Social Acceptance & Membership

In a reply to one of my posts the comment was made, ‘. . . people wonder why churches are empty. Do younger people, who are the future of any churches, come and all they hear is depression, our sinfulness, being LBGTQAI+ is sinful . . . . do you really think that they will return? No, they will not return.’

Christian denominations are seeing more and more empty pews; as a percent of population both membership and attendance is down and is continuing to go down. This trend started in the 1960’s and has not stopped. The question, based on the comment above is, ‘how are the more liberal, socially acceptable churches doing as compared to the more conservative, less socially acceptable ones?’

If we look first at the United Methodist Church in the United States, between 2004 & 2014 (2015 numbers are not available yet) the membership is down about 13.4%. Within the 5 jurisdictions:

  • in the 2 most liberal ones (Western & North Central) membership is down 18.5%
  • in the two most conservative jurisdictions (Southeastern & South Central) membership is down 9%
  • in the Northeastern jurisdiction membership is down 12%

I do not have sufficient information to determine why the UMC decline, or why the decline in the more liberal jurisdictions is twice the rate of decline in the conservative ones, but that trend is not unique to the United Methodist denomination.

The Protestant denominations that have already accepted a more liberal interpretation of the Bible have seen larger declines in membership. The only Protestant denomination that has actually seen an increase in membership is the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) which is the conservative group that separated in 1974 when several Presbyterian sects united. The PCA has grown about 1% per year between 2011 & 2015. During this same period the more liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost an average of 4.8% per year. The denomination with the smallest decline in membership is the Southern Baptist Convention, which is also considered the most conservative of the mainline denominations; their rate of decline during this period is about 1.5%.

There is one group of Christian churches that has seen a positive growth trend and has maintained this positive grown trend for over 50 years: Evangelical Churches. Typically, these are considered very conservative and include churches such as:

  • Church of God in Christ (1,194% growth)
  • Presbyterian Church of America (790% growth)
  • Evangelical Free Church (749%)
  • Assembly of God (430%)

If the trends are plotted on a graph, it looks like this:

Social Acceptance

Again, I do not have sufficient information to interpret what the numbers mean, but across the board, churches that have moved toward a more socially acceptable view of the Bible have lost members at ever increasing rates while those maintaining a more strict view of the Bible have grown. This begs the question, ‘if a denomination gives society what it wants why doesn’t society show up in the pews on Sunday?’

A disclaimer: My information is derived from a broad set of data, or a data bell curve. It is always possible to find an individual church or small group of churches that do not conform to this information; these individual churches will be in the minority and will typically fall within one or the other bell curve tail.

2 thoughts on “Social Acceptance & Membership”

  1. Thx for the blog. In church-planting enterprises, you’d find similar results. Church plants that have historic Christian and biblical boundaries in place and in which membership standards are high, tend to grow. In some cases, they reach new people groups in amazingly quick fashion and in large amounts.

    Arguments have raged about the styles, media, watered down messages and dumbed down worship. In the end it is not about peripherals nor preferences, but in an evangelical gospel that anticipates transformation and not just reconciliation.

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