Daniel Burke at Religion News Service reports on the current edition of the "Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches." This annual publication "is considered one of the most reliable recorders of church growth and decline in North America." The yearbook's findings are a mixed bag of positive and negative depending on your particular biases. For example, anyone hoping to see in the data the rapid secularization of America will be disappointed.
Here's the yearbook's list of the top 10 denominational bodies:
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
Some observers of this data have noted the huge drop-off after membership in the Roman Catholic Church. However, it should be noted that the total number of Protestant adherents is 54.7 million. But more to the point, notice we're talking about numbers in the millions.
The headline of Burke's newstory should be noted: "Big Churches Post Small Membership Losses." And here's the lead sentence: "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.'"
At first glance this seems like good news for proponents of secularization. But given all the press over the last year or so covering the rise of the "New Atheists" and secularization theory, what I find newsworthy is the sheer number of churchgoers in North America: "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."
There are 146.6 million professing church members in North America. And a 0.5 percent decrease in membership from last year seems hardly proof-positive that Americans are taking a sharp turn away from religion as some pundits have concluded.
Now, I am aware that claiming church membership does not mean that a person is sincere in his devotion toward God. And some of the religious communities of choice are unfortunate (see below). However, this data helps dispell the myth of secularization and remind us that people are inherently "religious" by virtue of being created in the image of God.
But if secularization isn't necessarily happening, the story also notes a troubling trend for champions of Christian orthodoxy: "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)."
At minimum what I see in this story is that talk of religion is by no means on the sidelines of American culture. As Peter Berger has argued, much of the world, including America, is "fiercely religious"--with no signs of becoming less so in the near future. Christians have a tremendous opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to this "fiercely religious people."
The question is, Are we ready?