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Denominational Breakdown

Although membership in the nation's largest Christian communions declined last year, two Pentecostal denominations showed an increase. The Assemblies of God (AG) of Springfield, Mo., and the Cleveland, Tenn.-based Church of God were the only two denominations of traditional Christian orthodoxy among the 25 largest churches in the U.S. to report membership increases, according to the 2009 edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, an annual chronicle of religious institutions edited by the National Council of Churches (NCC) and published by Abingdon Press. The AG listed nearly 2.9 million members while the Church of God reported 1 million.

The ecumenical NCC reported the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses as the only other church groups to show membership increases, even though most Pentecostals, and many mainline churches and orthodox Christians, would consider those two groups separate religions.

A slight membership decline among Catholic and Southern Baptist churches, according to the yearbook, raised eyebrows because both denominations have typically grown over the years. "Now they join virtually every mainline church in reporting a membership decline," stated an NCC release.

In the bigger picture, the yearbook reported the small less-than-1-percent drop in membership in each denomination was not "earth-shattering" because there are still more than 67 million Roman Catholics in the U.S. and 16 million Southern Baptists.

Churches listed in the NCC yearbook as experiencing the highest rate of membership loss are the United Church of Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, the yearbook's editor, said there are no clear-cut theological or sociological reasons for church growth or decline. "Many churches are feeling the impact of the lifestyles of younger generations of churchgoers-the GenXers or Millenials in their 20s and 30s who attend and support local congregations but resist joining them. A slowing of the rate of growth of some churches and the decline of membership of others ought to be the focus of continued research and thoughtful inquiry." [AP, 2/25/09;, 2/25/09]


Mistaking Crowds for Churches

QUOTE: "The biblical New Testament church is vanishing from society today. Anything and everything is acceptable as long as it builds a crowd. Jesus wasn't as interested in building a crowd as He was in telling the truth." -Bob Pearle, pastor of Fort Worth's Birchman Baptist Church and president of the Grapevine-based Southern Baptists of Texas, a conservative state convention. In his latest book, The Vanishing Church, Pearle rails against the growing segment of American churches-particularly nondenominational, seeker-sensitive megachurches-that build their "product" to meet consumer demand based upon churchgoers surveys. "It's a bankrupt philosophy," the conservative preacher adds. "Our responsibility as pastors and leaders is not to give people what they want necessarily but what they need." [, 2/28/09]


Changing of the Guard

QUOTE: "There really has been a shift and in some ways, a fragmenting of American evangelism. A new generation of evangelists is blogging their way around the old power structures and challenging many dogmatic ideas that people like [James] Dobson set forth." -Bill Leonard, dean of the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University, on the emergence of new leaders within the evangelical movement. Last Friday, Dobson resigned as chairman of the board of Focus on the Family, the ministry he founded in 1977. "One of the common errors of founder-presidents is to hold to the reins of leadership too long, thereby preventing the next generation from being prepared for executive authority," Dobson said. "Though letting go is difficult after three decades of intensive labor, it is the wise thing to do." The move was part of Dobson's leadership succession plan, which began six years ago when he stepped down as president and chief executive officer. The 72-year-old psychologist will relinquish his administrative duties but continue to host the ministry's daily broadcast and write a monthly newsletter that is distributed to 1.6 million supporters. [, 2/28/09; AP, 2/27/09]


A Glass Half Full for Parachurch Ministries

Despite the economic recession, ministry giving was higher than expected in late 2008, according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). In a survey of 300 member ministries, the ECFA found that 72 percent met, exceeded or came within 10 percent of their fourth-quarter contribution goals. More than a quarter (28 percent) were more than 10 percent below their goals.

"Many of the parachurch ministries we surveyed reported small donations [those between $10 to $100] were relatively unaffected, and in some cases, donations in this category increased," said Dan Busby, acting president of ECFA. "In fact, some of our members had the strongest fourth quarter they've had in years and ended the year debt-free."

The organization said some member ministries attributed the survey results to increased prayer and greater interest in supporting organizations that help the poor and disadvantaged. More than half of member organizations said they increased one-on-one contact with key donors to buffer fundraising during the economic downturn. More than 30 percent said they changed their message to donors about how the ministry was responding to a changing economy.

Despite the good news, half of those surveyed reported that their investments had lost 15 percent to 30 percent of their value. And many ministry leaders are concerned about how the recession will affect 2009 giving. Most ministries are reducing costs, 41 percent have frozen or delayed salary increases, and 38 percent have frozen or reduced hiring.

Conference travel and capital projects have largely been reduced or delayed. Roughly 20 percent are sharing resources with other organizations and businesses. "Most ECFA member ministries expect 2009 to be more challenging, primarily because major donors who made gifts in 2008 have expressed they may not be able to renew their financial commitments because of the economy," Busby said. "But for leadership and staff members, this is ministry, not a job. Despite challenges, most remain committed to making positive operational and structural decisions, including developing contingency plans, which will enable them to continue to carry out God's purpose despite limited resources." [, 2/24/09]


Would the Person Who Dropped $1 in the Plate Please Stand Up?

While Wall Street continues to endure a string of high-profile scandals and plummeting markets, a church in nearby Queens, N.Y., has decided to tackle its financial difficulties by making things personal-a little too personal for most of its members.

Two weeks ago St. Luke's Church in Whitestone, Queens, began publishing a breakdown of members' tithes and offerings in the weekly bulletin. Though the listing doesn't name any specific names,


How the Recession Is Really Hitting Churches

The pendulum of how churches are faring during the current recession swings on a weekly basis, according to whatever news outlet you read. While some declare this a time when masses are swarming into the church, others say the economic turmoil isn't affecting church growth at all.

The National Association of Church Business Administration (NACBA) recently tackled the issue with a national survey specifically targeting churches' financial health. Gleaning from the answers of more than 800 administrative pastors, the survey found that churches are doing relatively well in comparison to other sectors of society-though there are still many reasons for concern.


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