Magazine article The Christian Century

Doing the Numbers

Magazine article The Christian Century

Doing the Numbers

Article excerpt

AMERICANS ARE giving slightly more money to their churches, and several denominations have steadied their declining membership rolls, according to the facts-and-estimates-filled yearbook widely lauded for publishing the best annual examination of Christendom in North America.

The National Council of Churches' 2001 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, released in mid-February, reports that the nation's largest church body, the Roman Catholic Church, has 62 million members, and that the second-largest, the Southern Baptist Convention, has 15.8 million. Several mainline Protestant denominations continue to lose members, but the rate of decline has leveled off and grown into a more natural pattern of gains and losses, said editor and NCC Deputy General Secretary Eileen W. Lindner.

"The decline of membership of the old `mainline' churches appears to have slowed in the ease of the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), while accelerating somewhat for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America," Lindner wrote in the Yearbook.

Lindner also pointed to the growth of fundamentalist and Pentecostal denominations, with two of them--the Baptist Bible Fellowship International and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, with a combined membership of 2.7 million--breaking into the nation's 25 largest churches. Their advance is probably due to better record keeping by the churches and a membership generally younger than that of the graying mainline churches, she said.

The bulk of churches saw membership gains or losses within a margin of about 1 percent, down from membership losses as high as 3 or 4 percent a decade ago. Catholics saw a 0.6 percent increase, and Southern Baptists grew by 0.7 precent. The highest growth was recorded by a Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God, which grew 1.9 percent.

Missing from the list is the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., Inc., which once claimed 8 million members. That figure was challenged during the trial and fraud conviction of ex-president Henry Lyons, and the new leadership was unable to produce new figures late last year, Lindner said.

Three other predominantly African-American Baptist denominations are listed among the largest 15 church bodies: the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. (based in Dallas), 3.5 million; the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. (based in Washington, D.C.), 2.5 million, and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America (based in Los Angeles), 2.5 million. Though those round figures have remained the same for several years, Lindner said, "they are considerably more reliable than the 8 million figure" once reported by the National Baptist Convention U. …

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