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Census helps church with evangelism


6:00 P.M. EST March 23, 2011

The 2010 U.S. Census data helps United Methodist  church leaders know the people in their community.
A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.
The 2010 U.S. Census data helps United Methodist church leaders know the people in their community. A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.
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In the early days of Methodism, circuit riders traveled by horseback across swollen streams and over jagged hillsides to reach potential converts.

Some 200 years later, today’s United Methodists can explore their mission field without ever leaving their computers — thanks to the U.S. Census

The once-a-decade enumeration of the U.S. population gives churchgoers a better sense of the people in their neighborhoods — their ages, ethnicity, educational backgrounds, household size, income levels and even their average travel time to work.

“These are the people God has given you,” said the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr., director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. “And where else will we begin than with the people God has given us? That’s the beginning point for ministry.

“The second thing (the census) does is show when we worship on Sunday who is missing.”

In short, the census does not just help determine congressional districts and the distribution of federal dollars. It’s also a tool for helping Christians follow Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 to “make disciples of all nations,” including the United States.

Throughout March, the U.S. Census Bureau has been rolling out state-by-state data based on the national 2010 count, and it will release more demographic information during the year.

United Methodist leaders are already gearing up to use the population figures to help decide where to plant new churches and what outreach ministries to offer.

Addressing church’s U.S. decline

Even as the U.S. population has been growing (308.7 million at last count), the denomination’s U.S. membership has continued its more than 40-year decline to about 7.8 million. Growth elsewhere in the world has put the denomination over the 12 million-member mark worldwide.

The Rev. Lovett Weems
The Rev. Lovett Weems.
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Part of the reason for the downward trend in U.S. members, Weems said, is the failure to start churches where people are and to reach the nation’s ethnically diverse and younger population.

He pointed out that Methodism rapidly spread across the country in its early years because church leaders pursued a rural strategy — sending missionaries to areas where there might be as few as eight dwellings. That worked when the U.S. population was sparse and largely agrarian.

Since the 1920s, however, the U.S. population has increasingly migrated to cities and suburbs. Now, some 80 percent of U.S. residents live in non-rural communities. Yet more than six in 10 United Methodist churches in the U.S. are located in counties with 200 or fewer people per square mile.

Starting new churches helps reach new people. “It’s counter-intuitive but the longer a church is in a community, the less attuned it tends to be to the changing dynamics of that community,” Weems said. “New congregations tend to be located where the people are....They also tend to be very attuned to the community they are trying to reach. If they aren’t, they don’t continue.”

Path 1 and National Plans

New Church Starts (Path 1), housed at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, is the denomination’s church-planting initiative, with the goal of re-evangelizing the United States.

Since 2009, the program has collaborated with annual (regional) conferences and other church groups to help identify and cultivate leaders to start new congregations.

Those efforts have borne fruit. Path 1 reported that The United Methodist Church has planted 350 churches since 2008, a more than 33 percent growth over the 2004-2007 period. Of those church starts, 151 congregations are not predominantly white. The division also has worked with annual conferences to identify 618 people as potential church planters.

But this is the first time the initiative will be able to use fresh census data in its work, and staff members are excited to take advantage of the new information.

Reaching racial and ethnic minorities will be even more important in the coming years if the church is to remain relevant as the nation grows in diversity, church leaders say.

The Rev. Francisco_Cañas
The Rev. Francisco Cañas
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To that end, Path 1 staff members also work with leaders of the denomination’s five “national plans” to reach different racial/ethnic or language groups in the United States. Among those is the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry.

The U.S. Census will release the nation’s total ethnic and racial breakdown later this year. But it already projects that some 47 million people of Hispanic or Latino heritage live in the United States — more than 25 percent of whom came to the country in the past decade.

The National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry has so far helped plant 59 new predominantly Hispanic congregations since 2008, said the Rev. Francisco Cañas, the plan’s coordinator.

The plan has a goal of starting a total of 75 new churches by 2012. “In doing this, the data from the census has been really helpful,” he added.

Help for existing congregations

The census can also help with the revitalization of established churches by providing information on how their communities’ demographics are changing.

The Rev. Mont Duncan, director of congregational development in the Florida Conference, has been looking at census figures showing his state’s continued population growth. Despite record foreclosures and high unemployment, Florida grew 17.6 percent to 18.8 million, between 2000 and 2010.

Meanwhile, the conference reported 7,500 fewer members in 2010 than in 2009.

“My contention is — and our studies show — that the conference is not growing because the majority of our churches are not relevant to the needs of the communities in which they have been placed to serve,” he said. “They are not seeing the people who are there and the needs that they have.”

Churches can respond to a changing community and remain true to longtime members in a variety of ways, Weems said. Such responses can take the form of adding a worship service, adding a class for English language learners or even establishing a parallel congregation that uses the same building.

“The key is to get to know the people in the community,” he said, “and that will give you the information you need to know what are the best options to witness to that community.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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