Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Big Churches Posting Small Membership Losses

  • Daniel Burke Religion News Service
  • 2009 3 Mar
Big Churches Posting Small Membership Losses

Membership has waned in the nation's largest Christian bodies -- the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention -- while mainline Protestant churches continue to shrink, according to the "Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches."

With more than 67 million members, the Catholic Church continues to far outnumber other American denominations. But Catholics lost nearly 400,000 members between 2006 and 2007, according to the yearbook. The Southern Baptist Convention, which ranks No. 2 in the nation with more than 16 million members, declined by about 40,000 at the same time, according to the yearbook.

Meanwhile, every large mainline Protestant church reported losses.

The United Church of Christ -- President Obama's home denomination -- suffered the deepest drop percentage-wise, with a 6 percent decline to 1.1 million.

Produced annually by the National Council of Churches, the yearbook is considered one of the most reliable recorders of church growth and decline in North America. The membership figures were compiled by denominations in 2007 and reported to the yearbook in 2008, according to the NCC.

The Rev. Eileen Lindner, the yearbook's longtime editor, writes that counting church members is an "imprecise art."

"This lack of precision derives, in part, from the wide diversity of practice among the churches concerning the definition of `membership,'"

Lindner writes in the yearbook's introduction. For example, many Orthodox and historically black churches base their membership estimates on the ethnic or racial population in surrounding neighborhoods, according to Lindner.

In addition, some denominations rarely adjust their numbers. The National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., has been reporting 3.5 million members every year since 1987; likewise, membership in the National Baptist convention U.S.A., Inc., has been unchanged at an even 5 million for several years.

Of the nation's 25 largest denominations, only four are growing, according to the yearbook: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (up 1.6 percent to 5.9 million); the Assemblies of God (up 1 percent to 2.9 million); Jehovah's Witnesses (up 2 percent to 1.1 million) and the Church of God of Cleveland, Tenn. (up 2 percent to 1 million).

Membership of the top 25 churches in the U.S. totals 146.6 million, down 0.5 percent from 147 million the year before, according to the yearbook.

After the UCC, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church posted the largest percentage of members lost (down 3 percent to 1.4 million), followed by the Presbyterian Church (USA) (down 2.8 percent to 2.9 million); the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (down 1.4 percent to 2.4 million); and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (down 1.4 percent to 4.7 million).

The 10 largest Christian bodies reported in the 2009 yearbook are:

  1. Roman Catholic Church, 67 million members
  2. Southern Baptist Convention, 16.3 million members
  3. United Methodist Church, 7.9 million members
  4. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5.9 million members
  5. Church of God in Christ, 5.5 million members
  6. National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., 5 million members
  7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4.7 million members
  8. National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., 3.5 million members
  9. Presbyterian Church (USA), 2.9 million members
  10. Assemblies of God, 2.9 million members

c. 2009 Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Original publication date: March 3, 2009