How Big Data disrupts Narratives of #UMC Decline

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by Jeremy Smith

Big Data in the UMC challenges the narrative of decline “due to progressive Christianity,” and shows what role each of us is to play to handle the coming winnowing of the church.

Recently the data for 2014 came out on the United Methodist Church in America, showing a 1.6% drop in membership and 2.6% drop in attendance across the board. I’m thankful to be part of an organized church tradition that gathers and publishes data so geeks like me can read it.

The 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 advocacy organization:

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.

I feel for the renewal groups, I really do. Their task is tough. They have to show that returning the Methodist Church back to the expressed doctrine of pre-1956 will cause the church to grow again. That’s the narrative they use time and again in fundraising letters and online writings, and it’s repeated above.

However, the data doesn’t support the narrative. But it’s only by going beyond the commentary to the actual numbers that we can see it. Thankfully, you are reading this blog and can see for yourself what is going on.

Figures don’t lie, but…

One of the comments made by Good News was that the progressive Western Jurisdiction, as always, is dragging down the rest of the UMC:

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 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.

The quote illustrates how percentages can hide the really important numbers, especially the ones that have a massive impact on the Church.

While the West percentage-wise is worst among the jurisdictions, they account for only 6% of United Methodism in America, so a percentage drop is not a large number. How about the jurisdictions that hold a larger number of Methodists? Let’s see:

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Wow, so the North and South lost over 107,000 members in one year. And yet the Good News points fingers at the West for dragging down the rest of Methodism? tsk tsk

What about attendance?

2014-data-attendance-450x308

Same. Though North Central is in pretty bad shape.

In summary, the raw numbers* tell a different story: there’s a massive loss of members and attendees in the South, which is traditionally seen as the bastion of conservatism (though that is slowly changing). When one’s narrative is that the more conservative Southern jurisdictions’ upholding of “core theological teachings” yields growth, it is hard to prop that up in the face of numbers. Percentages matter and tell a story, certainly; however, the raw numbers tell a very different story of the collapse of Christendom in the Bible Belt.

The fields are ripe!

Rev. Duane Anders, senior pastor of Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise, Idaho, was at Annual Conference 2014 with me in Oregon-Idaho. When the Board of Ordained Ministry indicated a low number of Ordinands that year, he tweeted the data with the comment “The Fields Are Ripe!” I’ve held his quote in my heart as Duane exhibited joy at the abundance of opportunity in the West.

I also see the abundance and, when percentages are used properly, can see successes in my region of the West. One measure of discipleship is traditionally how many members actually attend church. We can measure that, in part, by seeing what percentage of the members attend church on an average Sunday. When we break that down by jurisdiction (using the numbers above), we get:

North Central: 46.5%
Northeastern: 36.3%
South Central: 35.4%
Southeastern: 38.7%
Western: 51.7% of the members attend church on an average Sunday.
There’s a difference between quantitative and qualitative church growth. I know the North and South are bigger quantitatively, but as I’ve shown before, the West might be stronger qualitatively. In the West, we’ve hit on at least one success: how to have a higher percentage of our members actually attend church. And that’s a joy that could be shared with other jurisdictions, and it must: Every challenge we overcome in the West is one less that the South will have to deal with when the collapse of Christendom comes to their doorstep.

Better Together

In Scripture, we ask “what good thing can come from Nazareth?” until Jesus comes from the poorest part of the Galilee area. In Star Wars, we wonder what good will be found in the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” until Han Solo and Chewbacca save the day. In Harry Potter, we wonder how a mudblood could be a better wizard than a pureblood until we meet Hermione. In Selma, we wonder how African-Americans could make a difference to a dominant white culture until we meet Martin Luther King, Jr. In Tiananmen Square, we wonder who could stop a tank until someone does by standing in front of it.

The joy for the Church is that the South has the West and North, and we are all in this together, and even the smallest most-picked-on Western Jurisdiction has something to give. This wave of secularization began in our regions and is creeping towards the Bible Belt. In the coming years, the Bible Belt will look to the lessons learned by the North and West to help them ride the wave better than we did. Efforts to eradicate the Western Jurisdiction would be cutting off this testing-bed of ideas and approaches in the future of the whole Church–and should be roundly opposed at General Conference 2016.

My hope is that we take an honest look at the data and see what role each jurisdiction plays in the whole of the United Methodist Church, and instead of picking on each other, lift each other up to play those roles the best we can, for God’s Reign on earth to be made real.

Thoughts?

Notes

* There’s a slight difference between the 2013 numbers then and the 2013 numbers now. The final numbers show a decrease of 98 members and an increase of 252 worshippers from the 2013 numbers used above. However, the corrected numbers are not broken down by conference or jurisdiction (at least in my GCFA-provided files). Given that, and since they are statistically insignificant, the correction was not included in the above numbers.

“The statistical data included herein were provided at no charge by the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church (GCFA) and may be obtained directly from GCFA, PO Box 340020, Nashville, TN 37203-0029. This data is proprietary and is owned by GCFA and may not be used in any commercial or exploitative way, to make a financial profit, or in a manner that defames the United Methodist denomination or its agencies or organizations. GCFA does not endorse any particular use of the data or accept responsibility for its interpretation or analysis by another.”

 

 

Rev. Jeremy Smith is a United Methodist clergyperson who blogs about faith, young clergy issues, technology, internet theory, and geeky topics.  You can read his blog Hacking Christianity here.

 

Special Contributor to UMR

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dan
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dan

Your argument that says because the Western Jurisdiction is the smallest % of the whole UMC and therefore their losses represent a smaller % of the whole (as would always be expected) is nonsensical. For example the WJ lost 3.4% of it’s average attendance in 2014 while the SEJ lost 2%. Your approach could literally argue that if the WJ drops to 1000 people in average attendance and then the next year loses 500 (50%), that because that 500 is a smaller % of the whole UMC loss than the SEJ with 1,000,000 attenders who lost 501 average attenders, the… Read more »

Kevin
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Kevin

Here is a thought. The North Georgia Conference headed by one bishop has more members than the Western Jurisdiction with five bishops. Perhaps some rebalancing is in order.

Kate Stratton
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Kate Stratton

Is the managerial load of a bishop really based on number of members in the conference? Or should we be talking geographic area a bishop must travel, number of churches, and number of districts (and DSs)?

Kevin
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Kevin

Since each bishop costs more than 300 thousand per year I would say that yes the number of people should be a factor. I can think of other reasons having to do with proportional representation.

Charles Whatley
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Charles Whatley

“While the West percentage-wise is worst among the jurisdictions, they account for only 6% of United Methodism in America, so a percentage drop is not a large number. How about the jurisdictions that hold a larger number of Methodists? ” I remember my dad saying, “Figures lie and liars figure.” So you admit the liberal conference in the west is the smallest and the conservative conference in the southeast is the largest? You might also consider the populous west compared to the rural southeast? The west is dying of poor theology and the southeast is dying from it’s good ole’… Read more »

George Nixon Shuler
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George Nixon Shuler

It sounds like you are the one unable to counter my arguments with any facts and so you pretend to psychoanalyze me to discredit my argument, or so it seems. Of course, I could be wrong. but I have yet to see you respond to anything I’ve posted with anything factual.

Charles Harrison
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George, let me respectfully suggest that you focus on the content of the article and not on snipping back and forth with other folks who comment. You have made 5 comments in less than an hour and they don’t really contribute to the edification of our readership in anyway that expands upon the content of the articles and commentaries. Thank you in advance for self editing in the future.

George Nixon Shuler
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George Nixon Shuler

Church attendance and membership is likely to continue to decline across the board. The deceptively-named “Good News” group within the UMC will try to spin anything to appeal to base emotions as their modus operandi has shown again and again and again. “Conservatism” such as they advocate is anything but “conservative” in practice, but merely a vehicle for self-aggrandizement by would-be Popes and Potentates within the UMC. The Methodist business plan does not involve the demonizing of the other, hatemongering deceptions employed by nondenominational megachurches and followers of right-wing parachurch business entities. Those for whom Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”… Read more »

Richard Hicks
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Richard Hicks

Detroit, Michigan 1970: Auto execs, Union bosses & workers, politicians & people all said, “Japanese cars?! We don’t see any Japanese cars!!!” In 1960, according to the US Census, Detroit was the fourth most populous city and with the highest per capita income. Get thunk on that. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

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