Mark Tooley

50 years of predictable decline for the United Methodists

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Mark Tooley reports that it’s 50 years since membership in the United Methodist church grew in the US.

The Methodist Church had 10,331,574 in 1965, an increase of about 27,000 over 1964. Then it lost 21,000 in 1966, a trend never reversed and in fact accelerated after the 1968 merger with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Although becoming an 11 million member church, losses increased initially to sometimes over 150,000 annually. Today United Methodism in the U.S. stands at 7.3 million, an over one third decline.

Meanwhile how were the more evangelical Wesleyan denominations going?

The Church of God increased by two thirds. The Wesleyan Church increased by 75 percent. The Church of the Nazarene nearly doubled. The Free Methodist Church increased by 25 percent. The Assemblies of God have increased a whopping 500 percent. Growth for most of these churches over the last several years has leveled off, except for the still fast growing Assemblies. But none are experiencing United Methodism’s ongoing exodus.

Until 1967 Methodism was America’s largest Protestant denomination. That year the Southern Baptists caught up and today outnumber the United Methodists two to one.

What led to the decline?

Methodism’s official seminaries were all captured by liberalism by the 1920s. Most clergy weren’t seminary trained until mid century, but the course of study materials for non-seminary trained clergy closely followed seminary curricula. By the 1960s nearly all of the clergy would have been trained in theological modernism, denying or minimizing the supernatural and personal salvation in favor of Social Gospel and therapeutic themes. A 1967 survey found 60 percent of Methodist clergy disbelieving the Virgin Birth and 50 percent disbelieving the Resurrection.

The tragedy is that despite the lessons of history, a new generation of progressive evangelicals are treading the same path. You can get away with it for a while but sooner or later the outcome will be the same.

UPDATE: Evangelicals Dominate Fastest-Growing Large United Methodist Churches