And the Results Are In…

Monday, March 17, 2008

(A Note: Next Monday, March 24, I will begin a week of study leave and will not publish a new blog post.  However, the following week, March 31, I will begin a three-part series on the role of women in church leadership.  Have a blessed Easter!)

And the results are in…

A few weeks back, the National Council of Churches (NCC) released the results of its Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, an annual, far-reaching survey of North American denominations.  Although you have to buy the actual book for the complete results, they do publish the 25 largest church bodies and their change in membership over the last year, which is perhaps the most fascinating info byte anyway! 

I would like to share those results and make some comments that hopefully will shed some light on the landscape of Christianity in North America.  Below is a table from the NCC Web site with all the pertinent numbers.

Denomination Name Current Ranking (Ranking in 2007 ed.) Inclusive Membership Percentage Increase/Decrease
The Catholic Church 1(1)             67,515,016 0.87%
Southern Baptist Convention 2(2)             16,306,246 0.22%
The United Methodist Church 3(3)                7,995,456 -0.99%
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 4(4)                5,779,316 1.56%
The Church of God in Christ 5(5)                5,499,875 0.00%
National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. 6(6)                5,000,000 0.00%
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 7(7)                4,774,203 -1.58%
National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. 8(8)                3,500,000 0.00%
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 9(9)                3,025,740 -2.36%
Assemblies of God 10(10)                2,836,174 0.19%
African Methodist Episcopal Church 11(11)                2,500,000 0.00%
National Missionary Baptist Convention of America 11(11)                2,500,000 0.00%
Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. 11(11)                2,500,000 0.00%
The Lutheran Church– Missouri Synod (LCMS) 14(14)                2,417,997 -0.94%
Episcopal Church 15(15)                2,154,572 -4.15%
Churches of Christ 16(16)                1,639,495 0.00%
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America 17(17)                1,500,000 0.00%
Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc. 17(17)                1,500,000 0.00%
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church 19(19)                1,443,405 0.21%
American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. 20(20)                1,371,278 -1.82%
United Church of Christ 21(21)                1,218,541 -0.47%
Baptist Bible Fellowship International 22(22)                1,200,000 0.00%
Christian Churches and Churches of Christ 23(23)                1,071,616 0.00%
The Orthodox Church in America 24(24)                1,064,000 0.00%
Jehovah’s Witnesses 25(25)                1,069,530 2.25%
TOTAL       147,382,460 0.24%
Percentage changes in italic/bold signify that membership was not updated from previous reported

My Selected Comments (by above ranking):

#1 The (Roman) Catholic Church: The RCC seems to be holding its own in the American religious landscape.  As is the case with each church body, however, the numbers need a little explanation.  Sixty-seven million is not their “active membership” (i.e., the number of people who have actually gone through Confirmation or R.C.I.A.).  It is (I believe) the number of anyone who has ever been baptized as a Catholic in the United States.  That means that many lapsed Catholics and those who have switched preferences are included in that number.  On a related note, an AP article that followed up this report hinted that much of the cradle growth of the RCC is due to (Catholic) Hispanic immigrants who happen to still be reproducing (sorry, I can’t find that link).

#2 Southern Baptist Church (as well as #6, #8, #11/11, #20, & #22)  Is it just me, or are there lots of Baptists in America?

#4 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: It’s possible that the Mormons may have gotten a boost of positive press from Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign last year.  With more than 1.5% membership gain in one year, they prove at least one thing: Even if you have defective, unchristian theology, you can still grow as a “church” if you just engage in relentless evangelism.

#5 Church of God in Christ (as well as #10 & #17): Is it just me, or are there lots of Pentecostals in America, too?

#8 National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.: They have exactly 3,500,000 members?  Not 3,499,999 or 3,500,001?  Come on.  Let’s be honest in counting.  See also #11 (3-way tie), #17 (also a 3-way tie), & #22 for what you would call an “educated guess” in membership reporting.

#9 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): While being scrupulous with membership reporting (contrast with the above comment), the PCUSA engages in a little sleight of hand in order to still make the top ten.  The number reported (3,025,740) refers to “total adherents,” rather than “active members.”  This bloated figure includes “baptized members” (babies and kids in church school who have not made a profession of faith and who are therefore, categorically, not Christians).  The actual active membership of the PCUSA is 2,171,775–far less than the 3 million+ reported.  Also, the reported decline in membership (-2.36%) paints a rosier picture than reality.  The Layman Online–a publication notable for its borderline yellow journalism–has done a little sleuth work on this one.  When counting its membership losses for the year, the PCUSA did not count those 3 dozen congregations who left the denomination last year!  In actuality, the PCUSA lost 95,343 members in 2007 (roughly the size of the Duluth, Minnesota, metro), a change of -4.4%.

#15 The Episcopal Church: On a more serious note, it is tragic that such a fine tradition that shaped America’s early days is rapidly collapsing into a tiny, irrelevant sect.

#17 Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (and #24, The Orthodox Church in America or OCA): In 2006, the OCA gained a whopping 6% membership, the largest of any church body.  I’m disappointed to see they apparently didn’t report their numbers this year.  The big story from last year is that people (especially young, restless, spiritually-inclined people) are interested in this ancient–and sometimes foreign to us North Americans–form of Christianity.

#25 Jehovah’s Witnesses(JW’s): It is a sad commentary that a group that engages in shoddy theology and dishonest biblical interpretation had the biggest gain of any religious group this year (+2.25%).  It wasn’t the great traditions that offer a vital form of historic Christianity who grew last year (like Lutheranism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Reformed Christianity, or Catholicism), but a sect.  Sad.  On the upside, the same AP article I cited earlier (sorry, still no link) reported that the JW’s also have the largest turnover of any religious group.  They need to have lots of new converts to replace the roughly two-thirds that leave the group every year. 

Some General Comments:

  • Denominations (as we have previously understood them as regulatory bodies) are playing less and less of a role in public life than they did 40-50 years ago.  The focus is (rightly?) returning to local congregations (often independent, non-denominational), where the kingdom is actually lived out.
  • Denominational affiliation or even identification with a particular tradition is waning among Americans.  These denominations are much more porous as the younger generations seek authenticity, meaningful worship, and community above denominational loyalty.  And young people often do not seek out “membership”–as counted in these numbers–and prefer simply participation in the life of a church.
  • Many of the declines in membership are due to back-door losses.  That is, many people drift away from churches altogether, joining that 16% slice of Americans who have no religious identification at all.

6 thoughts on “And the Results Are In…

  1. “babies and kids in church school who have not made a profession of faith and who are therefore, categorically, not Christians”

    Whether to count children as Christian’s after baptism or after POF varies with ones doctrine. PCUSA website explains it here:

    Please respect others views on this subject.

    On the other hand, you miss the fact that many Sessions of PCUSA are reluctant to remove someone from the active list. A better number is to look at worship attendance.

  2. “…the younger generations seek authenticity, meaningful worship, and community above denominational loyalty.” Well, this is one time that I have to tell you that you seem to have come to the wrong conclusion. What you are describing is not so much a trend as a “status quo.” The “older generations” that are omitted in your blog have direct experience with the sixties generation – people who spoke up about authenticity – although many may have not been correct in their actions. This was a time not remembered by over half the population now, but for those who do remember, your blog statements amount to “been there, done that.” The “radical” sixties generation has, over the years, modified goals and become somewhat accepting of what is required to continue as a society.
    Commitment is one characteristic that is highly valued to some of these same people, even though some have already hurt themselves by being non-committal. Participation in a denomination represents a commitment. Change must take place within the context of commitment, because if it doesn’t, coherence breaks down.
    With the delayed maturity of today’s young, the phrase has changed from “don’t trust anyone over thirty” to (sometimes) “don’t trust anyone under forty.” (Sorry).
    Unchallenged confidence, lack of commitment, and absence of loyalty are almost always redirected through maturity and the passage of time. It takes patience for these things to change, and it is foolish to make changes for a changing and maturing portion of the population, particularly for a portion of the population that is looking for hope, acceptance and steadfast faith.
    These statistics have huge and complex implications for denominations beyond what appears to be on the surface.
    Decisions need to be made, and they need to be made with commitment and loyalty to some traditions. Denominational independence, for the sake of the “younger generations” who are likely to change their perspectives, is too much, too soon. True, the early church was not denominational, but the letters of the early church leaders reflect the importance of inter-Christian ties and procedures. The letters are groundwork for cohesion, and even though the results were, after centuries, wide variance, the denominations now provide some structure to various cohesive groups. – Jane

  3. Jim,

    Thanks for your comments. My statement about children and babies being non-Christians is probably a little extreme; some little kids are more faithful than grown-ups who have made professions of faith!

    In my own understanding of our Reformed Christian faith, baptism is becoming part of the covenant community; however, it is dangerous to equate baptism with salvation, which comes only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Baptism is best thought of as a symbol of God’s initiating (electing) grace that reaches us even when we are helpless. Although I believe pedobaptism is biblical, there are liabilities with separating baptism and profession of faith (primarily, that people don’t feel the need for personal faith). But, that is just my own personal doctrine.

    I guess my “categorically” modifier refers to denominational counting, rather than personal faith. And it actually points to the slippery nature of counting and reporting church membership numbers. You are absolutely correct that we should be looking at worship attendance (a better barometer of participation in the body of Christ) than names on a membership list.


  4. Jim and Ray,
    Why are we counting at all? Even taking worship attendance as a “better” number is faulty. The wheat and the tares will both come to worship.

  5. Pingback: And the Results Are In Again… « Sinaiticus

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