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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

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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 incomes.

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 Methodist."

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 particular religion.

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 all?"

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 they are."

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?"

Demographic snapshot

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 home.

The Rev. Lovett Weems

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.

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 grow."

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 doesn't die."

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 newsdesk@umcom.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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