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"Seven Sisters" of Mainline Protestantism Still Bleed Members

"Seven Sisters" of Mainline Protestantism Still Bleed Members
The Episcopal Church neither shies away from nor tries to hide denominational decline

Sept. 25, 2019

Whether or not the seven mainline denominations of American Protestant Christianity (the United Methodist Church (USA), Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, American Baptist Churches (USA), and the United Church of Christ) are truly still "mainline" is up for debate. Some argue they still represent typical American Protestantism; others counter with the prevalence of evangelicalism, broadly speaking (contrasting the usually more liberal view of these mainline churches). What is not up for debate is the rapid shrinking if these once these seven denominations. Each posts yearly decline, and, over the decades, the bloodletting has become undeniable.

†Before 1988, combined numbers are from eight branches, available at www.thearda.com.
††Before 1960, combined numbers are from the ERC and the CCC.

United Methodist Church (USA)

UMC is the largest of the seven. The latest numbers on the UMC are from 2017, when membership decreased by 1.89% (a loss from 7,064,602 to 6,932,339). While membership numbers have slowed their fall, perhaps more telling is that, in 2017, average church attendance among UMC members dropped more drastically, by almost four percent (3.8%), or over a hundred thousand members. The UMC in America has consistently lost members since the last years of the 1960s, when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren combined in 1967. In 1967, after the merge, the UMC reported 11,026,976 members.

A brief side note: the global UMC membership increased from 2013 to 2017, from 12.4 million members to 12,557,214. While the U.S. church is decreasing, the international church is growing, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ

The Disciples of Christ, in the last couple of years, has declined at two or three times the rate of other mainline denominations. Disciples' last membership report announced a rate of decline at an incredible 7% per year: from 382,248 members to 355,491. Attendance for 2018 was down 11% (from 139,936 to 124,437), in an already-small denomination. The largest loss the church posted was in the baptisms category: 13% fewer baptisms were celebrated in 2017. The Christian Church saw its membership peak 1957-1958, with nearly two million members (1,943,599).

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Still the largest denomination among its fellow Presbyterian churches, the PCUSA also holds the distinction for losing the most Presbyterian members per year. At this rate, more historically orthodox denominations, like the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), will overtake the PC(USA) as the largest Presbyterian denomination within a couple of decades. In 1982, the final year before the merging of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, both denominations had a peak total membership of 3,157,372 (814,831 and 2,342,441, respectively). Last year, membership decreased from 1,415,053 to 1,352,678, or a 4.4% net loss. At its peak, the PCUSA was comprised of 3,788,009 members. Meanwhile, the PCA has posted regular growth for at least the previous five years in every single category (except per capita giving). The PCA baptized 400 people in the year 2018. The PCUSA, three and a half times larger than the PCA, baptized just over twice as many in 2018. Another conservative Presbyterian church lost members, though. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church lost 3,945 members from 2016-2017 (a loss of 2.5%).

A number of Presbyterian groups and denominations have broken off or cut ties with the PC(USA) since they have investigated liberalizing sexual guidelines. For instance, the Presbyterian Church of India, with its membership of 1.4 million, cut off its partnership with the PC(USA). Another example: the Confessing Movement and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals disagreed with the 2011 removal of the sexual fidelity and chastity clause from clergy ordination vows.

Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church neither shies away from nor tries to hide its decline. While it will be a few years before the Episcopal Church reaches a critically low point, it is definitely on that path. Last year, membership records showed a 2.1% loss (from 1,712,563 to 1,676,349). The published records themselves note that this works out to a 10% loss every five years. In the same period, average attendance went down by an added 4%, for a total of 14% (a 4.2% decline in 2018 alone). In 2003, the Episcopal Church approved an openly homosexual bishop. That it has continued to lose members since the same time, the early 2000s, should indicate something needs addressing in its denomination or, at the very least, the culture at large.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The ELCA is the second-largest denomination in mainline Protestantism and one of the oldest. The modern church came into existence in 1987, when three denominations combined: Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, Lutheran Church in America, and American Lutheran Church. As they finished merging, they had a combined membership of 5,318,844 (respectively, 103,263; 2,896,138; 2,319,443). According to the report from 2018, 2.8% (95,558) of its members left the roll, leaving 3,458,839 members behind, but attendance declined by just under 4% (36,583). Among baptized members, attendance dropped a full percent. Baptism may have a stronger hold on members than simple membership, but that bond is not strong enough to staunch the wound.

In 2010, a significant schism occurred within the ELCA, due to the change in belief away from biblical sexual ethics. The North American Lutheran Church formed out of the Lutheran CORE group, announcing that it would be the "theological center of Lutheranism in North America." Its beliefs fall between the Missouri Synod Lutherans and the ELCA. It has a membership of 142,000 with 424 congregations, and describes itself as a "fast-growing" denomination. The ELCA itself has made clear it is on the path to collapse: by 2041, denominational officials project a Sunday morning attendance of only 16,000 worshippers. Even more noteworthy: they entertain the idea that the reason may be due to a lack of "what's distinctive about being Christian."

American Baptist Churches (USA)

While the ABC denomination is technically against homosexual practice (in contrast to many of its sister denominations within mainline Protestantism), "it is important to recall the independent and autonomous structure of the Baptist tradition." American Baptist churches hold a great degree of autonomy in many aspects, including the area of sexual ethics. A number of churches ignore the denomination's official disapproval of homosexuality. Much like the rest of liberal mainline Protestantism, the American Baptist Church has been bleeding members, though not as quickly as other denominations. In 2017, the last reported year, the ABC lost 1.2% of its members (just 13,845, of 1,159,492).

United Church of Christ

While it is one of the smaller mainline churches, with 824,866 members in 2018 (larger only than the Disciples of Christ with approximately 380,000 members), the UCC reports one of the higher membership loss rates. It lost 3.4% of its membership last year. On a local level, this means each congregation lost three members (from 174 to 171), and attendance went down by two, from 69 to 67 per congregation. Since it is a relatively small denomination, compared to its sisters, the individual losses are more significant.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy tracks these numbers, not for a "we-told-you-so" purpose, or to pat conservative churches on the back, but in order to alert mainline churches to the dangers of liberal theology. All Seven Sisters of Protestantism continue to post declining membership. Each one insists that liberal theology is not the problem, but the solution. After nearly twenty years, it may be time to re-visit that hypothesis. Maybe 2,000 years of tradition is not something at which to scoff.


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