Largest Christian Groups Report Membership Decline

The Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church – the two largest Christian communions in the country – have joined the ranks of mainline denominations in reporting membership losses, the latest church yearbook shows.

After years of continuous growth, membership in the Roman Catholic Church dropped by 0.59 percent and the Southern Baptist Convention decreased by 0.24 percent, according to the 2009 edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, published this week.

Although the percentage losses are small compared to the total membership of the churches, the yearbook pointed out that the two communions had "grown dependably" over the years and "now they join virtually every mainline church in reporting a membership decline."

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There are no clear-cut theological or sociological reasons for church growth or decline, says the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, editor of the yearbook.

"Many churches are feeling the impact of the lifestyles of younger generations of church-goers – the 'Gen X'ers' or 'Millenials' in their 20s and 30s who attend and support local congregations but resist joining them," Lindner states in the report.

"A slowing of the rate of growth of some churches and the decline of membership of others ought to be the focus of continued research and thoughtful inquiry," she adds.

Decline in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) – the largest Protestant denomination in the country – was first reported last spring. Baptisms fell for the third straight year in 2007 and total membership dropped for the first time in many years.

While the denomination was able to get its numbers back up from a dip before, some in the denomination believe the latest reported loss is the start of a continual decline if Southern Baptists do not wake up and change.

Former SBC president Frank Page was troubled by the numbers especially for a denomination that emphasizes winning souls as its mission.

"Blame the denomination if you wish, but the problem is 'me.' 'I haven't been winning people to Christ as much as I [ought to],'" he told thousands of Southern Baptists at their 2008 annual meeting.

Membership figures in the 2009 yearbook, a chronicler of growth and financial trends of religious institutions by the National Council of Churches, were compiled by churches in 2007 and reported to the yearbook in 2008.

Other denominations that reported membership losses include the United Church of Christ (down 6.01 percent), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (down 3.01 percent), the Presbyterian Church (USA) (down 2.79 percent), the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (down 1.44 percent), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (down 1.35 percent), and American Baptist Churches USA (down 0.94 percent).

Among the 25 largest churches in the country, only four are growing, according to the yearbook. Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses is up 1.63 percent and 2.12 percent, respectively. The two groups, however, are not accepted within many Christian circles as part of the larger Body of Christ over a number of controversial beliefs that the two religions hold.

The Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, reported an increase of 0.96 percent in membership and the Church of God of Cleveland, Tenn., also reported higher membership with a 2.04 increase.

Each year more than 200 American and Canadian Christian communions report their numbers to the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, which adds them up. In its 77th annual edition, the 2009 yearbook reports a total of 146,663,972 church members north of the Río Grande.

Membership of the top 25 churches is down 0.49 percent from last year's total.

The top 25 churches in order of size:

1. The Roman Catholic Church; 67,117,06 members; down 0.59 percent
2. The Southern Baptist Convention; 16,266,920 members; down 0.24 percent
3. The United Methodist Church; 7,931,733 members; down 0.80 percent.
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; 5,873,408 members; up 1.63 percent
5. The Church of God in Christ; 5,499,875 members; no change reported
6. National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc.; 5,000,000 members; no change reported
7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; 4,709,956 members; down 1.35 percent
8. National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.; 3,500,000 members; no change reported
9. Presbyterian Church (USA); 2,941,412 members; down 2.79 percent
10. Assemblies of God; 2,863,265 members; up 0.96 percent
11. African Methodist Episcopal Church; 2,500,000 members; no change reported
12. National Missionary Baptist Convention of America; 2,500,000 members; no change reported
13. Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.; 2,500,000 members; no change reported
14. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS); 2,383,084 members; down 1.44 percent
15. The Episcopal Church; 2,116,749 members; down 1.76 percent
16. Churches of Christ; 1,639,495 members; no change reported
17. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; 1,500,000 members; no change reported
18. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc.; 1,500,000 members; no change reported
19. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; 1,400,000 members; down 3.01 percent
20. American Baptist Churches in the USA, 1,358,351, down 0.94 percent
21. Baptist Bible Fellowship International; 1,200,000; no change reported
22. United Church of Christ; 1,145,281 members; down 6.01 percent
23. Jehovah's Witnesses; 1,092,169 members; up 2.12 percent
24. Christian Churches and Churches of Christ; 1,071,616 members; no change reported
25. Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.); 1,053,642 members; up 2.04 percent

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