And the band played “Nearer my God to Thee”


The latest preliminary figures are out for Methodist Church Membership, and the good news is that they are not nearly so bad as usual.  We’ve been losing 10,000 a year (or a church the size of Trinity Hexham weekly) for the last decade and more. This year, according to the official figures, we *only* lost 2,520. Unfortunately the official figures aren’t internally consistent, and if you add up the numbers of those who have joined the Methodist Church, then take away those who have left and have died, you get a deficit of 5,779. It remains to be seen what the corrected figure will finally be.

Does it matter that we are the fastest declining denomination in England? Of course it does. Some people say you shouldn’t measure numbers, but in that case what do you measure? Candidates for the Methodist ministry? (none successfully put forward from the Newcastle District for three years). Quality of theological training? (Colleges closed, leaving us with just two). Quality of material? (The Publishing House has gone bust, twice). Quality of faith of the people in church? (see “Modern Methodism and the Parable of the Talents below).

Whenever I talk about this, the responses are along the lines of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her work on death and dying.

Some folk are in denial and pretend there isn’t a desperate crisis.

 Some are guilty and try to do the same things harder.

 Some are angry, and say that I should keep quiet about the facts, because I’m being negative.

Some are despairing and think nothing can be done, so we may as well carry on as we are.

Some are bargaining, and try doing things which don’t fix the fundamental problem

Some are philosophical and hope that Methodism will see them out.

Me? I want to do something about it, but the first step to finding a lifeboat is to realise that the Titanic is sinking. What Methodism is doing is not working and anything other than drastic comprehensive change is not the answer. The numbers reach zero in about 2030, the year I retire. Will I be the last one on board?


20 thoughts on “And the band played “Nearer my God to Thee”

  1. So often we either move the deckchairs on the Titanic, or we fall foul of Einstein’s definition of insanity.

    The only thing I’d change in your article is your sentence, ‘Some are philosophical and hope that Methodism will see them out’. It isn’t ‘philosophical’, it’s more like sin: ‘This church is just here for me and my religious consumer needs.’

  2. Forgive me for just scanning the linked documents. I couldn’t find the average age of the Church. Anecdotally, from my location, it will soon be drawing a pension. But we carry on hoping that the hymns of 1900s will capture the imagination of the youth of today.
    An excellent article.

  3. Pingback: More Titanic News | davideflavell

  4. I have seen and truly believe the reason the Methodist Church is dying is because they have gone so far to the left that the church has gotten caught or lost in the clutches of the world. They have turned away from The Bible AND away from it’s own guidelines, the Discipline! for heaven’s sake!! The Methodist Church is calling out to God out of one side of it’s mouth and it’s trying to be politically correct out of the other……riding that fence. God is our Father, His Word is for us today, not a fairy tale. or history book of nice stories. He gave us His inspired Word for us to follow and obey. The Bible is not chapters of suggestions we might want to try is all else fails. Jesus is our Savior, When the Methodist Church invites the Holy Spirit to come back dwell in and with them…not just lip service…we will start seeing an upswing in the membership. The other thing is the church must allow God to be in His Holy Temple and seek Him in the business of the church. So many churches allow certain people to run the church and could care less about what The Lord is calling the church to be.

  5. excellent piece of writing. As a church we need to get back to our evangelical roots, know what we believe in and declare it without being ashamed. That means proper teaching and preaching. Thank the Lord we have still have MET and INSPIRE as groups which remind me that all is not lost!

  6. I find it interesting that the article suggests that you have to change in order to get more participants. If the Bible, God’s inspired Word, is not enough to bring people to hear the Word, and worship God in song and prayer, then they aren’t interested in God and his Word in the first place. No new “praise music”, revised Methodist Discipline (which is not scriptural to begin with), activities for teens and childrens, or free meals and fundraisers, are going to inprove the situation. Like the paraple of the sower, there are those who want to learn the Truth and will seek to find it, there are those who will find it and then not like what they hear or cannot bring themselves to follow the Truth over what God’s Word says, and there are those who WILL try to live as God tells us to. Those are the one’s who will continue to worship God, no matter what the social or political climate of the world.

  7. Oops corrections – “Parable” of the sower, and people cannot bring themselves to follow the the Truth (God’s Word) over what the WORLD says is acceptable or “ok”. Sorry. Typing slower than my mind thinks = errors.

  8. Thank you David.

    Scripture is clear; new wine needs new wine skins. The Methodist Church must allow new, flexible, non-restricting, shape-changing structures to evolve to contain the new wine for a new generation. Why? Because you cannot put new wine in the old skin without losing both. It must allow the new forms to sit alongside the mature wine in its strong, hardened skins. It must let go of the ‘tried and tested rules’ mentality and start to trust those God has entrusted to take a methodism-shaped gospel to the UK. If it doesn’t, when the mature wine is all poured out there will be nothing left.


  9. How can God “entrust” someone to take a “methodism-shaped gospel” to anyone, when he did not create the methodist church or what of thinking?

  10. Assuming a retirement age of 68 I retire 3 years later in 2033. How shall we divide up the proceeds from the sale of all the closed chruches? Seriously though I think the problem is so many churches that have forgotten that they exist to tell people about Jesus and to demonstrate his love in action. jacki is right but expecting people to come to church to hear the gospel message in a time when most people do not even consider the possibility of going to church let alone get as far a deciding that it is irrelevant to them, is pointless. it doesn’t and won’t happen. John Wesley didn’t do that – he got out in the world and took the gospel to the people who were not in church in the way appropriate to his time. He set up systems to make disciples of Christ and to keep them accountable to the Christian life. The Methodist church has mostly lost these systems and not replaced them with anything else. We have churches which are regarded as private clubs by their members, churches where the behaviour of some people is enough to put people off religion for ever, churches where people think being a Christian means being entertained in church for an hour each week and a vague idea of being nice to people the rest of the time. That’s why they don’t grow. To fair there are also many good chruches doing a great job and they are often the ones that are growing.

  11. Excellent and thought provoking article. One thing that we might reflect on is that the decline is very much a British (and possible North American) situation. Methodist numbers are increasing in other parts of the world. What can we learn from world Methodism that can help to reshape our approach to evangelism and ministry? Let’s not be too provincial about this – the world is our parish.

  12. I’m reading Steven Pinker’s “The better Angels of our Nature” which discusses the way that violent crime in places such as Western Europe has dropped over the centuries, but then started increasing again in the 1960’s, at much the same time as church membership started dropping. He does not suggest a direct link, but there is much in what he says that suggests that there are some common underlying factors to the two reversals of a historical trend.

  13. David – thanks for your thoughtful posting. Where to start??

    On the matter of how we count our numbers, I have been frustrated by this over the past couple of years. I’m a Circuit Treasurer and our assessments are partly based on “headcount”; this worked OK until we changed how we count people. We used to count the number of unique attenders each Sunday but changed it last year when, for some peculiar reason, we suddenly started counting people twice if they attended both a morning and an evening worship. So, if you had 100 people attend in a morning and 30 of those also attended in the evening you would now have 130 people, even though there are actually only 100. Talk about smoke and mirrors. I suspect this will account for much of the discrepancy.

    I do want to make a more positive contribution though – in the Southampton Circuit we are developing a great working relationship and partnership with the Pioneer Network of churches. It has helped us to reopen two closed churches, prevent another from closure and begin a new midweek congregation at another. It is still early days, but I can imagine a day when every church in our Circuit is working in partnership with them.

    We are learning much about how to bring worship to life and to bring people into relationship with Jesus. We are learning how to be more relevant to today’s culture. We are learning about gifts of the Holy Spirit and how to listen to God. I have experienced words of prophecy and have personally been healed of an eye problem. I have seen people begin to be changed in their relationship with God and experienced the joy of watching friends as the penny drops and they realise that the church does not have to be a dying one.

    In October last year I was blessed when one of our young adults asked me if I would be her Godfather at her baptism. I was thrilled. A year earlier I had taken her to a worship event at Pioneer church to show her how things could be. I knew then that she had been moved. A couple of weeks ago I saw another of our young adults massively challenged by a small midweek service we had started jointly with Pioneer, and witnessed the tears of another long-standing Methodist member as we prayed together.

    But the vision has to be much bigger. I would like to get together a network of Methodist ministers and churches who are ready to act on new ways of doing things; to share what we have been doing and why I think that this is a part of God’s plan to save our Church. Let me know (anyone) if you are interested.

    Nigel Bailey

  14. Thanks also from me, David, for this insightful and challenging post. I am the Super of Nigel’s circuit in Southampton, and can affirm all that he has said.

    God is doing some interesting stuff here, and our partnership with Pioneer is showing us that there is, perhaps, a future for us. The reality, of course, is that our future will be very different from our past (it has to be!), but this is very difficult for a lot of Methodists to accept, since most folk prefer to do things the way they’ve always been done.

    But there is cause to be hopeful that God hasn’t quite finished with us yet. In fact, next week, we are receiving a visit from two ministers in the Newcastle District who are coming to see what is happening here.

    As you rightly say, ‘What Methodism is doing is not working’.

    Time for action, I believe.

    • I’ve seen your video, and we met in Newcastle with the guy from Pioneer. Do consider joining Lead Academy – it would be great to have you guys on board. It’s designed for ministers and church leaders from a congregation or Circuit, to come and meet like minded folk.

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