04 December 2007

Vanishing Methodists

The story of the shrinking of the United Methodist Church, a quintessential mainline denomination, in the United States, bears watching. It is told by a loyal Methodist church elder.

I am pessimistic that anything can be done to reverse the decades-long downward trend in the number of people belonging to the UMC in the United States. (The UMC is a worldwide denomination and is growing outside the US.) In 1968 there were almost 13 million UMs; now there are about 8 million. Of these, we were told, the average age is 60. They didn't say what the median age is, but I expect it's higher. However, for this post I'll assume that the median age and the average age are about the same. The median age for all Americans is 36.4 years . . . .

The thrust of the convocation was that we UMs can reverse the decline if we return to Wesleyan basics. Now, I'm keen to return to Wesleyan basics and think we should do that anyway, but the idea that we can evangelize faster than the Grim Reaper reduces our numbers is a proposition that I find highly dubious.

Consider some actuarial facts. If indeed the median age is about the same as the average age, 60, that means that of the 8 million UMs living today, one-fourth, or 2 million, will be dead within 20 years, and another million dead about eight years later. So in less than 30 years, we will lose from death alone three-eighths of our present membership, leaving us at 5 million.

That decline does not include the hemorrhage of our youth who, when graduating from high school, graduate from the church as well (an issue affecting all denominations). I don't have the demographic breakdown for that age group as a percentage of the UM total, but the church admits that, relative to the general population, people under 35 are underrepresented.

So the decline due to death of our numbers will be amplified by dropouts, mostly, though not exclusively the under-35 cohort. There is only a small chance, IMO, that the number of people electing to leaved the denomination can be matched by those joining. But the idea that new members can offset losses from both dropouts and death is simply not supportable. If we could do that (or were willing to do it), we would already be doing it. And the losses from death in the coming years will only accelerate.

It goes without saying that with an average age of 60, United Methodists are generally no longer bearing children. Of course there are families in our churches, but there is a very large number of UM churches that have no children. The fertility rate among European-descended, American women is lower than the 2.1 replacement rate. The overall American fertility rate of 2.08 is that high only because non-white women are having more than two children each (on average, of course).

The U.S. population was about 37% smaller fifty years ago. The declining UMC membership and so as a share of the total U.S. population the UMC has fallen by about 61% in five decades, and it will only get worse for the foreseeable future.

There is nothing unusual about this trend for a mainline American church that serves mostly white people. It has been repeated in most of the mainline denominations in the United States, and white Catholics (but not immigrant Catholics) are also following this basic trendline.

The same source also has an interesting post on evidence that small family size causes people to become less religious, rather than the other way around.

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