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March 20, 2004
Column #1,177

Church Attendance in America

     I'm a numbers guy, who finds publications like the new Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 2004 - absolutely fascinating. Published annually by The National Council of Churches, it provides a quick snapshot of the major denominations with their histories, current leadership, seminaries and financial data for 59 denominations.

     Of course, the largest is The Catholic Church (which is no longer called the Roman Catholic Church) with 66.4 million members, an increase of 1.1 million in 2002 over 2001. However, Catholics count baptized infants as members while the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination with 16.2 million (up 1.2 percent), only counts those making an adult profession of faith.

     On the other hand, Southern Baptist data includes 5.1 million "non-resident members." Who are they? Other than college students and soldiers who are away, they are people who have left. Southern Baptists are really a denomination of 11.2 million, of whom 5.8 million worship on Sunday and 4.1 million attend Sunday School, according to SBC statistician Cliff Tharp. By contrast, only a third of Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday, 22 million, according to experts at Catholic University. That number is down, due to the Catholic scandal, the priest shortage and due to the closing of 3,300 churches since 1996, a 15 percent decline, while the number of Catholics grew by 5 million in those years, mostly from immigration. (Last week Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley asked Catholics to face the reality that declining attendance will force him to shutter scores of the archdiocese's 357 churches.)

     There is a lot of air and wishful thinking in the figures of African American denominations. The Yearbook reports that the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. has 5 million members, but does not say how many pastors the church has. I called its Nashville headquarters to ask some questions. An operator answered the phone but as the only staff person present, suggested I call the NBC's President, a pastor in New Orleans. He was unavailable.

     Is it merely coincidence that the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the National Missionary Baptist Convention and the Progressive National Baptist Convention EACH have 2.5 million members? And that none gained or lost a member in years? I don't think so. Neither wants the real numbers to be known. A foundation offered a grant several years ago to enable black denominations to develop county-by-county data. They refused.

     Two other broad trends can be seen in the Yearbook numbers. Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations are growing. The Assemblies of God, for example, with 2,687,000 members grew a healthy 2.3 percent in 2002. And it has maintained that growth for three decades. There were only 1.5 million Assemblies members in 1970. Seventh Day Adventists grew from 700,000 to 1,048,000 in those years.

     In fact there are millions of evangelicals in new independent congregations which are not even reported in the Yearbook. The World Christian Encyclopedia lists churches with 78 million members, many of which did not exist 30 years ago. For example there are 700,000 in 3,000 new "seeker churches" patterned on the Willow Creek Church outside of Chicago.

     By contrast, Mainline Protestant denominations are shrinking with the exception of the American Baptists who grew 2.9 percent in 2002 after years of declines. The United Methodist Church plunged from 11.5 million members in 1965 to only 8.2 million in 2002. The Presbyterian Church (USA) plummeted 42 percent in those years and The Episcopal Church fell by a third.

What explains those trends?

     Diane Knippers, a conservative Episcopalian who runs the Institute for Religion & Democracy explains: "The evangelical community is more confident about the truth of the Christian faith and its goals while the Mainline churches all too often are slipping into a vague spirituality or political activism. By contrast the evangelical churches have a focus on outreach, evangelism and inviting people to church."

     Prof. Nancy Ammerman of Boston University differs: "Part of the answer is that Mainline churches keep track of their numbers and notice when their members leave, because national dues are apportioned based on membership figures. There is a financial incentive to decline, not to pad your rolls. In evangelical churches there is an opposite incentive. If you had 200 members last year, baptized 10 and 15 joined the church, you say you have 225, and you don't pay attention to 40 who moved away and did not bother to tell you."

Sadly, church numbers cannot be taken at face value. Many are not credible.

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