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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Hundreds of thousands leaving American churches amid declining Christianity

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Christianity in America is not what it used to be. There have been many recent examples of this phenomenon. Denominations are selling off their buildings, reflecting the crisis of declining membership.

There have been voices stating that the decline of Christianity is a serious problem, and this is evident not only in the United States but also in Europe, Korea, and elsewhere. The sale of buildings is part of the reality that Christianity is facing a crisis. It’s an undeniable fact. We talked to church leaders about the reasons for the decrease in church membership.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, based in the Southeast, known as the “Bible Belt.” It has always been a strong influence.

Even conservative politicians have been wary of the Bible Belt vote, and the SBC is at the center of it all.

The Christian Post recently reported that the SBC lost 1,253 churches in 2022, citing data from Lifeway Research, an organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Most of these closures were due to declining membership.

Crystal Cathedral in Southern California filed for bankruptcy in 2010 after plummeting offerings. It was later purchased by the Catholic Christ Cathedral in 2012. Tourists are taking pictures at the church building.


The SBC lost more than 460,000 members during that time, according to the report. This is the largest single-year decline in 100 years.

The largest Korean-American megachurches in the United States have about 3,000 members. Compared to the SBC’s decline, this is the equivalent of losing more than 150 Korean-American megachurches in a single year.

The SBC’s decline is somewhat indicative of the reality of Christianity in America.

The denomination’s current (2022) membership is 13.22 million. The denomination has been declining in membership since 2020 (14.08 million) and 2021 (13.68 million).

As of this report, the SBC has seen 16 consecutive years of declining membership. The SBC last had 16.3 million members in 2006, which was the peak of the church’s growth. But in 16 years, it has lost 3.08 million members.

Scott McConnell, director of Lifeway Research, noted that the number of church closures is outpacing the number of new churches being established, and fewer people are being baptized than in the past.

The situation is the same for the Presbyterian Church (USA), the country’s largest Presbyterian denomination. This denomination sent many Christian missionaries to South Korea in the 19th century, contributing to the founding of Korean Presbyterian theology.

The PCUSA lost more than 100 churches (about 53,000 people) in 2022. The denomination currently has about 1.14 million members. The PCUSA has also seen steep declines in membership from 1.3 million in 2020 and 1.24 million in 2021.

The PCUSA is even considering selling its denominational headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, as it struggles with financial difficulties.

“We’ve been struggling since the pandemic,” a denominational official told the media, “and we’re looking at selling our headquarters building for the long-term future.”

The PCUSA, in particular, has seen a steep decline in membership since 2012, when the denomination changed its constitution to allow same-sex marriage.

“Most people cite the pandemic as the main reason for the decline, but the decline has been going on for years,” said a PCUSA pastor in Southern California who wished to remain anonymous. “Especially as society has become more polarized, there has been a lot of backlash against the PCUSA for allowing same-sex marriage, which has accelerated the decline.”

The PCUSA is not alone in selling buildings.

The United Church of Christ (UCC) also saw nearly 290,000 members leave the denomination in a decade (2012-2022).

The UCC had already sold its General Assembly headquarters building in 2021. “The sale of the building will save us hundreds of thousands of dollars annually,” the UCC said at the time, “and while the pandemic has impacted the church, it was a decision that was long overdue.”

The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) also decided to sell its building last September.

“The cost of maintaining the synod headquarters has become unaffordable for the denomination,” the CRC said, “and we have decided to sell the building that has served as the denomination’s headquarters for 65 years.”

The situation in South Korea is not unlike that in the United States.

For example, the Korea Daily examined the statistics of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, the largest denomination in the country. According to the organization, it currently has 2.268 million members. That’s down about 17% from 2015 (2,789,102).

The decline is a problem for Christianity as a whole. As younger generations turn away from the church and society rapidly changes, Christianity is facing challenges such as declining membership.

The decline of Christianity is also due in part to the phenomenon of de-religionization. In the sociology of religion, this phenomenon is characterized by the term SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious). It refers to the growing number of people who are interested in spiritual concepts but don’t want to be tied to an institutionalized religion.

“The SBNR group is primarily composed of millennials, who tend not to like to be confined within religious boundaries,” said Scott Thumma, a Professor of Sociology of Religion at Hartford Seminary. “On the other hand, they are pursuing a spiritual life through meditation, yoga, and so on. This phenomenon of de-religionization is happening across the religious spectrum, including Christianity.”

BY YEOL JANG, JUNHAN PARK    [jang.yeol@koreadaily.com]