In a recent interview in which she announced she had joined the Episcopal Church, Rachel Held Evans said,
Just about every denomination in the American church— including many evangelical denominations — is seeing a decline in numbers, so if it’s a competition, then we’re all losing, just at different rates.
Many Americans, both within and outside the church, share Evans perception of the decline of denominations. But is it true? Are most denominations truly seeing a decline in numbers?
Before we answer the question, we should clarify what is meant by “decline.” We could, for instance, say that Protestantism has been on the decline since the 1970s. That would be true. We could also say there are now more Protestants today than there were in the 1970s. That too would be true.
The fact is that the percentage of people identifying as Protestant has declined since the 1970s while the total number of Protestants has increased (62 percent of Americans identified as Protestant in 1972 and only 51 percent did so in 2010). Yet because of the population increase in the U.S., there were 28 million more Protestants in 2010 than in 1972.
So did Protestantism in America decline since the 1970s? Yes (percentwise) and no (total numbers).
What about when we drill down to the denominations that comprise Protestantism in America? Here the differences depend on whether we look at short-term or long-term trends.
If we look at the short-term (year-to-year) trends, we may be able to detect a decline in some groups, especially in large denominations. For instance, the membership of the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant denomination in America—declined by 105,708 from 2011 to 2012. While that sounds like a lot of people, the denomination could lose that many members every year for 150 years before the pews in SBC churches would be completely empty.
In the case of the SBC, and other conservative denominations, the trend seems to be that they’re losing members to other conservative denominations, especially non-denominational ones. As of 2010, four percent of Americans (12,200,000) worshipped in a nondenominational church. There are almost as many members of nondenominational churches as there are members of the SBC—and almost as many as in all of the mainline churches combined. A decline in a conservative denominational church is often offset by an increase in a conservative non-denominational church.
When tracking changes to gauge the overall health of a denomination, it makes more sense to look at long-term trends. If we look back 50 years (to 1965) we can see a clear and unequivocal trendline: liberal denominations have declined sharply while conservative denominations have increased or remained the same.
Here are the primary mainline denominations, every one of which has seen long-term decline in membership:
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Reformed Church in America
United Church of Christ (Congregationalist)
(Those numbers should be even lower, though, since those figures by the TEC include breakaway churches trying to leave the denomination.)
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA)
United Methodist Church (UMC)
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
(Note: The ELCA was formally constituted in 1988 as a merger of the Lutheran Church in America, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the American Lutheran Church.)
American Baptist Churches
(Note: The ABC/USA has been able to stem its decline among white congregants by replacing them with African American and Hispanic members.)
Now let’s look at a few of the primary non-mainline denominations, almost every one of which has increased in membership since the mid-1960s.
Church of God in Christ
Presbyterian Church in America
(Note: The Presbyterian Church in America was founded in 1974 by conservative members of the Presbyterian Church in the United States who rejected that church’s merger with the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.)
Evangelical Free Church of America
Assemblies of God
African Methodist Episcopal Church
Southern Baptist Convention
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
Mainliners may try to comfort themselves by claiming that every denomination is in decline, but it’s simply not true. While conservative churches aren’t growing as quickly as they once were, mainline churches are on a path toward extinction. The mainline churches are finding that as they move further away from Biblical Christianity, the closer they get to their inevitable demise.