By Marta W. Aldrich
A UMNS Report
While professing U.S. membership continues to decline in The United Methodist Church, the number of constituents is steadily increasing, according to new denominational statistics.
Membership decreased by eight-tenths of a percent over a one-year period to more than 7.9 million, according to the latest statistics released by the denomination March 11.
Specifically, U.S. membership was 7,931,733 in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration, which compiles data for the denomination.
U.S. membership in 2005 was 7,995,429.
Another 45,220 people were listed as clergy members of the denomination for a total of 7,976,953 in 2006. In addition, 871,218 people, primarily children, were listed as baptized, non-professing members known as constituent members.
There are 220,000 United Methodist members in Indiana plus another 40,000 constituent members and 1,200 clergy.
11.5 million worldwide
Worldwide United Methodist lay and clergy membership, which stood at more than 11.5 million in 2005, is still being tallied for 2006 and is expected to be released later this year.
Meanwhile, the number of constituents in 2006 was more than 1.5 million, a 16 percent increase from a decade ago. Denominational records show the number of constituents has increased three of the last five years and eight of the last 10.
"Constituents are the un-baptized children, youth and adults who are not members of the church, but for whom the church has pastoral responsibility," said Scott Brewer, the council's director of research. "It's a growing number, and it reflects that people aren't so big into membership anymore."
Brewer said the church "needs to pay more attention" to this growing category and understand the changing dynamics of religious affiliation in the United States. "It's consistent with what we're seeing in the larger culture, particularly when it comes to attitudes toward membership," he said.
The Rev. Lovett Weems, the director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., said the constituent numbers should be prudently considered.
"There is certainly a phenomenon today of persons who seem more reluctant to join," Weems said. "There are a number of pastors who talk about people in their congregations who are very active in the life of their church, but they just don't join."
He noted that such reluctance is spilling over into groups within the church. Historically, people would be asked to "join a new men's group" that was forming; today, they might instead be invited to participate in a "men's gathering."
Today's churchgoers, especially young people, are less likely to "join" and make long-term commitments, he said, and more likely to participate in short-term activities such as Volunteers In Mission trips, the Walk to Emmaus spiritual retreat and short-term Bible studies.
"There's been a real energy in these types of things in recent years, even in Disciple Bible Study classes," Weems said. "Disciple may be 36 weeks long, but at least there's a beginning and an end."
However, he noted that the constituent category is considered a "soft number" that might be overstated when churches report their membership statistics. He views average worship attendance as a more accurate indicator of church vitality.
The latest United Methodist data puts church attendance at more than 3.3 million, down eight-tenths of a percent from 2005 and a 4 percent decrease from 1990.
Brewer said the church hasn't experienced an increase in attendance since 2001. That increase, he said, was presumably related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
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Marta Aldrich serves as news editor of United Methodist News Service.