The 77th annual edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, long a highly regarded chronicler of growth and financial trends of religious institutions, records a slight but startling decline in membership of the nation's largest Christian communions.
Membership in the Roman Catholic Church declined 0.59 percent and the Southern Baptist Convention declined 0.24 percent, according to the 2009 edition of the Yearbook, edited by the National Council of Churches and published by Abingdon.
The figures indicate that the Catholic church lost 398,000 members since the appearance of the 2008 Yearbook. Southern Baptists lost nearly 40,000 members.
Both membership figures were compiled by the churches in 2007 and reported to the Yearbook in 2008. The 2009 Yearbook also includes an essay by the editor, the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, on the various ways churches count their members.
Neither figure is earth-shattering given the size of the churches. Roman Catholics comprise the nation's largest church with a membership of 67,117,016, and Southern Baptists rank second in the nation at 16,266,920.
But this year's reported decline raises eyebrows because Catholic and Southern Baptist membership has grown dependably over the years. Now they join virtually every mainline church in reporting a membership decline.
According to the 2009 Yearbook, among the 25 largest churches in the U.S., four are growing: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (up 1.63 percent to 5,873,408; the Assemblies of God (up 0.96 percent to 2,863,265); Jehovah's Witnesses (up 2.12 percent to 1,092,169); and the Church of God of Cleveland, Tenn. (up 2.04 percent to 1,053,642).
There are no clear-cut theological or sociological reasons for church growth or decline, says Editor Lindner. "Many churches are feeling the impact of the lifestyles of younger generations of church-goers -- the 'Gen X'ers' or "Millenials' in their 20s and 30s who attend and support local congregations but resist joining them."
But former Southern Baptist President Frank Page told the Associated Press that the decline in his denomination was troubling because of the Southern Baptist emphasis on winning souls.
Page called on Southern Baptists to "recommit to a life of loving people and ministering to people without strings attached so people will be more open to hearing the Gospel message."
Lindner writes, "A slowing of the rate of growth of some churches and the decline of membership of others ought to be the focus of continued research and and thoughtful inquiry."
Churches listed in the Yearbook as experiencing the highest rate of membership loss are the United Church of Christ (down 6.01 percent), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (down 3.01 percent), the Presbyterian Church (USA) (down 2.79 percent), the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (down 1.44 percent) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (down 1.35 percent),
American Baptist Churches USA, on the other hand, cut its previous decline rate of 1.82 percent in half, now reporting a decline of 0.94 percent.
Membership of the top 25 churches in the U.S. totals 146,663,972 -- down 0.49 percent from last year's total of 147,382,460.
The top 25 churches reported in the 2009 Yearbook are in order of size:
The Roman Catholic Church, 67,117,06 members, down 0.59 percent. (Ranked 1)
The Southern Baptist Convention, 16,266,920 members, down 0.24 percent. (Ranked 2)
The United Methodist Church, 7,931,733 members, down 0.80 percent. (Ranked 3)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5,873,408 members, up 1.63 percent .(Ranked 4)
The Church of God in Christ, 5,499,875 members, no change reported. (Ranked 5)
National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., 5,000,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 6)
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4,709,956 members, down 1.35 percent. (Ranked 7)
National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., 3,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 8)
Presbyterian Church (USA), 2,941,412 members, down 2.79 percent (Ranked 9)
Assemblies of God, 2,863,265 members, up 0.96 percent. (Ranked 10)
African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), 2,383,084 members, down 1.44 percent. (Ranked 14)
The Episcopal Church, 2,116,749 members, down 1.76 percent. (Ranked 15)
Churches of Christ, 1,639,495 members, no change reported. (Ranked 16)
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 17)
Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc., 1,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 17)
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 1,400,000 members, down 3.01 percent. (Ranked 19)
American Baptist Churches in the USA, 1,358,351, down 0.94 percent. (Ranked 20)
Baptist Bible Fellowship International, 1,200,000, no change reported. (Ranked 21)
United Church of Christ, 1,145,281 members, down 6.01 percent. (Ranked 22)
Jehovah's Witnesses, 1,092,169 members, up 2.12 percent (Ranked 23)
Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, 1,071,616 members, no change reported. (Ranked 24)
Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), 1,053,642 members, up 2.04 percent. (Ranked 25)
National Council of Churches