By Richard Yeakley
Religion News Service
While mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. continue to experience decades-long decline, the memberships of Pentecostal traditions are on the rise, according to new figures compiled by the National Council of Churches.
The Roman Catholic Church (No. 1) and the Southern Baptist Convention (No. 2) are still significantly larger than all other North American denominations, but Catholics posted minimal growth of less than 1 percent, and Southern Baptist membership fell for a third straight year, according to the 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.
Produced annually by the NCC, the yearbook is considered one of the most reliable recorders of church membership. The figures in the 2011 yearbook were compiled by churches in 2009, reported to the NCC in 2010 and released Monday (Feb. 14).
Mainline Protestant churches that have seen a fall in membership since the 1970s continued their decline; the Presbyterian Church (USA) reported the greatest membership drop (2.6 percent) of the 25 largest denominations.
Other denominations reporting declines include the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church as well as the more evangelical Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The membership declines in mainline churches led to a 1 percent decrease in total U.S. church membership, to 145.8 million.
Despite the national decline, some smaller denominations' memberships are increasing.
"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 the Rev. Eileen Lindner, the editor of the yearbook.
Pentecostal churches make up four of the 25 largest churches, and both the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) increased in membership. Only six of the 25 largest memberships increased over the previous year.
Jehovah's Witnesses experienced the greatest growth percentage overall, gaining 4.37 percent according to the yearbook. Several historically black denominations continued a years-long practice of not submitting fresh figures.
The 10 largest Christian bodies reported in the 2011 yearbook are:
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.