Washington-Baltimore United Methodists voted this week to fight declining membership with a campaign for $5.5 million to build new churches and modernize and expand two church-owned summer camps.

Opponents of the campaign, which had been strongly supported by Bishop James K. Mathews, questioned the wisdom of such a move at this time, both for economic and strategic considerations.

Several delegates to the Baltimore Annual Conference pointed out that for the past several years conference churches have been unable to meet their apportionment -- the amount for national and regional church programs that each local congregation is assessed. According to the conference financial report, 91 percent of the apportionment was received last year, down 2 percent from the previous year.

With the double pressures of inflation and rising unemployment, any attempt to increase funding from local churches was out of the question, some delegates said.

"We have discussed this in our church and there is no way our church can absorb any more," said Mary Lill of Havre de Grace.

Another delegate questioned the wisdom of committing the conference to the campaign now because Mathews is retiring this summer. "Our new bishop may have other priorities," he said.

A new bishop will be selected by a regional jurisdictional conference in July.

The Baltimore conference's decision Tuesday to build new churches flies in the face of a trend among mainline churches to put their money into social programs rather than buildings.

Mathews acknowledged this in a formal statement. The church, he said, has passed through a period in which "it has been insisted that we should put money into people and not into buildings." But, he said, "to continue to devote ourselves to this point of view will be to undercut our ability sufficiently to respond to these human needs . . . New churches can precisely address human needs."

He cited as examples of such needs "some largely black rural settlements" and new housing developments in areas where there are not now United Methodist congregations.

But one delegate argued that "there are people not only in the Third World but also in this city who could use the $5.5 million to pay off the rent or buy food instead of building physical plants."

The vote by the 1,700 delegates was decided by a show of hands that was called for twice.

Included in the so called Time To Grow proposal is the establishment of a mission in Anacostia in 1983. Three years ago, United Methodists sold their 138-year-old Anacostia United Methodist Church to the Episcopal diocese because of dwindling membership. According to the Rev. Dr. Levi Miller, the United Methodist District Superintendent involved in the transaction, the Methodist congregation had failed to reach out to the community when its racial complexion began to change.

A supplementary report on the Time to Grow Fund indicates that $1 million of the $5.5 million goal would go for "attrition factors," including fund-raising costs and "administrative expense."

The Baltimore Conference includes 740 churches in the District and Maryland, with a total membership of about 247,000. According to a conference report, the church has sustained a 4 percent decline in membership the past decade.

In his annual report, Mathews acknowledged "some attrition in membership" in recent years, but added: "I count myself among those who are convinced that the church has, at the time, grown in depth."