Indiana joins five other conferences in membership growth

Membership and attendance numbers provided during the recent annual conferences in the United States did not reverse the declines of past years, but those numbers and other reports indicated something different is afoot.

For the most part, the trend of decline continues in the three measured categories – membership, worship and Sunday school attendance. However, activity within and aside from those categories shows that conferences are trying new initiatives to connect with unreached communities.

Declines in the three measured categories have been widespread for many years. In 1990, total lay and clergy membership in the United States was 8,853,455, according to the statistical review compiled annually by the General Council on Finance and Administration. By 2000, membership had decreased to 8,341,375, and in 2009, it was down to 7,725,039. Average attendance in 1990 was 3,466,439, and by 2009, it had decreased to 3,125,513.

Global church growing

By contrast, membership outside the United States has been steadily rising. In 1990, total lay and clergy membership in the central conferences was 806,841. By 2000, it had risen to 1,512,704, and in 2009, it had reached 4,412,489.

For many conferences, the decline in membership and attendance in 2010 narrowed even though 43 conferences fell in membership, 41 declined in attendance and 33 decreased in church school attendance.

Six conferences reported membership growth, five conferences increased average attendance and seven conferences reported increases in church school attendance.

Only three conferences reported increases in both membership and attendance, and only one conference – Central Texas, which has maintained 30 years of growth – increased its numbers in all three categories. The growth for all three conferences was less than one percent in each category.

For the first time in 30 years, the Indiana Conference reported growth in both membership and attendance but still saw a decline in church school attendance. That was a big change from last year for the conference, when it recorded the most dramatic decline – a 5.15 percent decrease in membership to 194,495 and a 4.2 percent decrease in attendance to 116,722. The conference’s church school attendance dropped 9.5 percent to 39,329.

Shift in focus key for Indiana

The Rev. Mark Gough, director of church development for the conference, said a shift in focus was the key to Indiana’s growth.

“We really began to focus on the main mission to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” he said, adding that churches have to stop worrying about survival and start asking, “How are we going to win people to Christ?”

He said the conference, created in a uniting of the North and South Indiana Conferences two years ago, now has five “remote” staff people working with churches in the districts “to really make a difference in reaching people that have not been reached. That’s what we’re concentrating on.”

“It’s easy to get distracted in a local church by all the things we do,” Gough said, adding that churches need greater emphasis on reaching people who don’t know the gospel, inviting them to church and treating them well when they come.

Red Bird Missionary Conference also reported growth in membership and attendance. The conference treasurer, Judith Fowler, said the growth came from opening new churches and renovating existing ones.

Church school numbers were up in the Northern Illinois, Arkansas, New York, Kansas East, Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania Conferences. The Kansas East and Northern Illinois Conferences grew less than one percent. The Arkansas, New York and Peninsula Delaware Conferences saw increases between five and seven percent. The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference grew 15 percent.

The Louisiana, North Georgia and Rio Grande Conferences reported increases in membership, and the Yellowstone, Oklahoma Indian Missionary and North Texas Conferences increased in attendance.

The Rev. Jim Ozier, the center director for new church development and congregational transformation in the North Texas Conference said “new churches are the main reason for attendance growth.”

Hispanic growth in Southwest Texas

The Southwest Texas Conference reported decreased membership of 50 people, even though it is located in an area of rapid population growth.

“The trend of that loss is unconscionable in my mind,” said the Rev. David Seilheimer, conference treasurer and secretary.

“We have tremendous leadership among the Hispanic population,” Seilheimer said. “The Hispanic population in South Texas is the youngest population. Sometimes I think our failure to bring in Hispanics is not the difference of race or language. It’s that we’re not very good right now at dealing with young people. We need to be reaching out to those people who are younger.”

Emily Snell serves as a United Methodist News Service intern and a senior at Lipscomb University.

A UMNS photo by Jennifer Synder.

Young adults and campus ministry students worship with Bishop Mike Coyner at the Indiana Conference’s first ever leadership retreat for young adults, MOVE.

Indiana United Methodist membership stands at 200,620 members, up 3,271 from the previous year. Worship attendance stands at 117,750 members, up 1,013. Church school attendance stands at 38,125, down 1,217.