Depopulation, "Natural Decrease" and Growing the Church in the USA, Part 1

Ignore the headline of this article.  We do not have over 1/3 of US counties actually dying. Nor do we have that rate of counties actually losing population in 2012. Even though the rate of population loss in U.S. counties is increasing (632 counties lost population in 2012 versus 492 in 2011 and 437 in 2010), only Vermont and Rhode Island experienced net decreases as states in 2012, Rhode Island also in 2011, and Maine and Michigan in 2010. From 2010 to 2012, we moved from just under 14% of counties losing population to just over 20%.

What the article refers to is the finding that over 1/3 of our counties (1135 of 3143,  just over 36% of our counties, up from 880 or just under 28% in 2009) have a death rate that exceeds the birth rate, a phenomenon called "natural decrease" or "negative natural increase."

You can see the original datasets here.

We also have an overall population growth rate in the USA of just under 0.75%, the lowest growth rate we've seen since 1937, back while the nation was still reeling from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The major drivers of population increase in the US are immigration and the relatively higher birth rates of newer immigrant populations.

The plurality of the counties "natural decrease" or decline are rural. Many are located in the Northeast and Midwest. The fastest growing counties are in major urban centers in Texas, Florida, and the Mountain West.

Substantial Building Where There's Growth Potential

What does this mean for the church in the USA, and for United Methodists in particular, especially in the increasing number of areas where either decline or natural decrease or both may correspond to the location of our congregations?

Maybe it's time to do some strategic nationwide planning for where we should be locating our congregations if we want to take advantage of population increases where they are happening, rather than leaving this up to annual conferences, whose capacity, interest, or "turf concerns" may not necessarily lead to the best overall outcomes for United Methodism in the US as a whole.

We know where the greatest potential for growth is: the major urban centers of Texas, Florida, and the Mountain West. And we know something of the demographics the make at least two of these a serious challenge for United Methodists who live in those conferences-- especially language and culture. A nation-wide strategy, rather than a conference by conference strategy, or even a jurisdictional strategy, could bring far more resources to bear from across the entire connection in the US to meet those challenges and reap for the whole connection the growth opportunities available especially there.

Massive Collaboration Where There's Decline
What about for those places where the population is declining and the natural rate of decrease is on the rise, which may actually represent where the majority of current United Methodist congregations in the US find themselves? Is it reasonable to expect, or even ethical to work primarily for the growth of our own congregations in such settings?

What if, instead of trying to get more people living in counties with declining or naturally decreasing populations into our congregations, we were to focus on cooperating with any and all other willing congregations and Christian ministries in these settings? What if the focus of that collaboration were to ensure everyone there has genuinely heard the gospel, has multiple, ongoing opportunities to respond to justifying grace and is invited and enabled to become connected to some community of Christian faith that can help them grow in sanctifying grace as disciples of Jesus Christ. Maybe that's one of our congregations. Maybe it's a congregation of another denomination or no denomination. Maybe it's a congregation and a "parachurch" discipling ministry. Does it matter who "gets the credit"?

Why collaboration of a "coalition of the willing" rather than "straight competition" in diminishing market areas? It's about how markets actually work. Let's think about the market for toothpaste, for example. When you find yourself in a market with declining demand for toothpaste (in this case, driven in part because there is declining supply of potential customers), increasing the supply or even the quality of supply available to this market may be more likely to reduce or have no effect on the overall market penetration of toothpaste within this population. More people may purchase a given brand than before, but the actual total purchases for toothpaste itself in that region may still decrease.

Translating this to our situation, if each congregation in a region with population decline or natural decrease were to compete harder for itself, it is possible some congregations would get larger, and yet make little or no actual dent in either the percentage or the number of persons actively engaged in Christian discipleship. Religious participation tends to be binary. Generally, with some exceptions, you attend X congregation or you don't attend anywhere. And most "new" participants to any given congregation are transfers out from others.

These two factors, taken together, mean that religious participation within a given population tends to be like a zero-sum game. If Otterbright Church gains 15 people, chances are good that represents close to 15 people "lost" by other congregations in the area rather than an real advance in "market penetration." Otterbright Church might feel great about how it is "reaching out" and "receiving new people," but, in effect, it's more of a re-shuffling among people who already had self-identified as Christians elsewhere than actual increased market penetration. There are exceptions, to be sure. But, generally speaking, that's what they are-- exceptions, especially in areas with a declining population base. (See "Megachurches Steal Sheep (and smaller churches do, too!")

So why massive collaboration rather than new church starts in declining populations? Don't we have some evidence that new church starts are more effective at reaching actually "unchurched" populations than existing congregations? Only sort of. That's because the evidence for new church starts reaching new populations largely comes from areas with growing population bases, not declining ones, because new churches have tended to be planted where the population is on the rise, not on the decline. See the recommendation above! And click here for a significant if slightly older study of this trend across multiple denominations in the US). 

People in growing population areas tend to be more mobile to begin with, and so more open to trying something new to them, like church, especially if the church itself is nearly as "new" as they are to the area. That means there's relatively little "break-in" time because lots of people there are new.

But that's not the demographic of declining communities. Declining communities, especially in more rural areas, tend to be relatively stable. A new church coming in is less of an "automatic" attractor to the people who already live there, and is likely to be in a challenging position, because the social networks there are already well-established, unlike the situation of areas with more rapidly growing populations. "Outsiders" may tend to do less well than insiders at forming new kinds of relationships within the existing relational networks of the people in these established but declining populations.

Taken together, that's why I commend "massive collaboration among existing congregations" as a strategy more likely to be effective. People in stable communities and social networks are more likely to accept new kinds of relationships with people they already know, at least to some degree, than with people with whom they have had no ongoing relationships. Competition in these settings tends to "fork the Christianity project," to use a programming term, or to"fragment the market" to use marketing language, rather than creating a platform more likely to generate net increased participation.  

So, how does this happen? This is where judicatory leaders are vital players. I live in Indiana. Here, we have a good number of United Methodists, Evangelical Lutherans, UCCs, Presbyterians, American Baptists and Episcopalians, probably at least one of each in each larger county seat town, with UMCs in every county. Because we're the largest, we might take the lead, with our bishop convening a meeting with the bishops or larger judicatory leaders of the other denominations. The agreement to pursue massive collaboration in counties with populations in decline or natural decrease could be worked out at that level.

Then, since most of these denominations have at least another judicatory level smaller than the whole state beneath that (districts and clusters for UMs, deaneries for Episcopalians, presbyteries for Presbyterians, associations for UCCs and American Baptists), the leaders of these "mid-level judicatories" could work together to develop more localized implementation plans (missional strategy!) for each declining county under their supervision.

Costs? Time, communications, coordination, and meeting expenses. Benefits? A united front in declining counties, an approach, as we've already seen, which is likely to produce greater reach and engage the "Nones" there than either new church starts (not typically successful in declining stable population areas) or "each congregation" or "each denomination" competing more individually for a declining population base.

See Part 2-- A personal, grassroots strategy, regardless of population trends...