For the first time in over 20 years, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) membership has slipped under 5 million, the denomination’s news service reported on August 17. The figures reflect the downward trend that had plagued the majority of American mainline groups since the mid twentieth century.
In raw numbers, the ELCA lost some 53,081 of it’s baptized members, leaving behind a total of 4,984,925 members in 10,657 congregations, in 2003. These numbers differ from what was initially speculated by the Yearbook of Christian Churches about ELCA’s 2003 membership; the yearbook said there are some 5,099,877 members in 10,766 churches. The discrepancy was likely due to the fact that the Yearbook’s numbers were based on 2001 figures.
Sadly, according to the ELCA secretary the Rev. Lowell G. Almen, nearly half of the last decade’s membership losses came after 2001. In 1990, the denomination had 5,240,729 members, marking a total loss of some 250,000 members. In 2002 alone, there were 61,871 net membership losses. Those figures, along with the 2001 figures, add to a total loss of 114,952 members in the past two years.
"The statistical back door is far too large in our congregations," Almen explained. "Backdoor losses muffle front door gains. Too many members slip out the back door and disappear from membership in ELCA congregations each year."
According to the ELCA report, the membership losses are most likely due to the “roll cleaning” of many of the member churches. “Roll cleaning” refers to the removal of long inactive members from the church membership rolls. Last year, roll cleaning resulted in a loss of 181,022 members and in 2002, the method subtracted some 186,162 members.
Another reason cited by the ELCA for the membership loss was the “disbanding of 36 congregations” in the denomination. Additionally, eight congregations with a combined membership of 11,020 withdrew from the ELCA last year.
Ultimately, there was a decrease in confirmed membership (loss of 33,402 members) and a decline of communing and contributing members (down 44,730 since last year). There was also a decline in the number of accessions by baptism, affirmation of faith and transfer from other congregations. The number of youth baptisms decreased by 1,789, the number of affirmations of faith went down 2,866 and the number of transfers decreased by some 4,000.
The average number of baptized members per congregation decreased in 2003 by two people to 472, and the average confirmed membership decreased by one person to 353. In 2003, the average number of communing and contributing members slipped by three to 223 per congregation.
On a positive note, the average number of people in worship on Sundays decreased slightly in 2003. About 1.5 million or 30 percent of all baptized members participate in worship each week. Average worship attendance, an indicator of active participation by members in congregations, has fluctuated in the ELCA between 30 and 31 percent.