The Roman Catholic Church is growing, but most mainline and evangelical Protestant churches are losing members, according to the 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.
The figures, based on 2009 membership, were collected by the National Council of Churches and released Monday.
The United States now has 68.5 million Catholics, a jump of 0.6 percent from 2008. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also saw its membership climb 1.4 percent, to 6.1 million. Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and two Pentecostal denominations — the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) — also saw numerical growth. All six of these religious groups have enjoyed sustained growth during the past half-century.
Mainline Protestant churches, meanwhile, have being losing members for decades.
That trend continued in 2009 with United Methodists, American Baptists, Evangelical Lutherans, Episcopalians, the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ all reporting membership losses.
But declines weren’t limited to mainline churches. Two leading evangelical denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, also shrunk.
This is the 79th annual edition of the yearbook.
The list of gainers and losers was somewhat predictable. “Churches, which have been increasing in membership in recent years, continue to grow and likewise, those churches which have been declining in recent years continue to decline,” writes Yearbook editor Eileen W. Lindner.
Mary Gautier, who tracks church statistics for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, says she’s not surprised by the American Catholic Church’s success.
“It’s been growing pretty consistently — around 1 percent per year — for the last 25 to 50 years,” said Gautier, a senior research associate.
Earlier in the 20th century, the church’s annual growth rate in the United States was roughly 2 percent, she said.
Immigration has fueled much of the growth, Gautier said. “Most often, we see it in terms of growth from immigrants from the Spanish-speaking countries, but there’s also Asian Catholics coming from Vietnam, the Philippines, places like that [and] African Catholics coming from mostly French-speaking countries in Africa,” Gautier said.
“The immigrant population tends to be younger and more of child-bearing age” than native-born Americans, she said.
The church is glad to be expanding. “Growth is always good news, but its also challenging. The church continues to grow but it also continues to get ever more diverse and ever more geographically distributed,” Gautier said.
The Yearbook’s top 10 largest churches are:
1. The Catholic Church 68,503,456
2. The Southern Baptist Convention 16,160,088
3. The United Methodist Church 7,774,931
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 6,058,907
5. The Church of God in Christ 5,499,875
6. National Baptist Convention 5,000,000
7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 4,542,868
8. National Baptist Convention of America Inc. 3,500,000
9. Assemblies of God 2,914,669
10. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 2,770,730