Denomination Decline and Gain, 2000-2011

Menlo Park Presbyterian Church

A couple years ago, a member of our church asked about the decline (or growth) of denominations. I knew the general talking points, but I was curious about the hard numbers in denominational decline/gain for the past decade. I selected three Presbyterian denominations: the mainline PCUSA and the evangelical PCA and EPC. To compare with the PCUSA, I selected another mainline group, the Episcopalians (TEC). And to give more comparisons for evangelicals, I selected the Southern Baptists (SBC) and the Assemblies of God (AG).

I did this in 2012. I never blogged the results, apparently because I forgot, but here they are:

denominational statistics image

Click on the image to enlarge. The ARDA database was one of my sources, but I generally used the denominational websites where possible. The empty spaces indicate the years that I was unable to find any numbers. You can see the percentage decreases/gains on the bottom.

So, as everyone would expect, the mainline PCUSA and TEC had severe losses for the decade, losses which began in the mid-1960’s. I also glanced at the United Methodists (UMC) and the Lutherans (ELCA), and they appear to be in the same ballpark. The story for evangelicals is interesting. But before anyone gets too triumphalist, let me say that I would not be surprised if we start seeing declines across the board in the near future, with the exception of certain charismatic groups. The “nones” will prove to be difficult, as everyone is fretting.

Menlo Park Presbyterian Church
Menlo Park Presbyterian Church

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has posted steady gains, nearly 15% from 2000 to 2011. Interestingly, there was decline from 2007 to 2008, but they rebounded. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) has seen enormous growth at 77% for the 2000-2011 time frame. Today, their growth since 2000 would be 123%! This growth is, of course, thanks in large part to the PCUSA, and we could say the same about the newest Presbyterian body, ECO, which currently has 171 congregations after only two years of existence. ECO has received Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas and Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the Bay Area. EPC has received First Presbyterian Church, Orlando. Those are three examples of large, influential evangelical churches that were once within the mainline. This means a loss of evangelical leadership within the mainline, such as John Ortberg at Menlo Park, David Swanson at First Pres Orlando, and the rather young Bryan Dunagan at Highland Park.

The growth of Pentecostal denominations is well known. The Assemblies of God (AG) is one of the oldest, which means that it is less than a hundred years old. The numbers in the chart above are for the United States only, at 18% growth and over 3 million members. The AG has over 60 million members worldwide! Yes, that’s right. 60 million, and that is a small slice of the Pentecostal pie worldwide. By comparison, the mainline Reformed, Anglican, and Lutheran bodies have 70-80 million each, and that includes inflated numbers from, for example, the nominal membership of the Church of England (27 million baptized).

New Orleans Baptist Seminary
New Orleans Baptist Seminary

The Southern Baptists are an interesting case study. They are evangelical to be sure, and even more so now than 30 or 40 years ago. But they are also a very “mainline” denomination, indeed the most mainline denomination of the South. Many of the demographic problems that are plaguing the official Protestant mainline are also being experienced by the SBC, namely a very large constituency in small-to-mid size towns, like the cotton mill towns in North Carolina between major cities like Charlotte and Greensboro and Raleigh. The mills are closed, and people are leaving. (This is my family’s own story. My dad is a mechanic, and we moved to Charlotte when I was six years old to find more employment opportunities.) Nonetheless, the SBC experienced steady growth while the mainline was declining — that is, until the last few years, causing quite a lot of panic for a denomination that has long prided itself on evangelism. If you look at the 2000-2011 numbers, there is growth, but it is more like a plateau. And beginning in 2010 to today, it is a decline, though not nearly as steep as the mainline. The SBC has challenges ahead. One bright sign, however, is the six SBC seminaries, which can each boast a substantial size student body (see ATS and scroll down) in a country where seminaries are struggling mightily.

If I had more time, I would have liked to include some of the smaller evangelical denominations that have grown at healthy rates, such as the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) and the Christian & Missionary Alliance (CMA). I was once a member of the EFCA, and they are doing a lot of things right. The EFCA seminary is Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside of Chicago, which can boast an impressive faculty. The EFCA is about the same size as the PCA, and the CMA is a bit larger at just under half a million in the US. Some of the larger evangelical denominations are also worth checking, such as the Church of the Nazarene at nearly 2.3 million members and growing (though recently at a slower pace than previous decades). And also, it would be fascinating to look at the predominately black denominations, such as the AME and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). Most African-American denominations do not fit the “mainline” or “evangelical” labels very neatly. The COGIC, a Pentecostal denomination, has experienced enormous growth in the US with over 8 million members today. Another important case study would be the many ethnic congregations of recent immigrants, from the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Myanmar, and elsewhere. They often have strong and enthusiastic congregations in every major city in America.

Dominican Republic worship
An evangelical church in La Hoya, Dominican Republic

As a closing word, it should be remembered that numbers aren’t everything, but they are something. A declining church or denomination could be a sign of faithfulness to a gospel that the culture does not want to hear, and there are many progressives who see themselves and their churches in this way. Or, a declining church or denomination could be a sign of apathy, laziness, and self-centeredness. In the mainline, as I suspect, it could be a sign of theological irresponsibility. As the great German biblical scholar, Klaus Berger, has recently written, “Two hundred years of intense and intelligent biblical research has desolated our churches” (source).


Images: The first two images are by Michelle Le of The Almanac, a Bay Area newspaper. The final image from the Dominican Republic can be found at Global Lens.


  1. If it wasn’t for immigration from traditionally Roman Catholic countries, the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. would, I believe, be showing losses in membership similar to the mainline denominations.

    • Yes, that sounds right, especially if it is true (as the Pew Research Center found) that 10% of the US population is ex-Catholic.

  2. I think the PCUSA and Episcopalians are cases where the leadership ignored the members, if you poled I’m sure you’d find even most who have stayed unhappy with the leadership. The growth of the conservatives and pretty much death of “classical liberal” groups means we may be defining “mainline” wrong.

    I don’t think it’s theology, it’s the divisive issues they can’t let alone to handle the underlying problems (there are many).

    I left the PCUSA over their novel doctrine and have struggled to find a similar mainline church to the old PCUSA…
    Yet, I think it’s going to market out like coke “classic” where the mainlines of old re-surge under a new banner as millennials age and grow weary of new coke.

    • The growth of the conservatives and pretty much death of “classical liberal” groups means we may be defining “mainline” wrong.

      Yes, the “mainline” is hardly mainline as it once was, when benefactors like Rockefeller were fully part of the affluent, educated elite, as well as the common WASP populace. This still lingers, but we could preferably say “oldline” instead of “mainline.”

      I think the PCUSA and Episcopalians are cases where the leadership ignored the members, if you poled I’m sure you’d find even most who have stayed unhappy with the leadership.

      There is a lot of truth to this, but the members are increasingly liberal (or the sort of “moderates” who don’t give a damn). And there are regional differences. The Episcopal Church in Vermont is not the same as the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and the latter broke away from the national body!

      Yet, I think it’s going to market out like coke “classic” where the mainlines of old re-surge under a new banner as millennials age and grow weary of new coke.

      This is where I am highly doubtful. The millennials have little interest in any church, not even the liberal Protestant churches which share their values. And the minority of millennials who are active in their churches are generally evangelical. So, will the majority (liberal) millennials come around to embracing the mainline Protestant churches? I doubt it, but that is the mainline’s hope. Unfortunately for them, they said the same thing about the 70’s generation, the 80’s generation, and the 90’s generation, and yet the decline has continued apace.

      • I don’t know, the one group that sites well in southern California are the Latin Mass catholics, they have like 15 services packed with 20 somethings. As a millennial myself, I think they like the stability of the liturgical forms because my generation has no family security because divorce etc.

        I think the baby boomers introduced an anomaly that broke the churches ability to place people sociologically within the narrative of the groups history by one desiring to break with the past by way of revivalism or by their focus on issue based theology among other things. Typically, I find they do care but that they tend to desire the sociological markers like collars, symbols, etc. New Age is a part of that, it looks religious.

        It’s like I thank God for Atheist, they are the only ones that point out Christmas is religious nowadays.

        Philosophically, I also think we are running into Epicurus’problem, he had a great system but it made no demands. At some level people don’t value what is free. The oldline churches (I like that) have made grace so cheap it’s not worth considering. I don’t think “populous deos amant” has changed all that much psychology, it’s just maybe as you’ve said, we’ve over abstracted. The conservative thumpers feed what the mob wants. And that’s why I think they want coke classic.

      • Yes, there is a contingent of millennials (myself included) who are attracted to liturgy and form. But I think we are a minority. Maybe the future will bode well for churches with a “higher” liturgy. That is fine with me, since I attend a Presbyterian church with a (mostly) traditional liturgy. But on the whole, I am afraid, most millennials are perfectly happy with being highly individualistic and narcissistic (exhibit A: the obsession with one’s “identity,” especially sexual or gender).

        And, yes, “at some level people don’t value what is free.” As has been demonstrated over and over by sociologists, the religious communities that thrive are those that have high levels of expectations. The Mormons, for example. Many evangelical churches too. And those Catholic dioceses that are known for their conservatism (following John Paul II) are the ones that tend to have priestly vocations, as with the conservative Catholic dioceses in the South.

      • My AMiA church in Atlanta has a young congregation mostly under 40. We do go lighter on the liturgical elements than most Episcopal/Anglican churches (and we have a band – though we do a choir each year for Lessons and Carols and sometimes for Easter), but still significantly more than most evangelical churches. We have attendance around a thousand between all the services and recently a second location (no video, and the same staff rotates between them). We’re also having a major baby boom that has caused a lot of difficulties with space.

        But we are probably something of an anomaly, and Atlanta is still the South.

      • That’s great to hear, Joel, about your thriving AMiA church. Our church, Westminster Pres in Charlotte, is a mid-size church with about equally half under 40, half over 40. But in the last few years, we have seen a large spike in young couples joining the church, including a baby boom of our own. Most of these couples are having three or four kids! We have a traditional liturgy, with an organ/hymns, prayers and readings, etc. But we also have a small praise band (without drums, thank God!) that will play a couple songs, usually Matt Redman, Keith Getty, and the like. I enjoy having some thoughtful, well-chosen contemporary songs. They complement the traditional liturgy very well.

  3. This is such an interesting issue with many different things factoring into the decline or growth within each denomination or church group. As a body of Christ, I think we need to focus on our unity in Christ while understanding and celebrating our differences. I just wrote on this topic–

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