By Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Church of the Brethren membership in the United States and Puerto Rico has fallen below 100,000, according to the 2020 Church of the Brethren Yearbook from Brethren Press.
For 2019, the Yearbook reported 98,680 members in 24 districts and 978 local worshiping communities across the Church of the Brethren denomination–a net loss of 5,766 over the previous year.
Average worship attendance for the denomination was reported as 32,488.
The number of local worshiping communities in the denomination included 935 congregations, 33 fellowships, and 10 new church projects.
Denominations that are part of the Global Church of the Brethren Communion outside the US and Puerto Rico are not included in the Yearbook directory or its statistical report.
About the Yearbook
The Church of the Brethren Yearbook is published annually as a searchable document in pdf format. It may be purchased for $24.95 at www.brethrenpress.com/SearchResults.asp?Cat=70.
The 2020 edition includes the 2020 directory for the denomination and the 2019 statistical report.
The directory includes detailed information about Church of the Brethren structure and leadership including listings of congregations, districts, ministers, and more.
The statistical report on membership, worship attendance, giving, and more derives from self-reporting by congregations. Over recent decades, the number of congregations that report has fallen off. The 2019 statistical report represents only 43 percent of the congregations, which means Yearbook figures are approximate.
Comparisons over 5 and 12 years
The statistical report includes a comparison over five years, revealing that a decades-long gradual slide in membership has begun increasing year-on-year:
— In 2015, denominational membership was 112,656, a net loss of 1,809 over 2014.
— In 2016, the net loss was 1,225.
— In 2017, net membership loss increased to 2,172.
— In 2018, the net loss more than doubled to 4,813.
— In 2019, the net loss increased to 5,766.
To compare total membership over a dozen years, for 2008 the Yearbook reported a total membership of 124,408. In 2008, when the Church of the Brethren celebrated its 300th anniversary, the denomination for the first time since the 1920s recorded a membership total below 125,000. In 2008, 66.2 percent of congregations reported (www.brethren.org/news/2009/newsline-for-june-3-2009).
A comparison of the number of local worshiping communities (congregations, fellowships, and projects) in the denomination over five years reveals an annual loss as well:
— In 2016, there was a net loss of 6 local worshiping communities over the previous year, for a total of 1,015.
— In 2017, the net loss increased to 16.
— In 2018, the net loss was 5.
— In 2019, there was another net loss of 16.
The number of local worshiping communities 12 years ago was 1,049 including 999 congregations and 50 fellowships and projects. That year, in 2008, the number of congregations dipped below 1,000 to hit a landmark low.
Since the 2019 statistical report was completed, the Yearbook office has reported 4 new church starts and 32 more congregations, fellowships, and projects closing or leaving, resulting in a net loss of 27 local worshiping communities over the past year.
One reason for the large number of leaving congregations this past year occurred in Southeastern District, where more than half of the congregations have left. The district conference on July 25, 2020, approved the withdrawal of 19 congregations (www.brethren.org/news/2020/southeastern-district-approves-withdrawal-of-19-congregations). By the end of the year, 27 congregations had left the district and 15 remained, including 2 remnants from leaving congregations that reorganized to remain Church of the Brethren.
While some congregations that left the Church of the Brethren may have been influenced by the split-off group called the Covenant Brethren Church, others may have chosen to go independent.
Congregations that close usually do so following a district decision that they are no longer viable because of insurmountable membership losses or financial difficulties.
In 2019, none of the 24 districts reported a net gain of individual members, and 22 reported a net loss.
Shenandoah District, with 13,336 members, and Atlantic Northeast District, with 11,334 members, were reported as the two largest districts and the only two with more than 10,000 members.
Atlantic Northeast reported the largest total worship attendance of 5,387 followed by Shenandoah District at 3,434. No other district reported an average worship attendance of more than 3,000.
Of the smaller districts, 5 had a membership of less than 1,000: Pacific Northwest with 819 members, Southern Plains with 478, Idaho and Western Montana with 448, Missouri and Arkansas with 365, and Puerto Rico with 339.
— Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren and associate editor of Messenger magazine. James Miner in the Yearbook Office contributed to this report.
A note to readers: Messenger magazine will feature a follow-up piece about the denominational statistics in its March 2021 issue, comparing the situation of the Church of the Brethren to other denominations and the wider Christian community.
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