Photo by Bull Fulton, WAFB Photo, via UMNS
Ethnic Caucuses Meet
Pacific Islanders are among the ethnic groups whose United Methodist membership is growing.
What if I told you that United Methodist membership in the United States was growing?
You'd tell me that I was crazy. The narrative of decline is and has been for years one of the strongest narratives in The United Methodist Church in the US. Many words have been spent on trying to make theological and organizational sense of this trend and/or coming up with ways to reverse it.
Yet the UMC has been growing in members in the US over the past two decades, just not among white people. As the table below shows, since 1996, the number of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders has doubled, the number of Hispanics has grown by two-thirds, the number of African-Americans has grown by a third, and the number of Native Americans by a quarter.
1996 - 319,165; 2000 - 382,243; 2004 - 423,456; 2008 - 432,354; 2016 - 438,343
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +37%
1996 - 42,797; 2000 - 40,652; 2004 - 55,143; 2008 - 61,573; 2016 - 76,332
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +78%
1996 - 45,271; 2000 - 56,143; 2004 - 73,557; 2008 - 81,382; 2016 - 93,211
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +106%
Pacific Islander membership:
1996 - 7,220; 2000 - 8,245; 2004 - 12,489; 2008 - 11,378; 2016 - 14,520
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +101%
Native American membership:
1996 - 17,457; 2000 - 18,766; 2004 - 21,760; 2008 - 22,665; 2016 - 21,440
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +23%
1996 - 8,611,902; 2000 - 7,902,305; 2004 - 7,667,201; 2008 - 7,386,067; 2016 - 6,460,538
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: -21%
The UMC has experienced significant overall membership declines over the past two decades, but these have come entirely from the net loss of white members. Thus, it is fair to say that the UMC in the US does not have a problem with numeric decline. It has a problem with white numeric decline.
Of course, since the UMC is one of the whitest denominations in America, this loss of white membership has meant that overall American United Methodist numbers have gone down. While the UMC has added non-white members, it has not been at a sufficient rate to make up for the loss of white members. This is perhaps not surprising, given the UMC's difficulties as a predominantly white institution in reaching out to people of color (as described here, here, and here).
While this finding does not perhaps change where the denomination is at in terms of membership, money, or trend lines, it should significantly alter how we think about and respond to membership loss in the UMC in the US. Many on both sides of the theological spectrum often cast numeric decline as a sign that the UMC has lost its way and no longer resonates with its context. This finding, however, shows that the UMC does have a message that resonates with at least some segments of its context. This finding should encourage United Methodists to ask questions such as the following:
How can we support, encourage, and expand the United Methodist growth that is already happening among people of color? What changes to the United Methodist system can empower leaders of color to even more effectively spread the gospel? This process will require white United Methodists to listen to and be led by their sisters and brothers of color.
What lessons can minority United Methodists teach their white brothers and sisters about United Methodism and how to be effective evangelists? How can people of color serve as examples for white United Methodists? This process will require white United Methodists to be willing to learn from their sisters and brothers of color.
How do white anxieties about the decline of white, American United Methodism serve to cloud and confuse denominational thinking about its future in the US? Robert P. Jones' recent book, The End of White Christian America, is certain to be relevant here as a resource for thinking about how white, Christian Americans in general have responded to their loss of cultural privilege. This process will require white United Methodists to acknowledge their whiteness and repent of the ways in which their thinking has been shaped by race and not the gospel.
If white American United Methodists are willing to do the difficult and humble work described above, perhaps they, too, could experience some of the growth their brothers and sisters of colors have been experiencing for decades.
A United Methodist layman, Dr. David W. Scott curates the collaborative blog UM & Global on behalf of United Methodist Professors of Mission. He serves as director of mission theology for the General Board of Global Ministries based in Atlanta, Ga.