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Latest Census of U.S. Congregations

A decennial research project released May 1, 2012 shows Mormons, Muslims and nondenominational Christians are on the rise; however, it also indicates that less than 50 percent of Americans are claimed by a congregation.

The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) reported in the 2010 U.S. Religion Census that, when grouped together, the nondenominational and independent churches are now the third largest faith group with more than 12 million adherents. The Catholic Church, though in decline, remains the largest faith group with almost 59 million adherents, followed by the Southern Baptist Church, which has more than 50,000 congregations and almost 20 million adherents.

“What struck us was the continued extension of the Mormon denomination across the country. It’s the fastest growing group in about half of the states,” said Dale E. Jones director of Research Services, Church of the Nazarene Global Ministry Center. “Another surprise was the loss in Catholic parish memberships. They’ve lost 5 percent, or 3 million people, over the last decade.”

The ASARB Religion Census originated in 1952 and was replicated in 1971, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010. The recent census identified 344,894 congregations with a total of just over150 million adherents.

“With 236 participating bodies, the 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership Study is the most comprehensive local-level analysis of U.S. religious life in more than 60 years,” said Rich Houseal, data liaison for the study.

More than 90 percent of all religious congregations are represented. Data for every county in the U.S. is available at www.thearda.com/rcms2010/. Jones said technology was a major factor in the research and added it was the first time nondenominational churches could be tracked and included in the research.

“The nondenominational data was fantastic, I simply had not seen before how large the nondenominational movement is in this country,” he said.

According to the study, 4 percent of the U.S. population worships in an independent or nondenominational church. It also reports nondenominational churches are in the top five religious groups in every state except two and in 88 percent of U.S. Counties. In nine states, nondenominational churches constitute the second largest religious group in terms of adherents. Of those, more than half have less than 100 people in attendance on Sunday mornings.

“These congregations should be seen as a separate and distinctive religious realty. If we begin to think of them as not just individual isolated congregations, but rather as a unique religious phenomenon — as a distinctive market segment — we can begin to address the question of why they have become so popular in the past few decades,” said Scott Thumma of Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Other faith groups that have been growing significantly are Pentecostal, Evangelical, Unitarian Universalist and non-Christian denominations. The Muslim population, for example, is growing at a faster rate than the general population. The Religious Census estimates there are over 2,100 Muslim congregations with more than 2.6 million adherents. This represents an increase of 66.7 percent since 2000.

Jones said Islam is the largest non-Christian faith group in the midsection of the country. He said the Muslim uptick is likely due to immigration, as the American-born Muslim population has remained steady.

He said the Religion Census data is distinct tool that allows religious leaders to examine trends in their area. By visiting the Association of Religion Data Archives an interested religious leader can examine this census of congregations for the nation, state, metropolitan area or even their own county. It is also possible to see maps of all the major denominations.

“It gives you some sort of idea of what your possibilities are,” he said, adding the research could be used as both an evangelistic and informative tool.

This research was unveiled at the Associated Church Press annual meeting in Chicago.

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