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July 17, 1999
Column #933


     Which of these numbers are most significant about America's three largest churches?

  1. The United Methodist Church, with 8.4 million members, lost only 38,477 members last year, its smallest decrease in history.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 church rolls. 

     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.

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