Saturday, November 8, 2008

U.S. Churches that are growing and shrinking

Before I continue on my previous thread about Proposition 8 supporters, let me interject something about religion in the U.S. in general.

A little background: I recently read a post from Heather entitled How do Christians move forward after the election?. When I shared it in Google Reader, it created a FriendFeed entry which sparked a discussion - actually, several discussions, including one on Proposition 8 (yes, I introduced the topic) that prompted this response from Karoli:

Christians should start [worrying] about dwindling membership, tithes and offerings after their disgraceful conduct in california.

Karoli may not (or may) have realized that church membership declines has been a topic of conversation within the churches for decades. I promised to round up some statistics, and here they are, courtesy a February 2008 article in the Christian Post. Here are the stats:

Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints...reported the largest membership increases in a year, according to the National Council of Churches' 2008 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.

Although Jehovah's Witnesses currently rank 25th in size with over 1.06 million members, they reported a 2.25 percent increase in membership since the publication of the 2007 Yearbook. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – also known as the Mormon church – grew 1.56 percent....

Other bodies in the newly published top 25 largest churches list that reported membership increases include The Catholic Church with a 0.87 percent increase; the Southern Baptist Convention with a 0.22 percent increase; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church with a 0.21 percent rise; and the Assemblies of God with a 0.19 percent growth.

The greatest losses in membership were reported by The Episcopal Church, which dropped 4.15 percent in members, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which decreased by 2.36 percent....

American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also experienced large losses in membership, dropping 1.82 percent and 1.58 percent, respectively....

The United Methodist Church saw a 0.99 percent decrease but the mainline group remains the third largest church body with nearly 8 million members.

Unfortunately, they didn't include gain/loss figures for my group, but they did include total church population for the 25 largest groups that the National Council of Churches surveyed. In case you're curious, here they are:

1. The Catholic Church – 67,515,016
2. Southern Baptist Convention – 16,306,246
3. The United Methodist Church – 7,995,456
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – 5,779,316
5. The Church of God in Christ – 5,499,875
6. National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. – 5,000,000
7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – 4,774,203
8. National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. – 3,500,000
9. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – 3,025,740
10. Assemblies of God – 2,836,174
11. African Methodist Episcopal Church – 2,500,000
12. National Missionary Baptist Convention of America – 2,500,000
13. Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. – 2,500,000
14. The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) – 2,417,997
15. Episcopal Church – 2,154,572
16. Churches of Christ – 1,639,495
17. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America – 1,500,000
18. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc. – 1,500,000
19. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church – 1,443,405
20. American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. – 1,371,278
21. United Church of Christ – 1,218,541
22. Baptist Bible Fellowship International – 1,200,000
23. Christian Churches and Churches of Christ – 1,071,616
24. The Orthodox Church in America – 1,064,000
25. Jehovah’s Witnesses – 1,069,530

Two important caveats apply to these numbers:

  1. The numbers are not necessarily comparative. Whenever you start to do a study of church membership, you soon discover that each church uses different criteria to define what "membership" means.

  2. The listings are not meant to catalogue all religious activity in the United States. In fact, as the article notes, even the inclusion of the LDS and Watchtower statistics was controversial.
But back to Karoli's speculation about dwindling membership. It's interesting to note that the two main religous bodies that were identified with Proposition 8 were recording significant increases in membership, with Mormons enjoying a 1.56% increase in a single year, and the Catholics enjoying a 0.87% increase in a single year. I don't know the stance of the Assemblies of God or the AME Zion churches on Proposition 8, and the Jehovah's Witnesses adopt an apolitical attitude for theological reasons (although there are exceptions).

Now I can't claim to understand why some churches are growing and others are declining.

Some attribute gains/losses to a church's conservative/liberal orientation (i.e. the conservative churches are growing, the liberal churches are shrinking), but this analysis doesn't make sense for the Jehovah's Witnesses (as noted above, they are apolitlca), or for the Roman Catholics, who are all over the place on the political spectrum based upon their theological position. (I have a Catholic friend in Tennesse who would literally protest abortions at one moment, then protest nuclear power in the next. Try to fit that into your average Republican-Democratic political continuum.)

Some attribute gains/losses to a church's theological stance (i.e. the true churches are growing, while the ones who are conforming to the world are shrinking), but that explanation doesn't hold water either. Of the top four growing churches - Watchtower, LDS, Catholic, Southern Baptist - only two of the four are considered "orthodox" by many Christian bodies, and the other two are unique bodies.

And there could be other causes at work here - cultural, ethnic, urbanization, specific issues within each church, etc. But regardless of cause, this is where some church bodies in the United States stood in 2008.

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