Not a day, not a casual conversation about church, not a committee meeting, passes for me without a reference being made to the diminishing size of the United Church of Christ, and the larger Church with it.
This piece is in two parts. The first part considers denominations by the number of people identifying themselves as adherents to that denomination. The notion of membership in a denomination is inconsistently defined from one group to another. So, self-identification, for this purpose, as someone who aligns with a given denomination seems most uniformly applicable.
The second part of the analysis takes a look at the numbers of congregations associated with several denominations over time and offers some concluding thoughts on what these numbers might mean for the UCC.
The two parts of this analysis are based on data developed by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (and I thought my career was specialized) and on U.S. Census data. The study involves 270,000 lines of hard data with over 1 million data points covering 30 years of religion in America, from 1980 to 2010. I’ve sifted through it, set up some calculations, and come to some conclusions that inform me that the UCC, in Connecticut and elsewhere, is both doing the right thing and has some lessons still to learn about growth and viability. I don’t presume to know precisely what those lessons are or will be. But I do know we ought be listening.
I recently re-read some widely published thoughts from a clergyman who knew how to focus himself:
There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Our friend lamented that the church was losing touch with younger people. The implication being that, without the support of the generation to follow, the church would, in effect, concede its own demise.
We hear this message with increasing stridence lately, but the message is not new. These remarks are from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I commend us all to read and re-read this extraordinary piece of writing on social justice.
For the Church to remain relevant, it has to be relevant. That is, it must refresh itself every day. As Dr. King observes, the Church cannot hope to retain meaning by defending the status quo. We must be disturbers of the peace.
Across America, the Church is not disappearing at all. Those who identify as being adherents of a particular religious group has gone from about 51.5% of the total population in 1980 to about 54.5% in 2010. While this is down from a prior level of 56% in 1990, it still represents a fundamental resilience of organized religion.
I decided to take a deeper dive into the data to explore the trends within. Among the first things I observed was that the notion of “nondenominational” churches received limited attention and precious little data specificity until 2010. The irony here, of course, is that every church started as nondenominational, especially insofar as it was initially without affiliation with a larger, widely accepted church. By way of example, consider that the conventionally accepted first use of the notion of a “Christian” church was one of contempt when Agrippa, in Acts 26:28, says to Paul “you almost persuade me to become a Christian,” likely evoking laughter from the onlooking crowd. In his First Letter, Peter, writing as Bishop of Rome, acknowledges at 4:16 the hurtful use of the term when he tries to encourage believers to endure mockery with his exhortation “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”
Later, all of Protestantism began its journey as mere apostacy, with no specific name, and a shared awareness that attendance at a Protestant worship service carried the risk of imprisonment, or worse.
By the time a couple millennia pass, and we start systematically counting churches whose members do not identify as being part of a brand-name denomination, fully 4% of US residents are part of that group. For perspective, that proportion is about equal to the shares of US residents adhering to the UCC, Episcopal, and Assemblies of God churches combined. New churches have always been, and are always being, planted in new fields, and growing new fruit. The cyclicality lamented by so many of us may actually be transplantation, or changes of name.
I measured how 20 (generally) Protestant denominations grew and changed in Connecticut over 30 years, both in terms of adherents and congregations. I removed from the dataset denominations whose data were not consistently provided, or which experienced a split or merger during the reviewed period. In order to measure consistently, I also did not include denominations which were not part of the original dataset for the entire term of the study. I’ll show you the graphic first, then offer some thoughts on what it means.
Figure 1 illustrates the changes in adherents during the period studied:
We can see in this chart that some denominations have experienced consistent reduction (by percentage share) in persons who identify as part of that denomination; some have consistently grown, and some have exhibited mixed changes. I find it interesting that absolute size of the adherent population appears to have no relationship to the growth or shrinkage of that population. The “brand name” effect may be of vanishingly limited value to an individual’s choice of church affiliation.
Take another look at Figure 1. Six of the denominations included actually grew in adherents over the time frame. Some, like the Latter Day Saints, grew at rates exceeding 55% in some years. None of the big name brands came close to that rate of growth. The smaller (in number of adherents) churches appear to have experienced more and higher rates of overall growth in membership. Yet, the larger denominations generally got smaller as a share of the total.
The Church is doing what it has always done. It is evolving.
In the next part, I’ll take a look at these denominations from the perspective of the numbers of their congregations.
Dan Smolnik is a tax attorney and member of Spring Glen Church in Hamden, CT, where he serves on the Board of Trustees and as a delegate.
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