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Count Down -- Methodist Membership Losses

By Richard H. Wall

Copyright 2003

Introduction: Over the past few years, I have noticed our church steadily losing members, and wondered if this were unique or a wider problem. Yes there were some people who moved from the area, some transferred to other Methodist Churches, and some died.  However, most appear to have just stopped coming, to church. They could be going to another denomination and didn’t notify the church or they just stopped coming and no longer attend worship services. As we all know, people stop going to church for many reasons. However, to speculate as to these reasons is not the prime purpose of this article.

Congregations report the number of members each year, and details of changes to membership rolls, attendance at worship and church school. Financial data is also reported each year, passed up the line and eventually included in a United Methodist Church wide set of statistics, which is published annually. This information has been made available on the Internet, and was the source for the numbers used for membership and attendance.  Comparison to US population numbers for census years was obtained from the US Census Bureau  Internet site, or when available from the UM data. 

The accuracy of the reported numbers is totally dependent on the accuracy of record keeping at local churches. Some churches may not be diligent in keeping membership numbers current. Attendance numbers are probably more accurate, as they are generally tracked weekly, if for no other reason than to publish the number in the weekly bulletin. Some churches keep both manual and computerized membership information, and reconciling the two may not have been done for a long time.  Which records are right?  Which are reported in annual reports?  Most likely both are used (not at the same time), by different churches at one time or other, depending on a large number of possible scenarios.  Call me skeptical but the membership numbers may be overstated.

 Background: I created spreadsheets, using the information from the sources cited above to analyze the losses of members of the United Methodist Church compared to changes in US population. The data shows Methodist membership and the US population going in opposite directions, since 1970 shortly after the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist Church combined into the United Methodist Church. There is no indication that the merger and the decline in membership are related, it simply happened following that event and probably would have if a merger never took place.  Other mainline Protestant denominations have had similar losses in membership during this time period.

The information displayed below is the raw data from the sources cited. There is plenty of room for speculation as to why membership is continually decreasing after peaking to over 10 million numbers around 1970.  Assuming the numbers are accurate, the United Methodist Church has dropped from representing about 5.3% of the United States population in 1970 to around 3% in 2000.  However, a United Methodist wide census might conceivably show even fewer Methodists than currently being reported, taking the representation to population to under 3%.

Population of the US Vs Methodist Membership. Chart 1 shows the relationship between United States census population and the number of United Methodists since 1940. The left side of the chart shows numbers in millions of US population.  The right side shows the number of Methodists in millions.  Both sets of numbers and the lines on the chart are for the same period of time and represent census years only. The US population increased by almost 113% during these 50 years while the number of Methodists reverted to nearly the 1940 level after reaching a peak during the 1960 to 1970 census years. This amounts to a current membership that is less than 1% greater than the 1940 membership.

Chart 1

Impact of Immigration: The impact of immigrants on the population and how they might have had an effect on the membership of the United Methodist Church was considered after several friends suggested the possibility. The data does not appear to support an adverse impact or that the new immigrants caused the United Methodist Church membership to decline as a result in the makeup of religious preferences of immigrants. One study suggests that immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America are about 90% Catholic.  A cursory look at this study could lead one to assume that all of these immigrants joined the Catholic Church and not the Methodist Church. This is probably right, so we couldn’t expect them to become Methodists, but what happened to the increase in population not attributed to immigration?  Chart 2 below combines, the previous chart with immigration numbers. When subtracting the foreign born immigrants from the total US population we find the following table shows that the immigrants have only had a .2% to .4% impact when related to the total population.


 Chart 2

Attendance Related to Membership. Chart 3 below shows how the reported membership compares to reported attendance from 1971 to 2000.  As can be seen, the attendance is flat over this thirty-year period while membership decreased by about 2 million. This is a perplexing circumstance, if both membership numbers and attendance numbers are correct.  Why is attendance not affected when there are less members to draw from?  It would seem that there would be some predictor that indicates an attendance level related to the number of members. The percent of members attending raises from 36.4% to 41.8% during the period which seem like good news until you look at the numbers and find that over 278,000 less  people attended in 2000 than 1971. This same erroneous conclusion might be drawn today by those advocating continuation of expensive television ads that appear to increase attendance compared to some finite period of time, and not relating the increase to any other data.

Chart 3


What if Methodist Members continued to be 5.3% of population?  The table below shows that if the Methodist Church had continued to maintain its level of membership at a constant 5.3% of the population as it was in 1970 that we would now have almost 15 million members.  The actual loss in membership is about 22% since 1969, however, considering the drop to 3% of total US population from a high of 5.3% in 1970, there is an overall real decrease in membership exceeding 42%.

Conclusions:  The United Methodist Church continues to lose members each year. Numbers reported by churches are suspect. The impact of errors crosses the entire church wherever membership numbers are used for analyses, calculating apportionment’s, or devising long term plans and strategies for growth, opening new churches or closing those that can no longer support themselves. The structure and number of Districts, Conferences and Regions along with the support staff; appointment of Bishops should depend on these numbers and not inaccurate older membership data. The accuracy of membership numbers has a much more important role than generating press releases.

I said at the beginning that it was not my purpose to speculate on the reasons for the decline in membership of the United Methodist Church.  That we continue to lose members is a continuing fact. There appears to be a loss of over 50,000 members reported lost in 2002, and the data is incomplete as 2 or 3 conferences have not reported yet. It needs to be recognized and acted upon by our leadership as a crisis of critical import to the survival of the United Methodist Church. There are obviously some major concerns behind the non-stop decline. If people leave the church that they once accepted as their church, then how do we expect to bring in non-members?


  1. Develop a petition for presentation to the 2004 General Conference calling for 100% census following the General Conference to be completed for year end statistical reporting in 2004 and each year prior to General Conference thereafter.  The 2007 census will be presented at the 2008 General Conference and continue from there.

  2. Develop a study to survey previous members that left and did not join another United Methodist Church; and another to assess what might cause current members to leave. This must be a short (less than 1 year, total) study and not dragged out as other studies have over the years.  It must include controversial issues, published and unpublished taking place within the church. This includes “hot button” issues such as appointment of gay and lesbian pastors, same sex marriage and theological concerns of the Evangelical, Confessing and Concerned Methodist membership. Such a study must include lay people and even ex-members willing to work on a project like this.  Finally it must result in actions to address the problems identified and uphold the values that members wish to retain under Methodist traditions. 

Richard Wall retired with 21 years of service as a Master Sergeant from the US Air Force. He then worked as a Senior Systems Accountant for Defense Finance and Accounting Service until retirement. He is currently a volunteer crime analyst with the Aurora, Colorado Police Department.  He has a Bachelor of Business Science degree from Southern New Hampshire University and an MBA from the University of Utah. He is a lifelong Methodist and is a member of Burns United Methodist Church in Aurora, CO.

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