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February 27, 2008
Column #1,383
The Competitive World of Religion
by Mike McManus

Nearly half of Americans have left the faith of their childhood according to an important new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Why?  America's congregations are much more competitive than many realize. A Baptist pastor has to spark growing attendance, or he is likely to be replaced.

Yet, in general, churches are losing their appeal. Those who are unaffiliated with any church are growing faster almost all denominations.  Only 7 percent of the 35,000 polled said they were raised in a home attending no church; that figure more than doubled to 16 percent of today's adults.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, only a quarter of the unaffiliated say they are atheist or agnostic.  Three-fourths simply say they are "nothing in particular," many of whom consider themselves spiritual, if not religious.

The Catholic Church has lost more members than any. While a third were born Catholic, only a quarter are Catholic today.  The Catholic Church remains America's largest, with 67.5 million members, but has lost 20+ million.  That loss is not noticeable due to an influx of 20 million Latino immigrants. Interestingly, there are 21 million more Catholics today than in 1965.

Ex-Catholics, like me, are America's second largest religious group and are a tenth of the population.  Most of us became Protestants.  Nevertheless, the percentage of Protestants in the nation has surprisingly plunged from two-thirds of the public in the 1970s to only 51 percent today.

The denominations which have suffered the greatest hemorrhages since 1965 are Mainline Protestants, according to data from the National Council of Churches who they are affiliated with. The 11 million United Methodists in 1965 dropped to under 8 million. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have plunged from 1.9 million to 462,000. Episcopalians fell from 3.4 million to 2.15 million, down 4 percent in just the last year. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is down from 4.3 million to 3 million.

Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are the growing ones. The Assemblies of God exploded from 572,000 in 1965 to 2.8 million. The Church of the Nazarene doubled from 343,000 to 630,000. Some are denominations which did not exist in 1965 such as the Evangelical Presbyterians and the Presbyterian Church of America, that spun off from the Presbyterian Church (USA) over its support of abortion.  The newest kids on the block are Anglicans, who have abandoned the Episcopal Church over gay ordination and liberal interpretation of Scripture.

However, it is the non-denominational churches which have expanded the most. Only 2 percent of Americans grew up in them, but 5 percent (11.6 million) attend today.  Many are in large megachurches, that offer scores of ministries which meet the needs of individuals better.  They can also hire more inspiring preachers.

Prof. Stephen Prothero, Chairman of Boston University's Religion Department, says that large numbers of Americans are leaving liturgical churches in favor of evangelical Christianity. "The trend is towards more personal religion, and evangelicals offer that," such as programs that are targeted at subgroups such as youth, he told the New York Times. "Those losing out are offering impersonal religion, and those winning are offering a smaller scale.  Mega-churches succeed not because they are mega but because they have smaller ministries inside."

He's right. Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of the 30,000 member Saddleback Church in suburban Los Angeles, was asked by the Dean of the National Cathedral, which is Episcopalian, what his secret was for such growth.

He replied, "The most important part of our church is not who shows up on Sunday, but the fact we have 3,600 small groups who meet in homes for Bible study, support, and  encouragement.  "That is the real church which stretches 100 miles from Santa Monica to Carlsbad, where 20,000 to 22,000 meet weekly."

What's more, the church has ordained 13,000 lay ministers who serve in 400 different ministries reaching to the community at large.

Some minority faiths are growing rapidly, such as Mormons who were only 1.7 million in 1965, but reported 5.8 million in 2006. Jehovah's Witnesses mushroomed from 330,000 in 1965 to 1.07 million.  Muslims are growing but still are only 1.4 million, less than the oft-claimed 6 million. Oddly, three African American denominations each report exactly 2.5 million members.

Last week I reported that 28 percent of Americans consider themselves Christian but did not attend a traditional church service last month.  That's a whopping 65 million adults. For example, 12 million worship in home churches that are unaffiliated with a larger church. 

It's time for shrinking churches to ask their members how they can be better served.

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