The largest Protestant denominations

The largest Protestant denominations April 4, 2013

New statistics have been released giving the largest Protestant denominations.  We Missouri Synod Lutherans are #11 with 2.3 million members.  That’s more than the Episcopalians (#12 with 2 milllion), though they get all the attention.  If you add up the two biggest Lutheran groups (the ELCA being #5 with 4.5 million), we’d come in at #3.  That’s lots more than explicitly Calvinist groups, though they have seem to have the most influence.  Then again, the denomination of not having a denomination has some 12.2 million members, which would make it #2.

See the list of the top 15 after the jump.  What can we conclude from this list, if anything?

1. Southern Baptist Convention: 16.2 million members

2. The United Methodist Church: 7.8 million members

3. The Church of God in Christ: 5.5 million members

4. National Baptist Convention: 5.0 million members

5. Evangelical Lutheran Church, U.S.A.: 4.5 million members

6. National Baptist Convention of America: 3.5 million members

7. Assemblies of God: 2.9 million members

8. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): 2.8 million members

9. African Methodist Episcopal Church: 2.5 million members

10. National Missionary Baptist Convention of America: 2.5 million members

11. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS): 2.3 million members

12. The Episcopal Church: 2.0 million members

13. Churches of Christ: 1.6 million members

14. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World: 1.5 million members

15. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: 1.4 million members

via The 15 Largest Protestant Denominations in the United States.

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  • Robin

    Since I live in the south it feels like there are a lot more Baptist than that:)

  • Personally, I think it’s neat that several of these are historic African-American denominations. I knew that churches often hold their communities together, but it’s cool to see the “proof in the pudding” here.

    Also, regarding the preponderance of Baptists, pentacostals, and charismatics, those are the denominations which are today doing what the Methodists and Presbyterians were doing a century ago. They are getting out of the church building and actively evangelizing their friends and neighbors. Right or wrong on various issues of theology, they know that the game goes in general to those who show up.

  • I think what would be helpful would be more context, rather than just the numbers and ranking. How do each denomination’s numbers compare to the past — especially in percentages? I’m pretty sure the ELCA has lost a full 50% of its membership since its inception (almost 25 years ago); the LCMS no more than 10% or 15% over the same period — which of the others have gained membership? Which have lost, and how much?

  • #4 Kitty

    11. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS): 2.3 million members

    I don’t trust the numbers. In my opinion (and please tell me if I’m wrong) a more accurate way of determining the size of our church is by the number of hymnals which are sold.

  • Steve Billingsley

    As a former United Methodist this just makes me shake my head. In 1969 the UMC was the largest Protestant denomination with over 11 million members. That means that in 40 years the denomination has lost 30% of its members (while population growth over the same period of time was significant). Unfortunately, large swaths of what remained are little more than a politically liberal PAC with a hymnal. I still have many friends in the UMC (including quite a few pastors) who are marvelous Christian people. But as a whole, it is a bureaucratic theological wasteland.

  • Steve, I”m also a former United Methodist, and giga-dittos on what you said. One bit of good news that I can see is that, being a theological wasteland these days, they are being forced to use evangalical presses for the books they use and hire lay pastors of an evangelical bent. I have personally been in two churches where this is the case.

    And yes, I understand fully that there are disadvantages of not having people go to seminary, but not as big as going to many Methodist seminaries these days for the reasons you noted.

    Kitty; given the prevalence of modern music in the church today, I’m not quite sure your proposal would work. It could track closer to actual attendance, though, if churches were universally using hymnals.

  • Since this data gives LC-MS at 2.3 million, I assume that’s it’s the number that the Synod herself compiles from the congregational reports. This is the number which we have usually heard because when the media want to know how many X there are, they call up the denominational head quarters and ask, ‘How many of you are there?” Outfits which inflate their numbers (such as Mormons, for whom it is notoriously difficult to get off their rolls) appear to have more people than the really do. Outfits which lowball there own numbers (like the LC-MS) appear to have fewer.

    An alterative method is for a polling organization to call up a selection of the populace and ask individuals, “What religion are you?” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have done just this.
    Please look at

    They have the LC-MS at 1.4 percent of the U.S. population. What they call traditional Lutherans together at 1.8% (Mormons are 1.7%, as are Jews) Baptists are at 10.8%, mainline Episcopalians are at 1.4%, and Catholics are 23.9%.
    Given a US population of 300,000,000 multiplied by 0.014 (to get 1.4% if my math is right. My last math class was 9th grade geometry.) that gives us 4,200,000 people who say “I’m LC-MS.” When someone calls.
    Cheer up! It’s a lot more that the 7,000 who had not bowed their knees to Baal.

  • Gene Veith

    Interesting, Pastor Spomer. Thanks for the math. It has seemed to me that my Missouri Synod churches have been underestimating their membership, whereas churches I’ve been associated with before I became a Lutheran (including Methodists) have exaggerated theirs. I have also noted that the percentage of Lutherans on the church roll that actually attend services is much higher than in other denominations I’ve known. This has held true in both very big congregations, middle-sized and very small ones. (That could just be based on my limited experience, but that’s what I’ve seen.)

  • Carl Vehse

    “If you add up the two biggest Lutheran groups (the ELCA being #5 with 4.5 million), we’d come in at #3.”

    Why add in the XXXA as a Lutheran group? In its April 2012 Response to the XXXA “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” the Missouri Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations stated, “The ELCA has now taken this step, embodying apostasy from the faith once delivered to the saints.”

    On August 21, 2009, when Matthew Harrison, now LCMS President, was asked, “Is apostasy too strong a word to describe what we’ve watched over the last — better part — of the decade that culminates this afternoon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America?”, responded, “No, it is apostasy. There’s no way around it. It gives me great pain to say that, but there’s no other word for it.”

    If one adds the apostate XXXA number, one could also equivalantly toss in, in the view of the LCMS, the Mormon number or the Unitarian number.

  • helen

    The constituent parts of what became the elca in 1988 were Lutheran in the pews, fifty years ago. (I was attached to four of them at one time or another up to 1964.) I would suspect that the rot was already in their seminaries and colleges then. [No doubt there are still Lutherans among the older members, and people who think they are Lutherans among the younger ones.]
    LCMS should look to its own colleges, if we are serious about decoupling from that train toward liberal disaster.
    But no, we don’t add in elca, to count Lutherans.

  • Grace

    This sort of list and supposed numbers really don’t mean a thing, It’s not the church one belongs to, it’s WHO you believe in , where you put your Faith.

    For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
    Ephesians 2:8

    There is not one human being who knows ones heart, that is God’s business, HE knows. A denomination can save no one. Putting faith in numbers and someone’s supposed method of counting, dividing, and listing, is foolish.

  • tODD

    Bubba said (@3):

    Also, regarding the preponderance of Baptists, pentacostals, and charismatics, those are the denominations which are today doing what the Methodists and Presbyterians were doing a century ago. They are getting out of the church building and actively evangelizing their friends and neighbors.

    Which is a curious claim to make, given that SBC membership has been declining for at least five years now, and is back to about what it was in 2000.

  • James Kellerman

    The ELCA number is wrong. According to ELCA’s own website, they have only 4,059,785 members as of 2011. I cannot imagine that they have grown by 441,000 members in the past twelve months. By the way, that is down from a membership of 5.4 million when the ELCA was formed 25 years ago.

  • PHW

    I bet the LCMS probably has 1M on a good Sunday actually in worship.

  • James Kellerman, thanks for the correction on ELCA’s original membership number. I had a pretty vivid memory of that number being around 9 million, but apparently that memory was … quite wrong. Not sure how I got that figure in my head, but then again, it was a very long time ago.

  • tODD; compare with the drops at ELCA and LCMS if you want to get a good comparison. I will agree that what I pointed out is not the full story, but I maintain that one of the big difficulties Lutherans face is their history as a state church and not needing to find members.

  • James Kellerman

    Jeff, at one time the total number of Lutherans (LCMS, ELCA, WELS, and assorted loose ends) did indeed number close to 9 million. But that was all Lutherans, not just the ELCA.

    Bike Bubba, the Lutheran Church grew explosively in the United States not only in the period of 19th century immigration but also after the doors were firmly shut to immigrants (i.e., in the 1920’s through the 1960’s). In fact, in that period the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (as well as some other Lutherans) more than kept pace with the Southern Baptists, which is usually the “gold standard” when it comes to evangelism outreach. Moreover, most of the people who came from Germany were not Lutherans, but members of the Prussian Union Church. Yet it is interesting that in my neighborhood in Chicago, which was originally settled by people from Pomerania and East Prussia (the heart of the Prussian Union), the two Prussian Union churches together never came close to equaling the membership of my LCMS congregation. Lutherans don’t need to be ashamed in comparing themselves with their Baptist neighbors.

    Why aren’t confessional Lutherans growing today? First, nearly every denomination is in decline, with the mainlines falling off the cliff. Second, Lutherans tend to be growing in those parts of the country that are growing. Our churches in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and the like tend to be growing just fine. Unfortunately, half of the Missouri Synod membership (and an even higher percentage of Wisconsin Synod membership) is located in the Great Lakes states, also known as the Rust Belt, one of the most moribund regions of the country. Third, we in the Missouri Synod have forgotten our urban roots. Unlike the Wisconsin Synod and especially the Norwegian Synod, we have always been a heavily urbanized denomination. Three-fourths of all Missouri Synod people today live in metropolitan areas of 100,000 or more. In 1897 more than 5% of the Missouri Synod membership lived in Chicago alone, and similar high numbers could be found in Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis, Buffalo, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Paul, etc. We still live in the big cities, just on the fringes of them (called suburbs). Consequently, we have forgotten what it means to be the church amid the poor and the hustle and bustle of the city. What’s worse, we participated in white flight and never tried to learn what authentic Lutheranism might look like in an African-American or Hispanic context. That decision alone has hurt us more than anything, for there is much in Lutheranism that resonates well with our African-American and Hispanic brothers and sisters.

    A good strategy for growth might be (1.) to deal with the broader trend of secularization, admittedly no easy task, (2.) to make sure that new churches are planted in growing areas of the country so that we have a “ground level” entry there, even if it means pulling resources from our home base into other areas of the country, and (3.) to take seriously the task of being urban Christians of a diverse background (much like the very first Christians, by the way, and much like the first generations of Lutherans in the Missouri Synod, who came from so many different regions of Germany they could hardly communicate among themselves).

  • tODD

    Bubba (@17), I did look at the recent drop in LCMS membership, and … I found it to be about the same as what I found in the SBC, which you laud. Statistics aren’t quite as easy to find for the LCMS (I don’t really care about the ELCA), but in 2010, there was a 1.45% loss in baptized membership, compared with the 0.98% loss I linked to earlier for the SBC.

    …one of the big difficulties Lutherans face is their history as a state church and not needing to find members.

    I’m not sure you know what you’re talking about. Obviously, we haven’t been part of any state church since our forebears came to this country (and they left their former countries largely to avoid the problems of the state church in their homeland) — and that was at least 150 years ago. So what evidence do you have that this “state church” mindset is a current problem for Lutherans?

  • tODD; actually, if you read things carefully, I’m not pointing to the SBC specifically (which has its own problems of being a state church in some parts of the South), but rather to a large portion of the list that does evangelism as well or better than the SBC. (most evangelicals, charismatics, and pentacostals, and a lot of fundamentalists are in this group)

    And what evidence do I have that the Lutherans still suffer from having been a state church? Well, for starters, look at your comments, and those of Mr. Kellerman. You’re not arguing that Lutherans are going out and sharing the Word with their neighbors, but rather that the statistics support what you’re doing.

    It’s exactly what I’ve seen in the churches which have been officially (Lutherans, catholics, anglicans, orthodox) or unofficially (ancient Methodist, SBC) “state churches”. The assumption that the people will come simply because you’re there is a hard habit to break, and–here’s the SBC again–an easy one to get. See what I’m getting at?

  • James Kellerman

    Bubba @#20, actually it’s very clear that you didn’t read my comments at all. I pointed out that the LCMS grew precisely because it reached out as much as (if not more than) the so-called kingpins of evangelism. We didn’t wait for people to come to us, but we went to them. And we did so better than the Baptists did. We outpaced the Baptists back when the Baptists were supposed to have been hot stuff, especially in an era when there were no [German] immigrants coming to this country. I could talk about the specifics that accounted for this growth, such as Walter Maier and the Lutheran Hour, but it cannot be denied that the Missouri Synod grew at a faster rate from 1920 to 1965 than the much-vaunted Baptists who are supposed to know all about evangelism (while Lutherans know nothing).

    If it were all about passively waiting while expecting people to come in and fill our churches, why is the LCMS much larger than the former Evangelical Synod component of the UCC? The Germans who settled in the US in the 19th century either were largely irreligious or belonged to the Kaiser’s church, whose US counterpart was the Evangelical Synod of the West. They practiced the “state church” model of evangelism that you accuse the LCMS of believing in, whereas the LCMS in truth did not. That is why the LCMS always vastly outnumbered the Evangelical Synod, even though the latter had financial and moral support from the Kaiser and the German state churches and the LCMS did not.

    Perhaps you were misled by comments in which I acknowledged that confessional Lutherans are in a slump right now. But as I pointed out, we are not alone. The so-called evangelism kingpins are declining too, and at the same rate. At least we are not in free fall as the mainline churches are. (ELCA has lost over a quarter of its membership in its 25 year existence.) We are entering a secularizing era, not the first in American history, and one from which I believe that we will recover, albeit painfully. As in previous secularizing eras, no church is spared, not even those who vaunt themselves as very evangelistic. The causes are complex and the remedy will take time, as well as much hard work (which I acknowledged in my previous post).

    I then critiqued two trends that are specific to the LCMS: we have become a Midwestern and suburban denomination. Actually, it wasn’t bad for us to be a Midwestern church up until World War II, because this region was the Silicon Valley of its day from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. But if we will continue to grow, we will have to be present in those regions where the population is growing (and actually we have been doing just that for several decades now) and in those areas that we have recently neglected (such as the city, especially when the city was no longer full of “people like us,” an area where I find few colleagues willing to join me). In both instances we have to go beyond our current “comfort zones” and I acknowledged as much in my previous post. There was nothing in my comments about “build it and they will come”–or any other sort of mentality like that.

    So, Bubba, it may comfort you to think that Lutherans never knew anything about evangelism and have never tried it, but that’s just not true. It’s sheer Baptist propaganda that some Lutherans also believe, either because they want to belittle those who allegedly love Lutheran doctrine too much or because they want to excuse their own lethargy. But the real Lutheran legacy of evangelism is nothing to be ashamed of.

  • tODD

    Bubba (@20):

    And what evidence do I have that the Lutherans still suffer from having been a state church? Well, for starters, look at your comments, and those of Mr. Kellerman. You’re not arguing that Lutherans are going out and sharing the Word with their neighbors, but rather that the statistics support what you’re doing.

    That’s it? You’re arguing from what I haven’t said? That’s your evidence? In that case, I’m certain you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Because I didn’t say anything either way about what Lutherans are doing. I know from personal experience that Lutherans certainly are “going out and sharing the Word with their neighbors”, but that is of course anecdotal, and unlikely to convince someone who is relying on evidence he has pulled out of his thin air.

    I would not deny that Lutherans are probably less outgoing than your average American Evangelical, but I think that your diagnosis is lacking at several levels. Some of the issue is temperamental (different churches attract different types of people, and Lutherans I have known have simply been more introverted than Baptists I have known).

    But I would argue the biggest explanation is theology. Not that Lutherans don’t believe in the Great Commission, but rather that those churches that are “best” at motivating their people to get out and evangelize tend to be the ones that are heavy on the Law — and, ironically, tend to short-change the Gospel.

    I grew up surrounded by Baptists, went to Baptist Bible studies, attended Campus Crusade throughout college with a bunch of Baptist(ic) students, and so on. And it was made pretty clear to me that if I were to be a true Christian, I had to go out and “witness” to people. Not because the Gospel was that amazing and inspiring, but because that’s how you prove your bona fides to the other Christians. You had to attend church weekly, you had to be involved in a Bible study, you had to have a daily “quiet time”, and you had to witness to people, preferably through contrived confrontations that were more about checking off the “witness” to-do box than they were about actually talking with anyone.

    Personally, I found most of what passed as “evangelization” among Evangelicals to be pretty repugnant — and I was the one who was supposed to be engaged in it, not the target. I’m not convinced it’s actually all that effective even if people are “fired up” about it or whatever. And the SBC numbers certainly bear that out.

    But, of course, you’re ignoring them now. When you said “Baptists”, you meant to exclude the overwhelmingly largest group of Baptists.

  • helen

    We have had recent transfers “from out of town” who said, “We heard your church’s name on IssuesEtc” or “My brother listens and he told me to go here.” Our “reaching out” is not too different than the days of Walter Maier, but now it’s Todd Wilken. People also check church web sites these days, so it behooves the thinking congregation to have those up to date and accurate in what the church teaches.

  • Bubba doesn’t know my congregation, this much is obvious.

  • Cara

    Listening to Issues, etc. brought us out of a fundamentalist baptist church. We’d probably best fit with the orthodox Presbys, but in our neck of the woods, there are only mainline, apostate presbys. And lots of baptists and seeker churches.We are so grateful to have found the LC MS. Although not doctrinally 100% in agreement with them, it’s close enough and we just love our new church home.

  • I simply extra up your RSS feed to my MSN News Reader.