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:
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.
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).
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.
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).