by Heather Hahn* & Vance Morton**
For the first time in 11 years, United Methodist Conferences in the United States have reported an increase in total professions of faith.
Preliminary 2012 figures for professions of faith show a gain from 123,986 in 2011 to 124,635 in 2012. For those who always have a calculator at the ready, yes, that’s less than a one percent increase. But it is still moving the needle in the positive direction for the first time in more than a decade. Or maybe better said, the last time we saw any type of an uptick at all, Pluto was still a planet, Facebook was three years from its debut and we were six years from anyone having ever heard of an iPhone. So, yeah, it’s been a while.
“Clearly this is the beginning of everything that we’ve been working toward for the past couple of years as we strengthen congregations to make disciples who engage in the world in justice and mercy ministries,” said New Jersey Area Bishop John R. Schol, who has led the . “What this really says is we’re starting to move in the right direction. Certainly, it’s not a trend. … But it’s a hopeful sign for the journey ahead.”
The professions of faith stat is comprised of youth completing confirmation and adult new church members who make a profession to follow Christ. The number does not include people who transfer from one church to another.
Twenty-eight of 59 U.S. conferences (including the CTC) reported gains in their professions of faith to the , the denominational agency that tracks conference statistics. The count includes conferences in each of the five U.S. jurisdictions. U.S. churches also reported overall increases in small groups, mission engagement and giving to mission.
“We’re not seeing (an increase) yet in worship attendance,” Bishop Schol told United Methodist News Service. “But that’s generally the last one to come.”
How one Central Texas Conference church drew new Christians
Besides a rise in professions of faith, the Central Texas Conference also saw 2012 gains in membership and worship attendance. But that doesn’t mean the journey is an easy one. Leading people to Christ requires a lot of love and does not always lead to immediate results, as Rev. Leah Hidde-Gregory can attest.
Leah saw that growth first-hand as the pastor of Frost United Methodist Church. During her six years as pastor, the 125-year-old congregation in a town of about 600 people saw 59 professions of faith.
How did the rural church do it? By being outwardly focused and investing in those who make up the community of Frost.
“We invested in people, and we listened, and we didn’t judge,” Leah said. “And we loved, we loved, and we loved some more.”
While 14 of the professions of faith at Frost came from confirmands, the vast majority came from adult new Christians. Many were transients attracted by the town’s cheap housing, some with histories of substance abuse. They came to the church for its free Wednesday night meals, its food pantry and its help for those seeking work, and they stayed for worship and Christian community.
“I had tremendous laity there who loved until it hurt,” the pastor said. “It wasn’t being in ministry to. It was being side by side, involved in people’s lives. And ministry is messy. That means I got to go experience what it’s like to bail someone out of jail for the first time.”
Still, the church had plenty of success stories. Once congregation members helped get these new Christians on their feet, they often moved on to the larger cities, such as Waco or Corsicana, for better jobs and more opportunities. But through Facebook, Hidde-Gregory said, her congregation has learned that many of those helped have joined local churches in their new homes.
“That’s really exciting to me,” she said. “It’s really about Kingdom-building, not church-building.”
Leah has been pastor at First United Methodist Church in Hillsboro since June 2013. Her new congregation is also drawing people to discipleship. Since she arrived, the church has welcomed 23 new members, nine of whom were adult professions of faith.
Experiments in ministry
Mountain Sky Bishop Elaine J. W. Stanovsky leads the Rocky Mountain Conference, which is one of the conferences reporting growth in its professions of faith. She is also the president of the , which works to help congregations become more vital.
She was surprised to learn of the gains in her area but added that she too is seeing signs of increasing vitality overall. “We talk about cultivating experiments on the cutting edge of God’s activity in the world,” Stanovsky said.
For example, the conference appointed the Rev. Jerry Herships, a former standup comedian, to start , which began holding worship services in bars. The church now has expanded to include ministering to the hungry and homeless in a city park. The Denver ABC affiliate, Channel 7, recently ”
Stanovsky also shared the experience of ., which sees its population boom each summer when young adults visit to guide white-water rafting trips. Two years ago, the congregation began providing a meal once a week for the guides. The ministry grew from five to average about 50 guides a week.
This past summer, the church followed the suggestion of one of the guides and began offering religious and philosophical discussions as part of the weekly meals.
“It was very definitely an opportunity for not just faith sharing but also life sharing,” said the Rev. Margaret Gillikin, the church’s senior pastor.
Evaluating total numbers
Even with this latest bright spot, some United Methodist bishops remain cautious about the profession of faith numbers.
Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson leads the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware Conferences, both of which reported increases in professions of faith, points out that the gains do not outnumber the deaths of longtime church members in her area. She also said that some aspects of church vitality cannot be measured with numbers because churches have helped change hearts and touch lives in ways that only God knows about.
Vitality “is all about being out in the streets,” she said. “It’s all about taking the church into the world and being the church in places where people need to experience the love of God.”
*Heather is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. .