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How Many Local Churches?

by Walter Fenton

November 6, 2020

Photo by Erika Giraud on Unsplash

October 30, 2020

by Keith Boyette

“If the 2021 General Conference adopts the implementing legislation for the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, how many local churches would there be in the new traditionalist Methodist church?” It is an interesting and important question, and for strategic and planning purposes, it would be very helpful to know the answer.

However, a lack of firm data and a number of variables make it difficult to even hazard a guess. And the same response holds for the question, “How many local churches would there be in the post-separation Methodist church, or in a new liberationist Methodist church?”

United Methodist denominational officials have never routinely surveyed local churches to determine how many are centrist, progressive, or traditionalist. And to be fair, for a number of reasons, conducting such surveys in the U.S. would be a daunting task, let alone doing so on a global scale.

Lacking such data, some assume we could arrive at sound estimates by noting the kind of delegates annual conferences elect to represent them at General Conferences. There is probably some small merit in this approach, but it is very far from a statistically sure one.

Two quick examples demonstrate its significant limitations. The Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference (one of four annual conferences in the state) is apportioned 12 delegates, and the Mountain Sky Annual Conference, a sprawling geographical region that includes the states of Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, is apportioned just six (there are not many United Methodist members in the region). It is assumed all 12 delegates elected in Western Pennsylvania lean traditionalists, while the six elected to represent Mountain Sky lean centrist-progressive. Does this mean there are no centrist-progressive congregations in Western Pennsylvania, and conversely no traditionalist local churches in the Mountain Sky region? Of course not. Both kinds of congregations are liberally sprinkled throughout both annual conferences. And if this is true for these two annual conferences, it almost certainly true for the other 52 in the U.S.

For planning purposes, the WCA conservatively guesstimates 3,000 to 5,000 local UM churches in the U.S. are likely to align with a new traditionalist Methodist church by late 2022, and perhaps another 1,000 would join by the end of 2024 (we are reluctant to even hazard guesses for Africa, Europe-Eurasia, and the Philippines). Given UM denominational statistical information on average worship attendance in the approximately 30,000 local churches in the U.S., we are confident 45 percent or more would be small churches (<100 average worship attendance), approximately 50 percent would be midsize (100 to 500 average worship attendance), and the remainder would be large churches (>500 average worship attendance).

Our guesstimates are based on the following observations. Venturing forth into something new is inherently challenging and risky, so some essential conditions are required. A local church deciding to join a new traditionalist Methodist church would be one where pastors and people are theologically aligned, have closely followed general church developments, and have fully acquainted themselves with their options. This typically means a pastor has been serving the local church for at least three years, that there is a united sense of mission, that the church is relatively healthy and vibrant, and that its long term viability is above average. We believe a good mix of at least 3,000 to 5,000 small, midsize, and large traditionalist local churches fit this description, and so are likely to align with a new traditionalist Methodist church at its convening conference.

While the WCA warmly welcomes all local churches that can affirm its statement of faith and moral principles, it is not interested in a crass competition for swaying them its way. It strongly encourages pastor and congregations to study their options by visiting the following websites to gain a sense of what a post-separation UM Church (likely centrist-progressive in character) and a liberationist Methodist church would look like.

For its part, the WCA, and now the Transitional Leadership Council, are focused on preparing for the launch of a warm-hearted, Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled, and covenant-keeping global Methodist church. We are under no illusion this will be easy, but we are encouraged by all that we have accomplished in just four years. We are especially grateful to the local churches and individuals who so generously support us with their time, talent and resources.

So we do not know with certainty how many local churches will be represented at a convening conference for a new global Methodist church, but we are confident they will be healthy, vibrant congregations united in raising up disciples who worship passionately, love extravagantly, and witness boldly to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.


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