Amid a global boom in Christianity, the worldwide growth of the United Methodist Church (UMC) is not keeping pace with its sister Anglican and Wesleyan denominations, according to a prominent Methodist missiologist.
Speaking at the opening of the October 10 directors meeting of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) in New York, Professor Dana L. Robert and fellow researcher David W. Scott of United Methodism’s Boston University presented a study entitled “World Growth of the United Methodist Church in Comparative Perspective”.
United Methodism in Context
Dominated by Europeans and North Americans as recently as the 1950s, Robert and Scott affirmed that Christianity is now a global religion.
“Today missionaries go to and from everywhere,” Robert reported, citing the nations of South Korea and Nigeria as sending thousands of missionaries. But while the two researchers noted that Christianity had become a truly global religion, the growth was not evenly dispersed: Christian growth in China has skyrocketed, while the Middle East has seen a decline in the number of Christians there.
Robert reported that over 450 million Christians live in Africa today, up from only 5 million a century ago. Rapid growth of Christianity on the continent was 50 percent Roman Catholic, 25 percent traditional Protestant, and 25 percent independent churches.
United Methodism is becoming more international, Robert explained, with the UMC declining in members in the U.S. while growing in Africa and Asia.
Seeking to understand how these patterns of growth compared to the UMC’s peers, Robert and Scott examined the annual growth rate of churches between the years 2000 and 2010.
The study compared the UMC to four other, related groups: independent national Methodist churches, African-American Methodist Churches (such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church), Anglican Churches (which Methodism proceeds from) and the Church of the Nazarene (the most globally distributed of holiness churches). A fifth comparison made was to Christianity as a whole.
In terms of numerical growth, the researchers found that the UMC ranged from about average to severely behind. Roberts and Scott revealed that:
-The UMC is growing faster than Christianity as a whole in 15 out of 29 countries examined.
-Independent Methodists are growing faster than the UMC in 7 out of 12 countries where data was available for both.
-African American Methodist Churches are growing faster than the UMC two-thirds of the time.
-Anglicans are growing faster than the UMC 71 percent of the time.
-Nazarenes are growing faster than the UMC in 14 out of 16 countries where comparable data was available.
“Despite these statistics, we are at a place of a powerful rebirth rising up through our church,” Robert said, noting that North Americans are supporting more missionaries than ever before.
Robert and Scott offered a series of questions that they said might be helpful in explaining slower growth. Although the researchers said the questions needed to be asked, they hastened to add that asking them did not equate to admitting that they were the reason for decline.
“Are we stuck in a mid-20th century, corporate model of denominations?” Scott queried the gathered GMGB directors. “Are efforts to be a global church counter-productive?”
Scott also asked if the UMC was “imposing a North American, middle-class culture on the rest of the world” and if UMC members’ spiritual practices were deficient compared to other groups, such as the focus on small groups, worship and spiritual formation widely seen in the Anglican tradition.
Lastly, Scott asked “Is the Holy Spirit moving in another direction?”
The two researchers then encouraged the GBGM directors to enter into table discussion on three questions: First, how important is church growth to the UMC, and should the church be strictly evaluating itself on the rate of growth? Secondly, how should the church balance diverse local expressions and global unity in the UMC? Third, what are the UMC’s gifts and graces relative to the world church?
Feedback from the tables varied from affirmations of the study to defensive words about the UMC.
“Maybe we should celebrate that Christianity is growing, rather than worry about the UMC not growing as fast,” suggested one young director.
A second director, from Africa, pointed out that church growth was about more than attendance.
“It is bringing people to Christ,” the director stated.
Other respondents said that the UMC’s connectionalism was a gift, as was a love for mission.
“We have traded in our ‘evangelism’ hand for our ‘missions’ hand,” declared another director who argued that the UMC had stopped evangelizing in order to avoid potentially offending others. “Rather than telling people about Jesus, we do social charity.”
Another director predicted that the church would naturally grow if its members focused upon discipleship. He suggested that the focus should also be on understanding why the [domestic] UMC was declining, not on how the church was doing in competition with others.
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