NEW YORK — The nation’s two largest Christian denominations are experiencing slight but statistically significant membership declines, according to the latest edition of the National Council of Churches’ Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.
Released Feb. 23, the 77th annual compilation of church statistics reports membership in the Roman Catholic Church declined 0.59 percent last year. It also reported a 0.24 percent drop in the Southern Baptist Convention’s membership.
Roman Catholics are still America’s largest denomination, with 67 million members. Southern Baptists still rank second, with 16.2 million. Given the groups’ respective sizes, neither decline is earth-shattering, authors of the study said. But the report raises eyebrows because both groups have in the past grown steadily but now may be joining virtually every mainline church in experiencing persistent membership decline.
According to the 2009 Yearbook, just four of the 25 largest faith groups grew last year. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is up 1.63 percent, to 5.8 million members in North America. The Assemblies of God are up 0.96 percent, to 2.8 million members. Jehovah’s Witnesses grew 2.12 percent and now number 1.09 million. The Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) is up 2.04 percent, to 1.05 million.
According to membership figures compiled by churches in 2007 and reported to the Yearbook in 2008, the Catholic Church lost 398,000 members in a year, while Southern Baptists lost nearly 40,000.
Churches with the highest rate of membership loss include the United Church of Christ (down 6 percent,) the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (down 3.1 percent) and the Presbyterian Church (USA), down 2.79 percent.
While still losing members, the American Baptist Churches USA cut its previous decline rate in half, from 1.82 percent to 0.94 percent.
Overall membership in the top 25 groups declined 0.49 percent, to about 146 million.
Eileen Lindner, editor of the 2009 Yearbook, said the annual ranking is often viewed as a gauge for relative vitality of communions reporting either increases or declines in membership, but in reality counting those numbers “is a rather imprecise art.”
Some churches, Lindner said in a title essay published in the new Yearbook, count children who are baptized as infants as members, while others wait until they are confirmed. Still others rely on a “born-again” experience or “believer’s baptism” for counting members.
Some churches, particularly Orthodox and African-American communions, estimate their membership based on numbers of their constituents living in a community. The National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., sixth-largest faith group with 5 million members; National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., with 3.5 million members and ranked No. 8; and Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., ranked 11th with 2.5 million members, all fall under that category.
Further complicating the picture, Lindner said, many church members relocate, join other congregations or drop out of church without removing their names from the rolls. Some traditions, by assessing dues based on the number of parishioners, encourage local churches to cull their membership rolls regularly. But others, like those that reward numerical growth, encourage padding.
Non-denominational and megachurch congregations often permit or encourage people to attend but not join. Emergent-church fellowships don’t always place emphasis on formal membership, but may instead measure church effectiveness by the number of meals served or other forms of ministry.
Studies show younger generations are either mistrustful of institutions or find them irrelevant, making them less likely to join a church.
Lindner said all this calls for rethinking church membership as a measure of congregational health.
In the 1960s, for example, growth of evangelical churches while mainline churches declined prompted some to believe that conservative churches grow because they maintain traditional teaching and place high expectations on members while liberal churches, by nature, become secularized and tepid.
Later studies attributed those patterns to demographics, suggesting that higher birth rates and younger memberships explain growth and decline better than theology.
Still others said declining numbers forecast a gradual secularization of American culture similar to what happened in Europe following World War II.
“Today it appears that another dimension of this discussion has been opened,” Lindner wrote. “Now a variety of expressions of church has become a part of the American religious landscape, and these expressions have begun to alter, once again, the place of numerical assessment of patterns of religious affiliations.”
“Whether or not church membership counts remain the most common measure of church vitality in the long term may be open to question,” she wrote. “There is little doubt that the topic of church membership and its meaning are undergoing a review in the life and organization of many church bodies.”
She said Rick Warren, for example, a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life, has reasserted the importance of membership by developing an elaborate “Covenant of Membership” for those who would affiliate with his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.
The 2009 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches is available for order at http://www.electronicchurch.org/.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)