Anyone who has worked on the religion beat a year or two knows that it is wise for journalists to read church membership totals with one eyebrow raised high. The professionals who work in religious institutions certainly know that membership statistics are estimates, at best.
As we always used to say when I was growing up Southern Baptist; There are towns in Texas where there are more Baptists than there are people.
But there’s no way around it — estimated membership and attendance figures really do matter. This is especially true when they directly affect the polity and governance of a specific religious body.
This brings us — #DUH — to that dramatic United Methodist battle that took place the other day in St. Louis. This was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).
The follow-up coverage, with few exceptions, has focused on the rainbow-draped reactions of United Methodist leaders on the losing side of this special conference — which was charged with finding a way forward after four decades of doctrinal disagreements about marriage, sexuality (LGBTQ grab headlines) and the Bible. Could the UMC as a whole require that its clergy keep the vows they took, in ordination rites, to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline?
But let’s look at an even more basic and crucial question, one linked to membership statistics. Ready? How many United Methodists are there in the United Methodist Church?
One would think that the official United Methodist News Service would be a solid place to look for that information. A year ago, it published a report online that stated:
The United Methodist Church’s global membership now exceeds 12.5 million.
These membership figures come from the most recent annual conference journals sent to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The vast majority of the journals are from 2016 with some from 2017 or earlier years including one from 2013.
The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, used these totals in calculating how many delegates each conference sends to the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly in 2020.
Yes, the word “global” is crucial. The United Methodist Church is a global institution and that reality shapes the structures that govern it.
That brings us to a post-war story in the Washington Post that contains some very interesting — I would say strange — language about church statistics. The headline on the report proclaims: “Reeling from contentious LGBT vote, some Methodists pledge to fight while others mull leaving.” Here’s a crucial passage:
The meeting in St. Louis, which concluded …. with 53 percent of the clergy and lay leaders from around the world voting in favor of the “traditional plan” to keep banning same-sex marriages and noncelibate gay clergy, was meant to settle this question that has divided Methodists for years.
Instead, LGBT advocates and scores of American pastors left the meeting vowing that the fight was far from finished. Many pledged to continue disobeying the church’s rules, or to attempt to vote on the question again at the denomination’s meeting in 2020. And some spoke tentatively of splitting from the United Methodist Church altogether.
"We’ve had the schism. We just don’t know what’s next,” said Andrew Ponder Williams, a candidate for ministry in the church who is in a same-sex marriage and who previously chaired a denominational committee on LGBT issues. “Yesterday ended us as we’ve been.”
Yes, note the phrase “from around the world.” That’s crucial. But later in the story there is this:
With more than 6 million members, the United Methodist Church is the United States’ third-largest faith group. While most evangelical denominations condemn same-sex relationships as sinful, Methodists stand almost alone among mainline denominations in not performing same-sex marriages, in contrast to the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ and more. ...
Unlike the other denominations, which are largely American, less than 60 percent of United Methodist churches are in the United States. Much of the rest of the voting power rests with African churches, which tend to be far more conservative on questions of sexuality.
OK, maybe something got edited out of this story after it was turned in.
I understand that it’s important to note where the U.S. branch of the United Methodist Church fits into the statistical picture of oldline Protestant churches in this nation.
Thus, the reference to there being 6 million UMC members in the United States — although the accurate number is actually 6.9 million. That may seem like a small difference, but it’s really important when compared to the membership of the global UMC.
So where, in the Post story, is the essential figure that shaped events in St. Louis? There needed to be a clear reference to the total membership of the denomination, as in that 12.5 million figure cited earlier.
Why is this so important? I think the Post team was striving to emphasize that the majority of Americans backed the approval of one of the plans that accomplished the main goal of the UMC’s doctrinal left — stripping language out of the Book of Discipline that banned sex outside of marriage and affirms that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Later in the piece there is this essential and valid information on that front.
Opinions on sexuality are deeply split among American Methodists, though trending toward acceptance — Pew found that 51 percent said homosexuality should be accepted in 2007, and 60 percent said so in 2014.
The church is geographically distributed across the United States, from coastal cities to rural regions. And the church is aging — almost one-third of members are older than 65 and another third are 50 to 64, while 9 percent of members are 18 to 29, Pew found in 2014. ...
While Methodist churches in Africa are growing, membership in the United States has been shrinking. The United Methodist Church, the third-largest U.S. faith group after Catholics and Southern Baptists, represents 3.6 percent of Americans by the most recent count, down from 5.1 percent in 2007, according to Pew.
However, something crucial is missing from that passage, as well.
For decades, the bleeding left edge of United Methodist life has been its Western Conference. It currently includes a lesbian bishop who is married to another woman — in violation of UMC doctrine. However, the Western Conference opposes that global laws of the denomination and, thus, has no plans to enforce them.
Immediately after the St. Louis meeting, Western Conference leaders proclaimed (full statement here):
Today we acknowledge the fracture of this body, yet we worship a God who tells us that the body of Christ has many parts, all equally valued. Rooted in Wesleyan tradition, grounded in Scripture and committed to mission and ministry, the Western Jurisdiction intends to continue to be one church, fully inclusive and open to all God’s children, across the theological and social spectrum.
Now, pause and look at the statistics in the map at the top of this post. How large is the Western Conference? That would be 295,308 in 2017.
How many United Methodists are in the Southeastern Conference, in the heart of the Bible Belt and a region that contains many Traditional Plan supporters? That would be 2,668,806.
How about the mostly liberal Northeastern Conference? That would be 1,129,363 — larger, but half the size of the Southeastern flock.
What about conferences in Africa? Look at the numbers — which are on the rise, year after year. West Africa, in 2017, was at 2,129,937 and the Congo at 2,999,242.
The reality for the United Methodist left is that its numbers keep falling year after year, which — under the global polity of the United Methodist Church — keeps sliding more and more votes into coalitions that on the doctrinal issues at the heart of this war lean toward a conservative approach to scripture and 2,000 years of ecumenical Christian tradition.
So will the UMC left win the next time these issues come up for a vote? Take a look at this tweet from a much-quoted activist on the right. Would anyone dispute the numbers here, in light of membership trends in recent decades?
So, journalists, where does this very important story go now?
I don’t think anyone on the traditional side of United Methodism expects the the denomination’s U.S.-based establishment — which produced and pushed the more liberal One Church plan — to accept and enforce the Traditional Plan approved in St. Louis.
As I said before this event, and during it on Twitter, the real issue in St. Louis was whether the UMC left would move toward acceptance of “exit plan” negotiations that would allow the two warring armies — progressive and traditional — to part ways.
I am sure there are liberal United Methodists who would like to send the Africans and Asians packing. However, what is the mechanism that would allow Americans to do that? Think about it: Is there some way that the whole, global United Methodist Church would vote to cut off the more liberal United States and let it go its own way, with doctrinal traditionalists in the U.S. retain their global ties that bind?
Journalists think: What are the missing facts here? What is the logic that says the fighting should go on and on?
Enjoy the podcast (unless, I guess, you are a United Methodist).