Whee! More church membership numbers!

February 15, 2011

The National Council of Churches’ new Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches is out.

I love this stuff. I’ve been following these things for decades. I can remember when the Southern Baptists first overtook the Methodists as the largest single Protestant denomination in the U.S., and now they’re over twice as large. But while the Methodists again declined by 1% last year, the Southern Baptists also declined a bit, and in fact haven’t grown in several years. So much for the irresistible tide of Evangelicalism. Pentacostals are still growing rapidly, but they are hardly typical fundamentalists, although they agree in their opposition to liberalism and tend to be grouped together – a lot like the Hasidim and the more sedate kinds of Haredim.

Other highlights: again the UCC, Episcopalians and Presbyterians showed the steepest declines (all between 2 and 3%) – if you put aside the curious case of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which was reduced by more than half as a result of “a new methodology of counting members.” ELCA again declined less steeply than the others just mentioned, but almost twice as fast as Missouri Synod, which was in the same league as the Methodists.

As I’ve been saying all along, the data can not be “explained” simply (as has so often has claimed) in terms of people rejecting “liberalism” and longing for simple Biblical preaching that reaffirms traditional (especially sexual) morality, because if that were it, there’s no reason for Missouri Synod to be declining as fast as the Methodists, or for the Southern Baptists to have plateaued as they have. (“Plateaued” looks funny but Wiktionary assures me that it is a legitimate verb form.) I really believe it has at least as much to do with geographical and demographic factors, like mobility and density of population. The more thinly-spread a denomination, the less likely it is that people who move will find a new congregation of the same label that suits them, and the less likely it is that kids will grow up with the strong sense of demoninational identity that comes from having school friends, teammates, etc. who go to the same or a related church.

My own Unitarian Universalist denomination, nowhere near large enough to get into the NCC press release, has been consistently losing about 90% of its children. This causes an awful lot of hand-wringing, but I think it is practically inevitable, for the reasons I mentioned: apart from being few in number to begin with, we are demographically the most college-going and otherwise mobile denomination, so people naturally drift away. On the other hand, we  bring in enough adult newcomers every year to more or less exactly compensate for the lost youngsters, so our total membership has been remarkably steady for decades…. And what’s wrong with that? Maybe it is time to think beyond the old model of “religion,” in which children are expected to inherit it from their parents. I mean, why should they? We don’t expect them to inherit their parents’ tastes, hobbies, politics….

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2 Responses to “Whee! More church membership numbers!”

  1. arthur grupp Says:

    Religion or philosophy should come from within and not some channeled behavior. Brings to mind the Shakers? Now there is an ending!

  2. allogenes Says:

    Hi, Arthur! Thanks for commenting!
    There is something called “religion” which, I agree, is a totally personal, individual, inner thing.
    Then there are all the communities and organizational structures called “religions,” “churches,” “sects” and the like.
    And there are the doctrines: the statements purportedly describing reality which are made in the name of these communities and structures, claimed as their basis, and/or recited ritually by their participants.
    These are, it seems to me, all different things, which interact in very complex ways. It is unrealistic to assume that all participants in a community are there because they have had a particular inner experience or because they knowingly affirm the related fact-claims. The communities and structures have a life of their own, and have played a major role in human history independent of the truth (or not) of their fact-claims or the inner life of their members.
    What we see happening in the world today is that the habits and pressures that used to make most people “pew potatoes” are dissipating.


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