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Church membership:
Who's counting? And how?

See: Southern Baptists, Catholics declining

New York, February 23, 2009 -- How many church members are there in the world?

Well, no one knows, as your Sunday school teacher may already have told you. God is keeping track of the roll in the Lamb's book of life (see Revelation 21 for technical details), but those pages aren't open to demographers.

So the job of counting church members falls to frailer institutions like your church office or communion headquarters. Each year more than 200 American and Canadian Christian communions report their numbers to the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, which adds them up. The 2009 Yearbook, published this week, announces the result. There are 146,663,972 church members north of the Río Grande.

Give or take. The actual figure, according to the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, Yearbook editor, depends on who's doing the counting, and how.

For some churches, "membership accrues to children brought for baptism," Lindner writes in an essay entitled, "The Meaning of Membership: Reassessing the Counting of Sheep."

"Others confirm membership at the time a youth confirms the intention to follow in the faith tradition of baptism. Still others rely primarily upon adult affirmation of faith or of a born again experience in adulthood."

That makes comparisons "quite difficult," Lindner says. Some churches count active and inactive members while others keep all baptized infants on their rolls.

"Many church members relocate, affiliate with other churches, lose interest in church membership or relocate permanently" without deleting their membership, Lindner writes. Untold numbers of college students and military personnel keep their local membership active long after they have moved away -- as do adults who retire in communities far away from their home churches.

Some traditions, Lindner points out, estimate the number of members in their churches. Many Orthodox and African American communions base their estimates on the ethnic or racial population in neighborhoods.

Some national church bodies count members annually and others collect data at unpredictable intervals. Other groups, including Megachurches and Emergent church fellowships stress participation in their congregations rather than membership. And millions of younger adults born between 1977 and 1998 attend church regularly but are loathe to become members.

For these churches, the measure "is counted in hot meals served, children taught, elderly and infirmed visited and other forms of ministry and mission," Lindner writes.

These trends and disparities are of special interest to the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches which for 92 years has been widely regarded as the most reliable and accurate source of church statistics in North America. Each year the appearance of the Yearbook is a major story in church and secular news outlets because of its documentation of church membership increases and declines, and the relative ranking of the top 25 largest churches.

"Those accustomed to the assembling of such data know that development of annual reports is a rather imprecise art," Lindner writes. "This lack of precision derives, in part, from the wide diversity of practice among the churches concerning the definition of 'membership.'"

Whether or not church membership remains a common measure of church vitality, she says, the Yearbook will continue to monitor and report on developments.

"More research will be needed if we are to follow the variety of responses to the issues of membership and affiliation in American church life and gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of church membership."

Order the Yearbook at

NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228 (office), 646-853-4212 (cell) ,

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