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Conservative churches grow while mainline churches struggle

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As they have for the last 30 years, the so-called "mainline" denominations, especially those identified as liberal or moderate, are losing members while Evangelical and charismatic churches, which are often identified as conservative, are growing.

That trend is enumerated in the latest "Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches," published by the National Council of Churches of Christ.

The Yearbook's statistics show  membership declines over the past decade for several major denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, all of which are often categorized as moderate or liberal. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which is more frequently labeled conservative, also saw a small decline. 

But the country's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which has received considerable attention for its positions that wives should submit to the leadership of their husbands, and on the inerrancy of Scripture, showed a 7 percent increase between 1994 and 2005, to 16,439,000 members.  And the Assemblies of God, the nation's largest Pentecostal (charismatic) denomination, grew by nearly 20 percent in the same period, to 2,729,000.

At the same time the nation's largest single religious organization, the Roman Catholic Church, grew from 59.2 million to 67.2 million, an increase of more than 13 percent.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons, grew by 24 percent to 5,503,000.

The changes bear out the predictions of Dean Kelley, author of the 1972 book "Why Conservative Churches are Growing."  He attributed the growth largely to the greater strictness of the conservative churches, which he defined as "complete loyalty, unwavering belief and rigid adherence to a distinctive lifestyle."

In a 1993 study, Benton Johnson, professor of sociology at Oregon State University, interviewed people who left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in their late teenage or early college years.  The majority indicated that they did not leave because of the social or political positions of denominational leaders but because "religion itself had become low on their list of personal priorities," Johnson reported. By contrast, those who stayed in the more conservative churches had a strong belief that faith in Jesus Christ was necessary for their personal salvation and that religion was more important than other aspects of life, Johnson found.

Those findings bore out Kelley's contention two decades earlier that the mainline denominations were "weak in the sense of being unable to generate and maintain high levels of commitment among a substantial portion of their adherents," Johnson concluded.

Local denominational and church leaders had varying explanations of the national demographic trends. 

According to one national report that tracks state-by-state changes, membership in the United Methodist Church in Nebraska went from more than 145,000 in 1994 to about 117,000 in 2000.  Official church tallies are lower, and now count the statewide membership at only 84,000, said the Rev. Nita Hinds-Park, director of congregational development for the Nebraska Conference of the UMC.

Part of that change was the result of cleaning up membership rolls to remove people who had moved away or died, but a major factor is also the changing population patterns of the state, she said.  Many United Methodist churches are in older neighborhoods and rural areas that have been losing population.  Also, "we haven't been very good at telling our story," she said. That's changed in recent years with a nationwide advertising campaign and such special emphases as "bring a friend to church Sunday," which will be observed in all United Methodist Churches on Sept. 11.

Hinds-Park is working with local churches to help them develop revitalization programs to get church members excited about what their church has to offer and eager to share it with others, she said.

Many denominations have responded to the loss of members in older churches by launching efforts to start new churches.  The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has been a leader by starting more than 180 new churches since 2000, including two in Lincoln. 

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also is putting a greater emphasis on revitalizing congregations and getting its message out, said Jim Petersen, assistant to Nebraska Bishop David deFreese. He noted that people under age 50 tend to be less interested in joining a church or other organization, but will still attend if they find it relevant to their lives.

He noted that while total worship attendance for ELCA churches in Nebraska declined slightly over the past decade, total membership grew, with the exception of Omaha's Lutheran Church of the Master, which withdrew from the ELCA two years ago.  The Omaha church, with more than 2,000 members, disagreed with an agreement between the ELCA and Episcopal churches to recognize one another's ministers and also wanted to maintain the church's traditional positions on homosexuality, abortion and other issues.

The Lutheran Church of the Master is part of Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ, a conservative organization of 118 U.S. churches, including nine in Nebraska. Most member churches of LCMC are still part of the ELCA, but some have dropped out and some non-ELCA churches have joined.

That is one example of denominations realigning themselves along conservative or liberal lines.

Larry Brant, associate pastor of Lincoln's Southview Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation, attributed the growth in his denomination to a movement toward a more conservative theology and a new national leadership that puts a high priority on evangelism.

There's also a renewed emphasis on "authentic worship, not necessarily showy worship, but in which the person leaves the worship service having experienced God's presence," he said.

Successful evangelism is also a major reason for the phenomenal growth of the Assemblies of God, especially outside the United States, said Bob Friesen, director of research for that denomination's headquarters in Springfield, Mo.   Missionaries work with indigenous leaders in countries worldwide to build local churches that will grow and multiply, he said.  The biggest growth is in Africa. "Revival is happening there and people are turning toward the Lord" in record numbers, he said.

As of 2004 there were approximately 30 million adherents of Assemblies of God worldwide, nearly double the number in 1990.

In the United States, the growth has leveled off in recent years, said Dave Argue, pastor of Lincoln's Christ Place Church, an Assembly of God congregation.  The worldwide growth is "part of a movement of the spirit of God," he said.  "People are becoming empowered to fulfill the purpose God has for them."

The nationwide growth of the Catholic Church is a reflection of several factors, including Catholic immigration from other countries, natural growth of Catholic families and conversion of non-Catholics.  During recent years, more than 160,000 Americans have become Catholic each year through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, according to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Demographics for the Lincoln Diocese, which serves Catholics in southern Nebraska, show an increase from fewer than 80,000 in 1990 to more than 90,000 today.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also seen tremendous growth, from 9 million to more than 12 million worldwide from 1990-2004.  In Nebraska, the official membership count grew to more than 20,000 today.

"The real measure of Latter-day Saints is the depth of their faith and how it changes peoples' lives," said Kim Farah, a spokesperson for the LDS Church.  "Becoming a Latter-day Saint is a transformation of lifestyle, not just a shift in philosophical belief.  It is about the way a person thinks of himself and his relationship not only to Deity but also to others."

Marilyn Meecham, executive director of Interchurch Ministries Nebraska, noted that many mainline churches have aging congregations and haven't made enough effort to attract younger worshippers.  "Younger people are more interested in spirituality, but they're not interested in church membership," she said.

Also, today's population is more transient, which means people are less willing to make a long-term commitment to a church, she said.

Interchurch Ministries, which represents nine major Protestant denominations, is working to help churches turn around declining membership and start to grow. Keys to successful ministries are greater community involvement and "an intentional effort to attract new populations," Meecham said.

Research shows that growing congregations are those that have strong worship, diversified programs and outreach for all ages, effective leadership and enthusiastic members.  In the final analysis, she said, church growth depends on the involvement of individual members.

"When you live out your faith, it creates an excitement and vibrancy that people want to be part of."

Reach Bob Reeves at 473-7212 or at


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