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September 21, 2002
Column #1099

Conservative Churches Grow While Liberals Sink

     Conservative evangelical churches grew dramatically in the 1990s, according to  the most comprehensive report ever published on membership and attendance at houses of worship in America, a study called "Religious Congregations and Membership, 2000." 

     The Mormon faith is America's fastest-growing major denomination, jumping 19.3 percent, rising from 3.5 million to 4.2 million. Why? Some 35,000 young men donate two years of their lives to share their faith. Their impressive commitment is inspirational.

     The Christian Churches, Churches of Christ grew 18.6 percent to 1.4 million. Similarly, the Assemblies of God whose goal is to become the largest Protestant denomination in America, soared 18.5 percent to 2,562,000. 

     However, smaller evangelical denominations grew more remarkably. The Church of God based in Cleveland, Tenn. jumped 27 percent to 238,000 and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a spinoff of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) spurted 31 percent to 64,000.

     By contrast, liberal Mainline Protestant denominations all suffered losses. 

     The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) fell from 3.5 million to 3.1 million, or 12 percent in a decade when the nation's population grew 13 percent. "Since 1965 we have lost half of our membership - a frightening loss," laments Parker Williamson who edits a conservative newspaper, "The Presbyterian Layman." Why?

     "The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Leadership no longer knows what it believes. Who is Jesus Christ? It took them two years to get a statement that is acceptable. They were asked to declare in Louisville that `Jesus Christ is Lord,' and they could not do it. 

     By contrast, Williamson noted that the denominations which are growing "are those with conviction and some discipline. They know what they believe and they expect something of their members. The Presbyterian Church is the exact opposite."

     Similarly, the United Methodist Church shrank 6.7 percent to 10.3 million even though it has churches in almost every county in the United States. It once was evangelical, but now is more focused on social justice issues such as racism. The United Church of Christ, the first to ordain homosexuals, sank 14 percent, and The Episcopal Church fell 5 percent to 2.3 million.

     Interestingly, however, there are conservative, evangelical churches in each of the Mainline denominations which are growing while liberal fellow churches hemorrhage. Conservative caucuses of these churches such as the Presbyterian Layman, Good News among Methodists and Episcopalians United will meet together in Indianapolis for the first time in October sponsored by the Institute for Religion and Democracy (See http://ird-renew.org)

     "Liberal theology commits suicide by de-emphasizing the need for personal conversion and the need to make new converts, while working on social justice issues," says IRD's Mark Tooley. "For conservatives the main objective of the church is to evangelize."

     That does not explain the enormous growth of the Catholic Church, America's largest church. It jumped from 53 million in 1990 to 62 million in 2000, a 16 percent growth spurt.. Catholics have grown primarily by immigration. Hispanics soared 57 percent in the decade, up 13 million people. Surprisingly, however, only 53 percent of them are Catholic. 

     Evangelical denominations push growth by opening up new churches. (Southern Baptists added 3,000 churches to grow by a million.) However, the Catholic Church closed 650 churches, primarily due to the shortage of priests. In fact, 2,000 Catholic churches have no full-time priest.

     Interestingly, this study was undertaken by the Glenmary Resarch Center, a Catholic evangelical group, in cooperation with 149 denominations and research groups. It provides data down to the county level. (See http://glenmary.org.)

     For the first time, it reported on Muslims in America, estimating 1,559,000 who attend 1,200 mosques. The American Muslim Council objected, claiming 6 million Muslims, saying many don't go to mosques. Similarly, the study counts 6 million Jews though most aren't religiously active.

     Southern Baptists reported 19.8 million adherents (a figure which includes children). With 16 million baptized members, it is America's largest Protestant church. 

     However, it is not widely known that included in that number are 4.9 million "non-resident members." I once asked then SBC President Adrian Rogers, "What is a non-resident member?"

     He grinned, "The FBI could not find them." 

     Then why do Southern Baptists allow their numbers to be so inflated? "We cannot tell churches what to do," was the lame reply of a spokesman. Only 5 million Southern Baptists attend church in a given week. Catholics provide no attendance numbers. Why not?

     Even worse are the black denominations, who claim millions of members, but refused to provide any hard numbers. This study pointedly has no figures for black churches.

     Surely, honesty in reporting membership is a minimum obligation of religious bodies.

 

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