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Article on Denomination's Membership
Wins "Award of Excellence"

Posted May 24, 1999

          HOLLAND -- The Associated Church Press has awarded
  "The Church Herald" an "Award of Excellence" for an article
  written by two Hope College sociologists concerning
  membership trends in the Reformed Church in America.
          The article, "The RCA:  A Virtual Denomination?,"
  was honored in the "Professional Resource" category, chosen
  from 11 entries in the association's 1998 Awards Contest.
  The Associated Church Press has about 170 member
  publications, and presents awards in a number of categories
  annually.
          In their article, published in the magazine's
  November, 1998, issue, Luidens and Nemeth examined patterns
  of membership decline in the denomination--which differ by
  region--and considered the implications.  While membership
  has dropped, the number of small churches and participation
  by non-members have both risen, which the two professors
  feel present possible mixed directions for the denomination.
          "As we look to the future of the RCA, the past
  gives us some cues about where we have been and some clues
  about where we might go," Luidens and Nemeth wrote.
          "The Church Herald" is the denominational magazine
  of the RCA, and Hope is affiliated with the RCA.  Luidens
  and Nemeth have been conducting membership studies
  throughout the denomination since 1976.
          The RCA today has about 186,000 active
  communicants, down from 225,000 in 1967.  About 60 percent
  of the denomination's population is in the Midwest; 25
  percent in the East; and 15 percent in Canada and the
  southern and western United States.
          Luidens and Nemeth noted that membership in the
  East has declined the most dramatically, from a high of
  118,000 to the current level of 55,000.  They cited
  migration away from urban centers--where many long-standing
  RCA churches began--as a major consideration.
          "Despite moderate successes at starting new
  churches in the suburbs, their number did not keep up with
  population shifts," they wrote.  "This was complicated by
  the subsequent migration of eastern suburbanites to other
  sections of the United States, particularly the Sunbelt
  (where there were few RCA churches)."
          The Midwest, they wrote, experienced a growth in
  membership into the early 1980s, but has since experienced a
  "slight, but significant" decline.
          "It would appear that, throughout this period,
  churches in the Midwest have replenished their numbers both
  through internal growth and through the recruitment of
  church people from other denominations," they wrote.  "That
  this pattern has begun to tail off is critically important
  to the RCA, since churches in the Midwest are home to almost
  60 percent of the denomination's membership."
          Like in the Midwest, they found, churches in the
  rest of the denomination also grew in membership through the
  1970s.  They also found, however, that those memberships
  have flattened out in the years since and have begun to
  decline.
          "Much of the historic growth [in the rest of the
  denomination] can be attributed to the Frostbelt-to-Sunbelt
  regional migration that has been occurring for much of the
  twentieth century," they wrote.  "However, recent changes in
  migration patterns away from the West Coast have apparently
  had an impact."
          During the same period, Luidens and Nemeth found,
  the trend has been toward smaller churches.  About 80
  percent of RCA churches nationwide have fewer than 300
  members.  About 40 percent of the denomination's churches
  have fewer than 100 members, compared to 20 percent in 1968.
          They also noted that the RCA has not relied on
  "mega-churches" for its congregational base.  Consistently
  through the years, they reported, fewer than three percent
  of RCA congregations have had more than 1,000 members.
          The pattern of small size, they feel, raises
  questions about the congregations' ability to sustain
  denominational programs.
          Luidens and Nemeth also examined the increase
  nationally in the number of "adherents"--those who attend
  church but don't join.  Since 1977, they said, the total has
  nearly doubled from 22,000 to 42,000.  They also noted that
  relatively little is known about them.
          "Currently we lack information to answer basic
  questions regarding the demographic characteristics of
  adherents or whether most of them eventually become active
  communicants," they wrote.  "If adherents are reluctant to
  become active communicants (as many observers have
  suggested), why is that so?  What, if anything, does the
  denominational affiliation of their congregation mean to
  adherents?"
          Given the data, Luidens and Nemeth suggest that
  the denomination should emphasize two areas in its future
  programming:  the number of adherents and the smaller
  congregations.
          "One consideration is to recognize that, with our
  highly mobile society, adherents may become an increasingly
  important component of our church," they wrote.
          "A second course of action is equally
  challenging," they wrote.  "For much of the last thirty
  years, the RCA has held up mega-churches as the desirable
  model for parishioners and pastors to strive for.  It is
  instructive to note that the preponderance of congregations
  in the RCA are small to middle sized."
          "It is perhaps time for us to reexamine the notion
  that 'bigger is better' and focus on serving the needs and
  very human expectations of these small- to middle-sized
  congregations," they wrote.  "Moreover, they should be
  celebrated for their very vitality and tenacity in the face
  of all kinds of challenges to their existence."
  -30-
  


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