U. S. church membership trends continue

February 15, 2010

I’ve just seen the latest figures put out by the National Council of Churches. As has been the case for quite a while, mainstream Protestants are dwindling, Pentecostals are thriving. The R0man Catholic Church has rebounded slightly from its slight dip last year, but the Southern Baptists are still slipping.

Why do I follow these things so avidly? Well,  it is often claimed that people are leaving the mainstream churches in disgust at their docrinal liberalism, and flocking to denominations that are true to the Bible (as understood by moral conservatives).  What I have been noticing over the years, on the contrary, is that among Protestant denominations the best predictor of how well they’ll do membershipwise  is simply their population density. Larger denominations do better than smaller ones, and regionally concentrated ones do better than ones that are thinly spread.  If kids grow up in an environment where a significant number of their school friends belong to the same denomination, they are more likely to stick with it when they go away to school. When church-going adults move for employment or family reasons, they’re more likely to stay church-going if there’s a church of their denomination conveniently located for them.

How else to explain that the Methodists, though in decline, aren’t in anything close to the tailspin of the Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Congregationalists? All are dealing with the same controversial issues, and coming up with the same range of responses; but Methodism is still entrenched in a large part of the nation’s midsection, whereas the others are small minorities everywhere. And my favorite bit of evidence has been starkly reaffirmed by the latest figures: the two main Lutheran denominations, ELCA and LCMS, are very similar demographically but radically different on all the hot topics (sex, gays, biblical authority). So how do their membership figures compare? LCMS hasn’t experienced any of the growth one might expect as a reward for their conservatism, nor has ELCA suffered anything like the losses that the Presbyterians have; both are in the same range as the Methodists, as my hypothesis would predict on the basis of their large regional presence in much of the country. In fact this year LCMS is posting a membership decrease considerably larger than that of ELCA!

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One Response to “U. S. church membership trends continue”


  1. […] does this all mean? In my post last year on this subject I presented my notion that all else being equal, the denominations that […]


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