Denominational Trends In Church Attendance

By Mike Willis

Across America, many mainline Protestant denominations are becoming alarmed at the loss of membership which is occurring in their respective denominations. Recent statistics have shown that approximately “80 million Americans, roughly 40 percent of the United States population” (J. Russell Hale, Who Are The Unchurched?, p. 2), are “unchurched Americans.” Every major denomination in the United States has suffered numerical losses during the last decade.

The number of people who are attending church in any given week has slipped to 40%. “Four in 10 adults nationwide attended church or synagogue in a typical week in 1979” (George Gallup, “Sunday Worship,” Dayton Journal Herald, 29 December 1979, p. 34). Despite this loss of numbers in attendance, Gallup polls show that “more than eight of every ten persons believe Jesus Christ is divine” (Christianity Today, 21 December 1979, p. 14). However, most people believe that one can be a good Christian or Jew without attending worship services. “Can a person be a good Christian or Jew if he or she doesn’t attend church or synagogue? Seven out of 10 of the churched segment, and eight persons in 10 of the unchurched, answer in the affirmative” (The Unchurched American, p. 9).

Churches Analyze Their Losses

“According to a report prepared by Constant Jacquet, Jr. in 1973 there were eleven Protestant churches which had a membership of one million or more. Eight of the eleven had fewer members in 1973 than they did in 1965. The percentage loss ranged from 30.63 % to 2.35 % . One of the three remaining denominations has shown a slight loss since 1970, thus leaving only two denominations with more than one million members which reported more members in 1973 than in any previous year” (Warren J. Hartman, Membership Trends: A Study of Decline and Growth in the United Methodist Church 1939-1975, p. 48). Here is the specific data:

  1965 1975 Percentage Change
American Baptist 1,538,988 1,603,033 4.2
Assemblies of God 572,123 785,348 37.3
Church of the Nazarene 343,380 441,093 28.4
Episcopal 3,429,153 2,857,513 -16.7
Lutheran Church of America 3,106,844 2,986,078 -3.9
Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod 2,692,889 2,763,545 2.6
Presbyterian Church, U.S. 950,139 878,126 -8.6
Roman Catholic Church 46,246,175 48,881,872 5.7
Seventh Day Adventist 364,666 495,699 35.9
Southern Baptist Convention 10,770,573 12,733,124 18.2
United Church of Christ 2,070,413 1,818,762 -12.1
United Methodist Church 11,082,024 9,975,710 -10.0
United Presbyterian Church U.S.A. 3,034,321 2,657,699 -12.4

These figures are taken from “The Church In The World” by Jackson W. Carroll, Theology Today (35:70-80, April 1978).

A study of these statistics is rather interesting. Across the board, these figures show that fundamental or evangelical groups are growing numerically whereas liberal groups are declining in membership. Consequently, Dean Kelley has written a book entitled Why Conservative Churches Are Growing which basically ties growth to conservative beliefs and decline in membership to liberal beliefs. This thesis, obviously, has not been totally accepted as Jackson W. Carroll’s response (Ibid.) demonstrates. However, self-analysis studies by the different denominations throws more light on the subject.

1. United Methodist Church. Warren J. Hartman published a 60-page study of Membership Trends in the United Methodist Church in 1976. While not stating that the membership loss in the Methodist Church was attributed to members becoming dissatisfied with liberal preaching and leaving the church, I am convinced that this study demonstrates that liberalism is leading to self destruction. Hartman wrote,

Between 1949 and the present there have been a number of radical changes in the larger society, in the religious subculture, and in the church. The causes for change are many and complex. Within the church there have been mood changes, new ideas about the mission of the church, and constant reordering of priorities. The effect of these changes is seen among the agencies of the church in the shifting program emphasis and in the allocation of financial resources (p. 20).

The result has been that the amount spent by the United Methodist church in converting people has dwindled with their increase in emphasis on social justice. Compare these figures to see how emphasis on programs other than evangelism has consumed the resources of the United Methodist Church (p. 22):

Comparing these figures with those of the local church with which I am affiliated, I can hardly imagine that the entire Methodist denomination is only spending 2.8% of its total revenue ($52,434,368) for evangelism; that amounts to $1,510,109.70 per quadrennium or approximately $500,000 per year. The local congregation of which I am a member (which has approximately 190 in attendance each Lord’s day) will spend approximately $45,000 this year in the support of gospel preachers in addition to purchasing $6500 in radio time, literature, tracts, and other evangelistic material. It is small wonder that the United Methodist Church is not growing. It is more concerned with making this world a better place to live than in preparing souls for eternity! (See chart below)


Contributions To All General Causes

Distributions To:

Local Church Education Evangelism Education and Evangelism Percent of All Money
1949-52 $1,419,4678 630,383 90,411 720,784 5.8
1953-56 17,724,958 667,673 195,675 863,348 4.87
1957-60 23,316,995 752,648 254,505 1,007,153 4.32
1961-64 30,353,357 967,269 355,441 1,322,710 4.36
1965-68 34,406,518 1,059,309 384,944 1,444,253 4.20
1969-72 45,779,002 1,211,397 463,463 1,674,860 3.66
1973-75 52,434,368 1,205,069 304,309 1,509,378 2.88

2. United Presbyterian Church. The problem of declining membership is discussed in A Summary Report of The Committee on Membership Trends which was approved by the 188th General Assembly (1976). The report stated the seriousness of the problem.

For ten years our church has agonized over the continued loss of members which has occurred after twenty-five years of almost uninterrupted membership growth. The same decline was experienced by most other mainline Protestant denominations beginning in the mid 1960’s but was even more serious in our church than in others – 577,084 (a 17% loss) since 1965 (p. 11).

The study of the United Presbyterian Church discounted theological liberalism as having anything to do with the loss in membership stating, “We cannot conclude that the more conservative the approach or stance in the life of a congregation the more likely it is to grow” (p. 15). However, the relationship between liberalism and lack of motivation in evangelism is too obvious to be discounted. The United Presbyterian Church Committee on Membership Trends reported that “when choosing from a list of 21 possibilities, the recruitment of new members rated among the three most important aspects of church life for only 9% of respondents in growing churches and for 10% in those rapidly declining. Christian witness to the community was affirmed by only 5% to 7%. Only 4% to 6% could affirm evangelism” (p. 20). To furthermore demonstrate the relationship between theological liberalism and lack of evangelism, resulting in declining church membership, consider the following quotation:

Two of the most important convictions in the UPC are the centrality of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the authority of the Scripture as the Word of God. However, among our respondents, less than 30% perceived the “personal experience of the salvation in Christ” as among the three most important aspects of the faith of their congregation. When the respondents were asked the extent to which they could agree with the statement that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice, only one-fourth could not. Forty percent of the Presbyterian Panel could not agree with this statement.

“Ministering to the needs of others,” “the sense of purpose, strength, and the security the faith gives,” and “personal guidance in daily decisions” more frequently emerged than did the “personal experience of salvation” as a key aspect of the respondent’s faith. While each of these is an important aspect of the Christian faith and life, we are concerned that many tend to place generalized religious experience and relation ahead of the personal relation to Christ as Savior in one’s daily life.

When rating 21 different aspects of their congregation’s life, only 7% to 8% could say that members’ understanding of the faith was among the three aspects getting the most attention. There is a widespread conviction that it is important for people to share their Christian beliefs with others, but they themselves do so only occasionally.

The above data perhaps throws a different light on the strength of the agreement by our respondents with the statement that “no one has the right to impose his belief on another.” The fairly strong opinion on that may come from a respect of other persons and the desire to be tolerant. It may also be that we aren’t clear about what we believe, and thus feel uncomfortable when talking about our faith (pp. 21-22).

Like the United Methodist Church, the United Presbyterian Church has continued to spend less on missions .

. . . What about our concern for mission in the USA and overseas? It is a fact that despite larger total giving per capita by our decreased membership, we have increasingly allocated a larger proportion of those dollars to the local church program and plant. Much less is now allocated to the national and international mission of the church. More is allocated to non-United Presbyterian mission causes. Slightly more is now allocated to presbytery and synod general mission (p. 18).

Hence, the United Presbyterian Church continues to lose membership. My personal assessment, as confirmed by these quotations, is that preaching the saving gospel of Jesus Christ is not important to those who believe there is no salvation beyond the grave and that, if there were salvation available, one could obtain it without faith in Jesus Christ.

3. The Episcopal Church. A remarkably frank discussion of liberalism and membership loss in the Episcopal Church was written by Wayne B. Williamson, Growth and Decline in the Episcopal Church (1979). The Episcopal Church has been hit extremely hard by membership loss; they have had a loss of 16.7% in membership in the decade from 1965 to 1975. During this same period, extreme theological liberalism has controlled the Episcopal Church. After detailing the entrance of theological liberalism in the Episcopal Church, Williamson wrote, “Many clergy openly denied the Virgin Birth, some denied the historicity of Jesus, and some even the existence of a personal God . . . . By 1967 Bishop James A. Pike could openly deny the Virgin Birth and virtually dare the House of Bishops to take action against him, which they refused to do” (p 17). He lamented, “We have all but said that we hold there is no heresy except in the case of those who would hold that there is such a thing as heresy” (p. 142). The religious tolerance of the Episcopal Church with its “unity-in-diversity” extends to include all forms of religion.

Something of the morass into which comprehensiveness can lead is discerned in a report of recent happenings in two of our major cathedrals. It was widely reported that during “a recent service at the Washington Cathedral a Muslim Azan, A Jewish Baruch, and aspirations from the Hindu Pali Prayer Book issued from the pulpit” (Rutler 1978:4). The other episode took place in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. It hosted a Shinto ceremony in the name of ecumenicity. In gratitude for this recognition the Japanese Shintoists gave an altar (Shinto) which the Cathedral received and ensconced within the Cathedral as a gesture of ecumenical solidarity (p. 21).

Obviously, such a group is not going to be concerned with converting Muslims, Jews, and Shintoists. Williamson commented, “The price of comprehensiveness almost inevitably involves compromise” (p. 20).

What can one say of this “comprehensiveness” when he is persuaded that tolerance of error is not a virtue; indeed, such tolerance will eventually sound the deathknell of true religion. The Christian religion is a religion of deep convictions, not of facile compromises (p. 21).

Liberalism is obviously in control of the Episcopal Church.

The result of this liberalism has been that the funds of the church have been expended on nearly everything but evangelism.

For those who hold the activist politico-economic advocacy point of view, growth in numbers is a secondary concern for the church, at best. They have little interest in, or patience with, evangelism that seeks to win men and women to Christ. It is a part of my argument that because the liberal view has gained the ascendancy among Episcopal leaders, over against the more traditional and conservative view of the “salvation of souls,” they have lost touch with their people in the parishes. As a result the church has suffered numerical loss, seen its missionary and evangelizing spirit greatly diminished, and largely lost the semblance of biblical direction (p. 2).

Instead, the church has been diverted into the social gospel to the extent that its mission has been grossly perverted, according to Williamson.

This stems from the religious liberalism which has gotten control of the denomination. Notice his assessment of the liberalism in the church and its influence on the mission of the denomination. In this first citation from Williamson’s book, he is quoting John Stott.

Nothing hinders evangelism more today than the widespread loss of confidence in the truth, relevance, and power of the Gospel. When this ceases to be good news from God, and becomes instead “rumors of God,” we can hardly expect to exhibit much evangelistic enthusiasm (p. 54).

In his own words, he adds,

Probably the greatest impediment to Church Growth for the Episcopal Church is that so few, clergy or laity, really believe that apart from Christ people are eternally lost. Lacking this conviction, the major incentive for membership growth tends to focus around maintaining the institution and its programs (p. 61).

Be this as it may, I still search in vain in our church literature for any compelling reason as to why anyone should become a Christian and a member of the Church (p. 63).

Instead of the Episcopal Church being interested in leading lost souls to the salvation which is available in Christ, the denomination has been involved in every form of social work. It has imbibed the social gospel.

Because of its overarching concern for the world and its problems, the Church’s priorities change frequently. The Vietnam war, industrial unrest, social injustice, racial discrimination, the exploitation of minority peoples, urban decay, multinational corporations, Capitalism’s corrupting consumerism -the list is long and the possibilities for “relevant” crusades are endless. Whereas few serious-minded Christians would contend that the Church should not involve itself in resisting all that dehumanizes people (Williamson seems to want just a little social gospel, mw), many would question the wisdom of transforming the Church into a cluster of social action committees. They would argue from Scripture that the Church has been given a unique task to perform in society, a task which is significantly different from the most enlightened of social action programs. The tragedy is that social concerns have consumed so much energy and money that the Church has been unable to devote much strength to this primary task (pp. 18-19).

The revolutionary social upheaval of the last decade or so has left many churches in such a state of uncertainty as to their proper role that they have tended to lose all sense of direction. Some of them, feeling driven by the charges of the irrelevancy of the Church in the modern world, have opted to let the world set their agenda. In the laudable desire to see a more perfect justice, some congregations have chosen to become neo-Marxist humanist institutions (p. 39).

The Episcopal Church has tended to define evangelism as whatever it happens to be doing at the time . . . . For those who hold such views, the notion of making disciples as a definite goal is somewhat distasteful. Christian mission simply becomes another form of social involvement rather than a deliberate attempt to proclaim the gospel and persuade people to become Christians. In short, churches may choose to emphasize functions other than bringing people to God. They may desire to become exemplary agencies for affecting social reforms – this has been the major emphasis for the Episcopal Church in the last decade or so (55).

Because of this lack of emphasis on evangelism, Williamson was pessimistic about the future of the Episcopal Church. He reported, “A recent report by the Hartford Seminary Foundation and Duke University Divinity School revealed that at our present rate of ordination by the year 2004 there will be `one priest for every lay member”‘ (p. 4). Indeed, “Those who marry the spirit of this age are bound to be widowers in the next!” (p. 132).


The theological liberalism of the mainstream Protestant denomination has certainly gotten them into serious trouble. Their membership rolls are declining. Likely we will see many church mergers during the near future in an attempt to keep the denominations afloat and financially solvent; this is one means of showing church growth on the books.

However, other denominations are experiencing rapid growth. I intend to consider some of the reasons for this in next week’s article.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 26, pp. 419-422
June 26, 1980