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
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
"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
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
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
"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."