2011 Church Membership: Southern Baptists Decline; Jehovah Witnesses Increase

Church membership for more than a third of the nation's largest churches took a hit last year while non-Orthodox Christian churches are on the rise, a new report on denominations finds.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's second largest denomination, reported a .42 percent decline in membership to 16,160,088 members, according to National Council of Churches' 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, released Monday.

Still dominating the list of the nation's top 25 mainline churches is the Catholic Church, which posted a .57 growth at 68.5 million members.

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But a few church bodies, regarded as cults by some Christians, continue to increase in size.

Ranked 20th in size, the Jehovah's Witnesses denomination reported a 4.37 percent gain in membership, with 1,162,686 members total. Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which didn't make the Top 25 list for at least the past two years, squeezed in the list this year in the 24th spot. The denomination – which observes the Sabbath on Saturdays instead of Sundays – now has 1,043,606 members, up 4.31 percent.

Also, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – also known as the Mormon Church – grew 1.42 percent to 6,058,907 members. Mormons are about 1.7 million members behind the 3rd largest denomination in the U.S. and Canada, the United Methodist Church, down 1.01 percent.

Overall, total church membership declined by 1.05 percent over 2010 to 145,838,339 members.

"The direction of membership (growth or decline) remains very stable," said the Yearbook's editor, the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner.

"That is, churches which have been increasing in membership in recent years continue to grow and likewise, those churches which have been declining in recent years continue to decline."

Churches that grew since the 2010 Yearbook included two Pentecostal denominations, the Assemblies of God, up .52 percent to 2,914,669 members, and Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), up .38 percent to 1,076,254 members.

 "Strong figures from the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) suggest an increase in the number of adherents to Pentecostal groups, though it is impossible to state unequivocally from this table since the other two charismatic churches in the ranking have not reported in some years," remarked Lindner.

Denominations counting the biggest losses in membership included United Church of Christ, down 2.83 percent to 1,080,199 members; the Presbyterian Church (USA), down 2.61 percent to 2,770,730 members; and the Episcopal Church, down 2.48 percent to 2,006,343 members.

Oddly, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., which has 1,010,000 members, reported a 59.60 percent decline in membership due in part to a new methodology of counting members.

Despite the declines, statistics in the report reflect "continued high overall church participation."

The 79th annual edition of the Yearbook reported on 227 national church bodies, representing over 163 million Americans. Figures in the 2011 edition represents about a two-year lag since membership figures are collected by the mainline churches in 2009 and submitted to the Yearbook in 2010.

Ten of the 25 largest churches, however, did not provide updated membership figures for this year's edition.

The largest 25 Churches (ranked by membership):

1. The Catholic Church, 68,503,456 members, up .57 percent.
2. Southern Baptist Convention, 16,160,088 members, down.42 percent.
3. The United Methodist Church, 7,774,931 members, down1.01 percent.
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6,058,907 members, up 1.42 percent.
5. The Church of God in Christ, 5,499,875 members, no membership updates reported.
6. National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc, 5,000,000 members, no membership updates reported.
7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4,542,868 members, down1.96 percent.
8. National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., 3,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.
9. Assemblies of God, 2,914,669 members, up .52 percent.
10. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2,770,730 members, down 2.61 percent.
11. African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.
12. National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, 2,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.
13. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS), 2,312,111 members, down 1.08 percent.
14. The Episcopal Church, 2,006,343 members, down 2.48 percent.
15. Churches of Christ, 1,639,495 members, no membership updates reported.
16. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.
17. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc., 1,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.
18. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 1,400,000 members, no membership updates reported.
19. American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., 1,310,505 members, down 1.55 percent.
20. Jehovah's Witnesses, 1,162,686 members, up 4.37 percent.
21. United Church of Christ, 1,080,199 members, down 2.83 percent.
22. Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), 1,076,254 members, up .38 percent.
23. Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, 1,071,616 members, no membership updates reported.
24. Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 1,043,606 members, up 4.31 percent.
25. Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., 1,010,000 members, down 59.60 percent (due in part to a new methodology of counting members).

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