A comment on one of the more benign things I’m hearing out of ‪#‎UMCGC‬ – the recurring “decline” narrative.  Posted on FB and thought… this really should have been a blog…
One of my continued frustrations with the decline narrative – not in any way disputing the numbers – is that we always start the story in the 1950/60’s. The 50’s were an ANOMALY in American society – a time when a driving force was to declare oneself “not commie” and an easy way to do that was to go to church. (it’s also when we first put “In God We Trust” on our currency”) – in the post-WWII environment, the economy boomed, new neighborhoods (often homogeneous on ethnic, income and other lines) spring up and you could plant a church by door knocking and have 400 people show up. That was not the case in the 1910/20/30 timeframe – but we never compare ourselves to those numbers.
Maybe we should… might be instructive…
The 1960’s were a time of social upheaval and it also led to a boom in membership – some from defining oneself as “not the hippies” but also out of the postwar baby boom. These years should not form the baseline for our comparisons on growth but be seen as the social anomaly they are. Not even Jesus stayed at the mountaintop all the time… and personally, (again, not at all disputing the numbers or that there are issues) I think the decline narrative is part of our problem – who the hell wants to join a group to save it. Let’s focus on planting new churches and making disciples BECAUSE that’s what we do as Christians – not because we need anything. It’s not about us…

Here is an archive source on numbers for our major predecessor bodies;

A quick review of what I find there: In 1916, an even 100 years ago, there were 5,828,993 members of the bodies that became the M.E. Church in 1939. Other sources put the major branch of the EUB at 100,000 (finding data on those bodies is trickier) Generously let’s call that 6 million members.
Same sources report 7,590,411 members in 1939 at the M.E. merger (again, EUB is harder to find – a guess, likely 300,000 or so – so that would be 7.8M. The largest number I’ve seen quoted for EUB was a peak of 750,000 members near 1968 – but some overseas and not all joined in the merger.) But we could call it 8.25M combined (even though much of that EUB growth was likely after 1939).

We got to a widely reported 11 million high water mark at the 1968 merger and are now at (drum roll) 7,183,193 US based members (and another 5M in Central Conferences) – so in raw numbers we’re actually larger now worldwide than we were at the ’68 merger and in US only numbers we are at very, very most 1 million down from 1939 – (likely closer to 500K) and we’re still up from 1916. If you elongate the graph the free fall we keep sweating is a long bump… . Granted once you figure in population growth that’s a decline. But it’s not a cliff, it’s arguably a return to normal.

I’d note that Lion’s, Kiwanis, Rotary also peaked in the 60’s and have seen sharp decline – over 50% in some cases… our base societal membership impulse has changed. A LOT of the narrative – and much of the IRD focus on it, was comparing things in the 80’s when high demand membership churches that tend to be to the right of the political / theological spectrum didn’t see the same rate of decline – but now they are… theirs was just delayed in large part due to strong group identity and latent social forces.

So again – what if we focused on BEING the Church instead of agonizing over our decline… what if we especially looked at models and approaches that are working – in places as diverse as Africa and Asia (which I contend are more like 1950/60 America in terms of membership drives) and Portland, Oregon (which is ahead of the curve on what the North American and European church is facing – so if it’s been working there, might it work in Birmingham, AL too?)

Or let’s at least be willing to die *for* something instead of clinging to numerical life like we don’t really trust in resurrection or that the Spirit is still moving.

Other possibility/Full Disclosure
– I was born in 1968. Maybe it’s all my fault… sorry…


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