Report: Number of Religious Congregations in U.S. Grew by Almost 50,000 from 1998-2012

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A new study reveals that the number of religious congregations in the United States grew by almost 50,000 in the 14-year period from 1998-2012, mostly through an increase in non-denominational Christian churches.

Duke University scholar Simon G. Brauer published the results of his research in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, taking into account a variety of methods employed to estimate the number of congregations in the United States.

Using the National Congregations Studies (NCS) conducted in 2006 and 2012, Brauer concluded that the number of religious congregations in the U.S. grew from an estimated 336,000 in 1998 to 384,000 in 2012, or an increase of approximately 48,000 congregations.

According to the study, the number of religious congregations would have reached its high point in 2006, when the figure peaked at 414,000 congregations.

Despite the widely published decline in the percentage of religious believers in America, religious congregations have an “extraordinarily low death rate” of only about 1 percent per annum, “one of the lowest among any type of organization,” Brauer found.

“We shouldn’t expect to see a one-to-one correspondence between declining affiliation and church attendance,” Brauer told Christianity Today. “But assuming the growth we have seen is partially made up of people dropping out of religion altogether, we should see some eventual consequence to congregation counts.

“If we don’t, it will either be indicative of the character of religious nones in the U.S., or suggest that congregations have adapted to this change.”

While mainline denominations have reported significant losses in the numbers of affiliated congregations, nondenominational Christian churches have experienced continuous growth: from 54,000 in 1998 to 84,000 in 2012. These finding corroborate the findings of a 2010 report from the Hartford Institute for Religious Research (HIRR) which indicated that nondenominational churches have the third-largest number of adherents in the United States (following Catholics and Southern Baptists). According to HIRR the number of individuals self-identifying as nondenominational Christians grew from 194,000 in 1990 to 8 million in 2008, a real increase of 4,000 percent

“The rise of non-denominational Christianity is probably one of the strongest trends in the last two decades,” HIRR concluded, while also citing a Baylor Survey of Religion report that claimed “non-denominational churches are the fastest growing Protestant churches in America and in 2006, as it is now, they are the second largest Protestant group just behind the Southern Baptist Convention.”

The growth of non-Christian places of worship has also contributed to the escalation in the overall number of congregations, Brauer found, with an increase of some 10,000 from 1998 (16,000) to 2012 (26,000). Included in these figures is a sharp rise in the number of mosques, which nearly doubled between 2000 and 2011, increasing from 1,200 to 2,100 mosques in the country.

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