Is the UMC Turning Around?

Inquiring minds want to know: Is The United Methodist Church starting to reverse its 45-year record of decline?  A recent report on church vitality in U.S. United Methodist Churches (UMNS story, Vital Congregations Report) found that the number of “highly vital” congregations has doubled from 2010 to 2012.  The report said that nearly 34 percent of all UM churches in the U.S. are “highly vital.”

I applaud the work of the vital congregations task force and the leaders in every annual conference who are working hard to try to help our denomination reverse its long decline.  Church revitalization is a difficult task.  Once a congregation begins to decline, it often takes extraordinary leadership to help it begin growing again.  And the longer the decline, the harder it is to reverse the trend.

I hope that the renewed emphasis on revitalizing churches is beginning to pay off.  Church revitalization measures growth in worship attendance, membership, and professions of faith.  It measures involvement in small groups for discipleship and raising the percentage of our members who attend worship.  It values the engagement of our members in mission and ministry outside the walls of the church building.  And it measures the giving of congregations to apportionments and to missions.  These areas are all important to the life of the church in making and growing disciples of Jesus Christ.

It seems to me, however, that there are some reasons for caution in interpreting the report.

  1. The report states that there was an increase in the number of professions of faith, disciples in small groups, disciples engaged in mission, and disciples giving to mission.  It is just as likely that the reason for the increase is that churches are doing a better job of counting, especially in terms of small group and mission trip participation, since that is being emphasized by our denomination’s leadership.  The numbers may not be increasing, as much as we are counting better.
  2. The report points to the increase in mission giving as indicative that the other increases are genuine, as well.  However, the increase in giving is more likely due to the improving financial condition of churches due to the improving economy, rather than as a sign of heightened church vitality.  And mission giving is notoriously fluctuating.  A lot depends upon what world crisis stimulates giving in a certain year.  Years of events like the Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina/Rita see massive increases in mission giving due to the events, not due to heightened church vitality.
  3. The measurements are a bit suspect because the percentage of “highly vital” congregations is nearly as high (and in some cases higher) than the percentage of churches showing one-year growth in attendance.

Jurisdiction

% Highly Vital

% One-year Growth

% Five-Year Growth

North Central

33.0%

32.4%

27.3%

Northeastern

34.7%

33.8%

26.8%

South Central

33.7%

36.2%

31.5%

Southeastern

33.0%

33.6%

32.3%

Western

40.1%

36.7%

29.3%

U.S. Total

33.9%

34.0%

29.8%

It seems illogical to have a “highly vital” church that is not growing.  Yet in at least the Northeast and the West, there are more “highly vital” churches than there are growing churches.  The problem becomes even more starkly clear when one looks at the five-year growth percentages.  These are the percentage of churches whose attendance in 2012 was higher than it was five years before in 2007.  In every jurisdiction, there are more “highly vital” churches than there are those whose attendance grew in the last five years—sometimes by quite a large margin.  That tells me our standard for “highly vital” is too low.  I would think that one basic criterion for a “highly vital” church is that it would show attendance growth over the previous five year period.

  1. That brings me to the biggest problem I have with how the vital congregations are classified.  As I have pointed out before, we are grading “on the curve.”  In order to be considered “highly vital,” a congregation must be in the top 25% of all churches in two categories and NOT in the bottom 25% in any category.  The increase in the number of “highly vital” congregations could be due to congregations who improved their performance in their worst areas, so that they were not disqualified by being in the bottom 25%.  This would certainly help the overall church picture, but it is not the same as saying that many more churches are doing great in their best areas.  Another factor in increasing the number of “highly vital” congregations could be that all the other churches are doing worse.  If everyone else is declining rapidly and you are just staying steady, your ranking will get higher.
  2. Increasing vitality is not being borne out by the attendance figures for 2013.  My colleague John Southwick has reported that worship attendance in 2013 is averaging much worse than in previous years.  In the 33 years from 1968 to 2001, worship attendance declined about .25% per year on average.  In the 11 years since 2001, the worship attendance decline has ballooned to 1.6% per year on average.  So far in 2013, the worship attendance decline is running 2.7%.  (Not all annual conferences have yet reported their numbers.)  It seems that if the rise in “highly vital” congregations were real in 2012, one would expect the attendance decline to get better, not worse in 2013.

There is obviously much more work to be done with regard to the vital congregations initiative.  We want to support that work wherever we can.  At the same time, while welcoming good news, it is too early to say that the denomination has turned a corner on church vitality.

Comments

  1. Gary Bebop says:

    The report in question is one more bit of buffoonery. Who is really taken in by these claims? We can all turn to a conference journal to see them contradicted, as you have noted. I hope our leaders are not so gulled as to think we are fooled.

  2. Thanks Tom, Interesting thoughts. When I served as DS in Ohio my district had a map with each church marked as either green for healthy, yellow for stagnant, red for crisis. What I learned in my time as DS is that Healthy church “vital church” was a wider term than I thought.

    Like you, I expected growth in number, worship, baptisms, outreach. In some of the small towns or rural churches I was pleased to discover vital followers of Jesus, serving boldly yet my expectations of growth in attendance were not occurring. So I had to ask, “Can a church be Vital and not grow in number?” The answer is yes.

    I also learned that some churches had grown from crisis to stagnant, and that was a good thing. They were no longer fighting or stuck on a specific issue. The bleeding had stopped. Perhaps their next step would be health.

    I also discovered that where ever there were strong churches in the district, most of the churches near them were getting stronger too. (everybody had to up their game.)

    I still tend to believe and hope that Vital leads to growth in spirit, discipleship and number.

    Grace and peace, Duane

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