July 17, 1999
TRENDS IN CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Which of these numbers are most significant
about America's three largest churches?
- The United Methodist Church, with 8.4 million members, lost only
38,477 members last year, its smallest decrease in history.
- The Southern Baptist Convention reported its first membership
decline since 1926, a drop of 162,000 members, bringing its membership
down to 15.7 million.
- The Roman Catholic Church grew by a half million last year, from
61,564,000 to 62,018,000.
The Southern Baptist figure appears the most
important, because it reversed seven decades of continual growth.
Actually, the decline appears to be a one-year anomaly due to the
elimination of double counting of some churches which were affiliated with
two state conventions, because they were located near state lines. The new
numbers are simply more accurate.
In fact, Baptist worship attendance grew in 1998
by 3% to 5,399,000 and church giving grew 5% to $7.45 billion. Sunday School
attendance grew slightly to 8,148,000. These are positive trends.
The more significant Southern Baptist Convention
(SBC) fact is rarely reported upon. Of the 15.7 million reported
members of the denomination, 5 million are ''non-resident members.''
In 1988, I remember asking Dr. Adrian Rogers,
who had just been elected SBC President, ''What is a non-resident member?''
He replied, ''The FBI couldn't find them.''
A more technical answer came from SBC
statistician Cliff Sharp: ''A non-resident member lives too far away to
attend, such as a student off at college.'' A vastly larger group
moved away or changed churches but did not remove their names from Baptist
Ghosts should be eliminated from the rolls.
There are not 15.7 million Southern Baptists, but 10.7 million.
That is still an impressive number, the largest
Protestant denomination in America. Compared to 10.7 million, a Sunday
School attendance of 8.15 million looks great.
A much greater inflation of membership can be
seen in the National Baptist Convention (NBC) the African-American
denomination which has been claiming 8.2 million members.
Scandals swirled around its president, Henry J.
Lyons, who was recently convicted of fraud, taking funds from the church for
his personal use and for mistresses. Press stories raised questions
about the size of the denomination, suggesting there were more likely only
one to two million members.
Dr. Nancy Ammerman, a researcher with
Hartford Seminary, recently went to NBC's new Nashville headquarters, built
by Lyon. She was shocked to discover, ''There is no denominational
headquarters. There is a building, but there is no national staff.
I found an empty building. I rang a doorbell, and the only person who was
answering the phone by herself, would not open the door.'' Indeed,
when I called, I only got a recording, referring me to other numbers if I
wanted to come to the NBC convention. No one is counting church membership.
Other denominations with spongy numbers are the
Orthodox whose counts include the third generation of immigrants, though
they may not attend. Therefore, Eileen Lindner, editor of the widely
respected annual Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, has gotten a
grant from the Lilly Endowment to help denominations develop a consistent
definition of membership, and to offer technical aid to denominations whose
number gathering has been weak.
By contrast, United Methodist membership numbers
are credible, because local churches pay apportionments to the national
denomination based on size. Thus, a church with 400 members on
its rolls, but only 200 attending regularly, has reason to be honest. ''You
can believe their numbers because there is an incentive to not pad the
rolls. This is the case with many of the mainline denominations
Episcopal, Presbyterian,'' says Ammerman.
Their problem is that of a massive hemorrhaging
of members, a loss of a third in 30 years.
Roman Catholics have a totally different way of
defining membership. In contrast to Baptists who only baptize
adults, Catholics baptize infants and tend to count families, not
individuals, according to Professor Brian Froehle of Georgetown University.
Millions of Catholics who no longer attend Mass still identify themselves as
Catholics, if asked.
Hispanics have flooded Catholic churches in
border states without registering as members. Southwestern dioceses
tend to estimate membership.
The overall growth of Catholics masks the
fact that as Catholics get older, many become Protestant. Gallup Polls
reveal that 29 percent of Americans under age 30 are Catholic vs. only 23
percent of those over 50. By contrast, the percentage who are Protestant
rises from 45 percent of those under age 30 to 64 percent over age 50.
The good news is that church attendance in
America is two to four times that of Europe.
Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.