LOUISVILLE — “How do we understand our little tribe of God’s folks?” asked Eileen Lindner, a Presbyterian minister who works gathering and analyzing statistics for the National Council of Churches in Christ.
In other words, what do the numbers say about the health of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the challenges it faces?
First, and perhaps most obvious, is the continuing decline in membership for the PC(USA) and other mainline Protestant denominations — a combined loss of millions of members in recent decades. But that’s in part due to demographics. “We were big winners in the post-World War II sweepstakes,” the baby boom, and now that high birth rate has leveled off, Lindner told a national gathering of presbytery and synod moderators, convened in Louisville on Nov. 11 by Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly.
The membership losses the mainline denominations are experiencing should have been expected, projecting ahead the death rates based on those birth patterns, said Lindner, who edits the annual Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.
“It’s not so much what we did wrong,” to cause people to leave, “as what we didn’t initiate” to bring people in once high birthrates stopped driving growth, Lindner said.
Currently, the Roman Catholic Church is the biggest denomination in the United States, with 67 million members and a growth rate of 1.28 percent, followed by the Southern Baptists with 16.4 million and a growth rate of 1.18 percent, according to figures from 2003, the most recent year available.
The United Methodists, with 8.2 million members, come third, followed by the Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, with 5.4 million members.
The PC(USA) is the ninth-biggest U.S. denomination, with — at the time these numbers were compiled — 3.2 million members. By the end of 2004, the PC(USA) was reporting a total membership of 3.18 million, including 2.4 million active confirmed members, and with a net loss of 43,175 members in 2004.
But the statistics show other things too, Lindner told the moderators.
Presbyterians are most numerous in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Most Presbyterian churches are not racially diverse — the numbers of congregations that are made up 90 percent or more of a single racial group far outweigh those that are more racially mixed. “Our lips proclaim the inclusiveness of all God’s people, but our statistics declare otherwise,” Lindner said.
The United States has a religious affiliation rate of 62 percent, almost double Europe’s 32 percent, but that’s often not reflected in active participation in congregations. Europeans will say, “we’re not believers,” Lindner said. “Americans even remember what church they’re not going to,” describing themselves as Lutheran, for example, because that’s the church their grandparents faithfully attended, even though they don’t go to church at all.
Overall, the yearbook reflects 327 denominations — including those who submit membership statistics electronically and the Old Order Amish, whose numbers are written in grease pencil on butcher paper, compiled “by kerosene lamp one evening after the cows are milked,” Lindner said.
Ecumenical churches (those involved with the National Council of Churches) account for 45 million U.S. Christians, while evangelical churches (those involved with the National Association of Evangelicals) account for 39 million, Lindner said. She acknowledged the limitations of those measurements — many members of PC(USA) churches would identify themselves as evangelical, she said.
About 4 to 7 million Americans attend mega-churches. And another growing area is independent churches — including Pentecostal, evangelical and emergent congregations.
Among the trends Lindner sees developing:
Growing religious pluralism — both an increase in non-Christian faiths driven by immigration and a continuing reformation of the Christian tradition, in part through schism,
Growing congregationalism. Increasingly, “congregations are a law unto themselves” and “local congregations will not be dictated to by denominational mandate,” Lindner said. “The era of denominations as national regulatory bodies is finished. Not dying — it’s over.” – Denominations are declining, but Publishers Weekly shows studies of religious traditions are on the rise. “People want to know their heritage,” Lindner said. “The Lutherans want to know about (Martin) Luther. The Presbyterians want to know about (John) Calvin and (John) Knox … but they don’t want to be told how to live their heritage out.”
Specialized ministries are emerging — interdenominational efforts such as Habitat for Humanity or Bread for the World, giving congregations opportunities for hands-on involvement.
Theological realignments are happening within and between denominations. The fault lines over controversies such as gay ordination and abortion run through all the denominations, and increasingly people are aligning themselves with like-minded folks from other denominational traditions.
The creation of mega-churches with multi-service campuses.
Experimentation with the form of worship, the times of services and the types of music. – Intolerance of divisive issues at the national level. Over the last six years, Lindner said, the greatest number of conversions to Eastern Orthodoxy has come from conservative evangelicals, who appreciate the conservative theology they find in Orthodox churches but want a quieting of conservative political activism.