William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Decline And Increase Of Mainstream Religions In The USA: With Pictures!

The Episcopals, like many other old guard protesting religions, are in trouble. Jay Akasie tells us that at this year’s annual conclave, the Episcopalian leadership had their most serious discussions about “whether to develop funeral rites for dogs and cats, and whether to ratify resolutions condemning genetically modified foods.” Also “the approval of transgender ordination.” All were approved, naturally.

They also issued a sort of “apology to Native Americans for exposing them to Christianity”, and began a chat about how, using “blunt modern language and with politically correct intent” to re-write the “church’s historic” (but now embarrassing) Book of Common Prayer. And, oh yes, they approved a rite to bless so-called same-sex unions. The only thing missing was a statement condemning global warming.

But that’s because, as Russ Douthat reminds us, they did that already in 2006, when the group said they “valued ‘the stewardship of the earth’ too highly to reproduce themselves.”

The good news is that Episcopalians who sleep in on Sunday are in no danger of missing the weekly sermon. All they need do is switch on NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, CNN, or PBS or subscribe to the DNC newsletter and there it will be.

Evidently, this is what most Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, and other WASPy religion members have done, because fewer and fewer of them are showing up in the pews. The following picture illustrates this; this is the per 1000 citizen church members (i.e. normalized by the USA population):

And here the same, unnormalized by population:

I only put up those religions with the most folks. All data is from the Association of Religion Data Archives; they’re about five years behind, and it’s not clear how accurate are the counts. In particular, if there’s one thing Protestants like to do it is protest; they’re forever splitting and splintering and creating new branches. There are five American branches of Anglicanism, for instance (with the most conservative actually growing). This fracturing is why the data for Methodists and Presbyterians is choppy. There are twenty active and eighteen inactive Presbyterian groups, with Methodists about the same. The US Census provided the population data.

All the mainline denominations are plummeting, but the Catholics are holding their own, the Assembly of God and other similar pentecostal denominations are increasing, and while the Baptists have begun declining, the rate is not as alarming as it is for the others (see Southern Baptist Baptisms at Lowest in Decades). Catholics have even been increasing of late; much of this comes from immigration from countries which have historically adopted a conquering white nation’s language which is not English, and in congregations which are traditionalist. Mormons (not shown) are also on the rise; there are about six million of them at present. And the Amish and Mennonites (also not shown) aren’t doing poorly.

In other words, those denominations which are roughly “conservative” are strengthening, while those which are roughly “liberal” or “progressive” are weakening. And it doesn’t take a keen eye to see when the trouble started. With your finger, draw a vertical line at 1960 or so on each of these plots, and then allow yourself a slight “Ah.”

To see how things might go in the future, examine these two pictures:

This is the number of churches: all are in decline, except the Assembly of God, which also saw the highest growth rate in members, and except the Southern Baptists, which now has buildings with fewer people in them. The Catholic and Episcopal rate of decrease may be termed strategic, but the Presbyterians and Methodists are in full retreat. Hold these figures in your mind while looking at this:

This is the number of clergy. The increase in Assembly of God makes sense: more churches and more members need more preachers. The Southern Baptists are filling more churches with more preachers, but those churches are just holding steady. That becomes the ten-year prediction for both these denominations: Assembly of God increasing apace, and the Baptists treading water.

The increase in clergy for Methodists and Presbyterians makes no sense—who is paying these people?—but at least these denominations are saving funds by closing buildings. But the increase makes least sense for the Episcopalians, who are losing members while trying to hold on to real estate and while hiring new clergy. Expensive business, that (plus see the original link: the church is spending money suing its own membership for splitting). The predictions are a gentle, gentlemanly decline for the Methodists and Presbyterians, who in ten years will still be with us, but whose suicides will be pleasant, sedate affairs. Look for more of their churches to be converted into lofts for hipsters.

The prediction for Episcopalians is more grim. A decade from now, there will be a million or fewer of them; and there is even a reasonable probability there will be none of them, at least in an official sense. The church could very well break down into separate churches, its various members being absorbed elsewhere.

The outlook for Catholics is sparkling. That bump you saw in clergy is no artifact (perhaps the exact number is; no warranty on the data, but evidence elsewhere suggests the priesthood is reviving). The increase in members will continue with immigration and because while some Catholics rebel when it comes to birth control, few do so when it comes to killing off inconvenient fetuses. Plus with the gradual return to more traditional services, and given what we have seen, membership will likely increase.

Check back with me ten years from now to see how well I did.

26 Comments

  1. Carmen D'oxide

    17 July 2012 at 8:56 am

    Considering that the Assemblies of God coalesced as a denomination from a small number of independent American congregations a little over a century ago and that about 90% of adherents are non-American, the numbers are astonishing. Some might even suspect divine influence…

  2. Briggs

    17 July 2012 at 9:13 am

    Carmen,

    Maybe so. But to clarify: these are numbers just for the USA.

  3. An interesting counterfactual is what would have happened to Catholics had they not abandoned their entire patrimony in favor of Papa Montini’s fiercely-imposed Bogus Ordo, a “fabrication, a banal on -the-spot product” in the words of one Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. The picture would still not be pretty but it would likely be much better.

  4. Stored for future claim chowder.

  5. Speaking only of Presbyterians, we are losing not just members but whole congregations. Just 2 years ago locally a whole church, our most active and rapidly growing congregation, jumped ship to become Presbyterian Evangelicals. My home church is not losing members, but not growing. However, the old folks are dying off fast, but are being replaced by young families with lots of kids. So tentatively I am hopeful. The disconnect between the local, conservative chuches and the liberal national church is driving the loss of membership, IMO.

  6. Bad Statistician! These charts are not comparable. All of the axes are arbitrary.

  7. Briggs

    17 July 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Doug,

    Usually true, but I’m more interested here in the differences in rates, while still showing the baseline.

  8. Got any charts for Islam?

  9. Briggs

    17 July 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Odd Man,

    Unfortunately, they didn’t have; but if you can find, I can plot.

  10. Carmen D'oxide

    17 July 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Briggs, I was unclear. The A/G is international with about ten times as many foreign adherents (outside the US) than American adherents (inside the US).

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    17 July 2012 at 3:48 pm

    @B
    I understand it was only the English language translations that got messed up. The German mass in Stefansdom was fine, and the mass in the crypt was in Latin.

  12. As a member of one of the Episcopalian break-aways that was sued (and lost) for trying to walk away amicably, I hear you.

    Seems to me that churches that retain traditions and rituals without believing in any of the substance behind them are rather poor substitutes for social clubs. Especially in this modern era when Scientificism (atheism) is its own religion and western Buddhism lets you roll your own religion, why would you stick with a religion with so many things you don’t believe in and have to explain away.

  13. An observation, not a statistic: Many seminarians and newly ordained RC priests in California seem to be children of Korean & Vietnamese immigrants. Perhaps the children of families who abandoned their homelands a/c persecutions or wars have experienced the saving power of God in a way not apparent to native United Statesers.
    TeaPot562

  14. I’m with Doug M on this. You don’t start the y-axes from zero, and you don’t use the same scale. If you’re interested in the rates, you should have calculated and plotted the rates, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the whole. So, for example, the Methodist graph looks like a plunge to extinction early this century, when in fact it shows that their membership has declined fairly steadily at about 0.5% to 0.6% per year since 1970. That information can be found from the graph, but only by looking carefully. The graph itself is designed to be much more alarmist.

  15. Interesting charts. Anyway to get this for the whole world instead of only US?

  16. Briggs

    18 July 2012 at 6:09 am

    Howard,

    Starting from 0 is rarely a given, and is usually a no-no. But I’ll agree the rest of the axis would have been restrained. Re: Methodists: in the 40 years of data available from that site, they have dropped 30%. Down to 7.8 million.

    RXavier,

    If we can find the data, I can plot it. I’ll look around.

  17. Is starting from zero a no-no? It depends what you are trying to show.

    As I said, showing the percent drop per year would be more relevant to what you say you are trying to show, and the data you used to make these graphs are all you need to show that. That would show that the decline has been slow, but because it has been steady for several decades it has had a significant cumulative effect.

    On the other hand, you have achieved your goal effectively if you want people to just glance at the graphs and have an immediate reaction of, “Wow! Their numbers are dropping like a stone!”

  18. “The good news is that Episcopalians who sleep in on Sunday are in no danger of missing the weekly sermon. All they need do is switch on NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, CNN, or PBS or subscribe to the DNC newsletter and there it will be.” Boy ain’t that the truth! BTW – I don’t think Pentecostal growth is so much divine intervention as it is extremely aggressive proselytism.

  19. Ye Olde, that is incorrect. Even the Latin version of Montini’s debacle is quite deficient as compared to what preceeded it for ~500-1500+ years. It is quite true that certain vernacular translations compounded the problem, but there is issue with the original.

  20. The decline of Mainline Protestantism is obvious and the Fundamentalist strains will grow because of fatigue with Old Line that rarely if ever talks about Jesus. Also, Fundamentalist enthusiasm for positive thinking is closely tied to Conservative Americana Prosperity Gospel. That usually lasts about a generation and a half before the enthusiasm wears off. If the Fundamentalist preacher is not “nails on” with his message, then all you have is a few songs.
    Pope Benedict XVI was correct, when as Cardinal he said that the ‘Church is much smaller than we realize.’ That is to say, of those who claim Catholic, who are living it? People who sit in the pews of Biden and Pelosi? Teh impending persecution will be indicative of this. Vocations to priesthood and religious life are alive and well in dioceses and areas that are faithful to the Church. Yet, the Church will be Hispanic, with strong pockets of Filipino and Vietnamese.

  21. As a quick FYI, the AG /would/ be in slight decline except for growth caused by its Spanish speaking churches, which continue to grow apace. It is also worth noting that the US AG is a mere fraction of the size of the RCC or even the SBC in the US. I say these things sympathetically, as an ordained AG minister.

  22. “While some Catholics rebel when it comes to birth control, few do so when it comes to killing off inconvenient fetuses.”

    What is your evidence for this? I found only a little on this:

    http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_fact4.htm

  23. Please do not lump all Lutherans and Presbyterians together. I believe that the Lutherans that you are referring to are the ELCA Lutherans. The Presbyterians that you are referring to are the PCUSA Presbyterians. I don’t know the numbers but some of the Lutherans (Missouri Synod) and some Presbyterians (PCA?) certainly do not have the same issues as the Episcopalians, ELCA and PCUSA. YMMV.

    Thank you
    Larry Geiger

  24. Many will likely consider it a distinction without a difference, but I believe you would be more accurate substituting “denomination” for “religion” throughout this post. The denominations listed all shared (at one time) the same religion, a belief in Christ. Many still do today. The way they practice and observe that religion pretty well sets them apart as denominations, in my opinion. Interesting charts.

  25. David L. Hagen

    19 July 2012 at 9:04 pm

    Interesting trends – contrast between Liberals declining and Evangelicals & Pentacostals/Charismatics increasing.
    Compare the rapid growth of conservative/evangelical Anglicans in Africa.
    Why the Next Archbishop of Canterbury Should Be African

    Today, the Anglican Church in Nigeria is a central player in a vibrant and aggressive religious marketplace. . . . something like twenty million Nigerian Anglicans compete for attention. And they do so as part of a world Church. The church’s official name is Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion)

    See Pew Forum on Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa
    From 1900 to 2010 Christianity grew from 9% to 54% in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    The number of Christians has grown even faster, soaring almost 70-fold from about 7 million to 470 million.

  26. What do conservative denominations have that the modernists don’t? Aside from Bible-based theology, they have male leadership. The Episcopalians have female “bishops” and leader, a Popess, so to speak. Male leadership means dynamism and growth. Female leadership means stagnation and decline. Too bad none of the graphs showed the demographics of Islam, whose leadership is totally male.

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