Crunching the Numbers on Church Membership Rolls

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By Amy Green
Religion News Service
Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Southern Baptist Convention, with 16.3 million members on the books, claims to be the nation's largest Protestant denomination. But the Rev. Thomas Ascol believes the active membership is really a fraction of that.

Ascol, pastor of the 230-member Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., points to a church report showing that only 6 million Southern Baptists attend church on an average Sunday.

"The reality is, the FBI couldn't find half of those if they had to," said Ascol of the claimed members. He asserts that his congregation's attendance swells to at least 350 every Sunday.

Next month, Ascol plans to bring a resolution to the denomination's annual meeting in San Antonio calling for "integrity in the way we regard our membership rolls in our churches and also in the way we report statistics."

For religious organizations, membership figures are a lot like a position on the annual list of best colleges. A rise is trumpeted as a sign of vitality and clout. And a drop probably means somebody checked the wrong box on some unimportant survey.

Vast differences in theology and accounting practices make it nearly impossible to really know how many members a church body has, whether active or occasional worshipers. That, in turn, makes side-by-side comparisons nearly impossible.

The Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, produces the NCC's annual Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, which is widely seen as an authoritative source for church membership statistics. But even she acknowledges that there are limits.

"Church membership is not as straightforward as it seems," said Lindner, a Presbyterian. "It's not like, 'Who's a member of Costco?' "

The 2007 yearbook cautions: "A person who attends the Church of God in Christ on Wednesday evening and an [African Methodist Episcopal] service on Sunday morning will likely be included in both counts."

Here's a look at some of the factors that go into collecting church membership statistics and why they can be so problematic:

Self-Reporting. Numbers are only as reliable as the church officials who collect them. "For some, very careful counts are made of members," the yearbook says. "Other groups only make estimates."

For example, the National Baptist Convention of America, a historically black denomination, has reported 3.5 million members since 2000 -- no additions, no deletions. The National Missionary Baptist Convention's numbers have been frozen at 2.5 million since 1992.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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