church growth

Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

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.

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Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

The late Lyle E. Schaller was always popular with journalists because he had the rare ability to dig deep into statistics and demographics, while speaking in direct-quote friendly language. But it was always hard to know what to call him. He was an expert on church-growth trends. But he was also a United Methodist. Wait for it.

Schaller used to laugh whenever he was called a “United Methodist church-growth expert,” in part because of that flock’s serious decline in membership over the past quarter-century or more. If he was a church-growth pro, why didn’t his own denomination listen to him? It was something like being an expert on Baptist liturgy, Episcopal evangelism or Eastern Orthodox praise bands.

But when Schaller talked about the future, lots of people listened. Check out this material from a column I wrote about him entitled, “United Methodists: Breaking up is hard to do.

One side is convinced the United Methodist Church has cancer. The other disagrees and rejects calls for surgery. It's hard to find a safe, happy compromise when the issue is a cancer diagnosis. …

So it raised eyebrows when United Methodism's best-known expert on church growth and decay called for open discussions of strategies to split or radically restructure the national church. Research indicates that United Methodists are increasingly polarized around issues of scripture, salvation, sexuality, money, politics, multiculturalism, church government, worship and even the identity of God, said the Rev. Lyle E. Schaller of Naperville, Ill.

Many people are in denial, while their … church continues to age and decline, he said, in the Circuit Rider magazine for United Methodist clergy. Others know what's happening, yet remain passive.

Sports fans, That. Was. In. 1998.

Schaller told me that he was basing his diagnosis on the open doctrinal warfare that began two decades earlier, in the late 1970s. He was very familiar with a prophetic study that emerged from Duke Divinity School in the mid-1980s, entitled “The Seven Churches of Methodism."

Do I need to say that Schaller’s words are highly relevant in light of the acid-bath drama in yesterday’s final hours at that special United Methodist conference in St. Louis (GetReligion posts here and then here)?

But this is old news, really. Activists on both sides of this struggle have been doing the math (see my 2004 column on that topic) for four decades.

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Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus.

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Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

If you are into taking notes, then here is a challenge for folks listening to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and subscribe).

The topic, this time, is why so many churches are shrinking and dying these days — in urban areas, as well as small towns and other at-risk locations (think the Rust Belt in general). The hook for this podcast was my recent post about a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.”

As host Todd Wilken and I discuss this subject, try to keep track of the number of factors that can affect whether congregations, and in the not-so-distant future entire denominations, shrink and even die.

Is evangelism a priority for this flock?

What about location, location, location — in terms of population growth.

How about the state of the economy in that zip code?

There are demographic issues linked to birth rate and family size.

Is this congregation part of a denomination that is in statistical free fall (is the brand wounded)?

Has the national church taken controversial stands that have caused schisms or departures?

Are the seminaries for this denomination producing pastors that people will trust and follow? Does this particular church body have enough pastors or priests?

Is the church too liberal, or too conservative, for its community?

Does the church have more retirees than young families?

I think there are several others that I’m leaving out, at the moment.

The RNS story focuses on historically black Episcopal parishes closing in North Carolina. That is certainly a poignant topic. My post noted:

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama.

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This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

From the first days of this blog, I have argued that religion-beat professionals need to dedicate more coverage to theological, doctrinal and cultural issues on the religious left (hardly anyone uses capital letters).

Why? Consider this equation: One of the biggest news stories of the late 20th Century was the rise -- in terms of public-square clout in America -- of what became known as the Religious Right (almost everyone uses capital letters).

There were, no doubt about it, big stories there to cover -- especially among evangelical Protestants shaken by the Roe vs. Wade ruling. But consider this question: Were religious conservatives, to some degree, stepping into a cultural void created by decades of numerical decline among liberal Protestants? I would argue that both halves of this equation needed lots of coverage.

There have been attempts by liberal churches to fight back against the demographics that have been pulling them down, by which I mean declining numbers of converts and the cumulative impact of decades of low birthrates.

There are valid stories to cover, in all of this. Thus, I was glad to see Religion News Service dedicate nearly 1,800 words to a feature about church-growth efforts at a Bible Belt (but college-town) congregation in the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As things turned out, 1,800 words were not enough. Here is the overture:

CARY, N.C. (RNS) -- At a Bible study on a weekday evening, Lutheran minister Daniel Pugh paced before a group of 50 church members in cargo shorts and a plaid button-down shirt talking about Adam and Eve.
Clutching a hand-held remote he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation, telling members of Christ the King Lutheran Church that one way to interpret the story of Adam and Eve is as a coming-of-age allegory about a pair of carefree teens caught red-handed having sex.
In this, alternative reading of The Fall, the “forbidden fruit” offered to Eve in Chapter 3 may be a metaphor for sex, he said, and the “serpent” may be a metaphor for a penis.

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Time for another journalism look at the rise of U.S. Protestant megachurches?

Time for another journalism look at the rise of U.S. Protestant megachurches?

Religion writers are well aware that notably large Protestant “megachurches” have mushroomed across the United States this past generation. But they’re still expanding and it might be time for yet another look at the phenomenon.

 If so, the megachurch database maintained by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research is an essential resource.  The listing is searchable so, for instance, reporters can easily locate such citadels in their regions through the “sort by state” feature.

Hartford defines a megachurch as having consistent weekly attendance of at least 2,000.

There’s a big caveat here: The statistics on attendance, necessarily, are what’s reported by the churches themselves. Such congregations numbered 350 as recently as 1990 but Hartford has by now located 1,667 and there are doubtless others, so untold millions of people are involved.

Overwhelmingly, these big congregations are Bible-believing, evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal -- with only half of one percent labeling themselves “liberal” in doctrine.  

Hartford’s data will be a mere launching pad to get experts’ analysis of these newfangled Protestant emporiums and how they are changing the style and substance of American churchgoing. A starting point for that would be this 2015 overview (click for .pdf) from Hartford’s Scott Thuma and Warren Bird of the Leadership network.

They report, for instance, that “the megachurch phenomenon hasn’t waned” and “newer and younger churches are regularly growing to megachurch size.” More and more of them are spreading to multiple sites. An increasing population of adherents participates with church online rather than in person.

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Wait just a minute: Fading Lutherans (ELCA) in Waco sold their lovely building to Anglicans?

Wait just a minute: Fading Lutherans (ELCA) in Waco sold their lovely building to Anglicans?

I think leaders of The Waco Tribune-Herald team had an interesting religion-beat story on their hands the other day, but it appears that they may not have known that.

It's easy to see the some predictable news trends looming over the recent headline: "Dwindling congregation forces sale of 133-year-old Waco Lutheran church."

There are several valid news angles here, the first of which is that lots of fading urban churches are being squeezed by similar financial and demographic issues. You can see that in this recent story from The Nashville Tennessean that was picked up for further distribution by Religion News Service.

If you visit the core streets and neighborhoods of almost any American city you will find lots of churches -- often from the old "Seven Sisters" flocks of liberal mainline Protestantism -- sitting on what is now prime real estate for re-developers appealing to the gentrification and young singles Millennial crowds. Many of these churches now face a tornado of red statistics, with aging members, low birthrates and declining numbers of converts.

Yes, there are doctrinal issues linked to some of those issues, especially in the American heartland and Bible Belt (think Waco, Texas). However, the Tribune-Herald team isn't very interested in these issues.

Hold that thought, while we look at some summary material near the top of this report. The symbolic voice is that of 94-year-old church member Joyce Heckmann:

Through the years, there were countless Christmas celebrations, church-wide smorgasbord dinners, Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible Schools and more.
But while the years have been kind to Heckmann, they have taken their toll on the aging church building and congregation, members say. The once-vibrant church family boasted 450 members, requiring an extensive expansion project that more than doubled the size of the building in 1958.
Now, members say, they are lucky to have 40 worshipers on Sunday morning. Members recently came to the painful but practical realization that their smallish group could no longer support such a large building.
So they voted to sell the property -- Texas Historical Commission landmark medallion and all -- to Christ Church Waco, an up-and-coming Anglican congregation that has met in least 10 temporary locations since it was formed in 2009.

Now stop the train right there for a minute.

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Baltimore Sun gets the little picture: Convert-era Orthodoxy comes to local Greek parish

Baltimore Sun gets the little picture: Convert-era Orthodoxy comes to local Greek parish

More than 30 years ago, there was a big story that rocked the rather small and obscure world of Eastern Orthodox Christianity here in the United States.

That was when a flock of evangelicals -- led by a former Campus Crusade leader, the late Father Peter Gillquist -- were embraced by the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church. Regular GetReligion readers know my own family later joined that number, through a close friendship with another leader in that flock, the late Father Gordon Walker of Franklin, Tenn.

The mainstream press gave the "evangelical Orthodox" story a modest amount of ink at the time. Like I said, it was an important story in a small, but growing, flock. The key was that it was a sign of things to come for the faithful in the world's second-largest Christian communion.

Years before I converted, I wrote a column about the growth of an American expression of this ancient faith, built on an interview with the late Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church. He was born in Turkey, but by the end of his life he could see ripples of change in America. The converts were coming, whether some Orthodox leaders wanted them or not.

"I cannot visualize what an American Orthodoxy would look like. ... But I believe that it will exist. I know that it must be born," said Iakovos. ...
"I do know this for sure. The essential elements of the Orthodox tradition will have to remain at the heart of whatever grows in this land. The heart has to remain the same, or it will not touch peoples' souls. It will not be truly Orthodox. I know that this will happen here, but I do not know when it will happen or how."

That was 1992. Why bring this up now? Well, the Baltimore Sun recently published a lengthy and admirable feature about a local development in this larger national story. This piece offered an in-depth look at the story of a former Southern Baptist (from East Tennessee, of all places) who has found his way into the Greek Orthodox priesthood.

To be blunt, there is only one problem with this story: It never really places this one priest in the context of this larger, 30-year-old trend in Eastern Orthodoxy. It also failed to note the degree to which this trend had already had a big impact in Baltimore, especially as symbolized by one of America's best-known "convert friendly" parishes.

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When covering the Lutheran left, Minneapolis daily kindly omits sobering journalistic questions

When covering the Lutheran left, Minneapolis daily kindly omits sobering journalistic questions

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is an amalgamation of three other Lutheran denominations, formed 29 years ago. When mainstream American journalists talk about "Lutherans," this is usually the crowd they are talking about.

The ELCA is also, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, a church confronting changing times. In other words, this body is part of the ever-evolving world of liberal Protestantism, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline.

The paper's story begins with a typical journalistic scene-setter, at least the kind that is used when journalists are fond of the group that is being profiled:

Redeemer Lutheran Church is not your typical Lutheran outpost. Summer means the bike store and coffee shop are humming, kids camp and Zumba classes are in gear, and the young adults renting its apartments are mentoring children in this north Minneapolis neighborhood.
It represents a new model for the Lutheran Church, which is transforming itself to attract younger and diverse members, be more relevant to neighbors below its steeples and shake its image as a Scandinavian bastion best known for hot dish, Jell-O and Ole and Lena.

Anyone who regularly listened to Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" stemwinders about life in and around Lake Woebegone, Minnesota, will recognize the stereotype, even if Keillor was actually raised in a Plymouth Brethren congregation.

The Minneapolis paper continues explaining, however, There is a dark cloud on the horizon:

Minnesota, with the largest number of Lutherans in the nation, will be instrumental in shaping the future of the faith. Time is of the essence: 37 percent of the churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- the largest denomination in Minnesota and the U.S. -- now have fewer than 50 Sunday worshipers. ...
Membership at the ELCA plunged from 5.2 million in 1988 to about 3.7 million today. In Minnesota, numbers fell from 782,000 to about 679,000.

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