And the Results Are In Again…

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

This is the season for church statistical reporting, as any pastor or church record keeper will tell you.  And the National Council of Churches has completed their massive annual statistical report called the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, 2009, edited by Eileen Lindner.  Because of reporting delays, the book actually reflects 2007 information, but there were nonetheless some surprising results.

Last year I reported on the Yearbook‘s findings, and this year I would like to hit some of the highlights again, focusing on the overall membership numbers of the 25 largest communions in the United States.

It’s worth noting, as the author herself does, that counting adherents to Christian bodies is notoriously difficult.  Many denominations and local churches do not focus on “membership” by the numbers, but rather “discipleship” by participation (For instance, several bodies report round numbers, like 2,500,000, which is an unlikely figure).  This is commendable, theologically speaking, but confounding, statistically speaking.  The Yearbook also tends to measure denominations (in the technical sense) or organizations of churches, rather than megachurches, inter-denominational, and non-denominational churches and their loosely-formed associations.  This shift from neatly defined denominations to porous, permeable networks reflects the changing, postdenominational culture of the U.S., which, in this case, throws off the denominationally-driven counting method used by the NCC.

Here are the numbers:

Membership of the top 25 churches in the U.S. totals 146,663,972 — down 0.49 percent from last year’s total of 147,382,460. The top 25 churches reported in the 2009 Yearbook are in order of size:

  1. The Roman Catholic Church, 67,117,06 members, down 0.59 percent. (Ranked 1)
  2. The Southern Baptist Convention, 16,266,920 members, down 0.24 percent. (Ranked 2)
  3. The United Methodist Church, 7,931,733 members, down 0.80 percent. (Ranked 3)
  4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5,873,408 members, up 1.63 percent .(Ranked 4)
  5. The Church of God in Christ, 5,499,875 members, no change reported. (Ranked 5)
  6. National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., 5,000,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 6)
  7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4,709,956 members, down 1.35 percent. (Ranked 7)
  8. National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., 3,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 8 )
  9. Presbyterian Church (USA), 2,941,412 members, down 2.79 percent (Ranked 9)
  10. Assemblies of God, 2,863,265 members, up 0.96 percent. (Ranked 10)
  11. African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
  12. National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
  13. Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
  14. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS), 2,383,084 members, down 1.44 percent. (Ranked 14)
  15. The Episcopal Church, 2,116,749 members, down 1.76 percent. (Ranked 15)
  16. Churches of Christ, 1,639,495 members, no change reported. (Ranked 16)
  17. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 17)
  18. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc., 1,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 17)
  19. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 1,400,000 members, down 3.01 percent. (Ranked 19)
  20. American Baptist Churches in the USA, 1,358,351, down 0.94 percent. (Ranked 20)
  21. Baptist Bible Fellowship International, 1,200,000, no change reported. (Ranked 21)
  22. United Church of Christ, 1,145,281 members, down 6.01 percent. (Ranked 22)
  23. Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1,092,169 members, up 2.12 percent (Ranked 23)
  24. Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, 1,071,616 members, no change reported. (Ranked 24)
  25. Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), 1,053,642 members, up 2.04 percent. (Ranked 25)

Here are some highlights:

  • As the report pointed out, the two largest denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention–who are usually robust and growing–actually lost members last year.  They joined most “mainline” Protestant bodies who have been hemorrhaging members for decades (see the UCC, which lost 6% of its membership in one year!).
  • It’s interesting to note how the Roman Catholic Church counts its “members.”  The 67 million Catholics are baptized Catholics, rather than professing, communicating, active members, which can be two different things.  For instance, if a person is baptized as a Catholic and then later becomes an active member in a Southern Baptist church, both bodies claim that person in their numbers.
  • The Jehovah’s Witnesses (which many would contend is not a church in the proper sense, but rather a religious sect) gained more than 2%.  But we must remember that the JW’s have tremendous, staggering turnover; certainly they are aggressive in proselytism, but they also lose nearly as many converts as they win.
  • As it is every year, the Presbyterian Church (USA), my own denomination, reports total adherents–including children–which falsely inflates the numbers.  They also don’t count membership losses due to congregations departing during a year, which would make the numbers even higher.

3 thoughts on “And the Results Are In Again…

  1. Many (vast majority of) SBC churches leave people on their church records for years and years and years. People can move to a different church and join a church in the new location and the old church will not remove them from their records. People can quit attending church and all but verbally deny the faith and they are still considered members.

    There are a few posts related to the issue here.

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