Tom Lambrecht, vice president of the United Methodist renewal group Good News, argues that the places where United Methodism is dying the fastest are precisely those places at the forefront in disobedience to church discipline and doctrine regarding sex. This, he writes, gives us a glimpse of the future that progressives would create for the denomination.
Since the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Annual Conference appears to be at the forefront of advocating new moral teachings by the church, according to the hypothesis that this represents the Methodism of the future, the conference should be showing remarkable growth and vitality. Instead, we see a stunning drop in membership and worship attendance.
In 2003, the PNW reported 60,495 members. Ten years later in 2013, they report 46,209, a decrease of over 23%. The membership loss in 2013 was 2,465 alone, nearly double the yearly average over the last ten years. So the membership loss is getting worse, not better, even in light of the church’s permissive stance regarding sexuality.
Worship attendance was even worse. In 2003, the PNW reported 26,421 in average worship attendance. Now that number is 18,505, a decline of 30%. In 2013 alone, worship attendance declined 1,663, an 8.2% drop! The decrease in worship attendance in 2013 alone was more than double the average annual decrease over the last ten years, so again, the loss is getting worse.
This kind of argument, of course, does not address the justice arguments made by United Methodists in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the connection. Also, I think a fair reading of the progressive argument is that the denomination is doomed to lose younger generations if it maintains its historic doctrine, so it would be interesting to see if there is any evidence to support that claim. Eroding membership in progressive conferences and jurisdictions may be older generations, which while nothing to cheer does not directly address what I take to be the progressive argument.
Nonetheless, the numbers Lambrecht reports are sobering and certainly give us cause to wonder about the best road forward for a denomination that strives to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.