Older denominations gaining in membership

August 22, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Wouldn't you know it? Just when we're getting used to the eroding membership figures for mainline churches, these oldline denominations start to make some gains.

Modest gains, mind you. But after nearly three decades of declining membership, these denominations will take any increases they can get. Is it possible that the losses, which sounded like a death knell 10 years ago, are over and mainline Christianity is on the comeback trail?

For instance, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America showed a gain of 1,941 members in 1990 and another increase of 4,438 in 1991. That may seem insignificant, but it probably gives beleaguered church leaders a rush of joy.

Since 1968 the Lutheran Church has been in a membership decline. And when three major Lutheran denominations formed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988, church observers predicted the merger would cause the erosion to continue.

They were right, but most of those experts said it would take a decade for the ELCA to recover from the merger. Now it appears, after just four years, that a recovery is already under way.

The Episcopal Church in the United States, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, also got a boost this year with a gain of 12,637 members. Episcopalians have been in trouble since the late 1960s when internal turmoil and an aversion to evangelism put the denomination on a downhill slide.

Alas, the United Methodists did not make a gain. But they did cut their losses considerably, showing a drop in membership in 1991 of only 1,072 members a week. In recent years, the weekly membership loss in United Methodism was closer to 1,500 people.

You may wonder why these losses have been happening. Part of it is due to the shifting population, from small towns and rural areas to the urban and suburban communities.

If you have little or no exposure to Midwestern and Southern small-town and rural life, it may be hard to imagine how churches in these areas have been devastated by the farm crisis. Many congregations have simply closed their doors and their churches now sit on the prairie as testimony not to faith -- but to poverty.

Others struggle on, maintaining century-old buildings and sharing clergy with neighboring congregations. The saddest thing is that these congregations will never fully recover and their future will probably be stamped with weakness and death.

These mostly small rural churches were once the strong core of the Lutheran Church, the United Methodists and Baptists. But now the strongest churches and the greatest potential for growth, are in the cities.

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