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Membership figures show strength outside U.S.

5/5/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

DALLAS (UMNS) - Numbers might never lie, but in some cases they say different things to different people.

New data on church membership trends drew divergent reactions from the United Methodist Church's bishops during their April 28-May 2 meeting. Some bishops, focusing on the U.S. figures, expressed a sense of urgency about reversing the downward membership trend. Other bishops, noting the lack of global data, said the U.S. research didn't necessarily reflect the strength of the denomination as a whole.

The percentage of U.S. congregations not receiving at least one member on confession of faith or "restored" status increased from 37.8 percent in 1984 to 40.7 percent in 2000, according to the report, "Making Disciples for Jesus Christ." Bishop John Hopkins, who leads the church's Minnesota Area, presented the report on behalf of the Council of Bishops' committee on pastoral concerns.

The committee's Bishop Warner Brown, leader of the Denver Area, proposed that the council suspend its committees except the executive committee in the last year of the quadrennium to focus on making disciples. The executive committee would oversee the other committees' work for that period. "We need to make priorities in how we lead the church in terms of turning around the trend of a 20-year decline," Brown said.

While acknowledging the need to address the issue, the bishops had reservations about suspending their committees and referred the proposal to the executive committee.

The report also showed that in 2002, the denomination's membership rose over the 10 million mark for the first time since 1979. That increase was due to growth in numbers outside the United States, particularly in Africa.

Two African bishops offered a different perspective on the vitality of the church from that reflected in the U.S. membership data.

"Why are we talking about the decline of membership?" asked Bishop Emilio DeCarvalho, retired, of Luanda, Angola. "Thousands and thousands of children are attending Sunday school in Africa."

Bishop Joao Somane Machado, who leads the Mozambique Area, said he was disappointed in the proposal to suspend the committees, noting that the bishops whose areas are growing in membership have not been asked how their churches are growing while others are not.

"In Africa, we are evangelizing," he told the council. "It's like you don't want to hear that word anymore." How, he asked, can the bishops exchange and share information so the U.S. bishops can benefit from the experience of the African bishops?

The data shows that the central conferences have nearly 20 percent of the church's membership, with Africa accounting for 16 percent, Southeast Asia, 2 percent, and Europe, 1 percent.

The Southeastern Jurisdiction has 28 percent of the members; South Central, 18 percent; North Central, 16 percent; Northeastern, 15 percent; and Western, 4 percent.

The report drew criticism from some bishops for its lack of data on churches outside the United States. "The strategy has to be a holistic strategy," said Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the Los Angeles Area.

The church's General Council on Finance and Administration has indicated there are challenges in terms of collecting some of the information for the central conferences, Brown explained.

The percentage of local churches not receiving anyone on confession of faith in 2000 was largest in the Southeastern Jurisdiction and smallest in the Western Jurisdiction. The breakdown: Southeastern, 43.5 percent; Northeastern, 42.3 percent; South Central, 40.1 percent; North Central, 36.6 percent; and Western, 26.8 percent.

However, the Southeastern and South Central jurisdictions were the only two in the United States that had increases in the numbers of people received on confession of faith in 2000 compared with 1984. The breakdown: Southeastern, up 17.4 percent; South Central, up 14 percent; Western, down 11.3 percent; Northeastern, down 14.4 percent; North Central, down 15.6 percent.

As of 2000, United Methodists represented 3.7 percent of the U.S. population, compared with 7.1 percent for the Southern Baptists and 22 percent for the Catholics.

The report also noted that the denomination has a widespread presence. "Out of the 3,171 counties in the United States, the United Methodist Church has a congregational presence in 3,003 counties, more than any other denomination in the United States."

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