On June 19, the United Methodist Church released its “State of the Church” report (find it at www.umc.org) The report stated that United Methodists are firm and consistent in their beliefs about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and salvation, but differed on how important mission and service are to personal salvation. The research was conducted by the Connectional Table (established at General Conference) which interviewed over 2,600 Methodists.
A few interesting facts from the report include:
- 35 percent of United Methodist congregations consistently report growth
- Between 1995 and 2005, global membership increased more than 34 percent, with the largest increases occurring in Africa and the Philippines
It’s true, the United Methodist Church overall is growing. That is great news! Almost 40% of all churches consistently report growth. But at the same time, it is true that the United Methodist Church in the United States is in decline. Denominational leaders in America decry the decline of our church membership. But is membership the key to evaluating where we are? What are the signs of vitality for a local church in the United States?
American Methodist leaders emphasize “net gain” in membership (along with apportionments paid, which is another discussion). The church in the United States has become inculcated with the belief that a “net gain” in membership is the most important sign of church vitality. This presses pastors to add as many members as possible while removing no one from the rolls. This leads to some systemic problems, one of which is a lack of commitment required from members in a church – a problem for all mainline congregations.
The Book of Discipline (Paragraph 228) gives the process of regaining inactive members. The purpose of the process is restoration. The desire is to see members recommit to the vows they made at membership. If they do not respond after two years of effort, they may be removed by Charge Conference action. But this hurts the “net gain”. So, while some denominational leaders may encourage pastors to regain inactive members, they don’t want you to actually remove any members.
This mindset is reinforced each year as the Cabinet report laments how churches are taking people off the rolls. The most overused phrase (and anticipated applause line) of the Cabinet report is, “churches seem to be more concerned with taking people off the rolls than bringing people into the church. . .” They decry the practice without realizing they are helping to reinforce a culture that builds churches with little required commitment.
This may be one reason we have so many churches that will take in many new members, yet their ratio of worship attendance to membership continues to decline. These are the churches we reward. Some of these award winning churches get barely 22% of their membership in worship – yes, 22%!
Two numbers are reported each month in our district newsletter: “net gain” in membership and percentage of apportionments paid. Leaders establish the culture. The foundation has been laid. What constitutes a vital church?