U.S. membership decline continues


By Walter Fenton

According to the most recent data, The United Methodist Church has lost 116,063 members – the stark equivalent to losing a 318-member local church every day of the year.

The recently released statistics are from the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) The loss from 2013 to 2014 reflected a 1.6 percent drop in total U.S. membership. The percentage of decline has accelerated over 1.3 percent of decline in 2013.

Total United Methodist membership in the United States stands at 7.2 million. There are an additional 5.2 million United Methodists outside the United States, primarily in Africa.

Only four of the 56 U.S. annual conferences experienced growth in membership. Two missionary annual conferences, Alaska and Oklahoma Indian, led the way in membership gains. The North Carolina and Texas Annual Conferences also saw slight gains.

The greatest membership decline was in the Central Texas Annual Conference, where a loss of 12,908 members resulted in a nearly 8 percent drop. The Yellowstone, Pacific-Northwest, Wisconsin, and Detroit areas all lost more than 4 percent.

The Western Jurisdiction continued leading the decline in U.S. membership with a 2.6 percent drop for a loss of 8,780 members. Two annual conferences, North Georgia (361,834 members) and Virginia (327,706 members) outnumber the eight annual conferences in the Western Jurisdiction where total membership now stands at 322,939.

The drop in overall worship attendance went from a 2.1 percent decline in 2013 to 2.6 percent decline in 2014. Average worship attendance went from 2.9 million in 2013 to 2.8 in 2014. On any given Sunday in 2014 there were 75,671 less people attending worship in local UM churches.

Just two annual conferences – Dakotas and Northwest Texas – managed increases.

Annual conferences with the steepest losses (all more than 5 percent) were New York, Detroit, Central Texas, and East Ohio.

The North Central Jurisdiction saw the largest drop among the five jurisdictions with a 3.7 percent decline. The Western Jurisdiction followed closely behind, where the decline in worship attendance was 3.4 percent.

Annual conference statisticians submitted their 2014 reports shortly after the 2015 annual conference season. The GCFA reviewed and audited their figures during this fall and recently released its full report.

Earlier this year, economist Don House, a United Methodist layperson, delivered a sobering statistical report to a joint meeting of the GCFA board and the Connectional Table, the denomination’s top administrative body. According to House, the denomination must adopt and implement a credible turn around strategy in the next five to fifteen years. If it fails to do so he projects average worship attendance will drop by over 35 percent by 2030, and will fall to less than a million in 2050.

A variety of reasons are given for the declines in membership and worship attendance. Aging church members and local churches located in sparsely populated areas are often cited.

While not dismissing these factors, conservatives maintain the declines can also be attributed to a church that has drifted from its core theological teachings, a lack of evangelical zeal, and the loss of members who have grown tired of the decades long debate over homosexuality.

Some progressives counter that the church’s failure to liberalize its positions on the practice of homosexuality and same-sex marriage has repelled the youth and young adults necessary to replace aging members and worship attenders.

The GCFA is still collecting data for the central conferences in Africa, Europe and The Philippines. Should current trends continue, the majority of United Methodist members would live outside the U.S. by the end of 2016.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst for Good News.
– See more at: http://goodnewsmag.org/2015/11/u-s-membership-decline-continues/#sthash.fyxVr2QR.dpuf

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13 Comments on "U.S. membership decline continues"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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This study isn’t saying people aren’t attending church period or denouncing the Christian life. This study says people are just leaving the UMC. This could be because some view it too liberal or some view it too conservative, with its repressive stance on homosexuality and gay marriage. It could be because younger generations don’t see a place for them within the church because the older generations are retaining its death grip on elder and leadership positions. Personally, I think it’s a combination of all of the above and the simple fact that mainline, protestant denominations across the board in America… Read more »

[…] Good News Movement, a conservative advocacy group in the UMC, was first out of the gate with an analysis penned by Walter Fenton. The expressed reason given for this decline is, oddly enough, remedied by the goals of the […]


Charles Harrison, would you do me the courtesy of telling me why you deleted my last comment? It was certainly not over-the-top.

Bill Moorer

It is remarkable how the Good News, Confessing Movement and IRD take real delight in the numerical decline of the their denomination, as if they had any real solutions to the dynamic.
They imply that the “old time religion” –read fundamentalism — would magically bring bodies streaming back into the sanctuaries, if it were returned to ascendancy. Their strategy is to criticize the policy and practices of the national UMC, which helps nobody but does keep the conservatives stirred up, wishing for a fantasy land of literal Bible interpretation, anti-choice, anti-marriage equality, which accomplishes their purpose.

Doug Bower
The charges and blaming from conservative and liberal extremes are no longer helpful in dealing with the reality of the decline. The decline began long before social media snarkiness. The decline is a complex issue. In part it has to do with social trends that are asserting the irrelevance and insignificance of the Church worship and fellowship experiences. In part, I have to also suspect that there are many options for people. My hunch for instance is there are far more people eating at restaurants, going shopping, and watching tv and movies than there are those who attending Church. Our… Read more »
Our African brothers and sisters will be under-represented at General Conference 2016 because the current formula is not based on overall conference membership but heavily favors those conferences with higher numbers of ordained clergy; thus it over-represents declining U.S. conferences. The African conferences will seat no more than 3/4 of the delegates they would have if the formula were based on straight membership. What’s going to be interesting is whether any proposals emerge to alter the formula to get a more equitable distribution of delegates, and if so, whether resistance to those proposals arise and where those pockets of resistance… Read more »

Perhaps I’ve grown a little too cynical, but I fear such a scenario is probable. We have too many modernists who view non-Europeans and non-North Americans as “primitive” thinkers whose collective voice should be limited; witness Bishop Carcaño’s famed remark about the “Africans’ need to just grow up.” Yet the “enlightened” church continues to hemorrhage while the church in the global south grows like the congregations we read of in Acts.

Russ, Para. 15, Article III of the constitution and Para. 502 of the Discipline give the parameters for the formula, which in turn is approved by a sitting General Conference for future GCs. Try as I might, I can’t find the actual formula itself… it doesn’t look as though it’s been published. It used to be spelled out in part 3 of Para. 502, but is no longer there. What can tell you is that it computes “on a two-factor basis: (1) the number of clergy members of the annual conference and the missionary conference, and (2) the number of… Read more »
Wes Andrews

I wish.

Richard Hicks

It is really worse than we will say: Require all “members” to show up and put down one penney once each year. The truth will be shown. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

George Nixon Shuler

the right-wing extremists will try to say it is because of our liberal ideals but the fact is all churches are losing members now that religion is no longer required to be in polite society.


If the approval of polite society is all that holds one to membership, I hardly think such a person was ever a Christ-follower to begin with. Certainly the post-WW2 bulge in membership during the baby boomers’ childhood years included many such members. But they said goodbye to the church a long time ago.

I’m curious if you think all churches are losing members at the same rate, or whether some are losing faster than others and, if so, what pattern if any might there be.

George Nixon Shuler
I am sure there is plenty of data from Barna or Pew to address your questions about church membership loss by category. Your begged question about certain individuals’ commitment to a religion deserves no answer since neither you nor I are qualified to evaluate what is in the human heart. I believe Jefferson or somebody said “there is more faith in honest doubt than all the pieties… Now, I do know this, however: some thirty five or more years ago when homeschooling and the (fundamentalist/evangelical) “Christian School” movement was being formed its perpetrators boasted they were going to raise up… Read more »
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