20/20 Vision: Facing 40 Years of Mainline Church Decline

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Episcopal Church of the United States

One of the key issues facing the Episcopal Church in the US, the Diocese of California AND St. Timothy’s is the persistent decline in the membership of the mainline Protestant religions.  There are many reasons for this 40 year trend including:

  • Aging population and changing demographics as we see anew in the 2010 Census
  • Stronger evangelism, marketing and attractiveness of evangelical churches to the unchurched
  • Conflicts in the church over social issues
  • Changes in family structures and lifestyles that do not reinforce going to church.
  • Competing demands on our time pushing church to a lower priority in busy lives.

Writing in WORLD, Timothy Dalrymple distills the headlines from the 2011 edition of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, published by the National Council of Churches to summarize publicly available data on 227 churches across North America.  The Yearbook has been regard as the principal way to track the changing fortunes of organized religion including membership for at least the last forty years.

Here are the Winners and Losers:

Denomination % Change
Jehovah’s Witnesses +4.37%
Seventh Day Adventists +4.31%
The Mormon Church of Ladder Day Saints +1.42%
Roman Catholic Church +0.57%
Assemblies of God +0.52%
Southern Baptist Convention -0.42%
United Methodist Church -1.0%
Lutheran Church (ELCA) -1.96%
Episcopal Church of the US -2.48%
Presbyterian Church (USA) -2.61%
United Church of Christ -2.83%
SOURCE: National Council of Churches

The largest Christian Congregations in the US from 2010 Yearbook are:

  1. The Roman Catholic Church: 68.1 million, up 1.5 percent from 2009
  2. Southern Baptist Convention: 16.2 million, no significant change
  3. The United Methodist Church: 7.8 million, down 1 percent from 2009
  4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 5.9 million, up 1.7 percent from 2009
  5. The Church of God in Christ: 5.5 million, no significant change
  6. National Baptist Convention: 5 million, no significant change
  7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: 4.6 million, down 1.6 percent
  8. National Baptist Convention of America: 3.5 million, no significant change
  9. Assemblies of God: 2.9 million, up 1.27 percent from 2009
  10. The Presbyterian Church; 2.8 million, down 3.28 percent from 2009

15. The Episcopal Church of the US: 2 million members, down 3% or 50,000 members from 2008 to 2009.

Want more information?

  • Episcopal Church Research Services provides statistical information and reports on the Episcopal Church.
  • Episcopal Congregations Overview is based on responses from 837 Episcopal parishes and missions that completed the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey (76% response rate). The data were weighted by size and region to be representative of all Episcopal congregations. A more detailed report of findings will be published and posted on the Episcopal Church web site later in 2011.
  • Compare Congregations Using Episcopal Research Service Online Data.  For search committees preparing profiles this is a very useful tool for comparing congregations and gathering information easily from the parochial reports filed with the National church.  This is your access point to the official parochial report database.

What about St. Timothy’s?

Below are three standardized reports I was able to pull from the ECRS database using the parochial report information for St. Timothy’s in Danville as examples of what is available:

For St. Timothy’s to Grow We Must Change the Trend Lines

So the 20/20 Vision strategies and the work of the Search Committee must take into account these changes in demographics and the implications of the trends in church membership and participation.  The long slow decline of mainline Protestant religions is affecting the Episcopal Church materially and substantially.

Our 20/20 Vision goals to be a welcoming parish open to all and to live into the mission work of the church by doubling the parish pledge base and participation by the year 2020 are seriously challenged by these long term membership trends.  To change the course of the church requires that St. Timothy’s and other congregations step up and take concerted action to reach out to the unchurched and underserved, collaborate with the Diocese on area ministry strategies and work with other congregations on mission and ministry programs to attract the faithful.

Unless we do so achieving the 20/20 Vision goals will be unrealistic.


6 thoughts on “20/20 Vision: Facing 40 Years of Mainline Church Decline

  1. Hi Gary,

    Note that the three growing denominations are all faith structures that exclude others and build strong, intra-dependent communities. That first half of the message is the opposite of how we view the crucial role of building Christian community.

    We need to take notes on building community, sure, but not worry so much about our pecking order. We have an important job to do — to welcome everyone into a dependable, meaningful, joyful and relevant community. That’s more than a full-time occupation.

  2. The Jehovah’s Witnesses also have the highest percentage of people who leave their denomination; nearly one-third.
    And if ex-members made up a separate denomination, the ex-catholic church would be the USA’s 2nd largest.
    The conservative Missouri and hyperconservative Wisconsin Synod Lutherans are doing at least as badly as the liberal ELCA. The Southern Baptist convention is also losing members more rapidly than before.
    Face it; religion itself is the problem. You’re basically packaging and re-packaging the same product people increasingly no longer need.

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