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METHODISTS IN UTAH SEE YOUTHFUL TREND

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With more than 4,000 young adults in Salt Lake City this week as part of the United Methodist Church's Youth '95 program, it is hard to imagine that the denomination is facing declining numbers.

But nationally, 61 percent of United Methodists are over the age of 50 - and less than 3 percent are under the age of 24. Church leaders are not lost on the prospects for the faith's future if membership in the younger ranks doesn't re-bound."The United Methodist Church has had a steady decline in membership since 1965," said Craig Miller, director of new congregational development for the church's General Board of Discipleship. "But some areas are reversing that trend."

Unlikely as it may seem, Utah is exciting church leaders with a period of new growth.

The Rev. Edward Paup, assistant to the bishop of the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church, looks at Utah as a previously untapped frontier. Bucking national trends, Utah congregations often have many young members, especially in areas like Park City, West Jordan and Sandy. Even St. George, with its reputation as a retirement community, has a congregation filled with faces of all ages.

"Perhaps the scope of growth is a little different because we have not have had as many United Methodists in Utah as in other areas of the country," the Rev. Paup said. "And when they see the opportunity to bring new people into the church, it causes enthusiasm."

The Rev. Jim Cowell of Sandy's Hilltop United Methodist Church says that excitement and vision is part of the church's success in Utah. On his desk sits a $50 check donated by a church member to help with local building, and a letter from a family in Cedar City wishing to join a congregation.

"There is a real excitement about reaching people for Christ in Utah," the Rev. Cowell said.

And, he said, the key to that excitement and success is new congregational development.

"Any congregation that grows establishes new churches," the Rev. Cowell said. "I will keep shouting the need for it."

His shout has been heard in Utah. Besides 19 existing churches and more than 5,000 members throughout the state, two fellowships have recently been formed in Orem, and both Moab and the Layton/Kaysville area are projected sites for establishing congregations.

As director of the Utah-Wyoming church extension society's Builders' Club, the Rev. Cowell has also seen the development of congregations for members of ethnic minorities.

Salt Lake has a Korean-American congregation. Tongan congregations meet in Orem, Salt Lake and Kearns, and Salt Lake has an Indian fellowship that conducts its meetings in the Urdi language.

"It's quite evident that this is a community where we expect some kind of growth for some time," the Rev. Paup said. "We do feel very positive about the increase taking place in various racial and ethnic groups. But that also increases the need and hopefully, in the future, we will have the opportunity to reach others."

Efforts at boosting the church's 8 million worldwide membership include continuing the sense of openness that welcomes all who feel worthy to take communion and recognizing the baptism rites of other religions. Another focus is age.

"The primary issue facing the United Methodist Church and other mainline churches is how does the generation that has been the most faithful and loyal to the church pass that on to the generation that is following them?" asks Miller.

Some of the difficulty lies in serving adequately the five living generations' varying wants and needs, Miller said. Older generations have been served well, but he acknowledges it is the younger generations who may have been ignored. And this has the United Methodist Church listening and, when needed, making changes.

Sometimes, it is as simple as music. Where older generations may appreciate an organist playing Bach, some of the younger members favor hymns accompanied by guitars.

Churches that are involved in the transition may have one classical service and one service oriented to younger members of the congregation, including ministers who lose their robes in favor of a simple dress or a shirt and tie, Miller said. Some congregations even meet on a weekday evening rather than attend the usual Sunday service. Children's classes are sometimes taught with computers and other high-tech visual aids.

Miller said the "transitioning" is not about losing the old traditions, but adding on and making new ways for people to get involved.

"We're listening to people and learning how to administer to them in the name of Jesus Christ," Miller said.

The Rev. Paup is so excited about the growth of the United Methodist Church in the Beehive State, he is bringing the annual yearly conference for assistants to bishops to Salt Lake City in October.

"A lot of people don't know what's happening in Utah. I think it's time they hear that story."