The Dying UMC in the USA: What’s the REAL Story?

Every time a story about the membership rate decline within the United Methodist Church comes out, I notice far too many people taking that opportunity to point out one of two things.  First, they point to whatever social issue they want and say that the UMC’s wrong focus on it is the reason for the decline.  Second, they usually point to the church in Asia and Africa and say that our problems can be fixed by using their methods.  These are in no way empirical facts.

A press release from The Institute on Religion and Democracy reports that–along with the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches–the United Methodist Church continues to decline in membership.  Conversely, the report says that the UMC in Africa is on pace to outnumber their US counterparts in 10 years.  You cannot deny a number like this: 40% of the delegation to General Conference this spring will come from outside the US.

What is the church doing wrong?  This is a good question, considering that denominations such as the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church report steady to growing numbers.  Is it–as the IRD believes–that Liberal Protestantism is failing?  There is certainly an argument to be made for that.  However, that’s not it–or only it.  I’m gonna go with it NOT being…it.

We need to see the bigger picture.  The Assemblies of God and Catholic Church are growing outside the US–just like the UMC.  However, the Catholic Church is shrinking within the US, just like everyone else.  The developing world–Africa, Korea and Latin America–are the places where the church is growing.  You cannot gather too much information for the US church based on the church’s growth in the developing world.  they could very well have some things to teach us, but the problem in the US church is cultural.  The problem is not orthodoxical or orthoproxical–it’s not belief or practice.

I have used and will continue to use this imagery until it stops being relevant.  It isn’t the 1950’s anymore.  The 50’s were the height of the mainline church.  Of course, society was different.  It seemed as if the culture acted as a funnel to get people in the doors of the church.  Laws were designed to not give someone the idea of skipping Sunday worship and there was shame attached to not having a church home.  Since then, big corporations have lobbied across the country to destroy Blue laws and there has to be someone manning the shop.  Today, there are any number of reasons someone could give for not going to church.  And on any given Sunday, nearly all of them are used.

While there are bright spots across all religious landscapes, the church in the US is failing.  You can point to individual denominations and ridicule their declines, but the decline is not limited to Liberal Protestantism.  The problem–as I said earlier–is cultural.

What changes do we need to make?  My theory is that we are in our own time–much like Martin Luther was in his own time.  It was a time of flux and failure.  It was a time of great change.  The circumstances are vastly different, but I think it is our generation’s responsibility to be the new reformers of the church.  We need to figure out how the message of Christ and the reign of God translate to the Post-Modern world in which we live.  It is our responsibility.  We don’t need to look to the world of business for pointers.  We may eventually need to learn from the church in Africa.  But right now, we need get on our knees and seek the counsel of God–not keep up with the spiritual Jones’.

26 comments on “The Dying UMC in the USA: What’s the REAL Story?

  1. Joel
    March 8, 2012 at 8:14 PM #

    First, the SBC is in decline, actually. Second, American Christianity is on the decline as well. The US denominations which are growing are doing little more than sheep stealing. We have to figure a way to keep our members, disciple them, and then begin to reach out to the lost.

  2. Chris Tiedeman
    March 8, 2012 at 9:04 PM #

    That’s the point. It’s not this or that denomination. Of course, then, the liberals get the blame.

    • Joel
      March 8, 2012 at 9:19 PM #

      But don’t we always? Jesus and Paul got the blame for killing Moses and destroying Judaism. Calvin, Luther, and Wesley got the blame for killing Christianity or the Anglican Church.

  3. Jeff
    March 9, 2012 at 9:46 AM #

    The Roman Catholic Church is growing in the United States: the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (published by the National Council of Churches) reports that the Roman Catholic Church grew 1.49 percent in the most recent reporting year. This can be viewed here:

    Joel is correct that the SBC has declined slightly – down 0.24 percent in the most recently reported year. But not all decline is equal — this rate is nothing compared to the 3.28 percent decline that the PCUSA reported in the same period.

    There are many factors that determine church growth or decline, but there is one almost-universal commonality: liberal churches are much more likely to stagnate than conservative ones. We can each point to a handful of anecdotal examples of a progressive congregation that is growing — but for each of those, there are scores of evangelical church plants that are thriving. Contrast the number of Assemblies of God congregations that were planted last year with the number of UMC plants – it’s a staggering disparity. When we see that about 40 percent of new Christians are evangelized via church planting, an important piece of the UMC’s demographic decline comes into view.

    • Chris Tiedeman
      March 9, 2012 at 12:20 PM #

      The point I try to make is that your study looks at the symptoms of a larger problem. You are attempting to suggest that we treat the symptoms. That approach is wrong. Your study doesn’t include issues of population and socioeconomic standing. You cannot take a sliver of information from an entire population and make conclusions based upon it. You imply conclusions on seriously insufficient information. You need to look at a bigger picture.

  4. Jane
    March 9, 2012 at 9:58 AM #

    Sheep stealing may actually be sheep feeding. The liberal decline of the mainline church has driven believers out seeking safe shelter and true words from God. Yes, our culture is the problem, but let us be fair and recognize that a church which doesn’t proclaim the Gospel will die.

    • Joel
      March 9, 2012 at 11:29 AM #

      Jane, that doesn’t make much sense. American Christianity is dying, liberal or conservative. People are switching, left and right, and the lines are blurred a bit. The problem, essentially, is one of population changes.

      What is the Gospel? Frankly, I think that moderate Mainline churches proclaim the Gospel much more than conservative/evangelical churches.

      Further, given your logic, Jesus is wrong. He never promised growth, but a narrow and a few.

  5. Carl
    March 9, 2012 at 10:14 AM #

    Maybe there is a general decline in the numbers of people even attending churches. But if you are like me, you talk to people all the time that are leaving the UMC to go to a different church, they are not leaving church or Christianity. There is a growing discontent with the liberal leanings of the UMC whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Also, I keep seeing small, non denominational churches popping up. There must have been 4 or 5 within the last year near where I live. How many new UMC churches have been planted in Virginia and how many have been closed or have a congregation of less than 50? I became a Methodist in 1979 from the Catholic Church. I thought then and still beleive that the UMC is uniquely equipped for this time. Then the move twoard a social gospel at the expense of THE gospel became the norm among the church heirarchy.

    • Joel
      March 9, 2012 at 11:30 AM #

      Let us not forget that people are often times reactionary. I mean, look at Acts, Hebrews, and Galatians wherein Paul and others fought against those who slipped back into majority Judaism.

      Further, fear based groups will grow very fast.

  6. Jennifer
    March 9, 2012 at 12:14 PM #

    Joel, based on your comments, I infer that you are a “liberal” United Methodist member and you believe that church groups other than mainline liberal are fear-based, thus accounting for their growth. “fear based groups will grow very fast.”

    If by “fear-based” you mean that where the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached you scare the Hell out of people, I guess that is true. Just a joke… Anyway, you asked the question, “What is the Gospel?” That reminds me of Pilate asking Jesus, “What is Truth?”

    Just the fact that a person from mainline United Methodism has to ask the question is sobering. I was at an Easter service several years ago where a UM pastor admitted to the congregation that she did not know “why Jesus had to die.” Are you kidding me????

    The Good News is that God is not mad at us. He has made a way for unholy mankind to be reconciled to a Holy God, and that way is through the blood of Christ. I am forgiven! I have been washed by the Blood of the Lamb. I am a new creature in Christ. I have exchanged my filthy rags of self-righteousness for fine linen, white and clean, which is the righteous acts of the saints.

    The reason the African churches are exploding (BTW, did you know that many African Christians refer to the USA as the “Dark Continent?”) is because they first preach salvation in Christ alone, and they teach and practice the unfiltered Word of God.

    I am still in the United Methodist Church. I hurt for her; I pray for her. I grew up going to a UM church, but I heard the Gospel and was saved in a Nazarene church. Preaching the Gospel of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ and making disciples is UM’s only hope of having any relevance in our culture, past, present and future.

    • Joel
      March 9, 2012 at 2:05 PM #


      Actually, I consider myself a very conservative Scripture believer. Very conservative. But, coming from a fundamentalist group, I have 32 years of personal experience with the basis of fear as a group builder.

      I’m not sure you get the point of the question, “What is the Gospel?” I know the gospel, but I’m not sure many people actually do. We confuse the Gospel with doctrine and theology, or with the absence of hell in our lives, or a free ticket to heaven. That’s the not the Gospel. The problem is, mainly, is that many have this notion of what the Gospel is, so if they don’t hear it in the UM, then they think that the UM is not preaching the Gospel. Who and what is the measurement of the Gospel? The individual is.

      The Gospel of Jesus Christ is far more than “now you don’t have to go to hell.” But, if people don’t fear hell, then many assume that the Gospel isn’t being preached.

      The United Methodist Church, in my Scripturally-based opinion, has the Gospel, but it is upon to the moderates to counter both liberals and conservatives so that it can actually be preached.

      • Jennifer
        March 9, 2012 at 6:04 PM #

        Thanks for your comments, Joel. Sounds like we have a lot in common.

        Totally agree that the Gospel is way more than about getting into Heaven, but it also has to begin with repentance and trusting in the Lord Jesus alone for forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. My question to the UMC was and is, why did I have to actually get saved at the altar of another church? (I know…God planned it…but the point is, we miss a blessing when we do not continually point to Christ for salvation and explain what the Gospel is) My experience with mainstream Methodism is that they are great about social conscience activism, but awful about preaching about salvation…about being literally born again through Jesus Christ and being filled with the Holy Spirit.

        We should be offering everyone the chance to repent and trust in Christ alone at every service; we should be able to bring non-believers into worship and be confident that they will have the opportunity to know Christ personally before they leave our doors.

        While saved at 12, I wandered away until he brought me back in my mid-20s. He provided an in-depth inter-denominational Bible Study so I could know Him better, and I have never looked back. I now know I can trust Him to lead me into the good works that He planned for me to do before I was even born. So amazing… I am unable to do anything apart from Him…nothing of eternal value, at least.

        I will pray along with you for our church and our leaders, and for God to use me as He sees fit.

        Good discussion and blessings wherever you are. Have a great weekend!

      • Joel
        March 9, 2012 at 8:13 PM #

        Jennifer… I’m not sure I would agree that you were saved anywhere. That is evangelical language and simply not Scripturally complete. Paul said he was saved, was being saved, and would be saved. Further, Paul had to be out of his mind in order to see God in Christ. Neither is this concept of “being born again” a really sound point. That’s not the gospel and nor is it salvation. Further, you cannot simply know Christ personally before they leave the doors. This is what I mean when I suggest that the understanding of the gospel, and particular, your understanding of the gospel and the Christian life is not actually based in Scripture, but in evangelical-speak which has erupted only in the last 150 years.

        It could be that at that moment, you let go of your negativity about the UMC and was able to finally heed to the calling.

  7. Truthmeister
    March 9, 2012 at 4:00 PM #

    Interesting discussion. The reasons mainline denominations, like the UMC, are losing members are complex and cannot be attributed to any single thing. But there is a common denominator to this exodus: a church that capitulates to the culture, as opposed to a church that provides a way out of the darkness.

    Christ came to save us from our sin, not affirm us in our sin so that our self-image is not damaged.

    If the problem is culture, then WHY is the problem culture? Isn’t part of this problem a church that has failed to impact the culture in a positive way?

    Why are we allowing a small group of well-placed political activists to hijact this denomination? Why are we debating whether Sam and Dave can get married when people are starving? Why do we have an agency in the UM denomination that does not speak up for unborn life? Why are we debating nuances of Scripture while ignoring its clear teaching?

    God’s church won’t die because it cannot die. But I’d like to think that God will reawaken mainline denominations and use them for His ultimate purposes. But there’s no guarantee of that. It will depend on the response of the denominations.

  8. Jennifer
    March 10, 2012 at 12:05 PM #

    Joel, I was wrong. We have little in common. I am saved by Grace, it is Biblical, and I am born again, according to Scripture. I don’t know what calling you refer to in your last line, but I am called out of the world, while living in the world. I am saved, just like the Philippine jailer and his family and millions of others who trust in Jesus for our salvation.

    Paul, who was of sane mind when he saw God in Christ, instructed Timothy not to get involved in useless arguments, and this dialogue fits that description. You continue in your calling; I will continue in mine, which is to offer reconciliation to God through belief in the Lord Jesus Christ.

    • Henry
      October 15, 2012 at 7:00 PM #

      Jennifer I was a methodist just like you. I gave up on church until my last year in college when some friends invited me to a baptist church. The pastor spoke on the great commission Matt 28 he then went through the romans road to salvation. I did not respond but went back to the dorm . That night I knelt on the floor in the dorm and asked Jesus to forgive my sins and save me. . The next morning I woke up felt clean and knew I belonged to God. That was March 1973 .I have studied the bible much since then but never doubted Jesus when He says whoever believes in Me has eternal life. and shall not come into condemnation for he has passed from death to life.Salvation has a growing process, but It starts when a person trust Jesus with a childlike faith!

    • Joe
      February 8, 2014 at 10:43 PM #

      I know this is an old post but I had to comment on Jennifer’s reply. Amen. I attended a United Methodist Church for many years. I have many very good friends who are still attending a small United Methodist Church – and, by the way, a relatively conservative “country” church. I left the UMC after attending a local Baptist church service and hearing what I longed to hear for so long from the UMC. For so long I yearned to hear sin called sin, black called black, wrong called wrong, and conversely, the Bible called true, right encouraged, and holiness still in fashion. If Joel does not believe that the liberal, left-leaning, appeal and bend-over to everyone regardless of behavior actions of the United Methodist Church has not caused mass exodus then he is not paying attention to what real people are saying and doing. The decline in the SBC is so small as to be almost imperceptible. The decline in the UMC is staggering and sad. I have no doubt that would the UMC proclaim again an unapologetic stand on the “old-time religion” that they would stop this slide and once again be a beacon for Christ. The world has the country club scene cornered. People want the truth, the Book, and the Gospel – not a Sunday morning social gathering.

      • Chris Tiedeman
        February 12, 2014 at 8:04 AM #


        This reply is nearly too full of assumptions and name-calling to warrant a response. “Old-time religion” – as you say – is what is failing. Your impercievable decline is no more than sheep-stealing, and will eventually lead to the same decline as everyone else. The UMC is discovering the ways in which the church needs to exist in a world that is leaving the church behind. To keep relying on “old-time religion” is a form of self-deception that will eventually lead to ruin.

        This type of reply is nothing I haven’t seen before. You use liberal in the perjorative to make yourself feel better. Meanwhile, those same liberals are engaged in ministry with those people the gospel calls us to be in ministry with – everyone. And we are all too happy to subvert your expectations.

  9. Rhea Flanery
    March 11, 2012 at 11:40 PM #

    When did Korea become part of the developing world? And are you referencing the entire peninsula, or just North or South Korea?

  10. jcfretts
    March 12, 2012 at 12:31 AM #

    First, I find IRD suspect as a source of anything.

    As a once loyal UMethodist, and once-defender of the institutional church, I will offer thoughts.

    UMC is neither hot nor cold. It is lukewarm about its conservative beliefs, and about its liberal beliefs. I would suggest that, while offensive to some, the liberal, social justice underpinnings and smart theology of UMC would resonate with many modern unchurched Americans. (and, by the way, is consistent with the teachings of Jesus.) Thus, taking the advice of IRD would just leave an also-ran Baptist clone.

    But another culprit of decline may just be that Americans are disinterested in institutions and bureacracy. The UMC church hierarchy is ineffective and, frankly, unwanted.

    Sadly, most UMs I know simply see the conference as a tax agency, not a source of leadership or service or collaboration. In current USAmerica, it is just another bloated institution obsessed with internal politics.

    • Umnomore
      January 6, 2013 at 11:30 AM #

      Your last paragraph has in fact the truth for me. Our little church now struggles financially because we have 4 small congregations holding on to their respective buildings. No leadership from the conference to work personally through this difficult process…we were sent a letter from the new ds that says our lack of financial commitment is shameful…gee what happened when during the good times we.gave to all of the world outposts…or urban needs? I never heard that those souls were shameful. I am not a long time member and feel for those who are clinging on to their anchor in the storm of life…Sunday morning, with all of the traditions attached. My life storms are different, so I am now going to a much bigger and more distant vibrant church. And I look forward to going.

  11. Kanyike Joseph
    March 13, 2012 at 9:37 AM #

    Whoever says The UMC is growing in Africa should have empirical evidence.However I cannot dispute the allegation the UMC is growing in Africa., the numbers are growing just because the nature of worship being contemporary. Alot of music and dancing, sharing testimonies among others. However in many of our churches, Christians are not sustained. They keep moving from one congregation to the other simply because the pastors lack the skills to have them grow spiritually. Most of the pastors are illiterate and have no religious background studies at all hence their preaching is narrowed by lack of bible skills. Secondly Africans being poor, have been lured into churches seeking for prosperity because most of what they hear is ” giving and receiving” The prosperity gospel has taken over Africa. most of Africans need more bible study in order to be enriched in the word of God otherwise as middle class is growing in Africa, attending to church may be history in the near future.Majority goto church seeking solutions to poverty and not seeking for eternal life.

    Thirdly the church in Africa is not well organized as an institution that can last for years! many church leaders are corrupt, misrepresent the church in decision making for example within the General Conference and are caught at crossroads of supporting dictatorial governments and so on.

    This should be averted by UMC setting up more seminaries, designing tailor made programs for pastors, identifying and fully supporting young who want to be church ministers

    As a methodist, a Ugandan and an African. By tradition, United Methodists have so many attachments that are central to our nature of worship. These Methodical kind of attachments make us who we are but if we are to be a vibrant church, we need to tilt a little bit to tune of supersonic movement of the world. Todays tests and preferences are changing by a blink of an eye and so should the UMC.

  12. Don MacNicoll
    April 1, 2012 at 3:16 PM #

    My wife and I just left a Palm/Passion Sunday service with communion at a medium size Methodist church. We both agreed that we felt like we had just come out of a Roman Catholic service… the liturgy was stifling. We wondered, not having any facts to rely on, if anyone has ever looked into the impact of the liturgical reform movement as one factor in declining church attendance (and membership) in the United Methodist Church. I know that professional church people have been educated and indoctrinated into the liturgical reform business. But I am not sure that the person sitting in the 2012 pew cares one iota about liturgical reform. I do note that in the last three United Methodist Churches I attended, all had so-called “contemporary worship” services spring up in reaction to the perceived shortcomings in so-called “traditional” worship. No one I know has ever addressed the broader question of the liturgical reform. Anybody know of any credible studies? Thanks Don

  13. James Smither
    October 22, 2013 at 1:16 AM #

    Everyone is missing the REAL reason for the church decline. In the USA the Baby Boomer population is dying off. Most of this generation is related to post-WWII white children who helped support the church decline begging in the 70’s. The generation behind, them, especially in places like Texas and California, is a VERY large young but low income Hispanic population.

    Don’t believe me? Check out

    Whats happening is as the older white generation over 50 dies off, it will be replaced with this largely Hispanic generation. Whites in America will be the minority by 2043 some estimate now. This is NOT a racial issue. Sure there are people of all backgrounds in Protestant Churches. But the rise of the Protestant Church is largely a European American experience as well as African-American experience. With the decline in white children now, you cannot sustain a church that does not appeal to millions of Hispanic children. Because of that demographic change, unless the Protestant Church fully embraces minorities and actually converts most of its new doctrines to accommodate Hispanic culture and youth, it likely is doomed long term in the USA.

    This happens all over the world and immigrants change the society. America is a society of immigrants and this next wake will present new changes and challenges to Protestant organizations. To deny this culture shift is dangerous. If you want to survive the church will need to adapt to low income Hispanic youth very soon or it will likely see itself replaced by a new faith and new organized religious institution.


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