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Only 5 of top 25 U.S. churches report membership growth

Associated Press Modified: February 17, 2010 at 12:56 pm •  Published: February 17, 2010

(RNS) U.S. membership has increased in the Catholic Church — the nation's largest Christian body — but the No. 2 Southern Baptist Convention, along with most mainline protestant denominations, reported continuing decline, according to new figures released by the National Council of Churches.

Both the Southern Baptists and Catholics reported membership losses in last year's Yearbook of American Canadian Churches; in the 2010 edition released Feb. 12, however, only the Catholics reported a rebound, with a 1.5 percent growth rate, to more than 68 million members.

Southern Baptists held on to the No. 2 spot, at 16.3 million members, but that figure represented a 0.2 percent drop from 2009 and the second consecutive year of decline. The Presbyterian Church (USA) experienced the greatest loss among the top 10 denominations (3.3 percent), down to 2.8 million members.

The NCC's annual Yearbook is regarded as one of the most reliable recorders of church membership in North America. The figures, from 2008, are the most recent figures compiled. However, 11 out of the 25 largest churches did not report updated figures.

The Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, editor of the Yearbook since 1998, said many experts cite "an increasing secularization of American postmodern society, and its disproportional impact on liberal religious groups" as the cause of decline in some American churches.

Jack Haberer, editor of the independent Presbyterian Outlook magazine, said the trend has been long in coming, prompted by Baby Boomers who went off to college and confronted "the Beatles and rock 'n' roll and post-Vietnam distrust of bureaucracies and a kind of an anti-traditionalist youth movement."

''Baby Boomers who are also Christians, in general, have been drawn more to churches that are more informal, less institutional and more rock 'n' roll-ish," Haberer said. "Presbyterians and other mainline denominations have been very slow in reading those trends and thinking through a way to accommodate without compromising the theological integrity."

In an accompanying essay on "The New Immigrant Church," Lindner said waves of immigrants have helped combat the effects of secularization and led to a membership boost for some churches, especially among Pentecostals.

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