While The United Methodist Church’s United States membership has continued to shrink, its growth elsewhere in the world has put it over the 12 million-member mark for the first time, newly released statistics show.

The church’s membership in Africa, Europe and Asia grew from 3.5 million to 4.4 million in the five years ending in 2009, according to the United Methodist Council on Finance and Administration.

In that time, worldwide membership increased from almost 11.6 million to nearly 12.1 million.

“The major growth has been in Africa and the Philippines,” said Scott Brewer, connectional services director for the finance council.

The Rev. John H. Southwick, research director at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, asked an African colleague her take on the rapid growth. She told him the people in Africa are looking for hope. “Most have very challenging life circumstances, and anything they can grab onto has appeal.”

That growth has occurred despite further slippage in U.S. membership. U.S. professing membership in 2009 was down 1.22 percent from 2008, to 7.8 million members, according to new data from the council.

The United Methodist Church remains the third-largest religious group in the United States, and its membership trends — decreases in the United States and increases in other countries — have mirrored those of other mainline denominations.

“There is no future for The United Methodist Church in the U.S. unless it can demonstrate that it can reach more people, younger people and more diverse people,” declared the Rev. Lovett H. Weems, Jr., professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.

The decline did not start yesterday.

Weems, who also directs the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, said the denomination’s membership decline tracks with that of other mainline denominations since 1966.

Mainlines include the American Baptist Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Church of Christ.

Weems attributed United Methodist losses in part to the U.S. population’s migration from the denomination’s traditional rural base to more metropolitan areas where the church has been weaker.

A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

Congregants in Bo, Sierra Leone, worship joyfully. The United Methodist Church is growing in Africa but continues to shrink in the United States.

“The major growth has been in Africa and the Philippines.”

– Scott Brewer