The numbers matter — and so does doctrine — in Methodists' high-stakes meeting on LGBT issues

“Will the United Methodist Church be ripped apart?”

We considered that question in a recent post that critiqued a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story.

Now comes The Associated Press with a report — getting lots of play in newspapers across the nation — previewing the big meeting that starts this weekend:

The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly convenes Sunday for a high-stakes, three-day meeting likely to determine whether America’s second-largest Protestant denomination will fracture due to divisions over same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.

While other mainline Protestant denominations — such as the Episcopal and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches — have embraced gay-friendly practices, the Methodist church still bans them, even though acts of defiance by pro-LGBT clergy have multiplied and talk of a possible breakup of the church has intensified.

At the church’s upcoming General Conference in St. Louis, 864 invited delegates — split evenly between lay people and clergy — are expected to consider several plans for the church’s future. Several Methodist leaders said they expect a wave of departures from the church regardless of the decision.

“I don’t think there’s any plan where there won’t be some division, and some people will leave,” said David Watson, a dean and professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, who will be attending the conference.

The AP coverage is informative and filled with crucial details related to what’s at stake.

But two important facets of this scenario seem to get short shrift. Some of that, no doubt, is a matter of a wire service reporter with limited space. Trust me, I know — as a former AP newsman — that there’s never enough space to include every fact you’d like.

In this case, AP does a nice job of highlighting the various proposals that the Methodists will consider.

Still, I wish the global news organization had afforded more attention to doctrine and numbers.

At least on the doctrine, the report gives this basic information:

At the heart of the ideological conflict is an official UMC policy, dating from 1972, asserting that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

On the numbers side, thought, this paragraph seems to cry out for additional context:

Formed in a merger in 1968, the United Methodist Church claims about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the United States. In size, it trails only the Southern Baptist Convention among U.S. Protestant denominations.

What kind of context? How about the decades of numerical decline that the UMC has suffered?

For example, a recent Religion News Story story by Yonat Shimron noted:

A 2012 study by Donald R. House found that while the United Methodist Church has suffered through decades of declining worship attendance, the rate of decline has increased markedly since 2002. By 2030, an estimated 30 percent of the denomination’s churches — or about 10,000 congregations — may close.

The RNS article, by the way, was about a conservative Methodist church in South Carolina that is growing. A key section from just before the stats I just referenced:

Holding fast to that doctrine is one of the reasons Kersey thinks Mt. Horeb has been so successful: It has remained true to Scripture amid rapid societal change.

“I’m a believer that the church has to transform the culture, not the culture transforming the church,” he said.

Kersey argues that a slide away from orthodox Christian tenets is one of the reasons for the decline of mainline denominations — most prominently the United Methodist Church in the U.S.

In other words, it’s impossible to cover the Methodist meeting without asking where the church is holding steady (e.g., Africa and the Bible Belt) and where its numbers are falling.

For journalists interested in this story, ReligionLink’s Kelsey Dallas has a helpful primer on “How to cover the United Methodist sexuality conference from near or far.”

Check it out for sources and background.

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