Tag Archives: religion

U.S. Church Participation Changes: Detail

How has membership changed in the largest U.S. religious bodies? The previous post was a bit data-heavy so I’ve created a slightly different version that shows more clearly what occurred in American church participation from 1990-2010.

Below is a list of reported membership totals for the largest groups, in five-year increments from 1990-2010, also from the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA).

The data below are different because they show “membership” figures where the previous was reported “attendance.” For some groups the totals are very close and for others not close at all. (Please see the “Notes” at bottom). But there is only one major discrepancy, and overall the data show the same trend.

Change in U.S. Church Membership, 1990-2010 (negative in red)

Source: ARDA databases, http://www.thearda.com/denoms/Families/groups.asp

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U.S. Church Attendance 1990-2010

As mentioned in previous posts, religion and funeral practices in the U.S. are related, although who influences whom in the relationship is not always clear. People who work in or comment on the funeral business have noted changes in customer preferences that seem to be influenced by religion, and surveys of customers have also noted different attitudes toward funeral options among those with different religious beliefs.

Changes in American religion, therefore, seem worth discussing. Among the most interesting of the changes have been in church participation.

During the past few decades, churches that occupied dominant roles in American culture for a century or longer saw their participation drop steadily while others rose to numerical prominence. If we look at rates of change the trends are dramatic.

Let’s start with the big picture:

From 1990 through 2010 (year of the last comprehensive survey), the U.S. added 11,269 congregations, bringing 5,755,745 new adherents, for a total increased church membership of 7%.

In a secularizing world, it seems pretty impressive that we have such a big, rising tide of faith here in America.

The picture is not so simple, however.

First, as you can see on the graph, some groups have increased while others have decreased.

More illuminating, perhaps, is the data detail, below, for that 7% rising tide:

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Religion And Funerals

We know there are relationships between religion and funeral practices in America. For a long time, almost all funeral ceremonies were primarily religious, and today that still probably describes the vast majority.

When religion changes, therefore, we might expect some effect on funerals and burials. The effect isn’t easy to predict or quantify, though. Funeral changes, in turn, might arise from various causes apart from religion.

Theologian John Heywood Thomas notes that funerals touch on the meaning of life, but are also practical processes that, over time, have become neat and efficient, wherein the goal is to provide a “nice” service:

All too often death is for many both comfortless and without fear, a non-event. Besides the psychological effects of such an ignoring of death there is the more important ethical consequence that we neither properly value the life that has ended nor apply ourselves to that—perhaps secondary but still urgent—task of bringing our hearts to wisdom.1

The minister and professor Thomas Long suggests that as our religion has become less serious, our funeral practices have followed suit:

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