Where have the Methodists gone?

January 11, 2011

In the Pew Forum study I linked to the other day it is shown that while there were 97 Methodists in the 87th Congress (1061-62), 18% of the total membership and a close second to the Catholic contingent, in the new Congress they’re down to 50, a reduction of nearly 50%, the largest decline of any major denomination other than the Congregationalists (who plummeted from 27 to 4) and the group labeled “Restorationists” (from 18 to 2)  – I assume this last category includes the entire Campbell-Stone family of churches: the Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ and Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

Meanwhile, what about the general public? This table shows a membership decline for the United Methodist Church of 23.6% from 1960 to 2004, not quite the largest decline of mainline denominations; however, I can’t tell whether this takes into account the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. The UCC (mostly former Congregationalists) are down 35.9%, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians are in the same range, and the Disciples of Christ come off the worst, going down 56.4%, the only denomination in this period to fall from above to below one million members.

What does this all mean? In my post last year on this subject I presented my notion that all else being equal, the denominations that did the worst over the past decades were the ones with the weakest regional concentration; as children grow up they are more likely to retain a sense of denominational identity (even if they quit going to church in their young adult years) if they have a number of school friends and neighborhood friends who go to the same church. Now I would like to raise a related but broader point.

I used to think of the Methodists as the model of what a middle-American church was. It made sense to me that they were overrepresented in Congress because all across the Midwest and Border South they were the church that gathered the most civic-minded citizens, the church that did the most to cultivate civic mindedness in its members, with a commitment to social justice and community improvement shared with other denominations, to be sure, but uniquely central to their very identity. But this was largely a small-town phenomenon in its golden days; the model of “church” they represented was one that worked best when political and cultural communities were themselves closer knit than they are in today’s metropoles. The Congregationalists (though confined largely to New England) and the Restorationists seem to fit the same paradigm. This is not quite a question of “congregational polity,” which technically the Methodists do not have; it is a question of how the church relates to civic society, and how the latter has evolved.

I would like to see someone figure out a way to quantify how many times a week the average church-going American meets his/her fellow congregants outside of church, outside of church-related activities. I think it will be found that the world in which our mainline Protestant churches prospered was one in which there was simply a lot more such interaction than today. Members of the same church were more likely not only to send their kids to the same public school, but to live on the same street, go to the same library, shop in each other’s stores, see each other on line at the bank, belong to the same social and political clubs; there was an intensity of mutual interaction which the churches were part of and which gave a certain meaning to their existence.

I believe the mainline denominations have declined not because of any loss of faith in the population as a whole, or (as many would have it) a yearning for a stricter, narrower faith; or at least, I don’t think “faith” is an independent variable. It seems to me they have declined because the whole way of life which provided them with a secure and prominent niche has declined.

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