Tale of two denominations: growth, shrinkage

COMMENTARY /// Protestant churches

Churches that do not offer anything particularly different from what can be found elsewhere do not do much to motivate people to get up early on Sunday mornings

Churches that do not offer anything particularly different from what can be found elsewhere do not do much to motivate people to get up early on Sunday mornings

Two of America’s largest Protestant denominations are the United Methodist Church and the Assemblies of God. Both have long histories in Southern California and some shared beliefs, including ordaining women, that set them apart from other Protestants.

But official statistics, which typically have a couple years of lag time, for the decade immediately before the pandemic show these denominations have been on very different trajectories, especially regionally.

From 2009 to 2019, the AG’s Southern California District, or SoCal Network, dramatically grew, increasing its worship attendance by 50% and its total number of adherents by 31%, well above national AG growth rates. Most of this expansion has occurred under the leadership of the Rev. Rich Guerra, elected in 2010 as this area’s first Hispanic superintendent.

Meanwhile, the UMC’s California Pacific, or Cal-Pac, Conference— encompassing Southern California, Hawaii, Guam and Saipan—has shriveled.

From 2009 to 2019, church membership and worship attendance have continually plummeted, by totals of 25% and 23%, respectively. Since late 2016, the conference has been overseen by Bishop Grant Hagiya.

It has not been all doom and gloom for Cal-Pac United Methodism. A recent collection of supplies for students at a Native American high school is one example of its ongoing good work.

In a denomination whose U.S. membership remains around 90% Anglo despite America’s growing diversity, it is no small thing that Cal-Pac is one of the most ethnically diverse United Methodist conferences in America, with a lay membership that is only 53% white non-Hispanic.

For comparison, nationwide the AG is much more diverse than the UMC, while the SoCal Network is only 38% Anglo.

Cal-Pac United Methodism includes far more Asian Americans than any of the UMC’s other 53 geographic annual conferences across America.

And yet this highlights major, recent problems in the Cal-Pac Conference.

Hagiya was recently forcefully accused of mistreating traditionalist Korean Americans in how he has administered the UMC’s system of moving pastors between congregations.

Korean United Methodist leaders across the country charged Hagiya with “(picking) on us, who are the ethnic church and racial minority, in such a rude and ruthless way” while there have been perhaps unprecedented live demonstrations against the bishop. Messages on signs at a May protest by dozens of Korean church members outside the conference headquarters included “Stop Racism in UMC” and “Stop Persecuting Korean Churches!”

Hagiya, himself a third-generation Japanese American, denies any wrongdoing, and efforts have been made to soothe these tensions. But this racially charged controversy has been hurtful and disruptive for Cal-Pac United Methodism.

All of this comes within the wider context of the UMC’s decades-long civil war. United Methodists in Southern California, as elsewhere, are deeply divided over key questions of doctrinal and moral beliefs.

Leaders from all major factions and regions have realized that the bitter infighting is unsustainable and so have jointly proposed a carefully negotiated “Protocol on Grace and Reconciliation through Separation” to split the denomination—recently endorsed by the Cal-Pac Conference— which will be voted on at the UMC’s global denominational assembly next year.

In the meantime, official UMC doctrine remains fairly conservative, including supporting “laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” and any United Methodist pastor who officiates a same-sex wedding could potentially be disciplined.

The AG’s growth has apparently benefited from simply not having the same level of internal racial and theological tensions. AG members are willing to be counter-cultural when they believe their faith demands it, and parts of their Pentecostal spirituality may raise some eyebrows.

But then again, churches that do not offer anything particularly different from what can be found elsewhere do not do much to motivate people to get up early on Sunday mornings.

In a statement to the author, Guerra attributed his denomination’s growth to their combined commitments to Jesus Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations” and to Jesus’ famous Matthew 25 teaching to care for “the least of these,” which motivates area AG members to “reach out with compassion to those that are in need all around us.”

The AG should not rest on its laurels. Its growth has been uneven, and it reported a slight decline 2018-19.

United Methodists could see exciting new possibilities after the split releases their main factions from decades of draining infighting so that each can more freely pursue their respective visions for ministry.

In the meantime, examining the contrasting experiences of these denominations provides instructive lessons from which other faith communities can learn.