The Methodist Church: Recent Membership Trends

The Methodist Church

(Part 2 of 19 regarding The United Methodist Church)

Recent Membership Trends


The Methodist Church: Recent Membership Trends


The UMC! In the past, the United Methodist Church was largely a denomination found in rural areas of the country.  In the mid-nineteenth century, many Methodist congregations were found in towns of fewer than 1,500 population.  Sixty percent of Methodists “lived in ‘town and country’ or rural areas of less than 10,000 population, a much higher percentage than the national average.  Twenty-five percent of the Methodists belonged to churches with less than 250 members, and nearly 50 percent with less than 500 members. . . . Only 5 percent of The Methodist Church was nonwhite, while nearly 25 percent of all Methodist members were black.”[i] Obviously, this included black Methodist denominations.

The composition of Methodist churches today (of all kinds) is interesting:

Methodists represent the second largest Protestant family, accounting for more than one-in-ten of all Protestants (12.1%) and 6.2% of the overall adult population. Methodists are particularly well represented within mainline Protestantism, accounting for nearly one-third (30%) of all members of mainline churches, as well as within the historically black church tradition, where they account for nearly one-in-ten (9%) of all members.  Most Methodists within mainline Protestantism are members of the United Methodist Church, while most Methodists in the historically black church tradition are affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. Methodists represent a very small share (1%) of the evangelical Protestant tradition.[ii]

Putting all of this together, we see that Methodists (especially United Methodists) are very seldom seen as Evangelical. “Evangelical” is a term indicating a high view of Scripture and an acceptance of the basics of Christianity. This fact is in keeping with the liberal and unbelieving composition of the denomination.

Interestingly, George Barna, the religious pollster, reported that Methodists have reported an 11% increase in those who claim to be “born again.”[iii] However, along with this, Barna evaluated the various American denominations in accordance with “seven theological perspectives” that would “determine the overall purity of people’s biblical perspective.”  He discovered that Methodists were near the bottom of the list, with only 38% affirming the seven points.[iv] This in no way indicates the issue of salvation for many more points would need to be considered!  However, we can see why one researcher stated: “The United Methodist Church is extremely modernistic and ecumenical.”[v]

The rise and fall of the Methodist Church in membership is quite interesting.  Notice this report of the decline in the last few decades:

The Methodist Church’s rise and recent decline is perhaps the most statistically striking story in American religious history. At the time of the American Revolution, the denomination was tiny. English Methodist founder John Wesley was hostile toward American independence, which badly hampered the church’s growth in America. After the Revolution, the American church began to operate independently from English Methodists. The legendary Methodist “circuit riders” began reaching the American backcountry, riding on horseback to reach every nook and cranny of the Appalachian frontier and Mississippi River Valley. In 1770, there were about 20 Methodist churches in America. By 1860 that number had grown to more than 19,000.

Methodist growth in America continued into the post-World War II era, reaching a high point of 11 million members in the 1960s. But in the past forty years, as with all of America’s “mainline” denominations, Methodist membership numbers went into free-fall, to a current membership total of 7.6 million. Even as the total number of Americans skyrocketed, the number of Methodists plummeted.[vi]

One researcher suggests that the Methodist tendency to become politically active in liberal causes may have had some bearing on the shrinking membership:

An overemphasis on politics is certainly not the exclusive cause of shrinking numbers in Methodist churches: other contributing factors might include theological (not just political) liberalism, the marginalization of intentional Christian commitment at flagship Methodist universities, and various other struggles common to churches across the theological spectrum, such as aging membership and competition from non-denominational mega-churches.[vii]

Another article comments on the United Methodist loss of members:

The United Methodist Church has continued to decline in the United States of America, according to reports released by all but four of the denomination’s 59 conferences. According to the reports, in 2011 the UMC suffered a decline of nearly 72,000 members, with 18 conferences reporting membership losses of 2 percent or more.

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and a practicing Methodist, told The Christian Post that he did not feel confident in the survival of the UMC in America. “Methodism in the U.S. has lost membership every year since 1964. It has lost over 4.5 million members. There is nothing in its U.S. policies that can or will reverse the decline in the near future,” said Tooley.

“My own local church is a very typical U.S. United Methodist congregation. It is selling its Sunday school building for lack of people and finances.”[viii]


The Methodist Church: Recent Membership Trends

Another way to look at this would be the annual loss of members in the UMC:

2007  loss of 63,723 members

2008  loss of 77,746 members

2009  loss of 79,056 members

2010  loss of 95,081 members[ix]

What we find in the United Methodist denomination is also found in other mainline Protestant churches in America.[x]

Although Methodism in Africa continues to climb, there appears to be few signs that the trend in the United States will cease. One of the main indications of this decline would be the age of the average United Methodist member.  The median age is becoming older and older, thus the membership is literally dying out. “The median age of the population in the U.S. is 35; the median age of attendees in The United Methodist Church is 57.”[xi] A visit to a United Methodist Church will demonstrate this unrelenting trend. Older members far outnumber children and young people. Additionally, the theologically and socially liberal emphasis  of the UMC (The United Methodist Church) that has continued for the past century and a half continues to decimate the membership.

A large survey of its 33,000 churches was done about three years ago and, once again, there was a decline.  “The U.S. membership of the United Methodist Church, which has most of its offices and operations in Nashville, dropped by nearly 1 percent last year, to 7.9 million members, according to Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, released by the National Council of Churches.”[xii] One of the larger and “successful” congregations is located in Indianapolis. The minister gives clues to his success:

The church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Kent Millard, said it has offered both traditional and contemporary worship services for years. At a contemporary service, congregants kick back with doughnuts and coffee, a live band plays music and clips from Hollywood movies are shown to illustrate Gospel messages. “Worship is like going to a mall,” Millard said. “There are all kinds of stores. Some people like specialty shops. Some like department stores. When you have variety, people can go where they like.”[xiii]

Apparently this “seeker friendly” approach is supposed to attract younger and more active adults and families. Further, United Methodists that offered “contemporary” music and media were more likely to attract members. “Worship experiences in vital congregations also shared common characteristics. Churches that use only traditional music were the least effective, while those that used at least some contemporary music and multimedia in worship services scored higher in growth and attendance.”[xiv] This suggests that people are drawn to more exciting and modern means of communication. If they listen to “contemporary” music during the week, they want this on Sunday mornings as well!

You may want to check this out too:

Methodist Church History and Background is Very Revealing



[i] Ibid., p. 585.

[ii] landscape-study-chapter-1.pdf

[iii] -update/53-religious-beliefs-vary- wide ly- by-denomination

[iv] Ibid.  Those churches that were even lower would be the Lutherans (37%), the Catholics (28%), and the Episcopalians (28%).


[vi] Resources/Rise-and-Fall-of-American- Methodism-Thomas-Kidd-02-22- 2012.html?print=1



[viii] united-methodist-church-continues -to-decline-in-america-but-gains -in-africa-79384/

[ix] Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches 2012, p. 14.

[x] Ibid., p. 11.

[xi] /k.7ACF/2010_State_of_the_ Chur ch_Congregational_Life_ Survey.htm#.Ua5BDCco4ec.

[xii] -commission-survey-attempt-turn -dwindling-memberships/.

[xiii] Ibid.


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