Catholic Church still growing; mainlines still not

I’m back from furlough — just in time to catch the headlines from the 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.

The annual yearbook, published by the National Council of Churches, is best known for compiling membership figures for the 200 or so major denominations in North America.

The new, 79th edition includes numbers that were collected by the denominations in 2009 and reported to the yearbook in 2010, so they’re a bit behind.

The Roman Catholic Church reported 68.5 million members, which translates into growth of .57 percent. You have to figure that much of that can be attributed to immigration. The church’s continued growth seems to belie recent findings that 10 percent of Americans are lapsed Catholics.

Other large groups boasting higher numbers include: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, up 1.42 percent to 6,058,907 members; the Assemblies of God, up .52 percent to 2,914,669 members; Jehovah’s Witnesses, up 4.37 percent to 1,162,686 members; and Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), up .38 percent to 1,076,254 members.

Then you have the usual paragraph about sliding membership in the mainline Protestant world: “Mainline churches reporting declines in membership are United Church of Christ, down 2.83 percent to 1,080,199 members; the Presbyterian Church (USA), down 2.61 percent to 2,770,730 members; the Episcopal Church, down 2.48 percent to 2,006,343 members; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. down 1.96 percent to 4,542,868 members; the American Baptist Churches USA, down 1.55 percent to 1,310,505; the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), down 1.08 percent to 2,312,111 members; and the United Methodist Church, down 1.01 percent to 7,774,931 members.”

The yearbook people do not always get cooperation from denominations. In fact, 10 of 25 largest did not report figures.

You have to wonder why? Why not report figures for a comprehensive yearbook of American church life?

Several of the non-reporting bodies are traditional African-American denominations — the National Baptist Convention USA, the National Baptist Convention of America, the AME Church, the AME Zion Church. These churches,  from my experience, pay little attention to the outside world, especially requests for specific information from people like me or, apparently, the National Council of Churches.

The yearbook also says that 64 groups reported income of $36 billion, a year-to-year drop of $26 million.

Here’s the yearbook’s list of the top 25 denominations by size:

1. The Catholic Church, 68,503,456 members, up .57 percent.

2. Southern Baptist Convention,16,160,088 members, down.42 percent.

3. The United Methodist Church, 7,774,931 members, down1.01 percent.

4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6,058,907 members, up 1.42 percent.

5. The Church of God in Christ, 5,499,875 members, no membership updates reported.

6. National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc, 5,000,000  members, no membership updates reported.

7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4,542,868 members, down1.96 percent.

8. National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., 3,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.

9. Assemblies of God, 2,914,669 members, up .52 percent.

10. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2,770,730 members, down 2.61 percent.

11. African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.

11. National  Missionary Baptist Convention of America,  2,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.

13. The Lutheran Church– Missouri Synod (LCMS), 2,312,111 members, down 1.08 percent.

14. The Episcopal Church, 2,006,343 members, down 2.48 percent.

15. Churches of Christ, 1,639,495 members, no membership updates reported.

16. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.

17. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc., 1,500,000 members, no membership updates reported.

18. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 1,400,000 members, members, no membership updates reported.

19. American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., 1,310,505  members, down 1.55 percent.

20. Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1,162,686 members, up 4.37 percent.

21. United Church of Christ, 1,080,199http://religion.lohudblogs.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=7871&action=edit members, down 2.83 percent.

22. Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), 1,076,254 members, up .38 percent.

23. Christian Churches and Churches of Christ , 1,071,616 members, no membership updates reported.

24. Seventh-Day Adventist Church. 1,043,606 members, up 4.31 percent.

25. Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. 1,010,000 members, down 59.60 percent (due in part to a new methodology of counting members).

ADD: A reader asks where the yearbook gets the data from. If I didn’t make that clear, my apologizes. The numbers are provided by the denominations themselves, so, yes, there is room for fudging, wishful thinking and other forms of deception.

In fact…my friend Peter Smith of the Courier-Journal in Louisville noticed that three denominations offered significantly LOWER membership figures than in the past. Apparently, their previous figures were wildly inaccurate.

The Orthodox Church in America, which claimed 1 million members in 2004, is now reporting 131,000. That’s an 88 percent drop.

A church official emailed to Peter that the denomination “has misreported membership in the past based on a different model.”

Segregation vs. diversity in church

It was in 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous observation about Sunday mornings:

*****

We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have. The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. Now, I’m not saying that society must sit down and wait on a spiritual and moribund church as we’ve so often seen. I think it should have started in the church, but since it didn’t start in the church, our society needed to move on. The church, itself, will stand under the judgement of God.

*****

A new study by two profs shows that things haven’t changed all that much: 9 in 10 congregations have a single racial group that accounts for more than 80 percent of membership.

Kevin Dougherty, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, and Christopher P. Scheitle, senior research assistant at The Pennsylvania State University, published the findings in the academic journal Sociological Inquiry in August.

“Socially, we’ve become much more integrated in schools, the military and businesses. But in the places where we worship, segregation still seems to be the norm,” Dougherty says in a statement.

The study shows that churches have a particularly hard time keeping minority members they already have.

Congregations that are diverse share certain characteristics: diverse leadership; racially inclusive worship; and they provide opportunities for members to get togetheer.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a white member of a Latino church or a black attending a white church or what the specific groups are,” Dougherty says. “If you’re the under-represented group, do you call it ‘my church’? That feeling of ‘us’ is the key.”

Photo: Library of Congress

Dolan: Catholics must be prepared to defend their faith

Archbishop Dolan gave a strongly worded and provocative speech the other morning in Los Angeles that is getting a lot of attention in the Catholic blogosphere.

At the L.A. Catholic Prayer Breakfast, where he was introduced by Cardinal Mahony, Dolan called for new era of Catholic apologetics to help prepare Catholics to defend the faith.

He described apologetics as “the art of credibly, convincingly and compellingly defending and presenting our faith.”

Dolan described an annual rite of September, when Catholic parents tell him that their son or daughter, a freshman in college, has a new roommate or friend who has terrible things to say about Roman Catholicism.

He said that Catholics need a “steady, humble, cheerful confidence, a rational grounding in our Catholic faith.”

They need to be able to explain why “The Catholic Church is the one, true, holy, catholic and apostolic faith.”

He also asked young people in the audience: “Are you prepared to defend your Catholic faith against those who want to take it from you and who will feel they are doing you a big fat favor by liberating you from the shackles of this oppressive, corrupt, superstitious, unbiblical, irrational, anti-Christ church?”

In L.A., Dolan also described the mass exodus of Catholics from their church as the “number one pastoral problem we confront today.”

“People are renouncing membership, leaving the church or joining others,” he said.

In addition to practicing apologetics, he said, Catholics need to emphasize a new model of the church — “The church as our spiritual family” — and to “fess up” to the sinful, human side of the church.

“One of the reasons we have a growing number of ex-Catholics is that they have been shocked, saddened and scandalized by the sinful actions of Catholics, including her clergy and hierarcy.”

It was a passionate talk, which you can watch HERE, and was well received by what appears to be a large audience.

One priest from Alabama cheered Dolan’s call for a new apologetics on his blog: “No one wins a chess match by making one move and waiting to see what the opponent might do. Part of the strategy of great chess player is anticipating the opponent’s move and being prepared for it. We want our young people (who are the laity of the present and the future) to be able, calming and confidently, to deflect all these sad, stereotypical objections with ease. But such ease, even on a football field or in a battlefield, comes only with practice and proper equipment.”

And a Carmelite sister who was at the breakfast wrote of his remarks: “As Archbishop Dolan speaks I am captured by the truth of his words and deeply moved, strengthened in my love for the Church which is weak and broken like me, but outside of which I would be completely lost.”

Dolan was, in the end, typically hopeful and positive. And he did share some good news, too: “Thanks to immigration, the church is still growing.”