When the best news is no news at all
Last month a reporter called seeking information about the North Georgia Conference. She was working on a story about trends in church membership and had noticed that North Georgia had reported an increase in membership for 2011. That seemed like a man-bites-dog oddity.
The reporter wanted to know what secret North Georgia had discovered to experience growth last year. But there was nothing out of the ordinary in 2011. The fact is the conference has been recording an increase in membership every year. The reporter’s surprise (shock?) was understandable. In recent history, virtually every story about church membership in the United States shared a common theme: It is in a slow, steady decline. The downward trend is consistent among all mainstream protestant denominations.
Across the nation, the United Methodist Church lost more than 72,000 members in 2011. The North Georgia Conference, the largest in the U.S., gained 1,070 members in 2011 for a total of 358,811. North Georgia has added approximately 12,000 members in the past five years and 36,000 in the past 10 years.
Of course, it is often pointed out that the percentage of membership growth in the North Georgia Conference has not kept pace with population growth. But in other areas of the country, where the population continues to expand, church membership has still been waning.
Among the 55 of 59 U.S. conferences that have filed reports for 2011, five reported a membership increase. And only three, including North Georgia, reported an increase in both membership and average worship attendance. And no other conference in the nation has experienced the steady, annual growth recorded in North Georgia.
What has made the difference here?
“There is an evangelical focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ,” said Bishop Mike Watson, “a commitment to providing new places for new people, and strong efforts toward encouraging congregational vitality in each of our churches.”
Indeed, the conference has been actively working in recent years to reach a wide cross-section of people who call North Georgia home. In the past 20 years, 87 United Methodist churches have been launched in North Georgia, serving nearly 26,000 people. There have also been ongoing efforts to reach various immigrant groups and keep up with rapidly changing demographics.
And while the United Methodist Church has been experiencing significant growth in Africa, the Philippines and parts of eastern Europe in recent years, there are also reasons for hope in the United States. And we are right in the middle of it. Vital congregations are not limited by borders or language.
“There is a joyful spirit within the conference that creates a contagious atmosphere that is attractive to members and non-members alike,” Bishop Watson said. “Our people love God, love each other, and love to reach out beyond the existing family to invite others in!”
And for United Methodists in North Georgia, perhaps the biggest news is that growth is not really news at all.
Glenn Hannigan is the editor of the North Georgia Advocate. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.