Today’s post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott’s own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Within the United Methodist Church, and within American conversations about Christianity generally, there is a frequent preoccupation with church membership growth (or decline). United Methodists frequently ask, “Is that congregation growing?” or “Where is the church growing globally?”
For United Methodists, membership growth equates with success, and growing membership is often taken as a demonstration of the validity of theology, as if popularity proved truth. It is worth noting that this is not a universal Christian assumption. An Anabaptist, for instance, might more readily agree with the notion that truth leads to unpopularity.
Yet given the importance in United Methodist minds of membership growth, it is worth examining in more detail the factors that influence church growth and decline. Membership growth happen when the number of new members exceeds the number of lost members, but there are several factors influencing both sides of that equation, both at a congregational level and for regional bodies.
When most people hear “new members,” they think of adult converts. Yet adult converts are only one form of new members, and there are differences among adult converts as well.
The most significant source of new members for most religious tradition is actually not adult converts but children born into the tradition who then remain affiliated with the tradition when they become adults. Thus, the birth rate among present members is one of the largest determining factors in whether churches are growing, especially for churches as regional bodies.
Another way in which the church gains new members, both for local congregations and regional bodies, is through the addition of individual adults to existing congregations. This is the classic adult convert. Yet it is worth distinguishing between adult converts to Christianity and adults who have switched from another Christian tradition. There is value in both, but the two are different groups when it comes to evangelism. It is also worth noting that migration is a significant vector by which existing Christians may be added to a congregation or regional body.
The third way in which churches as regional bodies can add new members is by accepting new groups into the body. Entire congregations or other regional bodies may join a regional body, boosting its membership. Or, an entire group of people might decide to adopt a new religious identity en masse, as has often happened in the history of mission. Either way, growth results not from individual decision-making, but from group decision-making.
On the other side of the equation, the sources of membership loss reflect the sources of membership gain: death, children who leave the tradition upon reaching adulthood, individual adult disaffiliations, and group disaffiliations.
Just as the most common way in which people enter religious groups is through birth, the most common way they leave is through death. Youth adults who leave the tradition in which they grew up may count as membership losses, if they were counted as members as teenagers, but they certainly represent a retardant on growth.
Individual disaffiliations, either through out-migration, for the sake of joining another church, or because of a loss of faith are, of course, a form of membership loss. And whole congregations or larger groups may choose to sever their relationship with a regional body, resulting in membership loss for that regional body.
In a church in which birth and death were the only ways in which people entered and exited the church, the growth or decline of that church would be a purely demographic exercise. To get a sense of whether the church is growing through evangelism (of individuals or groups, Christian or not) or declining through disaffiliation (of individuals or groups), it would be necessary to examine the additional membership variation after births and deaths are factored out.
There are reasons why the birth and death rates of a church body might vary from those of the society in which it is located – theologies of families and reproduction, better access to health care, social practices regarding family planning and elder care, etc. Yet without targeted, intensive research of specific church bodies, birth and death rates are usually only available for societies as whole.
Thus, the best way to get a sense of whether a church body is growing or declining after screening out the demographic factors of births and deaths is to compare its membership trends to the membership trends of its surrounding society. That’s exactly what I will do for The United Methodist Church in my next post.