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United Methodist membership continues down, attendance up

2/21/2003

By United Methodist News Service*

U.S. membership in the United Methodist Church has continued to decline, but overseas gains have offset the decrease so that total worldwide membership remains about 9.8 million. In addition, average attendance at Sunday morning worship services has grown substantially.

Some 8.3 million U.S. members and 1.5 million in Europe, Africa and the Philippines make up the denomination's total, according to official statistics for 2001 (the latest available), compiled by the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration in Evanston, Ill. That's a drop of slightly more than 43,200 from 2000.

The number has fallen since 1965, when the combined membership of the church's two predecessor denominations totaled 11.5 million. The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 by the union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Of the 8.3 million United Methodists in the United States, 44,539 are clergy, and the rest are lay members.

Average weekly attendance at the main worship services was reported at 3,546,695 - the first time in more than five years that it topped 3.5 million. This gain of just more than 59,000 may reflect the increase in U.S. church-going after Sept. 11, 2001, and the launch of Igniting Ministry, the denomination's campaign of hospitality and outreach earlier that month.

Growth in the church outside the United States has continued, rising from an estimated 1.4 million to 1.5 million in 2001, an increase of 369,000 over 10 years. In Africa, where membership is 1.26 million, about 77,000 were added in the last year. The comparable report from 10 years earlier indicated more than a half-million new members on that continent. The Philippines has 184,509 members, but reporting difficulties in previous years make a valid comparison impossible. The central conferences of Europe, including those in some former Eastern Bloc countries, have dropped to 74,361 members from 80,968 the previous year.

In terms of ethnic membership in the United States, the 2001 statistics show that the church has about 420,000 African Americans and blacks, 70,800 Asians, 51,800 Hispanics, 20,000 Native Americans and 10,000 Pacific Islanders.

U.S. members are divided into five geographical jurisdictions. The largest is the Southeastern Jurisdiction, with more than 2.9 million lay and clergy members. South Central has 1.8 million; North Central, almost 1.6 million; and Northeastern, 1.5 million. The smallest in membership is the largest in territory: The Western Jurisdiction has 430,556 members.

The decline was largest in the North Central Jurisdiction (from the Dakotas through Ohio), which reported a loss of 21,566 members. The Northeastern Jurisdiction (from West Virginia and Maryland north to the St. Lawrence River) lost almost 20,000. The Western Jurisdiction (all the states extending from Montana to the west and south, except New Mexico, and including Alaska and Hawaii) counted 5,393 fewer members.

Modest increases were reported in the two largest jurisdictions, both in the South. The Southeastern Jurisdiction, which stretches from Virginia to Mississippi, gained 2,422 members, and South Central added 1,180 new members. South Central extends from Nebraska to Texas and from New Mexico to Missouri and Louisiana.

"Our local church reports from the past five years present clear challenges for our denomination, particularly in view of U.S. population projections through the year 2010," said Don House, an economist from Bryan, Texas, and a member of the general council. "To retain our current overall membership concentration (which is 3 percent of the U.S. population), we must turn an average loss of 40,000 members per year to an average gain of 70,000 per year."

United Methodism's rate of decline in the United States slowed during the late 1990s, but it has increased again in the first two years of the 21st century. A loss of 36,500 members in 2000 followed a drop of 34,000 in 1999. Previous annual declines from 1998 back were 40,500, 44,000, 43,000 and 49,000, respectively. From 1990 to 1994, annual declines varied from 55,000 to 67,000 members.

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* Information for this story was provided by Beth Babbitt Borst, director of the Department of Statistics at the General Council on Finance and Administration in Evanston, Ill.

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