|Pew study raises questions for Methodist leaders|
A landmark study by the Pew Forum on Religion &
Public Life shows that members of The United Methodist Church and other
mainline Protestant denominations are increasingly moving to other faith
traditions or choosing not to affiliate with any religious group. A
UMNS photo illustration.
A UMNS Report
By Marta W. Aldrich*
Feb. 29, 2008
Mirroring most other mainline U.S. denominations, United Methodists are
generally older, whiter and wealthier in a nation that is increasingly
populated with young adults, people of color and families with modest
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The United Methodist Church also is losing more members than it's
gaining, with its parishioners increasingly moving to evangelical
Protestant churches or choosing not to affiliate with another religious
group at all.
That portrait of United Methodism was presented in a landmark study
of religion in America released Feb. 25 by the Pew Forum on Religion
& Public Life. Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans
age 18 and older, the study found that U.S. religion is increasingly
diverse and fluid––"a vibrant marketplace where individuals pick and
choose religions that meet their needs," leaving religious groups to
compete for members.
"There is no future for The United Methodist Church in the United
States unless we can reach more people, younger people and more diverse
people," said the Rev. Lovett Weems, a researcher and professor of
church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington,
regarding the study's findings.
"It's not that we're not making the efforts or spending the money to
reach younger and more diverse people, but we're not focusing our
efforts on outcomes."
Nearly half of American adults say they have left the faith tradition
of their upbringing, either by switching to a different religious group
or choosing not to affiliate with a faith tradition at all.
Of the 53 percent who left the Methodist faith tradition of their
childhood, the survey reports that 19 percent went to evangelical
churches, 11 percent to other mainline Protestant churches and 3 percent
to historically black churches that are not Methodist. Another 12
percent say they no longer are part of any faith group, and 8 percent
moved to a non-Protestant religion.
"We found that people have choices when it comes to religion, and
they're ready and willing to exercise them," said Gregory Smith,
research fellow at the Pew Forum and one of the study's authors. "… It's
a very dynamic climate that presents opportunities for various
religious groups––and for nonreligious groups as well."
'Important foundational work'
The survey confirms much of the data collected in previous studies
about both The United Methodist Church and religion in general in the
United States. However, the breadth and depth of the survey provides a
more detailed glimpse into trends that appear to be accelerating.
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey
estimates that, of the nation's 225 million adults, 78 percent are
Christian, 5 percent belong to other faiths and more than 16 percent are
unaffiliated. Of those who profess to be Christians, 18 percent
identify themselves with mainline Protestant churches, including 5.4
percent with the Methodist tradition.
"This is important foundational work," said Scott Brewer, director of
research for the United Methodist General Council on Finance and
Administration, which collects statistics for the denomination. "It's
really the most comprehensive study of individual religious adherence
that's been done in a long time."
As a researcher, Brewer said he is pleased that much of the church's
previous data is being confirmed with a larger study. However, as a
United Methodist, he is troubled by many of its findings.
"For whatever reason, a sizable population raised in the Methodist
tradition is no longer Methodist. Maybe we haven't done a good job of
showing what is unique and special and important about being a United
The study shows that every major religious group is simultaneously
gaining and losing members, and that those that are growing are simply
gaining new members at a faster rate than they are losing them.
Mainline denominations have generally experienced across-the-board
losses, with the Methodist tradition suffering a net loss of 2.1
percent. The United Methodist Church's own statistics show the
denomination has 8 million U.S. members, a measure that has declined
steadily for at least four decades even as membership has grown in
Africa, the Philippines and elsewhere.
The Pew study says the group experiencing the greatest net loss by
far is the Catholic Church at 7.5 percent, but its decline has been
offset by the large number of Catholic immigrants coming to the United
States. The survey identifies nondenominational Protestants as a "net
winner" in the changing marketplace, more than tripling its population.
Believing without belonging
A significant finding is that one in six American adults today say
they are not affiliated with any religious group, making them part of
the fastest-growing segment of today's religious landscape.
More than 16 percent say they are unaffiliated, which is more than
double the number who say they were unaffiliated as children. Among
Americans ages 18-29, one in four say they are not affiliated with any
While Youth 2007 drew more than 6,000 teens to the
United Methodist youth gathering, the Methodist faith is attracting
fewer young people. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
"We need to be cognizant of the fact that increasing numbers of
people are choosing 'none of the above' when it comes to religious
affiliation," Brewer said.
"It's not really that we're seeing agnosticism growing by leaps and
bounds as it is that we're seeing disengagement. It raises the question:
Is our time and energy best used in competing with other faith
traditions for the same decreasing share of active participants that go
from one denomination to another? Or is our time and money better spent
reaching out to those people not being reached by a faith community at
Of the 16 percent who are religiously unaffiliated, only about a
fourth describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. Of the rest who
describe their religion as "nothing in particular," half say religion is
not important in their lives, and the other half say religion is either
somewhat or very important in their lives.
Although The United Methodist Church works to attract "seekers," some
spiritually inclined people are also "institutionally suspicious" and
wary of religious organizations that use such data to target them, said
the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for the
United Methodist Board of Discipleship.
"Every time we do that, we miss the point," Burton-Edwards said.
"Instead of adjusting our message to get those people with us, we should
be working to be in mission with people, whoever they are, wherever
Burton-Edwards said the study's data is useful but shouldn't be the
focus in measuring the church's vitality. It takes more than numbers, he
said, to address the core question of whether the church is following
Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
"We've got the paradigm turned around. … It's not about getting
people inside of the church; it's about getting Christians out," he
said. "It's not how many people are in our organization, but what level
of spiritual impression people are experiencing. How are they being
imprinted with the likeness of Jesus Christ? And what is the impact
crater around them as a result?"
The study offered a demographic snapshot
of United Methodists as mostly educated and married. There are more
females than males, and a higher concentration of United Methodists live
in the South and the Midwest, followed by the Northeast and the West.
Fifty-seven percent have an annual income of $50,000 or above.
Though the vast majority of the U.S. population is under age 50,
United Methodists are overrepresented in every age category above 50 (55
percent) and underrepresented in every age category below that.
Approximately 11 percent of United Methodists are ages 18-29.
Seventy-two percent say they do not have children under 18 living at
The study says 93 percent of United Methodists are white. Two percent
are identified as black, 2 percent as Latino and 1 percent as Asian,
with the rest being of other or mixed racial backgrounds.
The Rev. Lovett Weems
Church leaders, particularly with mainline Protestant denominations,
have puzzled for decades over the shifting religious landscape.
According to Weems, the pathway for choosing a church home has
changed significantly in the days from the American frontier to the
1960s, when such denominations thrived.
"Traditions and denominations don't tend to be the beginning point
for people today when they select a church," he said. "The pattern today
is belonging before believing. People have to feel like they belong
first. It's the sense of belonging that opens the door for people to
move closer to beliefs. It used to be the opposite. A person believed
and then they found a community of believers where they could belong and
Belonging, he said, involves questions such as: Can I experience
community here? Does this church help me connect with God? How does it
meet my needs and give me an opportunity to serve others?
"A lot of people say denominations and traditions don't matter any
more, but I don't think that's the case. I think it's just no longer the
deciding point and often not the beginning point when people select a
church," he said.
Mark Chaves, a sociologist at Duke Divinity School, noted that
Americans have become increasingly tolerant of other cultures and other
faiths. "Large percentages of Americans today say there's truth in every
religion and that one can achieve salvation through religions that are
not their own," he said.
'A new thing'?
While Protestantism has long dominated the religious landscape and
served as a driving force in American politics and culture, the United
States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant nation, with
barely 51 percent of Americans reporting they are members of Protestant
denominations. Moreover, the Protestant population is characterized by
significant internal diversity and fragmentation, encompassing hundreds
of denominations that include evangelical Protestants, mainline
Protestants and historically black Protestants.
"Maybe what is happening … is that God is leading us to an
opportunity to learn to work with others in a way we have not
contemplated before," said the Rev. Jerry D. Campbell, president of
United Methodist-related Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology.
"In the mid-20th century, we thought it was a pretty good thing for
Christians to learn to talk with one another, and that was the
ecumenical movement. Now we assume that Christians should talk with one another, and God is saying that the conversation should be even larger."
Campbell views changing religious affiliations as a God-given
opportunity for people of a variety of faiths to work, learn and grow
together. "We've got to get comfortable with change because God
apparently doesn't like static environments," he said. "I think we have
to realize that the fate of God's future for humanity is not limited to
the success of the institutional church. Even if the church dies, God
Whatever follows the "era of denominationalism," Campbell hopes the Methodist tradition continues to be part of it.
"Scripture in Revelation tells of the new Jerusalem, where God says,
'Behold, I am making all things new.' That's a pretty expansive idea,
and I think we've had ample warning and lots of signals that God is
making things new. Perhaps this study is showing us just part of that."
*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Audio: Study author John Green
“…a high level of change in religious affiliation over the lifetime …”
“Why have mainline Protestant churches declined?”
“The ranks of the unaffiliated have grown substantially …"
Audio: Pew Forum Director Luis Lugo
“… Mainline denominations … relatively older”
“If you rest on your laurels, you're going to be history."
“…Young people have changed across traditions…”
“… Decline of mainline Protestantism compared to evangelicalism.”
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The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
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State of the Church Report
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The Emerging UMC
General Council on Finance and Administration