US conservative churches membership declines

Martin Marty, in Ekklesia, writes that conservative churches are undergoing decline similar to that suffered previously by progressive churches:

Recently a Pew poll demonstrated how many Americans mix faiths. But how long will there be faiths to mix in America? ‘Faiths’ here means bodies of believers, gathered in communities such as congregations. Has the United States begun to follow the overall pattern of decline in membership, attendance, activity, support, and visibility that is so patent in, say, Western Europe?

…Now in America ‘Distance Early Warning’ signals of decline almost across the board are becoming clouds on the horizon or cold winds already blowing.

Yes, decline is selective: Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Assemblies of God, and the Church of God of Cleveland, Tennessee were ‘up’ a bit or two bits in 2000, remaining the four exceptions in a field of scores of church bodies. Catholicism declined, but by less than one per cent, bolstered as its ranks are, by the continuing influx of Hispanics, who may make up one-third of the Catholic flock. Claims that the conservative turn nurtured by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI would lead to revival have not been realised.

Three case studies: This year’s Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches chronicles a loss of 40,000 members in the formerly swaggering and failure-proof Southern Baptist Convention. Its 0.24 per cent decline would be a mere “oops!” in most church bodies, but it was a jolt that has induced panic among some Baptists, blame-fixing among others, and serious re-evaluation among the resilient in this largest Protestant body.

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, fourteenth in size and run by what moderates saw as a quasi-fundamentalist take-over party in the 1970s, always advertised that it was blessed because it was conservative and firm. Last year it lost 45,735 members, or 1.44 per cent of the formerly faithful. More disturbing to conscientious chroniclers and planners, was the word that average attendance at worship dropped from 165 to 155 in one year.

Similarly, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) “lost numbers for the last year for the first time in its 37-year history,” despite its reliance on strategies chosen when its congregations seceded from a parent body.

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(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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