Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Recent Growth Trends in American Churches

Every year the National Council of Churches produces their Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches. This publication includes various facts and figures about many different religious groups, and its release always leads to news stories about how different churches in the U.S. are growing at different rates.

This year is no different. See here and here, for example, concerning the very recent release of the 2011 yearbook (and you can save $5 when buying it from Continuing the trend of recent years, the largest mainline churches continue to shrink while Pentecostal churches are growing fast. Here are the recent numbers for the ten largest Christian groups:
  1. The Catholic Church: 68.5 million, up 0.57 percent.
  2. Southern Baptist Convention: 16.1 million, down .42 percent.
  3. The United Methodist Church: 7.8 million, down 1 percent.
  4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 6 million, up 1.42 percent.
  5. The Church of God in Christ: 5.5 million, no membership updates reported.
  6. National Baptist Convention, USA: 5 million, no membership updates reported.
  7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: 4.5 million, down 1.96 percent.
  8. National Baptist Convention of America, 3.5 million, no membership updates reported.
  9. Assemblies of God: 2.9 million, up .52 percent.
  10. Presbyterian Church (USA): 2.7 million, down 2.61 percent.


  1. Joshua Tang 79925220March 10, 2011 at 8:12 PM

    I always pondered about growth of Churches and Sects. This listen is comprised of Churches, and from what I gathered through the course of this course was that due time, Sects and Churches decrease in tension. I do understand that this is not necessarily true for all religions. However I do feel like the many larger Churches decrease in tension. This makes sense in some context because as the group adds more members, the less tension there is because people have converted. It all depends on the surrounding area, but I don’t understand how a Church can adjust their strictness to obtain more members.
    In the “Acts of Faith” book, the authors wrote in Proposition 81 and 82 that sects start off by lowering their tension to try to grow. In proposition 86, it also states that at any given time, growth will be given to those with higher tension.
    The confusion I produced, after seeing the list by the National Council of Churches is that how does a Church with a large following and lower tension than before have a increase in members. Also how does a Church create strictness, lets say in an area that is primarily one religion, to increase their strictness to increase the tension to allow growth.
    A solution that I thought of was that a particular religion with a large following, goes to an area that they are not dominating and create competition. However, is this realistic? As my TA Kip used as an example of Utah, there is low pluralism but has high participation. Is it realistic for the Catholic Church to start a Church and compete in the area?
    Also, like in economics, we learn that everything has a max, a ceiling that a product will hit. The entire game of supply and demand. Will there be a cap for any Church once a level of demand is hit? Can a religion shift the “demand or supply curve” to increase their member size even though there is so much competition/pluralism in the world?

  2. William Kwak (52215193) Jackson, KMarch 11, 2011 at 10:57 PM

    If I had read this article without taking this class, I would be baffled at the idea that the more "popular" churches or the less strict churches would be declining in membership while the more strict churches are growing. It is easy to assume that strict churches might have a declining growth due to the fact that it requires more time, participation, and commitment. It also makes sense that a church with low strictness might have a growing membership because it requires commitment from people, so they might have more of an incentive to attend.
    After taking this course, I learned that none of these are true. The reason why less strict churches are declining in growth is because of the free rider problem. Less strict churches tend to have more members in their church, which results in more free riders who will lower the value of the product that the church offers. On the other hand, the strict church limits free riders with various screening methods to produce a higher good. This results in members who receive more satisfaction from attending church.

  3. Before taking this class, I was under the assumption that the larger and less strict/lower tension churches were always the more successful and preferred church. But after learning the economics behind it, it now makes sense to me why a church that is more strict with greater tension would be more successful. I found this post especially interesting because it applied something I learned and supported it with up to date real world evidence. The trends display the declining memberships of mainline Protestant churches, in other words, those that have lower tension. This matches with our discussion on optimal tension because there is an oversupply of such low/moderate tension churches, membership to a particular church consequently decreases. More so, higher tension churches have larger niches and will therefore have an increased opportunity for growth - as seen with the Jehovah’s Witnesses experiencing the greatest growth percentage.

  4. Michael Hirschberg, Econ 17March 13, 2011 at 11:14 PM

    It was very interesting to read this article wince it tied closely with our discussion of optimal tension. Strict religious groups have grown faster than non-strict groups during the last half century. Non-strict groups, such as Methodists and Presbyterian Churches, have not seen large gains in growth. Strict groups, such as Mormons and Assemblies of God, have seen faster growth rates in comparison. Strict groups have grown faster than non-strict groups because they are more committed, have higher birth rates, and have strict behavioral codes, all if which increase involvement. Having the right amount “optimum” tension will maximize growth. Having too much or too little strictness will have a negative impact on growth as well. However, a group’s optimum tension depends on goals and purpose that the leaders of the group are trying to achieve. My question is though, how would you decide how much tension you need? Would it be through trial and error? But that could cause you to lose followers and credibility. Is it luck? Looking at past history? Of all the topics we covered in class, this one got me the most confused (optimal tension).


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