Recently I wrote a blog about the decline of Methodist Membership, under the title Year Zero. The British Methodist Church’s membership has more than halved since 1990.
Elsewhere, people have suggested that things weren’t as bad as I implied, and that the law of compound interest meant that the decline in numbers would gradually slow as the church got smaller. This is based on a disease model of decline, where a smaller population would have smaller absolute reductions in numbers each year.
So, if each year 2.5% of members catch a disease (let’s call it atheistitis) and leave the church because they lose their faith, after 20 years you haven’t lost half the church because each year as the church shrinks, the number of individuals represented by that 2.5% shrinks too. You end up with a nice smooth graph looking like this.
The Methodist Church slowly shrinks into the future, but is still around in 50 years time, with a membership of 60,354. It’s not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world, and we can know that our grandchildren will have a church of some kind to be part of.
Unfortunately, the disease model of gradual decline is wishful thinking, because it doesn’t match the evidence. The Methodist Church is not shrinking because people are becoming atheists. Numbers coming in and out each year just about match. There isn’t a great crisis of faith.
Instead, the Methodist Church is collapsing because people are dying, and they are not being replaced, and churches are closing and they are not being replaced.
Here’s a more accurate model of decline. Imagine the Methodist Church as an Egyptian pyramid, with the elderly at the bottom and the young at the top, as that is a good description of our age profile. The cohort in their seventies is larger than the cohort in their sixties, is larger than the cohort in their fifties, is larger than the cohort in their forties etc. Now imagine that pyramid sinking into the desert.
Each year, people die. Those in the older cohorts (of which Methodism has a lot) tend to be more likely to die than those in the younger cohorts (of which Methodism has few). As the pyramid sinks into the sand, the larger, older cohorts die off, and we are left with a smaller and smaller pyramid. Because the new generations in their twenties and thirties are not coming through and replacing the larger cohorts below (Methodism is aware of this), the future is bleak. If this scenario was accurate, we would expect the percentage decline in membership to be accelerating, and this is exactly what is happening in the official figures:
The pyramid model seems to fit the facts a lot better than the atheistitis model, but it isn’t encouraging reading, as the pyramid looks as though it disappears completely into the sand in 2033.
Is there an answer to the problem?
I believe there are some answers, and in my next blog next week, I will make radical suggestions.