Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mainline Decline is Over!

Not really. But things are comparatively stable at the moment.

This, at least, according to the membership numbers gathered by the National Council of Churches and described at the Religion News Blog. To summarize their findings in a sentence: all the familiar trends in American Christianity continue, but slowly. For example, the number of Roman Catholic faithful increased by .57% this year, apparently on the strength of disaffected former AELC pastors. The Southern Baptist Convention declined by .42%, probably because Richard Land talks too much. And so forth.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declined by 1.96%, the Missouri Synod by 1.08%. We expect the Steadfast types are gloating over their victory.

Now, these numbers are notoriously tricky. They depend upon self-reporting by the denominations, which isn't consistent. Different groups define and measure membership in different ways. Several of the largest denominations, notably African-American, Pentecostal and Greek Orthodox church bodies, declined to provide updated membership figures at all. And "membership," at least in the short term, is quite different from active participation in the life of a congregation. We Lutherans will (eventually) delete from our rolls those members who have neither communed not contributed for several years; others may not. And so forth.

A couple of standouts:
  • The biggest winners among the top 25 church bodies were the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists, increasing membership by more than 4%.
  • The Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. was the biggest loser, on paper, at a stunning 59.6%. It's not that the faithful are fleeing the pews, just that the denomination has changed its reporting standards. Most parish pastors have experienced something like this, when they "clean out the rolls." It's a blow to the ego, but you get over it.
  • The Presbyterian Church USA lost 2.61% of its membership, a fact which is put into perspective by the Episcopal Church's loss of 2.48% in the middle of a schism.
Anyway, there's lots more where this came from, but you have to pay $55 for the NCC Yearbook.


Anonymous said...

"Xtian Century" in October 2010 reported serious losses in church attendance.

Father Anonymous said...

Those numbers, in my experience, are more likely to reflect the current state of affairs. On the other hand, they are subject to all the same caveats about self-reporting and institutional differences.

The bottom line, however, is that if the numbers have a bias, it is almost certain to be upward -- meaning that (from my perspective, at least) things are worse than they appear.