Emory Report

March 16, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 24

Mainline denominations not in decline, Frank says

Preoccupation with declining numbers, perceived loss of influence and rapid social change are distracting mainline religious denominations "from the gospel they have been entrusted with proclaiming," said Thomas Frank in a recent book on the structure and mission of the United Methodist Church.

While membership statistics do indicate declining numbers, that doesn't mean people are rejecting mainline denominations, said Frank, director of Methodist studies at the theology school. In presentations to lay people and church leaders on his book Polity, Practice and the Mission of the United Methodist Church, Frank takes a broader view of denominational change by outlining demographic and sociological factors that more clearly account for the numbers. These include:

  • Population shifts and mobility. Mainline denominations such as Methodism spread rapidly across the country during the 19th century, with more than 36,000 United Methodist churches serving the American populace today. "Yet many of these churches are located in areas of severe population loss or shift," Frank said. "These shifts, combined with the estimate that more than one-fourth of the American population changes residence in any given year, mark a severely dislocated society." Since church membership is more typical among community natives and permanent residents, he added, "church affiliation has become notoriously difficult even to count, much less to count on, as congregations plan their programs."
  • Generational change. Baby boomers, who came of age during some of the sharpest cultural changes in the country's history, share a deep suspicion of the institutions and associations embraced by earlier generations, Frank said. No sooner was the church learning how to deal with those attitudes when the next generation, with still different social experiences and outlooks, came to adulthood. Instead of simply adapting to one generation, he said, mainstream denominations are being challenged to discover ways to help all ages and generations experience the church's greatest gifts.
  • Education and birth rate. In their zeal to build colleges in the belief that educated Christians would be more effective leaders, Frank said, many denominations did not anticipate that "the more education people pursue, the fewer children they tend to have." He points to reliable studies of mainstream religious groups showing that low birth rates accompanying higher education levels account for most of the membership decline.

Frank said mainline denominations should look for signs that point to the kind of church that is emerging today. For example, the United Methodist Church has particular strengths that are well suited to a rapidly changing world, Frank said, for the following reasons:

  • Methodism has become more international. Frank points out that Methodism in countries outside the United States has increased threefold in the past decade, with rapid growth in the Philippines, sub-Saharan Africa and Korea.
  • Methodism has become more multiethnic. While data on the church's increasing ethnic diversity is still unreliable, Frank said, the denomination is expanding work among new immigrant groups.
  • Methodism ministers to the poor. Grounded in the theology of its founder John Wesley, "Methodism has a long history of passionate concern for the poor," Frank said. With persistent and growing poverty and unemployment around the world, "churches have responded with new efforts in feeding the homeless, building affordable homes and sending mission teams of skilled laity into crisis areas."
  • Methodism has historic resilience. While the total number of American United Methodists has declined, Frank said, hundreds of mainstream congregations are still going strong after 150 or more years; older city churches continue to find new forms of ministry; many small-town congregations have survived enormous economic transitions with steady membership; and fewer than 1,000 of the 37,000 American United Methodist churches-mainly in rural areas-have closed in the last decade.

When Frank presents these ideas to church groups, "there's a huge sense of relief to get away from a discussion of what's wrong, what used to be and 'woe unto us,'" he said. He encourages United Methodists and other mainline churches "to start with the assumption that we are blessed" with strengths often overlooked by those preoccupied with loss and decline. In this way, he said, mainline denominations can lead the way "to helping form a new church that is truly catholic, truly evangelical, truly reformed."

-Elaine Justice

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