secretary at this year's annual conference meeting reported to us that we have grown since the 1968 merger by 4% while the population has grown in our conference area by 68%. So, clearly, while we are growing we have not begun to capture what we could have of the new people among us.

But I can point to two things that turned us around from a 20-year decline. First, our annual conference made a determined effort to learn about the Church Growth movement, and to get our pastors and laity trained to intentionally do evangelism. Training in Faith Sharing by Eddie Fox and Danny Morris followed that. Then we made Disciple Bible Study a priority for our churches, expecting our pastors to teach it and then have their laity be able to teach Disciple.

Training was also offered for churches wanting to reach new people through new worship styles, and most of our new churches use upbeat music, visuals, drama, and other innovative approaches that speak to contemporary people.

We have put a much greater emphasis on prayer ministries. Terry Tekyl has done several conference events here, and we have churches that have implemented his Building a House of Prayer concepts, and they have seen their congregations transformed.

Secondly, we determined that we had to start planting new churches again. We had a boom of new church starts in the 1950s and 60s, and then we went dormant until the early 80s. It quickly became evident that our largest numbers of new adult converts to Christianity were coming from our newest churches. Much of our general growth has also come from those new churches and from the churches who were willing to be revitalized and willing to reach out to new people through a new worship style and/or mission outreach.

In 2004, four of the 10 churches with the largest average worship attendance were churches started less than 20 years ago. Our conference entered a capital funding campaign called the Vision Builders Society that had a goal of raising one million dollars for new churches. It did not reach its numerical goal, but it did raise the awareness of the effectiveness of planting new churches. We have just launched a new funding program called Vital Partners that replaces Vision Builders Society, and it has a broader focus. The Vital Partners funds will go for new churches and for remissioning existing churches that want to be vital churches making disciples of Jesus Christ.

I believe, too, that our new annual conference strategic plan will continue to help us grow. I served on the strategic planning team and we read Bishop Claude Payne's book Reclaiming the Great Commission which describes the turnaround of the Episcopal Diocese in Texas. Our mission statement now reads "Follow Jesus, Make Disciples, Transform the World." The first of seven points in the plan is that we will "intentionally relate unchurched persons to Jesus Christ." This, in effect, gives marching orders to the work of congregational development and justifies the need for planting new churches.

How much money does your conference invest in new church starts?

Our usual funding for a new church start was $120,000 over three years in declining sequence. Then we gave $200,000 for the purchase of land and another $100,000 for their first building.

However, we have felt budget crunches like other areas of the church so we are re-evaluating how we plant new churches. We are now planting using a partnership model where there is a sponsoring or "mother" church helping in significant ways to "birth" the new church.

We also have an example of a healthy church taking on a failing church, their debts and all, by merging, making the failing church now a multi-site campus for the "adoptive mother church." The same mother church is launching a second multi-site campus this summer. The church they merged with uses a combination of live worship with a video of the pastor's sermon from the mother church's Saturday night service.

We are emphasizing for our new churches to concentrate more on building the people and postponing going to land and buildings, thereby avoiding premature debt loads that impede ministry growth. So we are looking more at sharing worship spaces with existing churches and leasing spaces.

Describe your process for starting new churches.

I have asked that each district have a committee on congregational development that will work with the district superintendent and the resources of my office to develop a master plan for their district to identify potential church plants as well to identify churches that need revitalization and/or remissioning for their context.

Districts then propose to the bishop, cabinet, and to me, their commitment to start a new faith community.

We have just started using an assessment process for potential new-church-start pastors. We give the names of those pastors whose assessments reveal that they are good candidates to start a church to the cabinet. We develop a financial plan that combines the resources of my office, those of the district, and the sponsoring church/es for the new plant. We have been budgeting for three new starts a year but with the new partnership model I predict we can start more. We should be planting 10 a year.

A pastor is appointed and a launch team of laity will either emerge from among the existing congregation of the partnering church or from people in the district who are committed to helping start a new church. Once the new faith community is ready to go out from the partner church they meet with the district superintendent and me to set benchmarks for their church.

These benchmarks would include a time-line of "taste and see" events; numbers of contacts that will be made by both pastor and laity; expectations for growth; development of a discipleship system and a stewardship ministry so that new Christians can be discipled and financial commitment is built into the DNA of the church from its inception.

It will be understood that if those benchmarks are not met serious consideration will have to be given to discontinuing the plant.

We expect our new church pastors to attend the national training or "boot camp" (held this year at Simpsonwood in the North Georgia Annual Conference) and that they enroll in the Fitzgerald Pastors Program provided by the General Board of Discipleship. In our conference they must also be an active participant in a Church Planters Network that meets every other month for support, resourcing, and fellowship. We are planning on providing each one with a trained coach.

Our annual conference also uses a paid consultant who is a five-time church planter to advise me and to help me establish our planting process.

Do many of your new starts fail? How do you handle new church starts that seem not to be taking off?

Unfortunately, some do fail. What we have discovered is that many fail because they went to public worship too soon. I highly recommend Craig Kennet Miller's book NextChurch.Now where he describes an excellent rationale as to why churches should not go public until they have nurtured 12 groups of 12 people in small groups. This not only creates a foundation of discipled people; it provides a critical mass of people more ready to take on the debt of leased worship space and the extra costs of music staff, and who are equipped to nurture the new people that join their church. This number of people seems to also be easier for new people to feel comfortable among.

A critical factor in some failed starts is whether or not the pastor is truly "wired" to be a church planter. Church planters are a different breed. They have to be self-starters, visionary, entrepreneurial, teachable, fabulous networkers, and fearless social beings. A wonderful, caring shepherding pastor may love their people but fail to grow them in numbers that can be self-sustaining.

Just this year we chose to go ahead and pull the funding of one of our new starts that really never gathered enough people. It was a hard decision but it was done in time for the pastor to be appointed to another church and for the district to re-evaluate that particular start and the model that was used to launch it.

How much of your growth comes from existing churches reaching new people? How does this happen?

We have good news here, too. One of our oldest and most traditional churches led the conference in adult professions of faith in 2004 with 107 adults joining as new Christians. The second highest was also one of our older churches that had 88. They are both healthy churches in an urban area, but we had good news in less likely places. One of the older but less impressive churches of the past decided to open its doors to 58 Montenyards; it was a huge decision for this Anglo church to be willing to become multi-cultural/racial.

We cannot dismiss the fact that pastoral leadership is critical to growing healthy churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ. Committed, energized, life-long learners serve these growing churches, and some of them are older pastors as well.

A second factor in growing churches is committed lay leadership that has a heart for the lost. Churches that grow have to decide they want to grow and to grow for the right reasons -- not to pay their bills but to reach people for Christ and to share his love with them. This inevitably means being willing to change some things. Most of our churches that have added a new style of worship service have seen a positive influx of new people. A few have been willing to relocate their church site to reach new people.

What does the conference do to stimulate the growth of existing churches?

As I shared in response to the first question, nearly 20 years ago our conference started emphasizing the Great Commission imperative to "go and make disciples." This year at each charge conference our bishop is asking our churches to report on how many adults they have received into their membership on profession of faith.

We have emphasized discipleship and spiritual formation through small groups using the Wesley Covenant Disciple model and Disciple Bible Study. Our annual conference has a large Building Team ministry and we promote Walks to Emmaus.

We provide conference training events, as I earlier described, for laity and pastors. At our annual conference meeting, we recognize Churches of Excellence that have achieved evangelism, ministry, stewardship, and outreach goals set by the annual conference.

Do you have ideas about how to help congregations that seem to be in decline?

My office offers Natural Church Development (NCD) by Christian Schwarz as a great tool for helping churches diagnose their health and identify where they need to improve. We pay for the coaches to be trained and deploy them to churches wanting to use the NCD process.

We use the Percept Demographics information to help churches know their communities and discover ways they could be in ministry in their parishes. We are going to be even more intentional about the partnership concept by looking at ways to link churches for the sharing of resources that might even include having families from a larger church being willing to spend a year or two in a small, struggling church, to help it get its bearings and move forward.

One of our large, new churches is partnering with a small, dying, inner city church to offer Recovery Worship and ministries dealing with addictions. The possibilities are endless when we take seriously that as United Methodists we are to be a connectional church.

Do you have any thoughts about how conferences and/or congregations can reach non-European-American cultural and ethnic groups?

A few of our larger churches are being intentional about having multi-racial/cultural staff persons who are regularly seen in worship, preaching, and pastoral leadership roles. We have found that we are more successful in attracting other people groups when one from that particular people group is seen in leadership.

We have a few cross-racial appointments of senior pastors serving a congregation different from their race. We also have churches that are offering Spanish worship services led by Hispanic pastors or lay missioners that are held in the Anglo partnering church while the Hispanic participants are invited to participate in all other areas of the Anglo church's life and ministries.

An African-American pastor using an upbeat worship style in the fellowship hall of an Anglo church leads one of our new church plants. The African-American church is already over 150 in worship and has not even gone public yet. They have also attracted Anglo people to join their fellowship.

What else can you share with us that might help those of us from conferences that are not growing begin to do so?

I would suggest that often our laity have not been equipped or empowered to offer their faith to others. Offer training and share the good stories of what is working. Use healthy churches as teaching churches, or go visit places like Church of the Resurrection, Ginghamsburg, and Frazer Memorial, and learn from them.

There needs to be a compelling vision for offering Christ projected by your bishop and annual conference leadership. We need to be held accountable as churches, pastors, and lay leaders for reaching unchurched, or dis-enchanted churched people, and we need to be intentional about reaching new people groups among us. It is so easy to become insulated from the diversity around us.

Move away from maintenance ministry. Get people out of committee meetings and into ministries. Use Wesley Covenant small groups for adult spiritual formation.

We fund what we value. See to it that you fund congregational development and evangelism.

I interviewed one of my colleagues about what was working for his inner city churches. He said, "The only ones that are growing are the ones who chose to fall in love with the people right outside of their doors." I think that says it all.

Dr. Nancy Rankin, thank you! You have been amazingly generous in sharing your insights and learnings. You have provided us with a lot of encouraging and hopeful ideas and possibilities. May God continue to bless your ministry!



Several years ago Jane and I were in Zimbabwe to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the United Methodist Church there. About 10,000 people gathered nightly under a massive tent at Old Mutare Mission, the birthplace of Methodism in Zimbabwe. Some had walked for days to get there.

One evening retired Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa preached. Even though he spoke in Shona and I couldn't understand a word, I could tell it was a powerful sermon because, well, you just know when it is. At the end of his sermon, Bishop Muzorewa extended an invitation to full-time Christian service. Dozens of people responded.

After a time of prayer at the front of the tent, those who had responded to the invitation were led away to one of the buildings on the mission grounds. As we made our way to the van to return to our hotel for the night, I heard praying in loud voices, weeping, and moaning coming from the building. I asked one of the Zimbabwean pastors what was happening. He told me that those who had responded to the invitation would fast and pray throughout the night and into the next day to ascertain the depth of their commitment to ministry before they were accepted into the ministerial candidacy program.

Of course, he said, no one would enter ministry without praying, fasting, and watching through the night to make sure his or her commitment was total. The Zimbabwean pastor said this as though to reassure me that United Methodists in Zimbabwe took ministry as seriously as surely we did back in the United States.

When we arrived back on the grounds of Old Mutare Mission the next morning, those who had responded to Bishop Muzorewa's invitation were still together, still praying.

Contrast that with this: Several years ago, when I was a member of another conference, I got restless one afternoon during annual conference sessions. I decided to take a walk and was wandering around the college campus where the conference was held.

I happened upon the building where child care was provided for the children of delegates. I stopped to chat with one of the nursery attendants whom I knew.

She told me that earlier that day she had heard one of the children say to another child: "My daddy is being ordained tomorrow. Then we'll be set for life!"

"Set ... for ... life!" the child sang joyously.

The attendant commented that the child had surely not come up with this on his own. It was something he had obviously overheard at home.

I have great respect for my colleagues in the United Methodist ministry. This is tough and demanding work we do. It is hard to both care for the members of a congregation and challenge them. It is demanding to be with people through their illnesses, divorces, griefs, and deaths. It is hard to live with the criticism --sometimes warranted, sometimes irrational, it doesn't matter-- we face from people whom we serve with all our hearts. Conflict, which is inevitable, saps our stamina and wearies us. It is no lark to live on the salaries we are paid. It is disheartening to see others promoted to pulpits and positions we might enjoy and to not understand the logic by which these decisions are made. It can feel as though our bishops and superintendents make demands of us but provide little support to help us. Are we expected to make bricks without straw?

It is especially hard to be in ministry in our denomination because we have been in numerical decline for 30 or more years. Many pastors my age and younger have never served a growing church. As a friend who is a church consultant reminded me recently, many United Methodist pastors who went into the ministry after 1970 have never had the experience of feeling like a part of something successful. Never.

United Methodists in general, laity as well as clergy, my friend added, have not felt a part of a dynamic, thriving movement for the past three decades. No wonder, he said, so many Methodists are cranky and so many congregations demonstrate so much negativity.

Most of us went into ministry for lofty and idealistic reasons. There are exceptions. In my day some of my fellow seminary students may have been there to avoid the draft. Most of these left ministry long ago. There may be a few who are attracted by the low expectations and security our system seems to offer. These, however, are exceptions. We go into ministry because we want to serve God and to be part of making a difference for time and eternity.

In college I was a political science major contemplating law school. In large part I went into ministry because I thought the church, and the biblical ground on which it is built, offered a foundation to stand outside of and over against an unjust and violent world. I figured that unless we find our self-understanding and identity elsewhere, it is impossible to keep from buying into the basic assumptions of the society of which we are part. I saw the church as the solid ground upon which we could set our fulcrum so that we could move the world.

When is the last time I thought about this? When is the last time I reminded myself why I went into ministry in the first place? When is the last time I had a meaningful conversation with somebody else about why I do what I do?

It is easy to get caught up in problem solving, getting all of those visits and phone calls done, pacifying unhappy members, filling all of those offices, raising money for the budget, teaching another class, attending another conference meeting, and forget why we are here in the first place.

In Zimbabwe I didn't want to get into the van and go back to the hotel. I wanted to spend the night praying, fasting, weeping, and moaning with those who had responded to Bishop Muzorewa's invitation to full-time Christian service. I wanted to feel as committed to ministry again as I had when I first began this journey. I wanted to feel as if I belonged to a community of commitment with those others who had answered an invitation to leave all else behind and to give themselves to full-time service.

Clergy in my conference do not do much to help each other remember and wrestle with the meaning of our ministries. Historically we meet on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday to hear a sermon, to share our struggles very briefly in small groups, and to recommit ourselves to ministry. This is helpful but not very profound.

I think that we should pick a year within United Methodism and devote it to a renewal of our commitment to ministry. Clergy should spend a year meeting, sharing, praying and studying together to remember our decisions to devote ourselves to ministry in the first place and to discern our commitments anew.

We should plan for this and prepare our congregations so that our people understand that this is going to be a year when we will focus more on discernment and renewal than on the business of the church. Pastors should be released from most church business meetings. How could it be possible that our laity could not have learned by now how to do trustee and finance meetings without us looking over their shoulders?

Laity should be prepared and trained to assist with pastoral care. Pastors should be released from pulpit responsibilities four additional Sundays that year, and we should spend them meeting and praying together. Let gifted laity fill the pulpits those Sundays.

Understand, I don't want to renew my commitment to ministry just in some small cluster group. I want to do it with dozens, hundreds, and thousands of others -- all of us at the same time remembering what moved us to decide for ministry and recommitting ourselves.

Maybe some of us will decide we are no longer committed to ministry. Fine. Let's arrange for severance packages and retooling for those who opt out. It would be the best money we every spend.

At the end of the year all 54,000 of us who are clergy should gather at one place and pray, sing, and share together. We should have a giant service of recommitment. If we need to, we could pass two-year budgets at our annual conferences the year before and cancel annual conference sessions that year to pay for this global gathering of the ordained. We could pray, fast and watch through the night, asking God for a fresh blessing of our ministries.

I suppose something like this is too much to hope for.


Numerical Decline

Yesterday I posted last year's membership and attendance numbers from the 37 annual conferences that have provided reports so far to United Methodist News Service (UMNS). UMNS awaits 36 additional reports from the conferences in the United States, so half of the reports are in.

You can see the numbers in yesterday's post entitled "No Comment."

So, okay, in spite of saying no comment, I will comment.

It does not appear we are doing well numerically -- unless conferences with declining numbers tend to meet earlier in the year, and thus submit their reports earlier, so that the 36 conferences yet to report will have better numbers. (Unlikely, but wouldn't this be interesting? We could grow by changing the dates of our annual conference sessions.)

Of the 37 conferences that have submitted their 2004 reports so far, only nine conferences had membership gains last year. Only nine conferences had attendance gains. And these, surprisingly, were mostly not the same conferences.

Only three conferences had both membership and attendance increases -- Alabama-West Florida, Western North Carolina, and Alaska Missionary (which grew from 4,044 members to 4,045, an increase of one, and from an average attendance of 2594 to 2609, an increase of 15).

Even Florida lost members and attendees. This is really quite remarkable when you think about it. We in the Northeast write half of our transfer-of-membership letters to churches in the Florida Conference. Decline in Florida United Methodism makes no sense at all. What are they doing with all those Methodists we send down there to them? What can it mean if even Florida isn?t growing?

Why does there seem to be so much numerical decline and so little growth in our denomination?

I do not buy the argument that numerical growth is proof of correct theology and decline is proof of wrong theology. If so, we should all become Mormons or internet pornographers.

Growth and decline are not determined by whether we are liberal or conservative. Years ago, when I was a conference director of congregational development, I invited the pastors of the 40 churches that had reported the greatest attendance growth over the past decade to meet with the bishop and other conference leaders to tell us why they were growing. The churches invited to the discussion because their attendance had increased the most included every theological variant of the conference.

When I directed congregational development, I was fairly single-minded. I didn't care if a new-church-start pastor was conservative or liberal. My only questions were whether he or she had the capacity to build a congregation and whether he or she was loyal to United Methodism. It seemed to me that no single theological perspective had a greater capacity than others to start churches. This is also what Steve Compton seems to suggests in his book Rekindling the Mainline: New Life through New Churches.

I believe that the numerical decline the United Methodist Church is facing has to do with non-theological issues, and it seems to me these are the most significant ones:

1. Clergy are not expected or trained to grow churches.

For the most part, bishops and district superintendents don't communicate to pastors an expectation that their churches should be reaching new people and growing. Instead, they may well communicate that what they want is happy, non-complaining congregations. Cultural and missional shifts that help stagnated congregations grow often include discomfort.

Some clergy do really dumb things in the name of growth and wound or destroy congregations. Many more clergy accommodate congregations, allowing them to gradually decline. Bishops and district superintendent tend to get more upset about the former than the latter.

I know of no pastor who has ever gotten a phone call from his or her superintendent saying, "You've been at your church two years now, and I haven't heard any complaints about your ministry. Why not?"

For the most part, seminaries --which tend to belong more to academia than to the church-- don't teach students how to grow churches. Most faculty know much more about how to maneuver in the academic world in order to get degrees than they know about how to grow churches. Unlike medical schools and law schools, our seminaries have very few successful practioners on their faculties. Furthermore, in order to support themselves, many seminary students take appointments to small congregations where they learn to be chaplains rather than leaders.

You can spend an entire career in the United Methodist ministry getting appointments one after another without ever being told it is your job to help congregations grow or being trained to do so.

2. High maintenance laity hold many of our congregations in bondage.

Often these are persons, families, or cliques for whom the congregation is an important place to meet their needs for inclusion, recognition, and power. They do so at the expense of welcoming, including, and empowering others.

Meetings in many congregations are hijacked by individuals with extreme needs for attention and control. Others may have poor social skills so as to turn meetings or classes into unproductive or unfocused sessions. Councils and boards can meet month after month and accomplish little because of one or two dysfunctional members.

No one is able --often no one even tries-- to set limits on the dominance of dysfunctional individuals or small groups over congregations. No one insists they get help. Congregations become no fun. These members result in congregations that thwart spiritual growth rather than enhance it.

3. Our real estate often limits growth.

Church buildings that hold only small numbers of people; have grossly inadequate space for Christian education; have little or no parking; look dirty, cluttered, and ugly inside; and are at the wrong locations hinder growth. Other buildings that are beautiful but not functional hinder growth. Emotional attachment to buildings that prevent congregations from relocating in order to reach out to and serve new people hinders growth. Buildings that are allowed to deteriorate while a small group holds on as the neighborhood changes without reaching out to the new people nearby hinders growth.

Shane Raynor quotes a Christianity Today article by Howard Snyder:

"Interestingly, church history shows an inverse ratio between dynamic church multiplication and preoccupation with buildings," Snyder writes. "Emphasis on buildings is generally linked with relatively slow growth or even decline. Rapidly growing movements generally put little stress on buildings, tending toward pragmatism and flexibility, meeting wherever they can."

4. We aren't starting nearly enough new congregations, new campuses for the expansion of existing churches, and multiple services.

New churches, new campuses, and new worship services reach new people. I attended a training recently where I was the only clergyperson participating. One of the other participants who was active in the leadership of a new, very conservative megachurch asked me a lot of questions about my congregation. At the end of the training she told me she would love to belong to a church like mine where she could say what she really thinks. Often she has to stifle her real thoughts and feelings to fit in at her church, she told me.

I asked her why she didn't join a United Methodist church in her community. "Oh, there wasn't room for me in those churches," she said. "I wanted to find someplace where I could make a real contribution."

Lyle Schaller says in The Ice Cube is Melting (p. 31) that to remain on a plateau in size a denomination should organize as many new congregations each year equal to one percent of the number of existing congregations. The United Methodist Church has 350,000 congregations, so to stay the same size we should be starting 350 churches a year. For us to grow would require even more. The actual number of new United Methodist church starts since 1965 has averaged out to less than 75 per year.

This is how Bishop Will Willimon summarizes it:

"Growing denominations have higher rates of new-church development and an increasing average congregation size. Growing denominations plant churches in areas that are 'geographically favorable' -- that is, in areas of high population growth, high in-migration rates, and/or unchurched people groups. ...

"We United Methodists, in my opinion, confirm these hypotheses in that we have a huge number of very small congregations, a decreasing number of large congregations. We tend to have a high proportion of churches that were in areas of population growth a century ago, but are in areas of population decline today."

5. We have low standards of quality.

Worship, preaching, music, Christian education, printed materials, and responsiveness are too often second-rate in our churches, and we don't seem to notice or care. I once knew a church secretary who had the highest quality office equipment available, but still produced Sunday bulletins that looked like they had been mimeographed. This was the way bulletins looked when she was growing up, and this is the way she thought bulletins ought to still look today. She worked hard to make her excellent equipment turn out bulletins that looked like the ones she read in church in the 1950s.

While I think growth is equally possible in liberal, middle-of-the-road, and conservative congregations, I do not think ongoing conflicts like our current debate about sexual orientation help us, especially when we are so divided about the issue that we do not do a good job of interpreting it to the unchurched.

Personally, I would rather be part of a denomination that wrestles with difficult questions, and I think some others out there in the unchurched part of the world would prefer this too. We should explain to the world around us that our disagreements are healthy. We should proudly say that it is a good thing that United Methodists do not hid our heads in the sand, that we do not ducked the hard issues, and that we are not automatically closed to considering change.

Without this kind of interpretation, the unchurched who read about church trials and such ask either, "How can Methodists be so backwards?" or else "How can Methodists be so freewheeling?" We do not (excuse the word) spin this story well. Lately, forces within United Methodism have become so intent on stopping even the talk about sexual orientation that church agencies and communication arms are now too intimidated to speak about the good aspects of being part of a denomination where we can disagree.

Yet, even our disagreements are relatively small matters compared to the other reasons I have listed.

If our clergy aren't motivated and encouraged to grow their churches, if two or three laypersons are allowed to dominate church life destructively, if we are stuck in buildings that can not accommodate growth, if we are not starting new congregations, and if the quality of our worship, music, and programs is second rate, why should we expect to grow?


No Comment

This information is taken from the United Methodist News Service's 2005 annual conference reports as of today:

North Central Jurisdiction

Dakotas Annual Conference
June 8-11, Bismarck, N.D.
Membership stands at 43,136, down 548 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 22,930, down 186.

Detroit Annual Conference
May 20-22, 2005, Adrian, Mich.
Membership stands at 101,917, down 2,751 (3 percent) from 2003. Worship attendance stands at 48,437, down 3,544, (7 percent) from 2003.

Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference
June 9-12, Peoria, Ill.
Attendance stands at 75,911, down 2 percent. Membership is at 152,116, down 1 percent.

Iowa Annual Conference
June 9-12, Ames, Iowa
Attendance is 194,307 (down 939); average worship attendance is: 69,301 (down 2,621).

Minnesota Annual Conference
May 31 – June 3, 2005, St. Cloud, Minn.
Membership stands at 83,966, down 4,618 from the previous year. Worship attendance is 41,777, down 1,713 from the previous year.

North Indiana Annual Conference
June 2-4, West Lafayette, Ind.
Membership stands at 99,349, a decrease from 101,267. Average Sunday worship attendance stands at 68,109, a 585 decrease from 68,694.

Northern Illinois Annual Conference
June 8-11, St. Charles, Ill.
Membership was 109,481 at the end of 2004, down 4,674 from 2003. Average worship attendance was 44,763 in 2004, down from 44,925 in 2003.

South Indiana Annual Conference
June 9-11, Bloomington, Ind.
Membership in 2004 was 113,374, a decrease of 2,343 from the previous year. ... Worship attendance in 2004 was 64,898, a decrease of 422 from the previous year.

West Michigan Annual Conference
June 2-5, Grand Rapids
Total membership at the end of 2004: 67,816, down 606. Average worship attendance 44,736, down 537. (These numbers may not be final.)

Notheastern Jurisdiction

Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference
May 26-29, 2005, Baltimore
Conference membership stands at 198,841, down 5,694, or 2.78 percent, from the previous year. Average worship attendance stands at 76,841, down 3,496, or 4.31 percent.

Central Pennsylvania Conference
June 9-11, Grantham, Pa.
Membership stands at 149,222, down 3,405 from the previous year. Average worship attendance stands at 71,233, up 471 from the previous year.

New York Annual Conference
June 1-4, Hempstead, N.Y.
Membership in the New York Conference stands at 126,746, down 2,950 from last year. Worship attendance is counted at 35,222, up 394 from the previous year.

North Central New York Annual Conference
June 2-5, Liverpool, N.Y.
Membership in 2004 stands at 79,049, down 834 from 2003. Average worship attendance is 24,406, down 504 from 2003.

West Virginia Conference
June 9-12, 2005, Buckhannon, W. Va.
Conference membership stands at 105,879, down 1,336 from the previous year. Average worship attendance stands at 52,871, down 415.

South Central Jurisdiction

Central Texas Conference
June 5 - 8, Fort Worth, Texas
Membership stands at 158,553, up 1,099 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 47,322, down 188.

Kansas West Conference
May 25-28, Salina, Kan.
Membership stands at 86,434, down 1,086 (1.2 percent) from 2003. Worship attendance stands at 36,772, down 415 (1.1 percent).

Louisiana Annual Conference
June 5-8, Shreveport, La.
Membership stands at 127,059, up 213 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 48,063, down 324.

Missouri Annual Conference
June 3-6, 2005, Columbia, Mo.
Membership of the conference stands at 176,022, down 229 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 84,872, up 478.

Nebraska Annual Conference
June 8-11, 2005, Omaha
Membership stands at 84,337, down from 86,260 the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 36,369, up from 33,279 in the previous year.

New Mexico Annual Conference
June 1-4, 2005, Las Cruces, NM
Membership stands at 39,865, down 788 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 17,581, down 195.

North Texas Annual Conference
June 5-8, Wichita Falls, Texas
Membership stands at 159,917, up 903 or .6 percent from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 62,638, up by 155 or .2 percent.

Northwest Texas Annual Conference
June 8-11, Lubbock, Texas
Membership is 67,131 down 885. Morning worship attendance is 23,037, down 861.

Oklahoma Conference report
May 29 - June 2, Oklahoma City
Church membership at the end of 2004 was 247,039, down 2,325 from the beginning of the year. Worship attendance averaged 62,575, an increase of 242.

Southwest Texas Annual Conference
June 1-4, Corpus Christi, Texas
Membership stands at 120,080, down 191 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 50,805, down 157.

Southeastern Jurisdiction

Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference
June 5-8, Mobile, Ala.
Membership stands at 147,613, up 800 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 69,215 up 1,591 from the previous year.

Florida Annual Conference
June 2-5, Lakeland, Fla.
Randy Casey-Rutland, Florida Conference statistician, reported conference membership stands at 325,609 down 3,409 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 161,038, down 337.

Kentucky Annual Conference
June 6-9, Lexington, Ky.
Membership stands at 152,130, up 222 from the previous year.

Mississippi Conference
June 5-8, Jackson, Miss.
Membership stands at 189,369, down 1,103. Worship attendance stands at 77,456, down 458.

North Alabama Annual Conference
June 5-7, Birmingham, Ala.
Membership stands at 155,683, down 2,179 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 72,961, down 1,105.

North Carolina Annual Conference
June 8-11, 2005, Fayetteville, N.C.
Membership stands at 235,565, up 1,509 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 88,820, down 1,130.

Red Bird Missionary Conference
May 13-14, 2005, London, Ky.
Membership stands at 1,385, up 18 from the previous year. Worship attendance is 748, down 48.

South Carolina Annual Conference
May 29 - June 1, Spartanburg, SC
Membership stands at 241,680, down 377 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 9,547, down 576.

South Georgia Annual Conference
June 5-8, Macon, Ga.
Membership stands at 139,127, down 790 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 53,388, down 149.

Western North Carolina Conference
June 9-12, 2005 Lake Junaluska, N.C.
Membership stands at 293,735 up 1,140 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 127,046 up 1,213.

Western Jurisdiction

Alaska Missionary Conference
May 27-29, 2005, Anchorage, Ala.
The Alaska Missionary Conference ended 2004 with 4,045 members, up 1 from 2003. Average attendance during 2004 was 2,609, up 15 from 2003.

Desert Southwest Conference
June 9-12, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Total membership at the end of 2004 was 43,979, down 814. Average worship attendance was 30,253, down 631.

Oregon-Idaho Conference
June 8-11, 2005, Salem, Ore.
Membership stands at 34,407, down 840 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 17,632, down 428.

Twenty-six annual conferences have not yet submitted reports.

(So, okay, I did comment anyway. See here.)